I Am the Great Olethros – Nana Yaw Aidoo

Nana Yaw Aidoo

The apostle Paul wrote:

it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thess. 1:9).

The “traditional” (and we believe the Scriptural) interpretation of the above text and others like it is that those who die in their sins will receive suffering or punishment that never ends. Many have been deterred from a life of rebellion and immorality not only out of love for God but also out of fear for hell. However, there are two sects—the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists— who are extremely zealous in their denial of eternal suffering or punishment for and of the wicked. The view of both these groups is that the end of the wicked is an annihilation or a vanishing into nothingness. The Adventist Guide has this answer to the question, “Do Adventists Believe In Hell?”

Adventists do not believe in an everlasting hell. They believe that death is similar to a sleep but hell is but an instant at the end of the world. Hell is not torture for all eternity…The idea of hell, or rather burning forever, is a lie engineered to scare people to attend church and that the enemy that is the devil loves giving false teachings about God…According to any (sic) Christians, they believe that sinners will be punished in a lake of fire forever. Most believe that all sinners will be punished the same way regardless of the nature of their sins and how often they commit the sins. On the contrary, Adventists believe that the lake of fire will not be perpetual. They believe that the punishment will come to an end and that sinners will be punished out of existence…The sinners will be destroyed by fire, and be done away with. THEY WILL NOT BURN ETERNALLY…Adventists argue that believers will live eternally and sinners will perish and be “dead” forever.

Furthermore, these groups contend that the only place in Scripture where anyone is said to be eternally tormented is Revelation 20:10, a passage, which specifically mentions the devil and his minions. Thus, essentially, they teach that whiles the wicked will be cast into hell, it won’t be forever. They would go out of existence or be annihilated, leaving only the devil and his minions to suffer eternal punishment. To bring this doctrine “home,” Adolf Hitler is currently in an unconscious sleep awaiting the judgement after which he will be “punished” by being made to vanish into nothingness leaving only the devil whom he served his whole life to suffer eternally.

In response to the foregoing position, Foster in his monumental work on the life of Christ wrote:

Now this reduces the proposition of hell as far as man is concerned (and the Bible was written to guide and warn man—not the devil) to nothing more than death—a second death, but nothing more than death, for many people die by burning in this world, and if all there is to the repeated warnings of Jesus concerning hell is just death, nothing more than annihilation, just what are we to think of Jesus? What did He actually say about hell? If He did actually declare that there would be an eternal punishment of the wicked in eternity and no such thing as everlasting suffering in hell awaits them, then was Jesus ignorant of the facts? or did He practice a cruel deceit upon the world, predicting something not true? What sort of Christ is left for those who hold this view? (1160).

In contemplating this position, we are led to ask why? Why do these sects hold this position? We believe that Adventists and Witnesses teach annihilationism for two reasons. First, due to a misunderstanding of God’s love. “Also, john (sic) 3:16 states that God loves us” (“Do Adventists”). Thus, according to these people, since God is love, he cannot consistent with His nature, mete out that kind of punishment. Second, due to a dogmatism about the word “destruction.” Destruction, according to these groups, does not and cannot in any way mean eternal punishment but rather it only means being burnt out of existence. “Malachi states that sinners will only burn until there is nothing left to burn” (“Do Adventists”). In the rest of this note, we will focus our attention on the latter of the two arguments.

We begin by contending that the aforegoing sectarian position concerning the word destruction is contrary to the facts. Those who know tell us that one of the words translated destruction is olethros. This is the word translated destruction in the text that begins this note. This word appears but four times in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 Timothy 6:9 (Fields 175). Even a cursory reading of these texts reveals that the word, far from connoting a vanishing from existence, actually means total ruin. When Paul said covetousness and lust drown men in destruction (1 Tim. 6:9), he used the exact same word as when he said the wicked will receive everlasting destruction (2 Thess. 1:9). Students of the Greek language tell us that the present tense structure of Paul’s words to Timothy means that the apostle meant to say that covetousness and lust drown and continue to drown men in destruction. Surely, no reasoning person would read these words and think that Paul meant that covetousness and lusts get men to vanish into nothingness. Evidently, the meaning of the word here is that those who are overcome by these sins will be totally ruined. Thus, we see from this usage that destruction does not necessarily mean a going out of existence. It is worthy of note that when Greek lexicographers Liddel and Scott defined olethros, they did not have annihilation as part of its meaning (Foster 1171).

To throw more light on this Greek word, R.C. Foster tells of a tragedy entitled “Oedipus Rex,” which was written by the Greek playwright Sophocles. Oedipus the legendary Greek king of Thebes since he wouldn’t listen to the gods sank deeper and deeper into “moral muck and mire.” He was or became so morally depraved that he killed his own father and married his own mother. Hence, the English term, Oedipus complex. Wanting to end it all, the king decided against suicide rather choosing to live in agony by plucking out his own eyes. According to Foster, when some American scholars sat down to discuss this drama and to find out why Sophocles made Oedipus blind himself rather than commit suicide, it was agreed “that the punishment and the suffering were much more terrible by having to live on, blind and helpless, in the midst of the moral muck and mire which he had entered, than it would have been to have committed suicide and ended it all” (1172). In this state of suffering and agony, Oedipus is made by Sophocles to say, “I am the great Olethros.” Consider these insightful words by Foster concerning Oedipus’ interesting statement:

In the light of our discussion of eternal punishment, it is of startling importance to find that Oedipus in his agony cries out, “I am the great olethros (ton megan olethron).” In other words, Oedipus is not saying that he is the great annihilation, but that he is the supreme example of endless suffering. Out of the midst of one of the most famous of all Greek dramas comes powerful evidence as to the meaning which this word carried. It fits perfectly with the use that Paul gives and is in harmony with the entire New Testament teaching (1172).

We want to believe that the Greek Sophocles knew more about the Greek word olethron than any “scholar” produced by the Adventists and the Witnesses.

Our final thoughts on this issue are these. If as these sects teach, the idea of hell, or rather burning forever, is a lie, then what is the point of living right? If the idea of hell is a lie then what is the point in “going to church?” If all that awaits the wicked is a vanishing into nothingness, then we might as well eat, drink and be merry; for tomorrow we die (Luke 12:19; 1 Cor. 15:32). Annihilationism as eschatology is as dangerous as it is deadly. We believe that this teaching will dull the senses of many to the legion of Biblical admonitions to believers to be ready, to take heed and to watch (cf. Matt. 24:42-51). Our Lord has said that eternal rest awaits the blessed of God whereas eternal punishment awaits the cursed of God (Matt. 25:46). The punishment of the wicked will be just as eternal as the reward of the blessed. Let us beware lest the devil makes minced meat of us through this false teaching.

But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ…” And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:3, 14-15).

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

Works Cited

Do Adventists Believe In Hell? A Full Answer.” Adventist Guide, 1 Jan. 2021, adventistguide.com/Adventists-hell/. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.

Fields, Wilbur. Thinking Through Thessalonians. PDF file, College Press, 1971.

Foster, R.C. Studies in the Life of Christ. PDF file.

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