Matthew 10:28 and Alternative Meanings of Apollumi That Are Eliminated By Context

If you’ve ever heard of annihilationism, then you’ve heard of Matthew 10:28. It’s understandable that this passage is commonly cited to show that, rather than keeping anyone alive in torment forever, God destroys body and soul in hell:

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations I give are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

A common response by traditionalists – those who believe in eternal conscious hell – is that the word translated “destroy,” apollumi in Greek, has other meanings in scripture besides literal destruction (or for lack of a better term, annihilation). 2 For more on why annihilationism doesn’t mean or require some sort of cosmic zapping into nothing, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: What Do We Mean By “Annihilationism?’“. 3 Note that, for our purposes, even destroying in just the sense of killing is sufficient to establish the doctrine of evangelical conditionalism. These alternative meanings are consistent with the idea of eternal torment.

These various alternative interpretations have been addressed at Rethinking Hell before (see links in endnotes). Here, my goal is to show how some of these alternatives are especially easy to debunk because they simply do not work with Matthew 10:28.

Two of these alternative meanings of apollumi that can be dismissed are loss (apollumi being used to describe a person losing something), and ruin in the sense of that which is ruined being rendered unfit for its intended use.

These two alternatives fail because Matthew 10:28 specifically speaks of what God will do to sinners in hell and why people should fear him (if they were to rebel against him). Therefore, it matters little if apollumi can mean something other than to literally kill/destroy in other passages if what it means in other passages cannot be reasonably applied as something God could actively inflict upon the unrepentant in hell. 4 There is a view, uncommon but not unheard of, that says Matthew 10:28 is speaking of the devil and not God. For my refutation of this claim, see “Matthew 10:28 Is About God, Not the Devil“.

It Is Irrelevant That Apollumi Describes Things That Are Lost

In a few passages of the New Testament, apollumi describes things that are lost but still exist. For example, it describes the lost sheep of Luke 15:4 and the lost coin of Luke 15:8. 5 For example, see Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 108.

The problem with appealing to this use of apollumi is that it makes no sense in the context of Matthew 10:28. Matthew 10:28 does not speak passively about what will become of the lost person. It does not, to put it in Grenglish, say that the lost simply are apollumi-ed; it says that God apollumi-s them. Whatever is being described by the verb apollumi is what God does to the wicked in hell.

In other words, if loss were in view in Matthew 10:28, then Jesus would effectively be warning “…fear the one who can *lose* body and soul in hell.”

Do we really think Jesus was warning people to fear God because he would punish them by losing them (specifically, by God losing both their bodies and souls)? Of course not. That’s not how losing something works.

What we have here is a situation where appeals are made broadly to how the word apollumi has certain uses that, at least on the surface, allow for an object to still exist. However, traditionalists who make this appeal neglect to see if the alternative makes any sense in the specific passage at hand (Matthew 10:28). They do not sufficiently exegete the passage or look at the matter in sufficient detail, and therefore, they make an argument that fails.

Ruin By Loss of Function

Another common traditionalist rebuttal is that apollumi can also speak of ruin. Variations of this broader argument exist, and one common version has similar problems to the argument from the loss passages (e.g. Luke 15:4) discussed above. This version is the argument that, in some passages, apollumi specifically speaks of ruin in the sense of loss of function and becoming unable to fulfill an entity’s intended use. Tim Keller is one example:

For example, when Jesus speaks being ‘destroyed’ in hell, the word used is apollumi, meaning not to be annihilated out of existence but to be ‘totaled’ and ruined so as to be useless for its intended purpose. 6 Timothy Keller, “The Importance of Hell.” Redeemer.com. N.p., n.d., http://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/articles/the_importance_of_hell.html (accessed March 31, 2024).

Examples of such uses of apollumi include John 6:12 and 6:27, describing food that “perishes”, for which the late Eldon Woodcock writes:

The usefulness of food is destroyed when it spoils before it is eaten and when excess food is carelessly disposed of instead of being carefully kept to be served later as leftovers. 7 Eldon Woodcock, Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue, Kindle ed. (WestBow Press, 2012), Kindle locations, 3733-3738.

But as was the case with the alternative meaning of “lost,” while it may be true that apollumi can be used this way in some passages, it does not make sense in the context of Matthew 10:28 because apollumi applies to God’s own actions.

To appeal to this alternative meaning of apollumi is to say that Matthew 10:28 effectively says “…fear Him who is able to *cause both soul and body to become useless for their intended purposes* in hell.” The problem is not that it sounds clunky. The problem is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense in a Christian worldview.

Humans arguably have a number of related purposes, but I believe the Westminster Shorter Catechism does a good job of summing up an overall doctrine of humanity’s intended purpose from the puzzle pieces that exist in scripture:

What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. 8 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “Shorter Catechism,” opc.org, n.d., https://opc.org/sc.html (accessed March 31, 2024).

God does not keep the sinner from fulfilling this and related ends. God does not send men to hell and thereby make them unable to serve the use for which they were created. Sin does that already. People are “destroyed” in this sense on Earth now because they already do not glorify God or enjoy him. Nor do they even want to.

Why would sinners fear being made unable to do what they already don’t do and don’t want to do?

For this alternative meaning of apollumi to make any sense in Matthew 10:28, there must be some other intended use/function that humans have that God specifically makes men incapable of, as punishment, by sending them to hell. But what even would that be? The ability to freely move our limbs? The ability to enjoy a nice milkshake?

I don’t think it is really controversial in Christianity to say that our purpose as humans revolves around what Westminster describes above.

If it is each person’s own sin that already makes him or her unable to do the most core and fundamental things humans was created for – to love and glorify God and have a relationship with him like his own child – then what would be the way in which God renders both body and soul unfit for their intended uses, in hell, as divine retribution?

Even if being ruined and unable to fulfill one’s purpose is what apollumi describes in some other passages, it doesn’t matter. That just isn’t a reasonable meaning of apollumi in the context of Matthew 10:28.

Conclusion

For Matthew 10:28, any alternative meaning of apollumi besides actual destruction must be something that God could inflict upon the wicked, specifically to both their bodies and their souls. Destroying them, whether by fully obliterating them or by a less fiery form of killing, fits this perfectly. Losing them or rendering them unfit for their intended purposes does not.

The option that remains for the traditionalist is that apollumi, in Matthew 10:28, means bringing to ruin in another sense besides loss of ability to perform one’s created purpose. The weaknesses of this interpretation of Matthew 10:28 are still quite substantial, but they do not have to do with the fact that Matthew 10:28 speaks of God as the active, destroying agent. Therefore, they are beyond the scope of our discussion here.  Thankfully, much has been written on this already (see notes below). 9 For more on why the “ruin” argument from apollumi falls short and why even the pertinent passages do not really challenge annihilationism, see Darren Clark, “On the Meaning of Destruction in the Bible“. 10 For a strong argument as to why the specific way apollumi is used in Matthew 10:28 should be interpreted as killing/literal destruction, see Glenn Peoples, “The Meaning of “Apollumi” In the Synoptic Gospels“. 11 See also Darren Clark, “Exegesis Interrupted: A Critique of Stand To Reason’s Article ‘Hell Interruted, Part 2’“.

Regarding the language of loss and uselessness in scripture, its uselessness in regards to Matthew 10:28 is simply a point that many have missed. As you will find happens on a number of occasions, they overlooked a specific aspect of the passage in question that made a seemingly strong defense of the traditional view much weaker. And since none of us are perfect, instances like this are a good reminder to ask the following question when studying the Bible and thinking through all sorts of topics: am I missing something?

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References
1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations I give are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2 For more on why annihilationism doesn’t mean or require some sort of cosmic zapping into nothing, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: What Do We Mean By “Annihilationism?’“.
3 Note that, for our purposes, even destroying in just the sense of killing is sufficient to establish the doctrine of evangelical conditionalism.
4 There is a view, uncommon but not unheard of, that says Matthew 10:28 is speaking of the devil and not God. For my refutation of this claim, see “Matthew 10:28 Is About God, Not the Devil“.
5 For example, see Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 108.
6 Timothy Keller, “The Importance of Hell.” Redeemer.com. N.p., n.d., http://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/articles/the_importance_of_hell.html (accessed March 31, 2024).
7 Eldon Woodcock, Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue, Kindle ed. (WestBow Press, 2012), Kindle locations, 3733-3738.
8 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “Shorter Catechism,” opc.org, n.d., https://opc.org/sc.html (accessed March 31, 2024).
9 For more on why the “ruin” argument from apollumi falls short and why even the pertinent passages do not really challenge annihilationism, see Darren Clark, “On the Meaning of Destruction in the Bible“.
10 For a strong argument as to why the specific way apollumi is used in Matthew 10:28 should be interpreted as killing/literal destruction, see Glenn Peoples, “The Meaning of “Apollumi” In the Synoptic Gospels“.
11 See also Darren Clark, “Exegesis Interrupted: A Critique of Stand To Reason’s Article ‘Hell Interruted, Part 2’“.