The love of God never seems darker or more absent than when we consider God destroying his enemies who are the unrepentant sinners of this world. The fact of the matter is, this doctrine teaches God fails in the end to save some people. In other words, some will defy him so much that God is finally unable to save them. The popular teaching is, it is not God who fails, but man fails to respond to the salvation that is freely given him by God. At the end of the day, however, God is unable to do that which he had always wanted to do (2Peter 2:9; 1Timothy 2:4). Some men’s evil is simply too great and prevents God from finally reaching all the hearts he sent his Son to save. Is this true? Does this teaching accurately portray what God says in his word?
The New Testament uses words like destruction and destroy to express God’s judgment upon men. There are several Greek words used in the New Testament that are translated into these words, each revealing shades of God’s judgment that are lost when translating them into our English language. The quotation marks below indicate definitions of those Greek words, taken from An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words by W. E. Vine.
One of the Greek words we translate into destroy is Phthora (G5356). It is a noun that “signifies being brought into an inferior or worse condition: a destruction or corruption.” It is used of decaying in the grave (1Corintians 15:42) of aging (Romans 8:21) and of the spiritual corruption that occurs through living in the flesh (Galatians 6:8; 2Peter 1:4, 2:12, 19). The verb form of the Greek word is: Phtheiro (G5351), and “means to destroy by means of corrupting; and so bringing into a worse state.” It is used of defiling the church of God through divisions or schisms (1Corinthians 3:17). It also shows the effect upon believers who frequent the company of people who deny the truth or hold to false doctrine (1Corinthians 15:33). It is used for the state of people who have been defrauded through dishonorable practices, of which Paul was falsely accused (2Corinthians 7:2). It is used of the spiritual condition of our old man within (Ephesians 4:22), and finally it is used of the decaying condition of false teachers and their effect upon believers they teach (2Corinthians 11:3; 2Peter 2:12; Jude 1:10; Revelation 19:2).
An intensive form of phtheiro is diaphtheiro. It means “to corrupt utterly, through and through,” and it is used in 1Timothy 6:5 for the effect of false doctrine upon the minds of false teachers. Another intensive form of phtheiro is kataphtheiro (G2704). It is used “of men who are reprobate concerning the faith.” It is used only in two Scriptures. In 2Timothy 3:8 it shows the condition of the mind of the one who resists the truth, and in 2Peter 2:12 showing false teachers who are unaware of how they are destroying (corrupting) their own minds, when they destroy (corrupt) the minds of their victims.
Another Greek word used for destruction is apollumi (G622). It signifies ruin. “The idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being but of well being.” It is used for old wineskins perishing (G622) when filled with new wine (Luke 5:37). It is used of Christ coming to save not to destroy (G622) men’s lives. It is used metaphorically for the spiritual condition of lost (G622) sheep in Luke 15:4, 6. In Luke 17:27-37 the word is used for those destroyed in the Flood in Noah’s day and in the destruction of Sodom. This is contrasted with he who seeks to save his life will in reality lose (G622) it, but he who will lose (G622) his life for the sake of Christ will save it. At Christ’s return the one is taken near while the other is left in his corrupt spiritual condition.
This same Greek word is used in Matthew 10:28 where we are warned: don’t fear those able to kill the body but not the soul. Rather fear him who is able to destroy (G622) both body and soul in hell (Gehenna), thus showing Gehenna does not bring extinction, but ruin, and loss of well being. Finally, it is used in Jude 1:5 as a warning, showing God saved his people out of Egypt but later destroyed (G622) those who didn’t trust him. This is speaking of the loss of rewards. The faithless generation lived out their lives in the wilderness while their children received the promises. Moses, himself, received the same judgment, because he struck the rock twice. Compare Hebrews 6:8 where the fruit of the ground is burned off, but the ground is not destroyed; its labor is destroyed (cp. 1Corinthians 3:13-15). Salvation is not the question here but our reward is in question. Therefore, the warning is given.
Another Greek word used in the New Testament for destruction is olethros (G3639). It indicates “ruin, destruction.” It is used of the ruin of health and/or life, if one is judged by a community of believers and that one is put out of the church. It also shows the destruction of the Jewish nation in both 1Thesalonians 5:3 and 2Thesalonians 2:7-12 as predicted by Jesus in the Olivet Prophecy. The fact that the nation of Israel exists today indicates this judgment has run its course or at least is near its end, showing that olethros has an end. It is not intended to last forever. Another form of this word is exolohreuo, and means “to destroy utterly, slay wholly.” It is used in Acts 3:23 for those who would not hear Jesus preached to them. It had to do with removing the Jewish nation, because they would not believe the Prophet who was sent to them.
The final word used in the New Testament for destruction is apoleia (G684). It indicates “loss of well being and not of being.” It is used in Matthew 7:13 for the way of destruction (G684). In Matthew 26:8 the disciples believed the precious ointment used on Christ was a waste (G684). In John 17:12 Jesus told his Father none of his disciples were lost (G684). In Romans 9:22 those who have not entered into the mercy of God are considered the vessels of wrath made for destruction (G684). The world views our persecution as evidence of our ruin (G684) or wasted lives. In 2Peter 3:16 we find unlearned and unstable men twist the scriptures to their own destruction (G684). The word unlearned does not mean untutored in institutions but lacking the learning imparted by the Holy Spirit, for spiritual matters are spiritually discerned (1Corinthians 2:10-16).
It seems to me that this collection of Greek words has to do with the loss of something, brought about by the judgment of God against sin. For example, due to Adam’s rebellion, we all age. We experience the loss of youth, strength etc. What we sow, we reap. If we mistreat others, our moral character will begin to come apart. Unrepentance will result in the loss of the total worth of a man’s life. That is, his life’s purpose and efforts whether for God or himself is ruined, wasted and destroyed through sin. Finally, a man or even a nation can lose its life or health due to sin, through worry, anxiety and the pressures of life. These words have to do with what occurs in our everyday lives and shouldn’t be used to indicate something different when used of judgment later. The New Testament does not use these words to show utter destruction. We need to repent of going beyond what God has written in Scripture and give him the glory for the love he expressed for all of us in the person of his Son. God help us!