Do evil doers experience eternal destruction or annihilation at death?

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(image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

In understanding the Old Testament, when compared with the New Testament, there is a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation that must be remembered. I learned it in Bible College in the 1970s and in Seminary in the 1980s. This is the principle of progressive revelation.

1. The principle of progressive revelation

What does it mean? Norman Geisler explained:

According to the doctrine of progressive revelation, God does not reveal all His truth at once, but only part at a time, progressively, over a period of time. For example, God did not reveal explicitly from the very beginning the doctrine of the Trinity: he first revealed that He was one (cf. Deut. 6:4) and then later that there are three persons in this one God (cf. Matt. 28:18-20. The same is true about God’s plan of salvation; it was unveiled only a piece at a time from the beginning (from Gen. 3:15 to John 3:16)….

Revealing only part of the truth is not necessarily a lie. At no time in this progressive revelation did God affirm what was false. All that He said was true, but He did not say all from the very beginning. He told the whole truth about part of what He wanted to reveal, but He never revealed the whole of what He wanted to say at once (Geisler 2003:366).

In the very first book I ever used on biblical interpretation in Bible College, Bernard Ramm wrote of progressive revelation:

By progressive revelation we mean that the Bible sets forth a movement of God, with the initiative coming from God and not man, in which God brings man up through the theological infancy of the Old Testament to the maturity of the New Testament. This does not mean that there are no mature ideas in the Old Testament nor simple elements in the New Testament. Progressive revelation is the general pattern of revelation (Ramm 1970:102).[1]

So when it comes to understanding life after death, God does not reveal all his truth on this topic in the Old Testament. More details were given progressively over a period of time but a fuller blossoming in the New Testament. We will see this as we examine….

2. Psalm 92:7 and eternal destruction

Let’s see how the Hebrew of Psalm 92:7 should be translated at the end of the verse. Psalm 92:6-7 in the King James Version[2] reads:

A brutish man knoweth not; neither doth a fool understand this.

7 When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever:

The American Standard Version of Psalm 92:6-7 reads:

A brutish man knoweth not; Neither doth a fool understand this:

7 When the wicked spring as the grass, And when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; It is that they shall be destroyed for ever.

This is how one person on Christian Forums reacted to this verse as translated in the King James Version and American Standard Version:

The nice thing about the translations other than KJV and ASV, though, is that they are actually written in English as we read it and understand it. The word “brutish,” for example, in the KJV/ASV is simply grotesque. And words like “knoweth” or “do flourish” are abysmal. And what does it possibly mean to be destroyed “forever”? Are we talking cycles of destruction or continual destruction or what? It could mean that the destruction is so final that such people will never see the light of day again. The phrase is not only unclear, but almost comical since it seems to imply that what is “destroyed,” is not quite destroyed yet. There must be a better way of understanding the temporal markers than “destroyed forever” (whatever that means). Rather, I think, the temporal markers are an answer to the problem at hand….

So here is how I translate it:
The incompetent one does not know,
the fool does not comprehend this:
when the wicked sprout like weeds
and all troublemakers flourish,
[it is] only until their extermination [Psalm 92:6-7].[3]

Here are examples from a few other translations:

3. Various translations

These are some translations of the last Hebrew word in verse 7, with the translated word in bold:
The ESV of Psalm 92:6-7 reads:

The stupid man cannot know;
the fool cannot understand this:
7 that though the wicked sprout like grass
and all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction forever;

The NIV of Psalm 92:6-7:

Senseless people do not know,
fools do not understand,
7 that though the wicked spring up like grass
and all evildoers flourish,
they will be destroyed forever.

The NLT of Psalm 92:6-7:

Only a simpleton would not know,
and only a fool would not understand this:
7 Though the wicked sprout like weeds
and evildoers flourish,
they will be destroyed forever.

The NRSV of Psalm 92:6-7:

The dullard cannot know,
the stupid cannot understand this:
7 though the wicked sprout like grass
and all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction for ever,

The New American Bible of Psalm 92:7-8:

A senseless person cannot know this; a fool cannot comprehend.

8 Though the wicked flourish like grass and all sinners thrive, They are destined for eternal destruction;

The New Jerusalem Bible of Psalm 92:7-8:

A senseless person cannot know this; a fool cannot comprehend

8Though the wicked flourish like grass and all sinners thrive, They are destined for eternal destruction;

The New Jerusalem Bible of Psalm 92:6-7:

Stupid people cannot realise this, fools do not grasp it.

7 The wicked may sprout like weeds, and every evil-doer flourish, but only to be eternally destroyed;

NET Bible of Psalm 92:6-7

The spiritually insensitive do not recognize this; the fool does not understand this.
7 When the wicked sprout up like grass,
and all the evildoers glisten,
it is so that they may be annihilated.

I asked Paul, my son, who is a Hebrew exegete, for his view on the meaning of the last word in Psalm 92:7, shamad. I asked:

I have a question about how some of the Bible translations have translated the last word(s) of Psalm 92:7. I’ve highlighted in bold. Most of them have an equivalent of “destruction forever” or “eternal destruction” but the NET Bible translates it as “annihilated”. Would you be able to do some Hebrew exegesis to help me to understand which of these is the correct translation?
I have not been able to get any help from my Old Testament commentaries by Plummer. Leupold, and Keil & Delitzsch.

This was his response:

The answer is probably both.  Hebrew is an approximate language.  If you have a look through your tools, the word is Strong’s number 8045. shows the range of meaning is quite wide, and possibly includes annihilation.  Not only that, to be “destroyed for ever” might have the implication of “destroyed completely”, as in “destroyed for good” or “destroyed for all time”.

4. Various words used by the King James Version for ‘hell’

4.1 Three Words as “Hell”[4]

In the New Testament, the KJV translators used the word “hell” somewhat generically to represent three different Greek words. The Greek words are (1) gehenna, (2) hades and (3) tartarus. Gehenna is found 12 times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:22,29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6). Hades is found 11 times (Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13,14) and tartarus 1 time (2 Peter 2:4).

4.1.1 Gehenna, Hell Proper[5]

Gehenna had its origin in association with the valley of Hinnom, actually meaning this. In the Old Testament times, when Israel went into idolatry, human sacrifices took place in this valley next to Jerusalem in the worship of Molech as they would “burn their sons and daughters in the fire” (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31). The valley was looked upon as being polluted and unclean, and in New Testament times was used somewhat as a city dump with continual burning, we understand. It was with that backdrop the term gehenna was adopted and applied to the place of eternal punishment. Such is its coinage and use. This is hell in what the modern usage of the term “hell” conveys.

4.1.2 Sheol, the Old Testament place for the righteous and unrighteous at death

The following examples of the use of Sheol, where people went at death, in the OT use figurative language to explain the conditions there. These include:

1. Sheol has “gates” to enter and “bars” to keep one in (e.g. Job 17:16; Isa. 38:10). Thus, by use of this figurative language, Sheol is described as a realm from which there is no way to escape.

2. Sheol is described as a shadowy place, a place of darkness (Job 10:21-22; Ps 143:3).

3. Sheol is regarded as being “down”, “beneath the earth”, in “the lower parts of the earth” (Job 11:8; Isa 44:23; 57:9; Ezek 26:20; Amos 9:2). These figures of speech are designed to tell us that Sheol has another existence – it is not part of this world that we live in. But there is another existence that has a different dimension. It is not sending the dead into non-existence or to be annihilated.

4. It is a place for reunion with ancestors, tribe or people (e.g. Gen 15:15; 25:8; 35:29; 37:35; 49:33; Num 20:24, 28; 31:2; Deut 32:50; 34:5; 2 Sam 12:23). Sheol is the place where all human beings go at death. Jacob looked forward to his reuniting with Joseph in Sheol. These OT references confirm that death meant separation from the living, but reunion with the departed.

5. There are indications that there could be different sections in Sheol with language such as “the lowest part” and “the highest part” (Deut 32:22).

6. What are the conditions for a person who goes to Sheol? At death a person becomes a rephaim, i.e. a ghost, shade, disembodied spirit, according to the Hebrew lexicons and dictionaries of the OT (see Job 26:5; Ps 88:10; Prov 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Isa 14:9; 26:14, 19). Instead of saying that human beings pass into non-existence at death, the OT states that a person becomes a disembodied spirit. Keil & Delitzsch in their OT commentary define rephaim as “those who are bodiless in the state after death” (Keil & Delitzsch n d:52).

7. Those in Sheol converse with each other and can even make moral judgments on the lifestyle of those who arrive (Isa 14:9-20; 44:23; Ezek 32:21). So, they are conscious beings when in Sheol.

8. Those in Sheol do not have knowledge of what is happening for those who are still alive on earth (Ps 6:5; Eccles 9:10, etc.)

9. Some of the spirits in Sheol experience the following:

a. God’s anger (Deut 32:22). Here, Moses states of the wicked that “a fire is kindled by my anger and it burns to the depths of Sheol” (ESV).
b. Distress and anguish (Ps 116:3);
c. There is writhing with pain; they are trembling (Job 26:5). Here the Hebrew word, chool, means to twist and turn in pain like a woman giving birth to a child.

From the OT revelation, we know that the righteous and the wicked went to Sheol at death (Gen. 37:5), but the OT believers did not have a clear understanding of what to expect in Sheol. That was left for the progressive revelation of the NT to reveal more for us. Because of this principle of progressive revelation, the OT believers did not have the information that was needed to approach death with peace and joy (see Heb. 2:14-15).

Not once does Sheol in the Old Testament mean non-existence or annihilation.

Now we move to an understanding of Hades. Robert Morey considers that

this word forms a linguistic bridge which takes us from the Old Testament view of death to the New Testament position. The importance of a proper interpretation of this word cannot be stressed.

In the Septuagint [the Greek Old Testament], Hades is found 71 times. It is the Greek equivalent for Sheol 64 times. The other seven times it is found in the Septuagint, it is the translation of other Hebrew words, some of which shed significant light on what Hades meant to the translators of the Septuagint (Morey 1984:81).

4.1.3 Hades, The Unseen World [6]

We are told that Hades, in its etymology, properly means unseen. The basic stem of the word means ‘seen’, but it has the little a privative before it, thus making it signify unseen. All behind and beyond the veil of death is unseen. Thus, it is fittingly called Hades. At death the spirit enters into the unseen world of the dead. The word itself does not necessarily specify whether this state is bad or good. By itself it is generic, but it can be more specific, according to the context and other Scripture. Interestingly, in the account of the rich man and Lazarus, it is said that in “hell” (Hades, KJV) the rich man lifted up his eyes being in torment. With his death, Jesus is said to have gone to Hades (Acts 2:27,31). (This is the word behind the KJV’s translation of “hell” here). Jesus had earlier said to the thief on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Evidently, the story of the rich man and Lazarus unveils the situation as it was (and perhaps is). The good and the bad are partitioned by a great gulf, it would seem, one being in comfort and the other in discomfort. All of this anticipates the Day of Judgment when eternal heaven and hell will begin.

4.1.4 Tartarus, The Abyss[7]

Tartarus is only referred to in one place in the New Testament, 2 Peter 2:4. It is found in the words “cast them down to hell” (to send into Tartarus). It is the bottomless abyss, the confinement place of the wicked, fallen angels.

5. The English Word “Hell” [8]

But what is the actual and literal meaning of the English word “hell” used repeatedly in the KJV of the Bible? This may come as a surprise to many, but the English word “hell” back in 1611 meant about the same as hades, that being covered or unseen. The Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (John McClintock and James Strong) that first came out in 1867, says this of the term, “Hell, a term which originally corresponded more exactly to Hades, being derived from the Saxon helan, to cover, and signifying merely the covered, or invisible place—the habitation of those who have gone from the visible terrestrial region to the world of spirits. But it has been so long appropriated in common usage to the place of future punishment for the wicked, that its earlier meaning has been lost sight of.” This does not negate the teaching of a place of future punishment and fire as seen in the word Gehenna and the umbrella word, Hades. It just throws more light on the use of the word “hell” in the King James Version.

I’m grateful for this excellent summary of this material that I’ve used above and refer you to Gibbons’ article.

6. Conclusion

Based on Psalm 92:7, evildoers, the wicked, at death will be doomed to eternal destruction or annihilation.

However, it is important to understand that the destiny of unbelievers at death is not described by one verse and that destiny is progressively revealed as we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Other dimensions include those described by Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna above.

With the more detailed evidence on life after death in progressive revelation from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the context of 2 Thess. 1:7-9 (ESV) tells us:

  • unbelievers will be repaid with affliction;
  • In this affliction, God is inflicting vengeance;
  • This vengeance is called ‘eternal destruction’;
  • And it means being ‘away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might’.


Geisler, N 2003. Systematic Theology: God, Creation, vol 2. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House.

Keil, C F & Delitzsch, F n d. Commentary on the Old Testament: Job, vol 4. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company.[9]

Morey, R A 1984. Death and the Afterlife. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.

Ramm, B 1970. Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics (3rd edn). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.


[1] Then Bernard Ramm proceeds to give examples of this from the New Testament.

[2] This is probably from the 1769 revision of the KJV. It is not from the original 1611 edition. This is how the KJV 1611 edition reads for Psalm 92:6-7: ‘A brutish man knoweth not: neither doeth a foole vnderstand this. 7 When the wicked spring as the grasse, and when all the workers of iniquitie doe flourish: it is that they shall be destroyed for euer’.

[3] Christian Forums, Bibliology & Hermeneutics, ‘Anyone else here reads the American Standard Version?’, childofdust #60, 2 November 2012. Available at: (Accessed 3 November 2012).

[4] The following material is based on the exposition by J. Gibbons, ‘”Hell” in the King James Version’, available at: (Accessed 11 October 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] This is from the 10 volume Old Testament commentary.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 9 June 2016.