“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
Have you ever stopped to reflect upon what it actually means to perish? If one perishes will that individual continue to exist? Is there still hope for a person that has perished? I was raised to believe that to perish meant to be exterminated or annihilated, going out of existence altogether. When I came to know the Lord at 18 years of age I began attending a Baptist church where I was taught to believe that when one perishes he doesn’t go out of existence but rather is kept in an eternal conscious state of torment. Both taught that once a person had perished their condition was eternal and irreversible.
However, when I actually began to search the Scriptures in order to understand what Jesus really meant, it became evident that, although the loss is great, it is neither eternal nor irreversible. The actual Greek word used here is apóllumi which, along with its cognates olethros and apoleia, means “to kill, to die, to destroy or to lose.” When it is used in the middle voice of persons, as it is used here in John 3:16, it simply means “to lose one’s life.” While it often refers to a premature or tragic death (Matt 26:52; Mark 3:6), the word in and of itself, does not indicate a permanent irreversible state.
It is often used to refer to the death of the righteous whom we know will be raised unto life eternal. Jesus says of the righteous priest Zechariah that he perished (apóllumi mid.) between the altar and the temple (Luke 11:51). Likewise, in the LXX Greek Old Testament it speaks of the righteous as having perished: “The faithful man has perished (apóllumi) from the earth, and there is no one upright among men.” (Mic 7:2). Jesus even used the same word to refer to His own death:
“Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish (apóllumi mid.) outside of Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:33)
So, Jesus used the exact same word to refer to His own violent death that He used in John 3:16 and also in several other passages referring to the lost who perish without having believed in this life. We know that He didn’t perish in the sense of ceasing to exist. After He “perished” He went to hades and preached the gospel to those who were previously disobedient in order that, even though they were judged in the flesh as men, they might live unto God in the spirit (1Peter 3:19-20; 4:6).
However, while it often merely refers to a tragic or premature death, whenever the Scriptures speak of the lost as “perishing” it carries with it the additional idea of tragically dying in a lost state. Jesus says of His sheep or the elect of this age, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish (apóllumi mid.); neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:28). It is obvious that even the elect will die – many of them tragically and prematurely through martyrdom. However, those who believe on Jesus already possess eternal life and therefore, rather than death being their enemy, it is their means of entering into the glorious presence of God (2Cor 5:6-8). For this reason, Jesus could say that whoever lives and believes in Him will never die (Jn 11:26).
Therefore, when the lost are referred to as perishing, it is clearly something more serious than simply dying. Rather than going into the presence of God upon dying they will find themselves in hades awaiting the White Throne Judgment which takes place a thousand years after Christ’s Second Coming for His elect Bride (Rev 20:5-6). At that time, they will be judged according to their works and will receive their part in the purifying Lake of Fire which is the second death to self and the flesh-life which they failed to undergo during their lifetime (Rev 20:11-15). I look into the meaning and purpose of the Lake of Fire and the second death in my blog: “Sulfur, Salt and the Refiner’s Fire,” and also in my book “The Triumph of Mercy.”
While Jesus is the Savior of the whole world, and before He delivers the kingdom to the Father He will have drawn all unto Himself (Jn 12:32; 1Cor 15:22,28), the great majority of mankind in this age will continue on the broad path leading to destruction or perdition. Jesus said:
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction (apoleia, ‘destruction, perdition’), and there are many who enter through it. 14 For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt 7:13-14 NASU)
Here Jesus Himself says that those who find the way of life, being saved in this age, are very few. The rest take the broad way leading to destruction. Destruction or perdition here is the noun form of the same word apóllumi which Jesus used in John 3:16. In Luke’s parallel passage we see that many religious people who think they are saved will discover on that day that in reality they are lost. Many will say to Jesus, “we ate with You and drank in Your presence.” But He will say to them, “depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.” As a result of their exclusion from the kingdom there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Luke 13:24-30; Matt 7:21-23).
While the workers of iniquity will be initially excluded, the Gates of the New Jerusalem will never be shut, and the Spirit and the Bride will be proclaiming to them the everlasting gospel, calling upon them to wash their robes so as to be able to enter the New Jerusalem and partake of the leaves of the tree of life which are for their healing (Rev 21:25-22:2,14,17). The Luke account likewise says:
“They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. 30 And indeed there are last who will be first (protos), and there are first who will be last (eschatos).” (Luke 13:29-30)
Here we see that, while most will be initially excluded, they will eventually come into the kingdom, each in their own order, after having fulfilled their part in the purifying Lake of Fire. Some will be first to enter (protos), while others will be the last to enter (eschatos). The first and the last is referring to a chronological order rather than having reference to eminence within the kingdom, as can be seen by the contrast between protos “first” and eschatos “eschatologically last.” Jesus elsewhere refers to first and last in importance but uses different terms: “least” elachistos and “greatest” megos (Matt 5:19; 11:11). If the exclusion of the lost were eternal, then Jesus would not have spoken of some who would be the first to enter and others who would be eschatologically the last to enter.
Jesus told the religious leaders who trusted in their own righteousness that the tax collectors and harlots would enter the kingdom “before them” [proago “precede in time”] (Matt 21:31). Even the religiously self-righteous will eventually enter the kingdom of God, but many who thought they would be the first to enter will actually be the last because salvation is by grace through faith in Christ’s righteousness alone. The tax collectors and harlots know that they have no righteousness of their own and are therefore the first to receive Christ, whereas the religiously self-righteous are among the last to enter the kingdom through the narrow door which is Christ.
Jesus said concerning His mission, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost [apóllumi].” (Luke 19:10). Here He uses the exact same word apóllumi that is rendered as “perish” in John 3:16. Jesus came for the express purpose of seeking and saving those who are lost (apóllumi). In fact, being lost is a prerequisite to being saved.
Additionally, the lost individual cannot find the Way by himself - he must be found by the Savior. I have often had lost individuals tell me, “I’m trying to find myself.” However, Adam’s race lost their way to such a degree that they must be sought after and found by God Himself. The Savior seeks out those who know they are lost and have despaired of ever finding or saving themselves. That is why Jesus said to the self-righteous scribes and the Pharisees:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
The truth is that all are in need of the Physician and there is none righteous, not even one (Rom 3:9). However, Jesus only picks the fruit when it is ripe. When He sees an individual who still considers himself to be righteous and without need of the Physician, He passes them by and goes instead to the tax collectors and harlots who are receptive to His call to repentance (Ps 138:6). That is why the tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom before the self-righteous Pharisees (Matt 21:31). It is not that the religiously self-righteous will never enter, but it will take them longer to come to an end of themselves and look to the Savior for His righteousness received by grace through faith alone.
Eventually everyone will have fallen to their knees, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, at which time God will be all in all (Phil 2:10-11; 1Cor 15:28). When Jesus has finished drawing all to Himself, each in his own order, no one will remain in a lost state. He will leave the ninety-nine in the fold and seek the last lost sheep “until He finds it” (Luke 15:4-7). The Traditional doctrine which limits the effectiveness of Christ’s shed blood to this life, turns this around, presenting Him as though He were content with one percent in the fold and ninety-nine percent eternally lost.
In the coming ages, in the Dispensation of the Fullness of the Times, all will be drawn to Christ and reunited in Him but each in his own order in the day of their visitation: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order.” (1 Cor 15:22-23a).
“…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, 8 in flaming fire taking vengeance (edikeo “executing justice”) on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with (diken tísousin “pay the just penalty of”) everlasting destruction (olethros aionios) from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2Thess 1:7-9)
Taken as traditionally translated, this passage seems to be saying that perdition is eternal. The word olethros is from the same word apóllumi rendered perish in John 3:16. However, keeping in mind that aionios means “eonian” or “that which pertains to the age/s,” it becomes clear that the eonian destruction (olethros aionios) is not eternal, but rather that it lasts for a long but indefinite time as we see in a literal translation:
“who shall suffer justice — destruction age-during — from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength” (2Thess 1:9 Young’s Literal Translation)
I demonstrate in my blog, “The Duration of Punishment” and in my book “Extermination or Restoration” that aionios speaks of limited duration. The word olethros, which appears four times in the New Testament, simply means “destruction, ruin or corruption.” It does not mean annihilation, as the Annihilationists affirm, since it is used to describe the condition or state of persons still physically alive, or things that still are in existence. For example, Paul, warning against those who taught that godliness is a way to become wealthy, said:
“Now godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. 8 And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction (olethros) and perdition (apoleia). 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1Tim 6:6-10)
Here Paul, in further explanation of what it meant to become drowned in destruction and perdition, defined for us what he meant. To drown oneself in destruction and perdition does not refer to annihilation but rather a Gehenna like experience of suffering and anguish in this life, being pierced through with many sorrows. Many who have sunken into the world of sin and vices, reach the point where their lives are in ruins. It is not that they have ceased to exist, but they have made shipwreck of their lives. Jesus said that the prodigal son lived wildly. He didn’t come to himself until his life was destroyed and in ruins.
The preflood earth is said to have perished (apóllumi), being flooded with water (2Peter 3:6). While the earth’s conditions changed with the flood, not a single element of the original earth ceased to exist. I spent several months learning Spanish in the beautiful city of Antigua Guatemala where there are many ruins. The buildings were “destroyed” by earthquakes but nevertheless they didn’t cease to exist. Some are still in ruins while others have been restored. Destruction is not synonymous with annihilation.
In what sense could one suffer temporal destruction resulting in his own benefit? We see a clear example in 1Corinthians where Paul gave orders to the Corinthians, saying they were to deliver over to Satan the man who was in fornication with his father’s wife unto a destruction which had a positive result in view:
“In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction (olethros) of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 5:4-5)
Here we see a restorative purpose in excluding this man from the community of the saints. He was delivered to Satan for destruction: However, not the destruction of himself as an individual, but rather that of his fleshly self – his sinful flesh. If one persists in sin, the destruction eonian is for their own good, and not just for the good of the community. In the same way, those who die physically without having died to the flesh, will undergo correctional punishment (kolasis aiónion) for as long as is necessary for the destruction of his flesh or soul-life. It will be an eonian destruction but not eternal. It may last two or three days, or it may last for ages. What we do know is that it will continue until all fleshly appetites are destroyed, because without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).
The destruction eonian, according to the King James Version in 2Thessalonians 1:9, is “from (apo) the presence of the Lord.” “Destruction from the presence” can either mean “destruction excluded from the presence” or “destruction proceeding from the presence of the Lord.” The New International Version says “shut out from” which conveys the former idea. The English Standard Version also says, “destruction away from the presence” but gives the alternate reading “or destruction that comes from the presence.” Several Spanish versions render it “destruction by the presence” or “destruction proceeding from the presence” (“por la presencia” Reina Valera 1909, Spanish Sagradas Escrituras, Peshitta Español “procedente de la presencia”).
Grammatically, the Greek preposition apo could be translated either way, and practically speaking I believe the eonian destruction will be both “destruction proceeding from the presence of the Lord” and also “destruction away from the presence of the Lord.” In Revelation 14:10 it says that “he shall be tormented (basanizo, “tested with a touchstone to determine purity”) with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Here we see that one’s torment will be occasioned by the gaze of Him whose eyes are penetrating as a flame of fire, exposing all for what it is. They will suffer eonian shame from (or by) the presence of the Lord, which presence is inescapable. But at the same time, they will be away from the presence of the Lord as long as they remain in their condition, because without holiness no one will see the Lord.
Their torment will be both being seen by Him and seeing from afar the kingdom in its glory and not being able to draw near because of their uncleanness which cannot be hidden in the light of His presence. As the apostle John exhorted us as believers: “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before (apo) Him at His coming.” (1John 2:28) Here again, the Greek preposition apo appears which could express both the idea of shrinking from His presence or being ashamed by His presence. I believe that both meanings apply. If we don’t abide in Him, our shame will make us want to run and hide before the presence of the Lord, just as Adam did in his shame.
I believe that the second death is this eonian destruction, both by the presence and from the presence of the Lord. We must all die two deaths. One is physical death and the other is death to the independent ego and the flesh. Jesus says to us: “For whoever desires to save (sozo) his (soul) life will lose it, but whoever loses (apollumi “lose, destroy”) his (soul) life for My sake will find it.” (Matt 16:25) Both deaths are inevitable. It is preferable to die now in this life than to be hurt by the second death after physical death and judgment (Rev 2:11; 21:8). “And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.” (Matt 21:44).
Those who believe in this life and submit to God’s discipline in order to be sanctified will be broken in this life. It is the painful process of death to the soul life and the flesh. But it is much to be preferred over that which awaits those who do not submit themselves under the mighty hand of God in this life. That’s why Paul said that He is, “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1Tim 4:10-11). One day every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil 2:11), but more blessed are those who choose Him now in this life.
But who would be the beneficiary of a punishment consisting of “eternal” destruction without an end? Our God and Father, Creator of all? Is it conceivable that the God of Love; infinite in wisdom, would predestine a cosmic garbage dump in which the majority of His rational creatures will pass eternity in a miserable state of conscious torment and ruin without any plan for their restoration? Is it possible that it would give God satisfaction to contemplate the suffering of so many billions of his creatures for all of eternity? How can we reconcile such a concept of God with such passages as the following?
“The Lord is merciful and gracious; slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. 9 He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever.” (Ps 103:8-9)
“For the Lord will not cast off forever. 32 Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. 33 For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” (Lam 3:31-33)
“For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life; Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps 30:5)
“For I am merciful,' says the Lord; I will not remain angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity….” (Jer 3:12-13)
“He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy.” (Mic 7:18)
Have you heard someone speak of God’s “eternal wrath”? Did you know that that expression does not even appear in the Scriptures? On the contrary, what we do see is that His wrath is only for a moment in comparison with His favor which is forever. It says that He will not keep His anger forever. It is His love that never ceases – not His wrath! (1Cor 13:8). How is it possible for God, who doesn’t reject forever, to give the “eternal” sentence of destruction - excluded from His presence forever? On the other hand, if we can see that the destruction has reference to the soul life and the flesh, and if we can see that it is eonian instead of eternal; then we can begin to comprehend how the God of Love could permit it, understanding that it is only eonian, or until all should be perfected. When the second death has fulfilled its purpose, then the last enemy - death, will have finally been destroyed. The purpose of God for the ages is that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him, and it shall be done just as He has purposed (Eph 1:10). Halleluiah! “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:36)
There are occasions in which, according to the traditional translations, the wrath of God seems to be eternal. But in each case the context reveals that it is not “eternal” but for a time (olam). Reading in the King James Version what Jeremiah prophesied against Judah, leaves us with the impression that His punishment of them is eternal:
“And you, even yourself, shall let go of your heritage which I gave you; and I will cause you to serve your enemies in the land which you do not know; For you have kindled a fire in My anger which shall burn forever.” (Jer 17:4)
If we were to understand this prophecy against Judah as translated here, we would arrive at the conclusion that He is indeed referring to eternal wrath. Also, chapter 25 verse 9, understood as translated, gives us the impression of eternal destruction or annihilation:
“behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, ‘says the Lord,’ and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual (olam) desolations.” (Jer 25:9)
Nevertheless, “eternal wrath” and “perpetual destruction” in this instance are clearly only for a time (olam). In the case of Judah, He specifies that olam, which was translated “eternal” and “perpetual,” only lasts seventy years, as we see in the following verses:
“And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12 Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord; and I will make it a perpetual desolation.” (Jer 25:11-12)
“For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. 11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.” (Jer 29:10-14)
In the case of Judah, as confirmed by history, the eonian wrath and destruction lasted for 70 years. Take note that even in His wrath His thoughts towards them were still thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give them a future and a hope. (v.11) His wrath and destruction were corrective and ended when the 70-year sentence was fulfilled. It was not an eternal destruction but a long-lasting destruction (olam). How can we say that the wrath of the Lord that burns “forever” and the “perpetual” desolation in Judah’s case was only for a limited time, and then insist that the “eternal” destruction of 1Thessalonians 1:9 never comes to an end? Doesn’t Romans 2:11 say that there is no partiality with God? God does not keep His anger “forever” nor reject “forever” because God is Love. Love only shows anger for the purpose of correction. It only rejects until we seek Him - not forever.
Both Universalists and Annihilationists agree that eternal destruction is not referring to unending destruction in the sense of an “eternal destroying.” The morphology of the Greek word “destruction” (olethros) indicates that it is a noun which speaks of the result of an action rather than the action itself, just as our ending –ion does in English.  Even if the action should continue for ages, it must come to an end because the suffix -ion emphasizes the end result and not the process. The difference is that Annihilationists understand destruction as resulting in the cessation of existence, whereas the Universalists understand it to be referring to the age-during process of the destruction of the soul-life which culminates in the final restoration of all. As the psalmist says: “You turn man to destruction, and say, ‘return, O children of men.” (Ps 90:3) Any theodicy which ends in destruction and ruin rather than culminating in the promised restoration of all, fails to take into account the climax of the ages, prophesied since the beginning (Acts 3:21,25).
 Robertson, A. T., A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Kindle Location 2847). Kindle Edition.