The Case for Annhilationism from the Teachings of Paul

Paul. Missionary, preacher, apostle to the gentiles, teacher of all things deemed “orthodox” by the doctrinally pure American evangelical church (sarcasm) including a hell filled with the screams of the damned for all eternity. Paul was a solid, A+ Christian, never compromising on those harsh, uncomfortable teachings found in the Bible. Though this may be an extreme caricature, it is not too far off from how some people think. The problems with meeting Paul in this way are numerous, especially when we deal with those areas of his letters that are shaped by the borrowing of OT apocalyptic imagery and by his cultural context. In our quest to read Paul through our predetermined filters of what Paul should say, we have ignored or otherwise explained away what Paul had to offer to the conversation of what fate awaits those who do not belong to Christ. When we examine the words Paul throws in this direction, we come to a very different conclusion, a conclusion where those who do not enjoy the resurrection unto eternal life suffer destruction, anathema, corruption, death, and ultimately perish.

1 Thessalonians 5:2-3 (olethros—”destruction”)

At the end of his letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul reminds the believers of the coming day of judgment and of the consequences this day will bring. Paul calls this day “the day of the Lord”, a common phrase used by the later OT prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi) for judgments by God. According to the entire Bible’s use of the phrase, “the day of the Lord” always brings with it the contrasting results of salvation and punishment.

Furthermore, Paul says this day “will come like a thief in the night”(v. 3). The final judgment will arrive suddenly (v. 3), and it will be inescapable (v. 3). Though people will say “there is peace and security”, “sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (v. 3). This description of the final judgment is reminiscent of the OT prototypes of judgment, the stories of Sodom and Gomorra and the Flood. Similar words are used in Matt. 24:36-44 and in Luke 17:26-35 to describe the overconfident attitudes of those who perished in the Flood.

Destruction (olethros) will befall those who will not inherit salvation. Paul is the only NT writer to use olethros. In one instance, Paul commands the Corinthian church to hand over a sexually immoral man to Satan in the hope that this man’s sinful nature will suffer “destruction” (1 Cor. 5:5). In another instance, Paul(?) says that the desire for riches leads to “destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9). Different forms of olethros are applied to “the destroyer” who killed a generation of Israelites in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:10) and killed the firstborn in Egypt (Heb. 11:28). Destruction then, along with the other phrases used to describe the Day of Judgment, seems to, at most, imply death as the outcome of this fateful day. The least we can take away from this is that eternal conscious torment (ETC) is not in view here.

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (“eternal destruction”)

Assuming Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, (and even if he did not, this letter is still of value) Paul wrote this letter with the larger purpose of correcting a misunderstanding that the “Day of the Lord” had already arrived.

Near the beginning of the letter, Paul describes the final punishment with a heavy dose of the OT in mind. On this day, Paul writes, the Lord Jesus will be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (v. 7,8). Isaiah 66 largely serves as the background for this phrase:

“The Thessalonians are presently excluded by their fellow citizens; so were the faithful Israelites Isaiah comforted (1 Thess. 2:14ff; Isa. 66:5). In each case the faithful hope for a day when circumstances will be reversed (2 Thess. 1:5-7; Isa. 66:6, 14), a standard characteristic of apocalyptic literature. Both passages speak of “inflicting” or “repaying” “vengeance” (2 Thess. 1:6, 8; Isa. 66:7, 15). Both passages have the Lord coming “in fire” (2 Thess. 1:7; Isa. 66:15).”[1]

Whether the symbol of fire is itself the means by which Jesus will inflict vengeance rather than merely being a description of the glory of Jesus is up for debate. The remaining context of Isaiah 66 certainly supports this as a possibility. The Lord issues “his rebuke with flames of fire” (v. 15) and enters into judgment “by fire” (v. 16), resulting in many being slain (v. 16). The end of the chapter depicts the corpses of those slain being eaten by fire and worms so that they are “an abhorrence to all flesh” (v. 24).

It is unclear whether Paul meant for the symbol of consuming fire mentioned above to be the agent by which the wicked will suffer “eternal destruction”, though I would suggest Paul more than likely had this in mind. Additionally, I have dealt with the word eternal in a previous post, How Eternal is Eternal?, where I explained how the word eternal, when modifying a noun of action (such as judgment, or, in this case, destruction), can refer either to the process of a verb (the destruction continues forever) or to its result (the result of the destruction is forever/permanent). If God were to continue the process of destroying the wicked for all of eternity but never fully destroy them, then the first way of understanding eternal would be true. If God were to destroy the wicked, and the result of this destruction would be eternal, then the second way of understanding eternal would be true. The first necessarily implies ETC, but since the potential exists for both readings to be true, the adjective eternal does not automatically mean that ETC is the only outcome of the phrase “eternal destruction”.

Taking the entire sentence into account, verse 9 states “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might […]”. It is important to note that the original greek phrase is ambiguous. The ESV above adds “away” as an attempt to clarify the ambiguity. This phrase can be interpreted two ways: 1. the eternal destruction comes from the presence of the Lord, or 2. the eternal destruction involves exclusion from the presence of the Lord. We need not be forced to choose, as both interpretations are valid under further scrutiny. The phrase “from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power” “appears verbatim three times in the Greek text of Isaiah 2 (vv. 10, 19, 21), a context which also discusses the Lord’s exaltation and the wicked’s destruction in the last days.”[2] Isaiah, in 2:10-11, 20-21, predicts all people will flee from the terror of the Lord in an attempt to be away from His destructive presence. The Lord will administer punishment from his own, holy presence, and the end result of this eternal destruction will be the permanent removal of the wicked from his presence. Taking the OT background and the common application of “destruction” (olethros) into account, this section of Paul’s letter appears to support the claims of annihilationism. This ultimately fits with what Paul says later in the letter about “the lawless one”, “whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.” (2 Thess. 2:8)

These are perhaps Paul’s most descriptive words concerning the eventual death of the wicked, yet they are quite tame in their use of apocalyptic imagery. Leon Morris, in his commentary on the Thessalonian epistles, quotes another scholar’s remark that this passage’s “most notable feature is the reticence of the description. What in normal apocalyptic literature would have included a lurid picture of the tortures of the damned and the bliss of the righteous, in Paul’s hands becomes a restrained background of Judgment with the light focused on the Person of Christ as Judge.”[3]

“Certain intertestamental writers took the Old Testament language and added everlasting conscious torment. Paul takes the Old Testament language and adds Jesus Christ […] Nothing in the language here requires or even clearly suggests conscious unending torment. Over and over, however, Paul’s words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, send us to the former Scriptures, where time and time again the outcome of sinners is made clear. They will perish, be destroyed, be burned up, be gone forever.”[4]

Galatians 1:8-9 (anathema—”accursed”)

See also 1 Cor. 16:22. Paul wrote Galatians for the primary purpose of countering those who were preaching a “gospel contrary to the one we preached to you” (v. 8). These false gospelizers were more than likely a group of messianic Jews who were teaching the Gentile converts that they must adhere to the commands (think food laws, circumcision, etc.) of the Torah to participate in the people of God (be justified). To the church in Galatia, Paul directs this piece of rhetoric: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” Though translated as “accursed”, the word Paul wishes the false gospelizers would be is anathema.

“The word literally meant something set up or laid by to be kept, as a votive offering might be hung on a temple wall after being devoted to a god. Because offerings devoted to the true God were commonly burnt in their entirety or otherwise destroyed, the word in biblical usage signifies something “accursed” or doomed to destruction. Paul uses it this way in two other Epistles. He tells the Romans that he would sacrifice himself as one marked for destruction (anathema) if by that he could save his Israelite brethren (Rom 9:3). Moses had made a similar offer to God for the people (Exod. 32:32). Neither Moses nor Paul could fill such a function since they both were sinners themselves, also in need of a substitute […]What happened to Jesus on Golgotha was the proper fate of one made anathema […]Death by execution was the sentence this word called for, as seen in the case of Jesus and in the Old Testament background we will shortly note.”[6]

Anathema is used in the same way in the OT. Zechariah exclaims that Jerusalem will always be inhabited; it will never be “destroyed” anathema (Zech. 14:11). The city of Jericho was “devoted to destruction” anathema along with anyone who took spoils from it (Josh. 6:17, 18; 7:12). An Israelite named Achan subsequently took spoils from Jericho and was executed—utterly destroyed (Josh. 7:25, 26). This is the fate Paul believed would befall his opposition. Anathema, in every instance, indicated something devoted to complete destruction. Even in the case of Achan, the meaning of the word held true. Achan was not devoted to destruction by way of eternal conscious torment so much as he was devoted to destruction by way of death.

Galatians 6:8 (phthora—”destruction/corruption”)

Paul ends Galatians with a warning to the church lest they forget to “share all good things with the one who teaches” them “the word” (v. 6). “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” The transliteration for “corruption” is phthora. The word was used to mean corruption, destruction, decay, rottenness, or decomposition.

“Paul uses it of perishable food (Col. 2:22) and of the world which is decaying (Rom. 8:21). Peter applies it to animals destined to be killed (2 Peter 2:12, NIV “destroyed”)[…] Metaphorically, the word could be used in a moral sense as in the “depravity” of wicked men (2 Pet. 2:12). The verb (phtheirō) meant to “corrupt” or to “ruin” and can speak of destroying a house (1 Cor. 3:17), seducing a virgin (2 Cor. 11:3), ruining a man financially (2 Cor. 7:2), or corrupting someone’s morals (1 Cor. 15:33; Eph. 4:22; Rev. 19:2).”[7]

Regardless of how it is translated, phthora, when used to describe the fate of those who sow to their own sinful nature, strongly implies loss and ruin. Though the object or person that suffers “corruption” is not totally annihilated, it or he/she is ruined to the point where they cease to function as they once were. For example, wood, when burned by fire, leaves ash, yet the wood has forever changed and has ceased to be wood. A human that is subject to phthora may undergo a similar process, and the outcome is the same: a being that has ceased to live and function as it once did. It is also worth noting that Paul contrasts “corruption” with “eternal life” here. Would we not all agree that the most common opposite of life is death, or the absence of life? Furthermore, is it not a significant logical stretch to make the opposite of life an eternal life of torment and loss? Is it fair of us to make “corruption” out to mean eternal conscious torment? Paul could have used a nearly infinite possible combination of words to express something meaning exactly that, yet he chose the word “corruption” instead.

Romans 1:32, 6:21, 23 (death—the penalty for sin)

The first two chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans are, to put it lightly, difficult to understand. Not only does Paul enter into dialogue with a hypothetical opposing teacher, he also echoes in several places a intertestamental Jewish work called The Wisdom of Solomon to make his point. Just these two facts alone require several paragraphs to explain. Setting aside a long contextual explanation, most people would agree that Paul is in agreement with this statement in Rom. 1:32: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die…”. Paul more than likely has the story of Adam and Garden in mind and how death is the prescribed penalty for Adam’s disobedience. Even if Paul intends death to be read in a metaphorical or spiritual light, death stops way short of implying anything regarding eternal conscious torment.

Paul goes on in Romans to say that sin leads to death (6:21) and that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). Once again, Paul sets death apart from and contrasts it with “eternal life”. We could ask ourselves here all the same questions mentioned previously regarding Galatians 6:8, and even a new question: If “eternal life” does not mean anything less than life, does not eternal “death” mean anything less than death as we know it? Death, if read this way, means a permanent death that lasts for eternity and is irreversible. Lest we begin to think that Paul, by writing “the wages of sin is death” actually meant, “the wages of sin is eternal conscious torment“, Paul also makes use of the words “perish”, “destruction”, and “corruption” in several other places in his letters to describe the same fate of the wicked. None of these words imply anything more about an eternal hell than death does.

Romans 2:12, Philippians 1:28, 3:19 (apollymi—perish, destruction)

After demonstrating how Israel has historically participated in the sins of the Gentile nations and therefore they are also sinners, Paul moves on to discuss the impartiality of God in judgment. “12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” In both cases, God will judge righteously. Sinners will ultimately “perish” (apollymi). Fudge has this to say bout apollymi:

“Traditionalist writers so often make the point that “perish” (apollymi) is used of ruined wineskins (Matt. 9:17) and spoiled food (John 6:12) that casual readers tend to go away thinking the word’s primary meaning must be very mild indeed. In fact, it appears 92 times in the New Testament, 13 times in Paul’s letters. Most often it refers to actual death. Sometimes it is contrasted with enduring, eternal life. It is the regular term for the “lost” or for those who are “perishing.” Several times it describes the final state of the wicked in the Age to Come.”[8]

Concerning specific examples of this, Paul uses apollymi in (1 Cor. 10:9, 10) and Jude (Jude 5) for Israel’s fate in the wilderness. In another instance, Paul writes, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”(1 Cor. 15:17-18) Without Jesus’ resurrection, dead believers would remain dead. The evidence all points to the conclusion that Paul intended perish to mean what we naturally think perish means, and that is the kind of perishing that results in death, not a perishing that leads to an eternal life of torment.

Paul makes use of other forms of apollymi in Phil. 1:28 and 3:19. In both instances, they amount to the same meaning. A resurrection unto eternal life awaits those who belong to Christ. A resurrection unto death, perishing, destruction, and corruption awaits those who are judged unfavorably.

Paul Among the Greek Philosophers

Immortality was a highly debated and discussed topic during Paul’s day, and the conversation would have presented itself nearly anywhere where Paul taught and where Christians would have preached. The words Paul uses to describe the fate of the wicked are illuminated by this discussion. As Paul would have enacted his missionary work among the Gentiles, he would have been familiar with at least the basics of the discussion and therefore would have known the connotations that his specific word usage would conjure in the minds of his listeners. If you ever have the opportunity, I would recommend reading the last section of chapter 13 of The Fire That Consumes (2nd edition) by Edward Fudge or, for the original source in view, Duration and Nature of Future Punishment by Henry Constable to better understand the context. I will leave you with this quote that I think summarizes the conclusion of the argument for annhilationism from Paul’s terminology and his cultural context:

“Both Plato and Paul use the terms “death” (thanatos), “destruction” (apōleia), “corruption” (phthora), “perish” (olethros) and “die” (apothnēskō)—but with this difference: Plato says none of these things will ever befall the soul, for it possesses immortality; Paul says these are the very words which best tell the destiny of those who resist God and refuse to believe in Jesus.”[9]

Conclusion

Paul says that eternal destruction, condemnation, corruption, death, and perishing await those who do not belong to Christ. Each of these, when taken individually, support the idea that the wicked will suffer the penalty of a permanent death. When taken together, they build a cumulative case that spits in the face of those who would make Paul out to be a teacher of a hell filled with the hopeless despair of the damned for all eternity. R.F. Weymouth, a Greek scholar and translator of the New Testament, nailed it when he wrote this in a letter:

“My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying “destroy,” or “destruction,” are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this.”[10]

 

 

[1] Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. 2e, pg. 244-245

[2] Fudge, 247

[3] Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, pg. 202. as quoted by Fudge, pg. 250.

[4] Fudge, 250

[5] Fudge, 252

[6] Fudge, 252

[7] Fudge, 254-255

[8] Fudge, 264

[9] Fudge, 268

[10] R. F. Weymouth in a letter, as quoted by Edward White, Life in Christ, pg. 365. as quoted by Fudge, pg. 269.

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