Sunday, April 14, 2019

Words of Annihilation: Plato and Plutarch, Peter and Paul

I’ve heard a number of people say that once they saw that the Bible teaches annihilationism (also called conditional immortality) they could not unsee it. This was true even if annihilationism was unpopular in their church setting. With this post, I hope to help more people see it.

The evidence for annihilationism in the Bible is wide and deep. From this wide and deep evidence, for me one of the most powerful types of evidence consists of the words chosen by biblical authors to describe the final fate of the unrighteous.

How do we know if a given word, used in the context of the final fate of humans, refers to complete and permanent annihilation of a person rather than referring to some other fate, like eternal torment? One of the main ways to determine the meaning of a word is to look at sample sentences where the word was used in a context where the rest of the sentence and broader context make the meaning very clear.

This is where two Greek philosophers help. Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived about four hundred years before Christ. His works were widely read in the centuries before, during, and after the period when Paul and Peter wrote portions of the New Testament. Plutarch was born around the time that Paul was beginning to write his epistles. Plutarch was a Greek philosopher-historian-biographer. Both Plato and Plutarch wrote specifically about what they thought happened to human souls after the death of our bodies. One of the possibilities they wrote about, but did not agree with, was the possibility that at some point the soul would permanently cease to exist.

Plato and Plutarch don’t help us on this issue because of the value of their philosophy, which is not based on biblical truth and thus not valuable at all. Rather, they help us by providing very clear and explicit examples of words in Greek that are a good choice for referring to annihilationism. Just as we could think of many ways to say that one sports team defeated (beat, clobbered, thrashed, trounced, etc.) another team, there are multiple words, phrases, and images that can be used (and are used!) to refer to the annihilation of people after their death. In this post I will focus on three such Greek words/word groups: (1) apollumi/apōleia, (2) phthora, and (3) olethros. Apollumi and apōleia are grouped together because they are the verb and noun formed from the same root, similar to destroy and destruction in English.

In the graphic below are examples of Plato and Plutarch using these words in a context where they unambiguously refer to annihilationism and then Paul and Peter using the same words to describe the final fate of the unrighteous (to those viewing this on small screens, I apologize for the unavoidably large size of this graphic):

Below is a chart summarizing more examples I found of Plato and Plutarch using these words when discussing the fate of humans after death, and of bible verses where Paul and Peter use the same words to describe the fate of people after judgment:

At the bottom of this post I’ve included an appendix that includes all the quotes from Plato and Plutarch in the chart above. Along with the quotes, I give links to a site where you can read the quotes and their larger context in both English and, for those able to do so, in the original Greek. I’ve included a second appendix that lists all the Bible verses in the chart plus similar verses written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, the author of Hebrews, and James.

An Alien-Linguist-Sports Analogy

Imagine that two alien linguists, named Joe and Bob, came to earth to learn English and American culture.  Joe read that the Ravens had “defeated, beaten, and clobbered” the Cowboys. He told Bob that he thought this meant that the Ravens had won in a sports game against the Cowboys. Bob was not sure that Joe was interpreting that sentence correctly. Bob explained that he had found the word “defeated” used to refer to a feeling of hopelessness, while “beaten” and “clobbered” were both sometimes used to refer to causing someone physical injury. Bob suggested that perhaps the Ravens had physically injured the Cowboys and made them feel sad and hopeless. That wouldn’t necessarily mean the Ravens won the game.

Since Bob and Joe are both linguists, they knew that they needed to find sample sentences where the words “defeated, beaten, and clobbered” were used in the context of sports  and where the rest of the sentence made the meaning unambiguous. They found these sentences:

Duke clobbered State by a 30-point margin.
ECU beat Carolina by scoring late in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers were defeated by the Patriots, 24 to 10.

At this point the meaning is clear. Bob agrees that Joe’s interpretation was correct. The Ravens won the game.

I hope you will see that the example sentences from Plato and Plutarch make it equally clear that when discussing the final fate of people apollumi, phthora, and olethros mean that the  people they describe are permanently annihilated in such a way that no person remains who is capable of feeling or thinking anything.

Do we need Plato and Plutarch?

You might wonder if we really need sentences from Plato and Plutarch to determine the meaning of words used by Paul and Peter? The answer is no. Plato and Plutarch merely provide additional evidence.

Here are a few examples of evidence from the Bible itself:

1. Sometimes the meaning of a word is clarified by what it is contrasted with. In John 3:16 the word perish (apollumi) is contrasted “eternal life.” Whatever perish means, it does not include living forever. You can’t be in torment forever if you don’t live forever.

2.  A study of the use of apollumi in the Bible when referring to what happens to people in this life shows that it consistently means they die or are killed. You may read more about this in an article on apollumi at the Rethinking Hell website. Some defenders of eternal torment point out that apollumi can refer to something that is ruined (like a wineskin, Matthew 9:17) or lost (like a coin, Luke 15:8). That’s true, but words often change their precise meaning depending on what they are referring to. It is best to look at examples that refer to people. Further, the lost are already lost before they are cast into hell, so it doesn’t make sense to interpret Matthew 10:28 as saying that God loses people in hell. As far as the ruined wineskins go, they are ruined because they burst open and what’s inside gushes out. If that happened to you, you would be dead, not just ruined in some lesser way!

3.  Paul uses apollumi when he is discussing a terrible hypothetical situation where Jesus did not rise from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:18). Paul says that in that case, Christians who have died will have perished (apollumi). He also says that if there was no resurrection then it would make sense to just enjoy this life as much as we can (1 Corinthians 15:32). Those who believe in any type of existence after death consistently believe that the quality of that existence is related to how we lived in our present life here. It makes sense to live only for this life if there is no type of afterlife at all. So, when Paul says that Christians will have perished (apollumi) if Christ is not raised, he is basically saying that those who believe this world is all that there is would be proved correct. In this context, apollumi means basically the same thing as is meant by annihilation. This is a subtle but strong argument. Reread it and look at what Paul wrote for yourself. Paul uses the same word (apollumi) to describe a hypothetical situation where there is nothing at all after death as he uses to describe the final fate of the unrighteous after judgment. Think about that.

4. Peter helps us understand the meaning of phthora in 2 Peter 2:12 by using the same word to describe what happens to an animal that is caught and killed:

But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed (phthora), blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction (phthora), (2 Peter 2:12, ESV)

Animals are not caught and then tormented. They are caught and then killed. After they are killed, they cannot feel or think anything. The meaning is the same as annihilation.

5. Other words and images in the Bible also fit will with annihilationism. The Bible tells us that the unrighteous will be burned to ashes, completely burned up, and that their fate is death. That all sounds more like annihilation than eternal torment. But what about the verses that speak of weeping and gnashing of teeth? Weeping and gnashing of teeth actually are very predictable reactions to finding out you are going to be burned to ashes at the final judgment. Annihilationism does not deny that there will be some conscious suffering before or during the process of being finally and completely destroyed.

6. And much more! You may find my own collection of articles giving evidence for the view of conditional immortality here: Mark’s Resources on Hell. There are also many helpful articles on this topic on the Rethinking Hell website.

I’m not the first to see this

In 1875 Edward White, a minister in London, published a book on conditional immortality with the title:  Life in Christ: A Study of the Scriptural Doctrine On the Nature of Man, the Object of the Divine Incarnation, and the Conditions of Human Immortality (you may read this book online for free here). In that book, on pages 358-365, White discusses the same words which I discuss in this article and he uses many of the same quotes from Plato. He came to the same conclusion. These words teach the annihilation of the unrighteous and cannot reasonably be interpreted as referring to their eternal torment. In expressing how he feels about interpreting these words to mean eternal torment, White quotes from a letter on this same topic from the Greek scholar and Bible translator Richard Weymouth. Weymouth wrote:

My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying ‘destroy,’ or ‘destruction,’ are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this. (White, p. 365).

The above quote I first found in Edward Fudge’s excellent work, The Fire that Consumes.

I’m far from the first to study the Greek words used to describe the final fate of the unrighteous and to conclude that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the doctrine of conditional immortality rather than eternal torment. I pray that this post will help others to see this truth as well.

Appendix #1: Quotes from Plato and Plutarch

Helpful note: After each quote, I include a reference that you can click on. It will take you to the appropriate page on the online Perseus Digital Library. The English translation will be on the left side of the page. On the right side of the page, if you click the “load” button in the section labeled “Greek,” the accompanying Greek text will appear.

Plato’s use of apollumi/apōleia, phthora, and olethros to refer to the annihilation of human souls:

They fear that when the soul leaves the body it no longer exists anywhere, and that on the day when the man dies it is destroyed and perishes (apollumi), and when it leaves the body and departs from it, straightway it flies away and is no longer anywhere, scattering like a breath or smoke.

“But the soul, the invisible, which departs into another place which is, like itself, noble and pure and invisible, to the realm of the god of the other world in truth, to the good and wise god, whither, if God will, my soul is soon to go,—is this soul, which has such qualities and such a nature, straightway scattered and destroyed (apollumi) when it departs from the body, as most men say?

Now what shall we say to this argument, if anyone claims that the soul, being a mixture of the elements of the body, is the first to perish (apollumi) in what is called death?

But he might say that no one knows beforehand the particular death and the particular dissolution of the body which brings destruction (olethros) to the soul, for none of us can perceive that.

And, Cebes, I believe, granted that the soul is more lasting than the body, but said that no one could know that the soul, after wearing out many bodies, did not at last perish (apollumi) itself upon leaving the body; and that this was death—the destruction (olethros) of the soul, since the body is continually being destroyed. Are those the points, Simmias and Cebes, which we must consider?”

. . . but its [the soul’s] very entrance into the human body was the beginning of its dissolution (olethros), a disease, as it were; and it lives in toil through this life and finally perishes (apollumi) in what we call death.

If the immortal is also imperishable, it is impossible for the soul to perish (apollumi) when death comes against it.

“But,” he said, “it is not needed, so far as that is concerned; for surely nothing would escape destruction (phthoron), if the immortal, which is everlasting, is perishable (phthoron).”
“All, I think,” said Socrates, “would agree that God and the Principle of life, and anything else that is immortal, can never perish (apollumi).”

“Have you never perceived,” said I, “that our soul is immortal and never perishes (apollumi)?”

Plutarch’s use of apollumi/apōleia and phthora to refer to the annihilation of human souls:

And they are pleased when they hear it said of a dying person, that he goes away or departs, and such other words as intimate death to be the soul's remove and not destruction (phthora).

And they are discomposed when they hear it said of any one, he is perished (apollumi), or he is gone, or he is no more;
also from NonPosse, 26

Appendix #2: The use of apollumi/apōleia, phthora, and olethros by biblical authors to refer to the final fate of the unrighteous


"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction (apōleia), and those who enter by it are many” - Jesus (Matthew 7:13 ESV)

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy (apollumi) both soul and body in hell. – Jesus (Matthew 10:28 ESV)

Whoever finds his life will lose (apollumi) it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. – Jesus (Matthew 10:39 ESV)

For whoever would save his life will lose (apollumi) it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. – Jesus (Matthew 16:25 ESV)

They said to him, "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." - Jesus (Matthew 21:41 ESV)

They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death (apollumi) and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons." - Jesus (Matt. 21:41 ESV)

The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed (apollumi) those murderers and burned their city. - Jesus (Matthew 22:7 ESV)


For whoever would save his life will lose (apollumi) it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. – Jesus (Mark 8:35 ESV)

What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy (apollumi) the tenants and give the vineyard to others. – Jesus (Mark 12:9 ESV)


For whoever would save his life will lose (apollumi) it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses (apollumi) or forfeits himself? – Jesus (Luke 9:24-25 ESV)

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (apollumi). – Jesus (Luke 13:3 ESV)

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (apollumi). – Jesus (Lk. 13:5 ESV)

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed (apollumi) them all. - Jesus (Luke 17:26-27 ESV)

Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot-- they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed (apollumi) them all-- so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. – Jesus  (Luke 17:28-30 ESV)

He will come and destroy (apollumi) those tenants and give the vineyard to others." When they heard this, they said, "Surely not!" – Jesus (Luke 20:16 ESV)


For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish (apollumi) but have eternal life. – Jesus (John 3:16 ESV)

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish (apollumi), and no one will snatch them out of my hand. - Jesus (John 10:28 ESV)

Whoever loves his life loses (apollumi) it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. - Jesus (John 12:25 ESV)


For all who have sinned without the law will also perish (apollumi) without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. (Romans 2:12 ESV)

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (apōleia) (Romans 9:22 ESV)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (apollumi), but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV)

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing (apollumi) (2 Corinthians 2:15 ESV)

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing (apollumi). (2 Corinthians 4:3 ESV)

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption (phthora), but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:8 ESV)

This is a clear sign to them of their destruction (apōleia), but of your salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:28b ESV)

Their end is destruction (apōleia) (Phil. 3:19a ESV)

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction (olethros), away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, (2 Thess. 1:9 ESV)

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders,
and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing (apollumi), because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. (2 Thessalonians 2:9-10 ESV)

The author of Hebrews

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed (apollumi), but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Heb. 10:39 ESV)


There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy (apollumi). But who are you to judge your neighbor? (Jas. 4:12 ESV)


But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction (apōleia). (2 Pet. 2:1 ESV)

And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction (apōleia) is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:3 ESV)

But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed (phthora), blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction (phthora), (2 Pet. 2:12 ESV)

But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction (apōleia) of the ungodly. (2 Peter 3:7 ESV)

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish (apollumi), but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction (apōleia), as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:16 ESV)

Photo credits
The four photographs of statues/busts of Plato, Plutarch, Peter, and Paul in the opening graphic are all taken from Wikipedia and used according to their guidelines. The links are here:
1. Plutarch  By Odysses -

2. Plato, public domain photo

3. Paul,  cropped from:

cropped from: By Jastrow - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

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