An examination of what Jesus meant when He said: “Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna”
by George Sidney Hurd
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill (apokateino) the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy (apollumi) both soul (psuque) and body in hell (Gehenna).” (Matt 10:28)
What did Jesus mean when He said we are to fear Him, the One who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna? The same word, “fear” (φοβέω, phobeo), is used to refer both to those whom we are told not to fear, and the One that we are to fear, so reducing “fear” to merely “a sense of reverence or awe” wouldn’t seem to do justice to the parallel contrast.
As I pointed out in the previous blog, Understanding the Fear of the Lord, while we are not to be afraid of God, His fear should nevertheless always be before us so that we do not simply surrender to our fallen desires and instincts and buckle every time we are confronted with a test or temptation.
In the context of Matthew 10, Jesus is speaking to His twelve disciples before sending them out two by two to preach the gospel of the kingdom. He said that He was sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves and told them that they would be persecuted for His name’s sake. He then goes beyond the twelve to include all who would suffer and die as martyrs for their testimony until He comes to reign.
It is in this context that He says that our fear of God should be greater than our fear of the men who might persecute and kill us for our testimony. Throughout the centuries, thousands of Christ-followers have been tortured and killed, choosing death rather than denying their Lord.
Does that mean that they were afraid of God? Not at all! If you read the testimonies of the martyrs, they often joyfully gave their lives, singing praises as they were being sawed in two or burned at the stake, because their first love was the Lord, and their greatest fear was denying the one they loved the most when tested. They were not afraid of the Lord, rather His fear was before them, making such a sin against the Lord unthinkable. Jesus said: “he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (Luke 12:9). When facing persecution or martyrdom, only those who love Him more than life itself will be faithful until death, receiving the crown of life (Rev 2:10). The rest will give in to the fear of men, denying Him in order to save their own skin.
So, according to Jesus, what are we to fear? Extermination? Eternal torment? How are we to understand “destroy both body and soul in Gehenna?” If He was referring to eternal torment, as believed by many, it would have been a shocking new revelation for the disciples, since nowhere throughout the Old Testament do we see mention of postmortem torments beyond eonian shame, much less unending torment.
Some have posited that Jesus didn’t mean for us to understand that God would actually destroy the soul and body of anyone in Gehenna, but simply that God is “able to.” However, that, to me, is untenable. It is very unlikely that Jesus would warn of something which He knew God in reality would never do. Clearly, Jesus meant for us to understand that some will indeed undergo this eschatological destruction of soul and body in Gehenna or the Lake of Fire.
This passage, taken as commonly translated and out of context, could seem to confirm what the Annihilationists say - that the resurrected bodies of the unjust, together with their souls, will be destroyed or exterminated in Gehenna fire. However, in verse 39 of the same chapter, we can see that destroying the soul is not speaking of the cessation of its existence, but rather the subjugation of the life of the soul to the life in the spirit:
“He who finds his life (“soul”- psuque) will lose it, and he who loses (apollumi) his life (“soul”- psuque) for My sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39)
Here Jesus uses the same words in the original as in verse 28. What Jesus was actually saying was hidden by the translators who, instead of translating apollumi and psuque the same way in both verses, translated it “destroy the soul” in 28 and “lose his life” in 39. It is obvious that Jesus meant to express the same thing in both instances, and while most Church Fathers simply quoted verse 28 without giving detail as to its meaning, at least one Church Father, Cyprian (200 – 258 AD), equates the two as being the same thing.  However, the translators leave us with the impression that He was speaking of two distinct and unrelated things. What is it that Jesus meant to say in the expression “lose or destroy the soul”?
The Bible makes it clear that man is a being made up of body, soul and spirit:
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1Thess 5:23)
The complete man, according to Paul is 1) spirit, 2) soul and 3) body. The immaterial part of man is made up of soul and spirit. Even though the natural man cannot distinguish between the spirit and the soul, in Hebrews we are told that the word of God distinguishes between that which is of the soul from that which is of the spirit:
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb 4:12)
Man, apart from the revelation of the Word of God, is incapable of distinguishing between that which is of the spirit and that which is of the soul, but the word of God is as a two-edged sword and is able to reveal when we are soulish, acting in the soul and when we are spiritual, or acting in the spirit.
Our spirit is that which connects us with God who is Spirit. By our spirit we are able to hear God’s voice and have communion with Him. God created man to live with his spirit in communion with Himself, with the soul and body submitted to one’s spirit.
When man fell, He lost communion with God. Since the spirit no longer heard the voice of God, the soul of man no longer lived aligned with, and subjected under the spirit, but rather began to live according to the will of the body or flesh with its five senses. In this fallen condition, the soul no longer lived according to the spirit, led by God, but rather according to the desires of his flesh. Man no longer had spiritual perception, he only perceived with his five carnal senses. Man went from being spiritual, to becoming merely “flesh” (Gen 6:3). Those who live in this way, according to the soul and not according to the spirit, are called “carnal” or “soulish.” The Greek word for “soulish” is psuquikos, which is the adjective of psuque or “soul.”
“But the natural (psuquikos “soulish”) man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual (pneumáticos) judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one…. And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual (pneumáticos) people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ.” (1Cor 2:14,15; 3:1)
“These are sensual (psuquikos ‘soulish’) persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.” (Jude 19)
“This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual (psuquikos “soulish), demonic.” (James 3:15-16)
The soulish man is carnal, since he does not hear God’s voice and therefore lives a sensual life in his soul, according to the five senses of the flesh. He fulfills the desires of the flesh and not those of the Spirit.
When one is born again, it is the spirit which is born from above. Once born of the Spirit, we now have the capacity to perceive the things of God and do His will, living according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. We are now capable of being spiritual and not “soulish;” living the “soul life” (Jn 3:3,6).
Nevertheless, the life of the soul must be destroyed (apollumi) and replaced with the life of the spirit. In Adam, our soul was no longer subject to the Spirit. Now with our spirit reborn, it is necessary to put our soul in subjection to our spirit. When Jesus said that it was necessary to lose or destroy (apollumi) our soul, I believe He was saying that it is necessary to die to the dominion of the soul, subjecting it to our reborn spirit. The word apollumi in the New Testament sometimes means “to destroy or render null or inoperative” and sometimes “to lose.” I believe that the idea expressed here is to render inoperative the dominion of the soul in our lives. We should no longer live according to our own emotions and reason, but according to the rhema word of God. We should no longer live according to our will, but according to the will of God. The soul must be subjected once again to the spirit, in communion with God, no longer following after the flesh in order to fulfill its desires.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 He who loves his (soul) life will lose it, and he who hates his (soul) life in this world will keep it for eternal life (zoe aionios).” (John 12:24-25)
If we as believers take up our cross, following in the steps of Jesus, laying down our (soul) life for others, we will be spiritual, serving the Lord in spirit. But if we are soulish psuquikos, then God must intervene so that we are not condemned with the world.
“For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.” (1Cor 11:31-32)
Here we see that the disciplinary judgments of the Lord have a correctional purpose - in order that we should not receive our portion with the unbelievers, being condemned with the world. The purpose of this discipline can be seen in 1Corinthians 5:5 where Paul says:
“deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 5:5)
The destruction of the flesh is not speaking of the physical body, but rather the soul life following after the desires of the flesh rather than the desires of the Spirit. In discipline, God permits us to receive the consequences of acting in the flesh now, in order that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord, and in this way save us from the Great White Throne Judgment and the second death.
If we submit to God, subjecting our soul to our spirit in this life, God will not have to destroy the dominance of the soul later. If we do not submit in this life, we face the possibility of suffering the destruction of the soul in a physically resurrected body, experiencing the second death in the purifying lake of fire, because without holiness no one shall see the Lord.
Death, Destruction and Annihilation
Those who believe that the destiny of the unjust is to be annihilated, understand death and destruction as the cessation of all existence. On the other hand, the Traditionalists who teach eternal punishment in hell, insist that neither the first death nor the second death are the end of existence. The Biblical Universalists, just as the Traditionalists, believe that the soul of man does not cease to exist. They differ from the Traditionalists in that they believe that the second death is a restorative and correctional process that will culminate in God being all in all. For them, neither death nor destruction mean the annihilation of our being, but rather a transformation and purification. Those who put their faith in Christ in this life and die to the flesh and soul life now will not be hurt by the second death afterwards. But those who do not believe, or do not submit to the destruction of their soul life in this lifetime, risk having to be purified later in the lake of fire, being hurt by the second death or the eonian destruction which follows judgment.
In the Bible, neither death nor destruction express the concept of annihilation. I demonstrate this in detail in my book Extermination or Restoration? Nothing in all God’s creation will ever cease to exist; it will simply undergo a change of state. The same word apollumi appears in 2Peter 3:6 where it says, “the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water.” It is evident that the world did not cease to exist since we still inhabit it today. We still breathe the same air, drink its water and till its soil. What is expressed by the word apollumi is that it underwent a change in state. In the majority of instances in which it appears in the New Testament, apollumi simply means that something was lost, only to be found later:
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses (apollumi) one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost (apollumi) until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses (apollumi) one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost (apollumi)! Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
“…let us eat and be merry; 24 for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost (apollumi) and is found.' And they began to be merry.” (Luke 15:23-24)
Often, we see apollumi used in reference to death, but death in the Bible does not mean “ceasing to exist” as some believe, but rather “a change in existence.” This is evident in several texts:
“I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, 14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.” (2Peter 1:13-15 NAS)
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. 24 Nevertheless, to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.” (Phil 1:21-24)
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago — whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows — such a one was caught up to the third heaven.” (2Cor 12:2)
The fact that Paul wasn’t sure whether he was in the body or out of the body, makes it clear that the soul has a conscious existence separate from the body. Also, he speaks of dying or living as departing from, or remaining in the fleshly body – expressions which would not make sense if there were no conscious existence apart from the body or flesh. Peter speaks of himself as living in the tent which is his body and then putting it aside. One can only speak of living in something, departing from something or putting it aside, understanding that one’s essential being exists independently of the body.
So, we see that the destruction of the body and soul does not have reference to annihilation, but rather to the change of state (apollumi) of the soul and body, making us subject to Christ through fire, whether it should be fiery trials now, or Gehenna fire later. The future destruction of soul and body is said by Jesus to be worse than physical death, but it is not annihilation, nor is it without end, as understood by those who hold to the doctrine of eternal torment.
In conclusion, it is clear that Jesus was not referring to the annihilation of our essential being, nor was He speaking of being consigned to an eternal state of conscious torment, but rather to being sent into eonian correction in the purifying Lake of Fire, rather than being granted entrance into the eonian life of the kingdom when Christ returns and separates the sheep from the goats.
I consider the subject of the purifying nature of Gehenna or the Lake of Fire in my blog, Sulfur, Salt and the Refiner’s Fire. To me, it is clear that in Matthew 10:28 Jesus is referring to the second death, the death to the independent flesh and the soul-life. It certainly is to be feared, even moreso than the Father’s correction in this life is to be feared.
If Gehenna were not truly something to be feared, Jesus wouldn’t have said that it would be better to pluck out one’s eye, or cut off one’s hand, than to be excluded from the kingdom and cast into the eonian fire of Gehenna (Matt 18:8-9). Only the sheep are granted entrance into the kingdom at Christ’s return. The rest of the living are sent into eonian correction in Gehenna, or the Lake of Fire, prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41-46).
That being said, Jesus was not saying that we are to live in a constant state of fear. Rather, Jesus would say to us, in a manner similar to what Moses said to the Children of Israel at Sanai: “Do not be afraid. Rather, let His fear ever be before you. May your delight be in the fear of the Lord so that, when tested, your allegiance will be with Him, rather than giving in to the fear of man and denying Me.”
This blog is an excerpt from my book: The Triumph of Mercy.
 Cyprian said: “To all of whom the Lord also in Himself has appointed an example, teaching that none shall attain to His kingdom but those who have followed Him in His own way, saying, ‘He that loveth his life (soul) in this world shall lose (or destroy) it; and he that hateth his life (soul) in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.’ And again: ‘Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Cyprian, Epistle 80, Confessors in Prison, par. 2
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