In swept away, Jefferson Vann discusses a fourth Old Testament word for final punishment that implies literal destruction.
We conditionalists are often accused of using words like “destruction” in a simplistic, non-biblical sense. But in three previous articles, I examined the Old Testament Hebrew concepts of חרם (charam)1 and אבד (abad)2 and שחת (shachat),3 and showed that they all consistently imply a literal destruction. Matching New Testament references to final punishment were shown to have the same implications. I concluded that the Bible depicts the lost not as doomed to live forever in an uncomfortable place, or doomed to “substandard/ruinous life in the hereafter.” They are doomed to die. Eternal life is only for the saved.
Another Old Testament word reflecting the concept of final punishment is ספה (safah) which means to take, sweep, or snatch away.4
The word is used a number of times in connection with the story of God’s judgement upon Sodom and Gomorrah.
- After discovering that God planned to destroy the two cities, ‘Abraham stepped forward and said, “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’”5
- Abraham inquired about the limits of God’s wrath when he asked “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in it?”6
- The destroying angels also used the term to describe the punishment of the cities. “At daybreak the angels urged Lot on: ‘Get up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.’”7
- After rescuing Lot and his daughters, “As soon as the angels got them outside, one of them said, “Run for your lives! Don’t look back and don’t stop anywhere on the plain! Run to the mountains, or you will be swept away!””8
The apostle Peter referred to the same act of destruction when he said that God“…reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes and condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is coming to the ungodly.”9
- The verb τεφρώσας is a form of τεφρόω. Danker gives only one definition for the term: to reduce to ashes. Louw-Nida defines it “to destroy by reducing something to ashes.” It is a derivative of the noun τέφρα (ashes), which does not appear in the New Testament. In ancient Greek, τέφρα referred to the ashes of a funeral pyre, and was related to three other nouns: τεφροδοχείο (tefrodocheío, “ash tray, urn”); τεφροδόχος (tefrodóchos, “burial urn”) and τεφροδόχη (tefrodóchi, “ash pan, urn”).10 But τέφρα is not the same word that Malachi used to refer to those defeated in battle.11
- The verb κατέκρινεν is a form of κατακρίνω. This word was used of the specific condemnation of the death penalty Jesus received at his trial, leading to his execution on the cross.12 The word is used of general condemnation,13 or of the condemnation of Jesus’ generation for not recognizing him.14 But the shadow of death is never far from that word in the New Testament. It is used of the fate that the woman caught in adultery almost encountered.15 It is used of the atonement of Christ on the cross – what it did to sin.16 Peter says that this condemnation (the death penalty) is “an example of what is coming to the ungodly.” This specific use of κατακρίνω is also reflected in two other New Testament texts. Mark 16:16 says that unbelievers will be κατακριθήσεται. This future passive use of the verb shows that the event of final punishment is in view. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 11:32 says that when believers allow themselves to be disciplined by the Lord, the end result is that we will not be κατακριθῶμεν when the rest of the world is condemned.
- The specific means of condemnation Peter mentions is what the CSB version renders “extinction.” This is the noun καταστροφῇ, immediately recognized as the source for our English word catastrophe. It combines κατά (over) and στρέφω (turn), so the word “overturn” would be appropriate. Danker gives the words ruin and destruction as alternatives for translating the noun, and lists 2 Peter 2:6 as an example. It also says the word can imply “harm wrought by useless argumentation,” citing 2 Timothy 2:14 as an example of that meaning. So, the CSB uses “ruin” in that text. But overturn or extinction would work there too.
The next occurrence of ספה (safah) is in reference to Korah’s rebellion. Moses “warned the community, ‘Get away now from the tents of these wicked men. Don’t touch anything that belongs to them, or you will be swept away because of all their sins.’”17 Here again, the imagery speaks of a cataclysmic loss of life and existence. The rebels under Korah were not isolated and tortured for eternity. They were swallowed up by the ground, wiped out of existence.
The CSB almost consistently translates ספה (safah) with words or phrases that imply complete destruction.
- Destroy (Deuteronomy 29:18)
- Bring destruction to (1 Chronicles 21:12)
- Pile disasters on (Deuteronomy 32:23)18
- Perish (1 Samuel 26:10)
- Shave off (hair of head, legs and beard) (Isaiah 7:20).
- Take (a person’s) life (Psalm 40:14)
- Be swept away (Genesis 18:23-24; 19:15,17; Proverbs 13:23; Jeremiah 12:4).
For some reason, the CSB translators chose “caught” for ספה (safah) in Isaiah 13:15. This would be the only translation of the word which does not necessarily imply destruction. But a look at the entire verse shows that death is the punishment implied.
- “Whoever is found will be stabbed, and whoever is caught will die by the sword.” The CSB translators assumed (as do other versions) that this verse is an example of synonymous parallelism, so they rendered ספה as “caught” to match the idea of מצא (found) in the first part of the verse. The closest equivalent use would be David’s prayer that those trying to take (ספה) his life be ashamed and humiliated (Psalm 40:14). In any case, the fate of God’s enemies is clear from the verse: loss of life.
This overview of the Hebrew verb ספה (safah) in the Old Testament shows that it, like the other three words studied, consistently refers to destruction. ספה (safah) itself denotes a cataclysmic loss of life. It is used when the biblical authors wanted to describe a judgement event in which human lives were taken, or swept away.
Also, just like the other three terms studied, the New Testament is shown to reflect the same idea. This is important because Robert Peterson’s criticism of Basil Atkinson’s linguistic study defending conditionalism was that it relied too heavily on the Old Testament meanings of words.19 But even Peterson admitted that Atkinson was “an accomplished linguist.”20 He went back to the Hebrew words because they formed the linguistic background that readers of the New Testament had. Atkinson’s point was that these Old Testament words (like the four we have surveyed) have already provided theological content, and that content should not be ignored in favour of popular exegesis of a few obscure New Testament passages.
This is especially true when we see the same Old Testament concepts reflected in the New Testament.
- Three of the Old Testament instances of ספה (safah) in the Old Testament21 are translated in the Greek Septuagint as συναπόλλυμι. This combination of σύν (with) and απόλλυμι (perish, or be destroyed) is found in Hebrews 11:31, which tells us that “By faith Rahab the prostitute welcomed the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.” This passage is significant to the debate about final punishment because it shows that the New Testament authors had not gained some new understanding of the meaning of απόλλυμι. The author of Hebrews continued to use the word to reflect the idea of being swept away in death.22
- Ἀπόλλυμι itself is used in the Septuagint to translate ספה (safah) twice. In both Genesis 18:24 and Proverbs 13:23, the word refers to the taking of human life. This is the predominant use of the word in the New Testament as well.23
- Ἐξαίρω – meaning to remove or drive away – is used once,24 Paul used that word when he suggested that someone be removed from the congregation at Corinth.25
- Συνάγω –meaning to gather together – is used for ספה (safah) in Isaiah 13:15. This reflects the idea of judgement being a great harvest, and is used in similar ways in the New Testament as well.26
- Ἀφανίζω is used for the killing of animals and birds in Jeremiah 12:4. The New Testament uses it for the destructive activity of moth and rust,27 the fate of scoffers (they will perish),28 and the fact that human life is like a vapour that will soon vanish.29
- Finally, ספה (safah) is translated with ἐξολεθρεύω in 1 Chronicles 21:12. The word means to destroy, or utterly root out something. Peter used the word in his sermon at the temple. He warned that “everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be completely cut off from the people.”30
When traditionalists go to the Old Testament, looking for evidence of the eternal conscious torment theology, they find very little to help them with their objective. But when we conditionalists go to the Old Testament, expecting it to reflect the fact that the wages of sin is death, we find ample corroborating evidence. The Bible consistently teaches that God’s permanent life is a gift he intends to give only to the redeemed. All others will be swept away in the permanent condemnation of the second death.
4Holladay lexicon, no. 5939.
5Genesis 18:23 CSB.
6Genesis 18:24 CSB.
7Genesis 19:15 CSB.
8Genesis 19:17 CSB.
92 Peter 2:6 CSB.
11Malachi predicts that the Israelites “… will trample the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day I am preparing,” says the Lord of Armies”(Mal. 4:3 CSB). The word for ashes here is σποδός, which is a more general term for ashes.
12Matthew 20:18; 27:3; Mark 10:33; 14:64.
13Romans 2:1; 8:34; 14:23; Hebrews 11:7.
14Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31-32.
18This form is actually a rare hifil pattern, signifying to gather together or pile up something.
19Robert Peterson, “Basil Atkinson: A Key Figure for Twentieth-Century Evangelical Annihilationism.” Churchman 111/3, 198-217.
20Peterson, 199. For an excellent general rebuttal of Peterson’s arguments against conditionalism, see Glenn Peoples, “Fallacies In The Annihilationism Debate: A Critique Of Robert Peterson And Other Traditionalist Scholarship.” JETS, 50/2 (June 2007) 329–47.
21Genesis 18:23; 19:15; Numbers 16:26.
22For more on the meaning of απόλλυμι, see https://www.afterlife.co.nz/2012/11/the-meaning-of-appollumi-ἀπόλλυμι/; https://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/the-meaning-of-apollumi-in-the-synoptic-gospels/; https://www.afterlife.co.nz/2018/01/perish-the-thought/.
23See Matthew 2:13; 12:14; 27:20; Mark 1:24; 3:6; 9:22; Luke 20:16.
24Psalm 40:14 (39:15 LXX).
251 Corinthians 5:2.
26Matthew 3:12; 13:30; Luke 3:17.