Jesus also said the following:
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Emphasis added) (Matthew 10:28)
Hell is where God will destroy the soul! Some say that “destroy” doesn’t mean destruction in a literal sense, that it instead means conscious “ruin” or “loss.” However, aside from the consistent use of the word for “destroy” referring to killing and slaying3 when describing what one person does to another in the synoptic gospels,4 we have an indication of what is meant within the immediate context. Jesus directly contrasts what man cannot do (“kill the soul”) with what God can do. If Jesus meant that God would “ruin” body and soul in hell or something like that, then why would he directly contrast it to ability of men to kill the body and their inability to do likewise to the soul? It would amount to him saying, “don’t fear those who cannot kill the soul; instead, fear the one who isn’t going to kill the soul either.”If God doesn’t do to the soul what humans can do only to the body (i.e. kill it, make it as vivacious and conscious as a corpse), then why would Jesus have even brought it up?
One might argue that even if annihilation5 was meant, Jesus only said that God can do it, not that he will. But, that raises the question of why Jesus would have warned about what God could do if God would never do it, even to the wicked, no matter what. If this were so, “then the same purpose would be served by some absurd warning like ‘be afraid of the One who can turn you into a melon.’”6The meaning is simple. Man cannot render a soul as dead and lifeless as a corpse (which they can do to the body). But what man cannot do, God can and will do, which is to kill the soul, thereby destroying it as a living, conscious entity.
There are some problems with this analysis:
i) What does Joseph Dear mean by “hell”? Does he simply mean the realm of the dead (hades)? What happens after you die?
ii) In that sense, hades is not where the body is destroyed. It’s not as if decedents pass into hades, body and soul, then their body is destroyed in hades. Rather, when they die they leave their body behind, in this world. The body is destroyed by the natural process of dissolution. This is the place where the body undergoes destruction. So the parallel poses an obstacle for annihilationist dualists and physicalists alike. And that raises questions about what is meant by “destroy” in this context.
iii) Many annihilationists are physicalists rather than dualists. So they don’t think the soul is destroyed in hades inasmuch as man doesn’t have a soul to destroy.
iv) Physicalists believe that everyone passes into oblivion at the moment of death–the righteous and wicked alike. So everyone is destroyed in hades. That’s not a fate reserved for the wicked. True, annihilationists believe the righteous will be resurrected, but that’s in tension with this prooftext–in combination with physicalism.
v) I think the gist of the passage is that there’s a fate worse than death. There’s more to fear in the after life than in this life.