There are groups with whom one cannot associate for very long without hearing a tear-jerking lament about the condition (and/or future prospects!) of “the lost” – by which they usually mean anyone who differs with their chosen theological perspective. As is usually the case with many artificial boundaries drawn around carefully proof-texted points of “doctrine”, this one requires exceedingly skillful verbal gymnastics to relate it even remotely to the New Testament text.
Only two Greek words are used here. One, the verb, zemioo (noun form, zemia), classically defined simply as “to cause loss, to do damage, to assess a penalty or fine”, appears only four times as a verb (Mt.16:26, Mk.8:36, I Cor.3:15, Phil.3:8) and twice (Ac.27:21 and Phil.3:7) as a noun. All but the first two, which we will treat with the more common word, refer primarily to material or financial losses.
The other word, apollumi, which Liddell / Scott characterizes as a stronger form of ollumi, an earlier word which does not appear in the New Testament, is a bit more problematic. It is listed as “to destroy utterly (usually referring to a death in battle), to demolish or lay waste, to ruin”, and in the middle or passive voice, “to lose one’s life or possessions, to cease to exist, to die, to be undone.”
Traditional translators have stretched the usage even farther, rendering the same word as “lost” 11x, “lose” 15x, “destroy” 28x, and “perish” 33x. Please remember that any choice in translation, when several options may be lexically valid, reflects the opinion of the translator, and as such, must always be subject to challenge. Who can say without question, for example, without additional information, whether a coin, a sheep, a child (Lk.15) is simply missing (“lost”), has died (“perished”), or has been deliberately “destroyed”?
Even more germane to all the rhetoric about “the lost” is that in 92 appearances in the New Testament, no form of apollumi EVER appears with the adjective aionion (eternal)! The reference to “eternal destruction” in II Thes.1:9 employs a different (and much stronger) word for “destruction” – olethron.
In the much-quoted Jn.3:15-16, aionion is the modifier of zoen (see “Life”, #28), and NOT apollumi; and the phrasing in Jn.10:28 is identical with that in Jn.11:26 (with a different verb); the prepositional phrase eis ton aiona, literally “into/toward the ages”, which is usually translated “forever.” This is the reason for my choice in the PNT to correct the misleading “shall never die” to read “will not die forever” – neither Jesus’ “sheep” nor Lazarus had died “forever” – it was not a permanent condition! Paul picked up the same theme in I Cor.15:18, reassuring his readers of the promised resurrection of those who had already died.
With this background in mind, let us turn to a few specifics. Of the several different translations of apollumi, “lost” is the least frequent. In the gospels, it is applied to sheep (Mt.10:6, 15:24; Lk.15:4,6), a coin (Lk.15:8,9), scraps of bread (Jn.6:12), and only 5x to people: Judas (Jn.17:12, 18:9; a son/brother (Lk.15:24,32), and the folks for whom Jesus came seeking (Lk.19:10). Mt.18:11 is not found in the most reliable manuscripts. Paul, whose writings have been sliced and diced to “prove” so many “doctrines”, only uses the word once (II Cor.4:3) regarding people who have rejected the message of Jesus! (Twice more if you include the “perish” translations in II Cor.2:15, II Thes.2-10)
Traditional translators used “destroy” for the same word, apollumi, 28x. It’s what Herod (Mt.2:13) and the Pharisees (Mt.12:14, Mk.3:26, Mt.27:20, Mk.11:18, Lk.19:47) wanted to do with Jesus; and what demons / evil spirits tried to do with their victims (Mk.9:22, Mt.10:28) and feared that Jesus would do to them (Mk.1:24, Lk.4;34). Jesus contrasted this with his own intent to rescue (“save” – see #5) people (Lk.9:56,Jn.10:10), and challenged his critics that to refuse such rescue was the same as destroying them (Lk.6:9). In parables (Mt.21:41, 22:7, Mk.12:9) and historical references (Lk.17:27-29), he spoke of the destruction of those who had been deliberately unfaithful.
Paul (Rom.14:15) warned folks to be careful lest their perceived superior “knowledge” “destroy” others of tender conscience. “Damage” might have been better here. This theme recurs where the translators chose to render the same word “perish” in I Cor.8:11).
“Perish” is the most common of the translators’ choices, and most frequently refers to the temporary, transitory quality of mortal life or material goods. Only in I Cor.1:18, II Cor.2:15, II Thes.2:10, and I Pet.3:9 is there any hint of a connection to having overtly rejected the message of the Lord Jesus, and it is presented there as a simple result, rather than an imposed penalty, for that situation. There is no reference to anyone who is ignorant of that message.
Finally, it is necessary to examine Jesus’ statement, recorded six times in four different contexts, regarding the “saving” or “loss” of one’s life. In every case, it is psuche that is referenced (please see the study on “life” in #28), even though some translators have chosen, seemingly at random, to substitute the Platonic philosophical term “soul” for some of those occurrences – not all of them – only the ones that fit their own preconceptions.
The earliest appearance is Mt.10:39, in a record of instructions for the disciples whom Jesus had commissioned to represent him. They were not promised a flower-strewn pathway: much of the discourse is devoted to warnings of rejection and persecution, even by their own family members. Jesus is addressing the issue of one’s priorities, and contrasting the “losing” with the “finding” of one’s life / self / identity. (More of this in the next post.)
A similar – but significantly, NOT identical – statement appears in all three synoptic accounts (Mt.16:25, Mk.8:35, Lk.9:24), immediately after Peter’s testimony to Jesus’ identity and the Lord’s rebuke of his reluctance to accept the price that Jesus would pay for that status. Here, the concern is the contrast of one’s normal inclination to save (sozo) / preserve his life / self / identity (psuche) with “losing” (apolese) it. Notice, however,that in both places, “for my sake” – (Jesus’) – is crucial. Mark says “for my sake and the gospel’s”. Luke follows Matthew. This is a call to devoted discipleship, not an excuse for carelessness or flamboyant, risky behavior.
The consistent use of psuche in all of these passages poses an interesting dilemma for those who are obsessed with the notion of “saving souls”. Jesus does not appear to advocate or endorse that effort!
In Lk.17:33, the scene shifts to the chaotic world conditions at the time of Jesus’ return. Whereas the earlier passages spoke of “wanting” (thelo) to save their lives, this one conveys a more desperate – maybe even panicky – “seeking” (zetese) to “preserve” (peripoiesasthai) one’s life. This latter word conveys the tone of a purchased or negotiated settlement! A warning, perhaps, that “cutting a deal” with the persecutors is not the best idea? (Lesser manuscripts repeat the use of sozo). The use of the same word for “loss”, however, is the same throughout.
The final appearance of this theme is in Jn.12:25, in the prelude to the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. Philip and Andrew had just brought word that some Greek sightseers, in town for the passover, wanted to meet Jesus, who was preoccupied with his imminent departure. Both participles are changed. Here, Jesus speaks of the one who “loves” (philon) his psuche (life / self / individuality) “losing” it, in contrast to the one who “hates” (mison) his psuche in this world guarding/keeping (phulaxei) it, into (eis) eternal life (zoen aionion). Notice the unique transition to the use of zoen in this passage, instead of psuchen, and refer again to the study of “life.”
If, therefore, one chooses to follow Jesus’ instructions and example, his focus will be on the work and welfare of the Kingdom, and not his own (or anyone else’s) self-centered psuche “life” (or “soul”!)
Loss is certainly acknowledged (Phil.3:7,8), but not lamented – Paul calls it mere garbage – in comparison with its replacement: the glorious life – the zoen aionion – of the Kingdom!