For an Informed Love of God
I have been receiving requests lately about words and grammar that all relate to the issue of annihilationism and potentially universalism. I don’t know if these connections are explicit in the mind of the writers, but that is the common thread. Interesting.
Recently someone asked about the precise meaning of the Greek verb ἀπόλλυμι. Perhaps this is a good time to talk about how words have meanings.
A word does not have “a” meaning. A word as a bundle of meanings. Different people use different metaphors, but I like the image of a bundle. The technical term for this is “semantic range.” Words are like bundles full of many sticks. Some words have a few sticks; some have many sticks. But every word has a bundle or meanings. This is true in any language. Perhaps you are able to think of a word that has only one meaning, but that is rare.
When your mind is looking for just the right word to say, it is analyzing bundles of meanings, looking for just the right stick for that particular context, and then selects the word. There are many factors that go into the selection process, factors of nuance, emphasis, precision, etc. Is it okay to say “go,” or is the emphatic “run” more appropriate, or perhaps the more specific “enter.” But whatever be the specifics, it is the context that determines which word is used and what stick is intended.
From the point of view of the reader, then, the process is the reverse. We see a word, recognize its bundle of meanings, and choose the stick that best fits the context. As always, let context be your guide. No word has exactly the same meaning in every context except perhaps very technical terms. (Of course, even technical terms can have bundles. The “atom” is a precise scientific term, but when I hear the word — and I am not a scientist but love science fiction — I think of Atom Ant, the hero of the Hymenoptera order and all children who love fantasy — but I digress.)
So what does ἀπόλλυμι mean? The gloss in my grammar lists, “I destroy, kill,” and in the middle “I perish, die.” My dictionary gives a wider range, from “to destroy, kill,” to “to make void” (the wisdom of the wise, 1 Cor 1:19), “to lose” (one’s reward, Mt 10:42), “to be lost” (referring to the lost sheep of Israel, Mt 10:6). BDAG lists these glosses: “1. to cause or experience destruction”; “2. to fail to obtain what one expects or anticipates, lose out on, lose”; “3. to lose someth. that one already has or be separated from a normal connection, lose, be lost.” This is the same range of meaning I follow in the main entry in my Dictionary (page 423).
Quite a range of meaning. You can see the general idea is one of loss and destruction, but it does not necessarily mean the utter and permanent destruction of something. Now comes the hard work. What does it mean in a particular context. (The following citations are all from the ESV.)
The demons say to Jesus, ““What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24).
Paul tells the Romans, “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (14:15).
“The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6).
The people respond to Jesus’ parable of the tenants with these words: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt 21:41).
James says, There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (4:12).
The disciples thought the storm would in fact kill them. They cry out to Jesus, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing” (Matt 8:25).
Jesus challenges his followers with these words: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
Peter is warned, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
So what do we learn? ἀπόλλυμι has a range of meanings, extending from losing (such as the woman losing one of her ten coins, Luke 15:8) to death (such as dying by the sword, Matt 26:52).
It is when we get to the overtly theological passages that these distinctions become important. John 3:16 sets destruction in contrast to eternal life: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus says that that we should fear God who can “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
Sorry to not be able to give you a cut and dry answer. There is nothing in the word that necessitates ἀπόλλυμι means a permanent and total destruction. I think this was the question I was asked. It certainly can carry that meaning, but it is context (including one’s theological understanding of the ideas conveyed by the word) that make the final decision.
In what sense will people “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction (ὀλεθρος), away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:9)? The semantic range of a word gives you the possible meanings. Context — both literary and theological — picks the right stick out of the bundle.