In “set apart for destruction” Jefferson Vann explores an Old Testament term that helps us understand the biblical idea of hell.
Conditionalists have often been accused of being too simplistic in their approach to biblical terminology. For example, when we claim that the Bible teaches that destruction of the wicked is the purpose of hell, we are accused of not using the term destruction in its biblical sense.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to revisit those texts containing that word – just to see if we conditionalists have been too naïve in our understanding of it.
To avoid confusion, I will limit this search to only the word “destruction,” and look only at its appearances in the most modern version available at present – the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). But since this English word translates several Hebrew and Greek words, I will only focus on one Hebrew or Greek word at a time.
Today I will survey the Hebrew word חרם (verb Charam) or (noun Cherem), when it is rendered “destruction.”
- Exodus 22:20 “Whoever sacrifices to any gods, except the Lord alone, is to be set apart for destruction.
Holladay’s Hebrew lexicon defines this term as to “be devoted to destruction by the ban.”1 It refers to a being who is marked to be killed, or an object to be utterly destroyed by fire. Further uses of the term show that there is no connotation where the term takes on any different meaning.
- Leviticus 27:29 No person who has been set apart for destruction is to be ransomed; he must be put to death.
- Deuteronomy 7:26 You must not bring any abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You are to utterly detest and abhor it, because it is set apart for destruction.
- Deuteronomy 13:17 Nothing set apart for destruction is to remain in your hand, so that the LORD will turn from His burning anger and grant you mercy, show you compassion, and multiply you as He swore to your fathers.
The Old Testament historical incident that best explains the importance of this concept is that of Achan, who kept back some of the items in Jericho which had been set apart for destruction.
- Joshua 6:18 But keep yourselves from the things set apart, or you will be set apart for destruction. If you take any of those things, you will set apart the camp of Israel for destruction and bring disaster on it.
- Joshua 7:12 This is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies. They will turn their backs and run from their enemies, because they have been set apart for destruction. I will no longer be with you unless you remove from you what is set apart.
- Joshua 22:20 Wasn’t Achan son of Zerah unfaithful regarding what was set apart for destruction, bringing wrath on the entire community of Israel? He was not the only one who perished because of his sin.'”
Saul was guilty of the same sin when he kept back some of the plunder from his battle with the Amalekites, ostensibly to offer those gifts to the LORD.
- 1 Samuel 15:21 The troops took sheep and cattle from the plunder– the best of what was set apart for destruction-– to sacrifice to the LORD your God at Gilgal.”
And there are others times in the Old Testament when the concept is reiterated.
- 1 Kings 20:42 The prophet said to him, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Because you released from your hand the man I had set apart for destruction, it will be your life in place of his life and your people in place of his people.'”
- 1 Chronicles 2:7 Carmi’s son: Achar, who brought trouble on Israel when he was unfaithful by taking the things set apart for destruction.
- 1 Chronicles 4:41 These who were recorded by name came in the days of King Hezekiah of Judah, attacked the Hamites’ tents and the Meunites who were found there, and set them apart for destruction, as they are today. Then they settled in their place because there was pasture for their flocks.
The Old Testament prophets suggest that all the wicked are ultimately seen as destined to be totally destroyed by God.
- Isaiah 34:2 The LORD is angry with all the nations– furious with all their armies. He will set them apart for destruction, giving them over to slaughter.
- Isaiah 34:5 When My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens, it will then come down on Edom and on the people I have set apart for destruction.
- Isaiah 43:28 So I defiled the officers of the sanctuary, and set Jacob apart for destruction and Israel for abuse.
- Micah 4:13 Rise and thresh, Daughter Zion, for I will make your horns iron and your hooves bronze, so you can crush many peoples. Then you will set apart their plunder to the LORD for destruction, their wealth to the Lord of all the earth.
- Zechariah 14:11 People will live there, and never again will there be a curse of complete destruction. So Jerusalem will dwell in security.
Now, when we look at what the Bible says about hell, we need to understand this imagery. God has set apart the wicked nations of the earth for destruction (Isaiah 34), giving them over to slaughter. They are devoted to destruction, just as the goods of Jericho were. They are not to be ransomed. Destruction is their fate. Anything less than complete destruction of an object or person condemned to חרם was a transgression, a violation of the Mosaic Law.
I ask, based on the texts above, is this image accurate, and does it not faithfully describe God’s attitude toward the wicked, and the fate of the wicked?
But, wait. There is more. The New Testament also appears to reflect the concept of חרם in its description of the ultimate fate of the wicked.
- Matthew 7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it.
- Matthew 12:25 Knowing their thoughts, He told them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. (cf. Luke 11:17).
- John 17:12 While I was with them, I was protecting them by Your name that You have given Me. I guarded them and not one of them is lost, except the son of destruction, so that the Scripture may be fulfilled.
- Romans 9:22 And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction?
- Philippians 1:28 not being frightened in any way by your opponents. This is a sign of destruction for them, but of your deliverance– and this is from God.
- Philippians 3:19 Their end is destruction; their god is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. They are focused on earthly things,
- 2 Thessalonians 1:9 These will pay the penalty of eternal2 destruction from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength.
- 1 Timothy 6:9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction.
- 2 Peter 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves.
- 2 Peter 2:3 They will exploit you in their greed with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced long ago, is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep.
- 2 Peter 3:7 But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men.
- Revelation 17:8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss and go to destruction.
- Revelation 17:11 The beast that was and is not, is himself an eighth king, yet he belongs to the seven and is going to destruction.
As I was saying at the beginning, conditionalists are often accused of using words like destruction in a simplistic, non-biblical sense. But the evidence above shows that when the New Testament authors spoke of the fate of the lost in hell, they often reflected the Old Testament concept of חרם, which implied a literal destruction. The lost are not doomed to live forever in an uncomfortable place. They are not doomed to “substandard/ruinous life in the hereafter.”3 They are doomed to die. Eternal life is only for the saved.
1The Greeks used the verb ὁλοθρεύω (destroy) to translate חרם here. The NT author of Hebrews used this word for the angel who killed the firstborn in Egypt (Hebrews 11:28).
2Do not think that the term eternal implies a process that never ends. Destruction that never ends is never destruction. The word translated eternal (Greek αἰώνιος) is an adjective describing the destruction as complete or permanent. It is not an adverb describing the process of destroying.
3Richard L. Mayhue, “Hell Never, Forever, or Just for Awhile?” (Sun Valley, CA: Master’s Seminary Journal, 1998), 141.