“Broad is the road that leads to destruction,” said Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:13). There are “foolish and harmful desires,” said Paul, “that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim 6:9). “The day of judgment,” said Peter, will bring the “destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet 3:7). In evangelical circles there is a growing debate about what this final “destruction” will look like. Is it final annihilation or is it being perpetually destroyed? We need to talk about this unhappy little word “destruction.”
The Greek word in these passages is apoleia (ah PO lay ah). In ancient Greek literature this relatively rare word usually meant “loss,” “waste,” or “ruin.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament that became the standard text for God’s people, the word was used rather often (75 times). What would they have understood apoleia to mean?
A few times the word meant “oblivion”(Ps 88:12) or “destroy completely” (Deut 12:2). In this sense Ezekiel said that Nebuchadnezzar would come upon Tyre and the city would “come to a horrible end and would be no more”(Ezek 27:36). Even in this destruction, however, Tyre did not cease to exist. It relocated offshore, only to be conquered again 250 years later by Alexander the Great.
More often readers of the Septuagint saw the word used to describe a wide range of destruction and loss (but not total annihilation). For instance, it was used for a piece of property that was lost and then found (Exod 22:9; Lev 6:3-4). More typically, it was a day of disaster (Deut 32:35), a time of plague (1 Chr 21:17), a time of dismay (Job 41:22), a day of calamity (Job 21:30), an unforeseen catastrophe (Isa 47:11). It is the violence (Prov 10:11) and ruin (Job 31:3) that overcome the wicked; it is the havoc that will be wrought on God’s enemies (Isa 54:16). God’s people themselves would be an object of horror when they were punished for their idolatry (Jer 44:12).
Ancient readers of the Bible, therefore, would rarely have understood destruction as annihilation. It would have made perfect sense to them that such calamity and ruin would be occurring in the place of “eternal fire”(Matt 25:41; Jude 1:7), “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46), and “everlasting destruction”(2 Thes 1:9), where the “smoke of their torment rises forever and ever” (Rev 14:11).