Matthew 10:28 is About God, Not The Devil

If you’ve heard of anything under the umbrella of annihilationism or conditional immortality, you’ve probably been exposed to Matthew 10:28, and understandably so. 1Las citas bíblicas presentadas en esta traducción al español son tomadas de la Reina Valera 1960.

And do not be afraid of 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.

Conditionalists point to it frequently for obvious reasons. Jesus told the disciples that God will destroy (Greek apollumi) both the body and the (supposedly immortal) soul in hell. Traditionalists, of course, have rebuttals to the conditionalist interpretation that you will come across.

…And then there is an unusual interpretation that rears its head every now and again that we will be looking at today. This is the view that this passage is not warning about what God will do at final judgment, but rather, it is a warning to fear the devil.

The Interpretation That Matthew 10:28 Is Warning of the Devil, Not God

As far as I can tell, this is not a very common position. When reading books and articles on hell, traditionalists and conditionalists alike tend to take for granted that this passage is about God and what he does in hell. And rightfully so.

However, the alternative view does come up in conversation some, and it has been suggested by the well-respected New Testament scholar NT Wright, so it is worth addressing. For example, according to Wright (fuller passage given in endnotes for context):

The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who, then, is the real enemy? Surely not Israel’s own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan. 2N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Volume 2 (Fortress Press, 1996), 455. 3Additional Wright text for context: “What implicit story are we listening to in this passage [Luke 12:4-7]? This text, in both Luke and Matthew [i.e. Matthew 10:28], is part of the commission to the disciples as they engage on their own work of announcement, warning, and proclamation. Since their mission gained its meaning from the fact that it was an extension of Jesus’ own work, the warning presumably reflected and represented Jesus’ perception of his own task, of the struggle which he too was facing. Some have seen “the one who can cast into Gehenna’ as YHWH; but this is unrealistic. Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel’s god as a kindly liberal grandfather who would never hurt a fly, let alone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again – not least in the very next verse of this paragraph – Israel’s god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstance, not one who waits with a large stick and beat anyone who steps out of line. Rather, here we have a redefinition of the battle in terms of the identification of the real enemy. The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who, then, is the real enemy? Surely not Israel’s own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan” (N.T. Wright, 454-455).

Ben Witherington likewise sees Matthew 10:28 as being about the devil: 4 The blog post technically attributes this article to Guest Contributor. However, other articles on Ben Witherington’s blog that are attributed to Guest Contributor are by Dr. Witherington himself, and identifying points such as studying under Bernard Boyd and having pastors as former students indicate this is also by Dr. Witherington.

Jesus thinks your whole self can be destroyed. But who is the destroyer here? From the context (see the reference to Beelzebul in vs. 25) it would surely appear to be Satan in this case, doing his dirty work in what Jesus calls Gehenna. 5Ben Witherington, “Matthew 10.28 — Why Annihilationism is not Universalism,” The Bible and Culture [blog],  Patheos, posted March 18, 2011, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2011/03/18/mt-10-28-why-anihilationism-is-not-universalism/ (accessed November 6, 2022).

If it can be established that this passage is not about final judgment and the final fate of the wicked at God’s hands, then this verse could potentially lose its force as a text in favor of annihilation. But it cannot be established that this passage is about the devil, because there is no good reason to think it is and because there many good reasons to think that the standard view is correct and that God is the one who can destroy body and soul in hell

The Bible Says The Devil Destroys – But So Does God

The primary exegetical basis of this interpretation, when any is given at all, is in John 10:10. John tells us that passage that the thief, widely accepted as referring to the devil, seeks to destroy (also apollumi):

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

In conversations at least, I have found that this often ties to the broader theological claim that God is the creator, not the destroyer (like Satan). While Wright’s larger exegesis of this passage is wrapped up the idea of war in an Old Testament context, his specific case for the destroyer being the devil and not God centers not on exegesis at all, but on this theological claim that God is creator and not destroyer:

But again and again – not least in the very next verse of this paragraph – Israel’s god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstance, not one who waits with a large stick and beat anyone who steps out of line…Who, then, is the real enemy? Surely not Israel’s own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan. 6N.T. Wright, 454-455.

However, as is often the case with broad theological claims that you may come across in your theological studies, this is directly contradicted by the text of scripture.  Other passages speak of God being the one who destroys. For example, James 4:12 does so, also using the Greek apollumi.

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? (James 4:12). 7 Technically the passage does not mention God by name, but is anyone going to say that the one judge, who both destroys and saves, could be anyone but God?

Already, therefore, we can dismiss any argument that to destroy is somehow unbecoming of God and is the domain of the devil. Both are said to destroy in scripture. We must then look at the context of the passage itself.

The Flow and Context of Matthew 10:28

God, Not Satan, is to Be Feared as Judge and Lord of All

The context of Matthew 10:28 is one of the most key factors in interpreting it. This is not just generically speaking of destroying. Whereas John 10:10 just broadly says the enemy seeks to “destroy,” Jesus’s words in Matthew get much more specific. Jesus is speaking of hell (Greek gehenna), the place of final punishment.

With that in mind, how would the devil ever have the authority to destroy body and soul in hell? The devil is not lord over hell. The fire was prepared for him and his angels (Matthew 25:41). 8 For more on why Matthew 25:41 and the phrase “eternal fire” is consistent with evangelical conditionalism, see “What the Bible Says about ‘Eternal Fire'” Part 1 and Part 2. Revelation 20:10, another prooftext for eternal torment addressed in another article, shows that the devil will be damned. 9 For more on why Revelation 20:10 is consistent with evangelical conditionalism, see “A Primer on Rveenation 20:10“. Furthermore, Jesus came specifically to destroy the devil (Hebrews 2:14). One might say that the verb katargeó (“destroy”) means more to shut down or inactivate than to literally destroy, but even if we grant that for our purposes here, the Bible tells us that the end of things is the defeat of the devil, not his empowerment to destroy souls in hell. So how is he destroying bodies and souls in hell? 

Furthermore the Bible frequently tells us to fear God. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). Those who fear God are the ones who will ultimately have nothing to fear (cf. 1 John 4:18). But where does the Bible ever say to fear the devil?

The Flow and Message of Matthew 10:28

It is worth considering the surrounding verses to give context to Matthew 10:28, and show why it is in a message about obeying God, fearing only him, and not about fearing the devil or anyone.

Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. 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. Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows. “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven Matthew 10:26-33).

The passage begins with Jesus telling the disciples not to fear the Jewish leaders who had accused him of working by the devil’s hand. He then tells the disciples to preach freely and not fear men. Rather, the one to fear is…the devil? Why would we think that is what Jesus means? That whole idea just comes out of nowhere.

Defenses for the devil view are minimal. For example, Ben Witherington’s defense of this view is limited to the following:

 From the context (see the reference to Beelzebul in vs. 25) it would surely appear to be Satan in this case, doing his dirty work in what Jesus calls Gehenna. 10 Ben Witherington, “Matthew 10:28 – Why Annihilationism is Not Universalism.”

Dr. Witherington’s comments are puzzling, because the reference to beelzebub isn’t actually about the devil. It is simply about how Jesus was slandered as having used the devil’s powers (which he obviously didn’t), so therefore his disciples would likewise be slandered and hated:

 It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!

It’s not enough to merely see a word and therefore think it establishes context in your favor. An actual connection needs to be made to what is actually being said, which is impossible since there is no actual connection to the devil here.

As the passage continues, the warning in Verse 28, to fear this destroyer, is immediately followed by a reminder that God counts the very hairs on our head and that no sparrow dies apart from his will. Rather than being evidence that the devil is in view – as Wright proposed – this has the opposite effect when read in context. Why tell us to fear the devil (out of nowhere) only to then tell us that God is fully in control? Shouldn’t we not fear the devil if we’re being reminded that God has full control down to the very hairs on our heads? If the point is that we can trust God completely, then the only one it makes any sense to fear would be God himself (and only if we rebel against him).

The passage then goes on, just a few sentences later, to deliver the punchline: if you want to be saved, you must confess the son. If you deny him, he will deny you before the Father.

This underlines the point made just a moment earlier: it is God whom you are to fear – if you fear men and deny him. Jesus does not warn that if you deny him, he will deny you before the devil. You will be denied before God.

That is why you are to fear God, the one who can destroy body and soul. Men can only kill the body. God can destroy (i.e. kill, if not moreso) body and soul in hell. God will protect you if you fear him, even if that protection means letting you die and then giving you eternal life at the resurrection. Otherwise, you have God to answer to for not doing what you needed to do. He is the one to fear.

Preterism and AD 70 in Matthew 10:28

Now, some in the preterist camp have suggested that when the Bible speaks of gehenna (translated as hell in the Gospels), it is speaking of earthly death – usually in the siege and fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 – and not final judgment. In the midst of mass death and destruction, bodies would have been thrown into the valley of Hinnom (the literal gehenna). But even if one grants that view in gehenna passages generally, it does not help the devil interpretation here.

I myself am an orthodox preterist (like NT Wright), so I do believe that many prophecies were fulfilled in AD 70. But AD 70 is not the solution to everything. And the details of Matthew 10:28 do not work with that interpretation.

If earthly death at the hands of the Romans is in view here, then how could one’s soul be destroyed? More importantly, how could the Roman soldiers destroy the soul in ways men typically cannot? After all, whatever the soul is, Matthew 10:28 makes the point that what happens in gehenna is not the same as the death inflicted by men. What the destroyer does in gehenna cannot be done by men. But what are Roman soldiers but men?

On the other hand, if one were to say it is the devil who does the destroying directly (not through his Roman servants), how is he doing that in the literal valley of Hinnom? And how could the devil destroy souls in the valley of Hinnom where bodies were thrown? Did he have some special power to extra-kill people if they died in the fall of Jerusalem?

And besides that, some of the disciples, who Jesus is directly addressing, already died before the fall of Jerusalem! Jesus would literally have been warning the disciples to preach freely and obey God, in their travels in or around AD 70, so that they would not be at risk of dying in an event in AD 70 – which some of them would not have even lived to see.

Like this Satan interpretation in general, this idea is one of those ad hoc interpretations that sounds nice only when you don’t think about the details.

What Then of John 10:10?

If the one who can destroy body and soul in hell is God, and not the devil, then what of the fact that John 10:10 says that the thief comes to destroy?

For starters, that statement is made in a figurative statement about thieves, shepherds, and sheep. It isn’t giving a straightforward, didactic description of hell. We are meant to get the general idea of a thief, of an enemy and a terrible person, versus the protector, who is the shepherd of the metaphorical sheep.

Furthermore, the devil seeks to destroy in the sense that the devil desires to lead people to destruction by enticing them to sin. In theory, the passage doesn’t even tell us that he succeeds (as a universalist would argue). Of course, as evangelical conditionalists, we know that not everyone is saved and he does succeed to an extent. But he himself does not have the power to destroy. He only can try to lead people to choose to do what leads to their own destruction.

In that sense, we can make sense of John 10:10 without giving the devil power that he doesn’t have and without an using interpetation that flies in the face of Matthew 10:28.

Points to Take Away

This passage is about God. God destroys body and soul in hell. Nothing in this passage indicates otherwise. Nothing in the rest of the Bible indicates otherwise, save for an appeal to the use of a word in another passage that is largely unrelated. And on the contrary, God is the one who can save or destroy (James 4:12).

In situations like this, we have to let the scripture speak for itself and then reject theological ideas we have about God if we find that the text tells us otherwise. That said, I would dare to make this theological claim myself: it is because God is the uncreated creator of all that only he can be the ultimate destroyer. If we are going to talk in terms of broad theology, then who else would we think could have that authority? I certainly can’t see scripture disagreeing with that principle anymore than reason does. And as to whether God does use his authority to fully destroy anyone, the scriptures answer that question, and so we should search them and accept what they have to say.

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References
1 Las citas bíblicas presentadas en esta traducción al español son tomadas de la Reina Valera 1960.
2 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Volume 2 (Fortress Press, 1996), 455.
3 Additional Wright text for context: “What implicit story are we listening to in this passage [Luke 12:4-7]? This text, in both Luke and Matthew [i.e. Matthew 10:28], is part of the commission to the disciples as they engage on their own work of announcement, warning, and proclamation. Since their mission gained its meaning from the fact that it was an extension of Jesus’ own work, the warning presumably reflected and represented Jesus’ perception of his own task, of the struggle which he too was facing. Some have seen “the one who can cast into Gehenna’ as YHWH; but this is unrealistic. Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel’s god as a kindly liberal grandfather who would never hurt a fly, let alone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again – not least in the very next verse of this paragraph – Israel’s god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstance, not one who waits with a large stick and beat anyone who steps out of line. Rather, here we have a redefinition of the battle in terms of the identification of the real enemy. The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who, then, is the real enemy? Surely not Israel’s own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan” (N.T. Wright, 454-455).
4 The blog post technically attributes this article to Guest Contributor. However, other articles on Ben Witherington’s blog that are attributed to Guest Contributor are by Dr. Witherington himself, and identifying points such as studying under Bernard Boyd and having pastors as former students indicate this is also by Dr. Witherington.
5 Ben Witherington, “Matthew 10.28 — Why Annihilationism is not Universalism,” The Bible and Culture [blog],  Patheos, posted March 18, 2011, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2011/03/18/mt-10-28-why-anihilationism-is-not-universalism/ (accessed November 6, 2022).
6 N.T. Wright, 454-455.
7 Technically the passage does not mention God by name, but is anyone going to say that the one judge, who both destroys and saves, could be anyone but God?
8 For more on why Matthew 25:41 and the phrase “eternal fire” is consistent with evangelical conditionalism, see “What the Bible Says about ‘Eternal Fire'” Part 1 and Part 2.
9 For more on why Revelation 20:10 is consistent with evangelical conditionalism, see “A Primer on Rveenation 20:10“.
10 Ben Witherington, “Matthew 10:28 – Why Annihilationism is Not Universalism.”