What does Forever mean?
In order to understand some of these verses we must come to some understanding of what the Bible means by the term 'forever'. Just how long is forever?
It is an interesting fact that every intelligent believer in extermination (or "annihilation") can answer the doctrine of eternal torment to his own complete satisfaction, and, without subterfuge, or doing violence to the Scripture. He just takes Biblical usage for his answer. In all languages, it is usage that determines meaning. The King James Version records Paul as writing to the Roman church (1:13) that he had often "purposed to come to you, but was let hitherto." Today, we would say, "hindered," instead of "let." In three centuries, usage has completely changed the meaning of the word "let." It may be spelled the same, and pronounced the same but the meaning has been changed to the exact opposite.
Since usage always determines meaning, Biblical usage, certainly always determines Biblical meaning. Let us illustrate.
The term "for ever" (even as the related terms, "eternal" and "everlasting") often occurs in verses in which it cannot possibly mean unending. Later, we shall study this matter at greater length but for the present a few illustrations will suffice. In the story of Jonah one is surprised to hear Jonah declare while in the belly of the fish, "I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever" (Jonah 2:6). Jonah, however, was in the fish only three days and three nights. Similarly, in the case of a Hebrew slave who loved his master and who did not wish to go free at the end of the seventh year, we read: "His master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever" (Ex.21:6). Of course that couldn't be longer than the slave's life span. Again, when Solomon built the temple unto the Lord, he began his prayer of dedication with the statement: "I have surely built Thee a house to dwell in, a settled place for Thee to abide in forever" (1 Kings. 8:13). And the Lord answered Solomon: "I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou has made before Me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put My Name there forever " (1 Kings 9:3). Yet Solomon's temple lasted for only about 400 years.
Here is something that ought to be clear to any intelligent, honest man. A word that is used to mean, in one case, three days and nights, in another case, a man's life-time, and in still another, a period of about four centuries, surely does not mean unending or eternal no matter what English word is used to translate it. Usage determines meaning. That is why a believer in extermination laughs at the doctrine of eternal torment. He knows that Biblical usage is against any such meaning.
Does destroy mean to exterminate? Those who believe in extermination may not see so clearly that his own doctrine can be overthrown by the same appeal to Biblical usage. The evidence for this does not appear so clearly in the English translation as the use of the term "forever" does. One must study the Hebrew and Greek words for themselves that have been interpreted by the various translations.
Young's Analytical Concordance lists 45 Hebrew words and 10 Greek words that are translated 'destroy,' while 31 Hebrew words and 4 Greek words are translated 'destruction.' These words have a variety of meanings, as is evident to all who will study these questions. These meanings include "to kill," "to mar," "to bruise," "to break," "to cut down," "to put an end to," "to abolish," "to lay waste," etc. In the story of the flood it is written that God said, "I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth." Does that mean that the antediluvians were permanently exterminated and will never come to judgment for their sins?
Jeremiah pronounced woe against Jerusalem when he said: "For who shall have pity upon thee, O Jerusalem? or who shall bemoan thee? Or who shall go aside to ask how thou doest? Thou hast forsaken me, saith the Lord, thou art gone backward: therefore will I stretch out My hand against thee, and destroy thee." Does it follow from this that Jerusalem was annihilated and so no longer exists? The fact is that Jerusalem has probably been "destroyed" more frequently than any other city in the world, yet it still exists. Its people have been killed, its walls and buildings have been broken down, its government has been changed again and again, but Jerusalem still exists. It has not been exterminated.
Similarly, Sodom was more completely "destroyed" than any other city of which we know. Jude 7 says it was "set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." But Sodom is to be restored again (see Ezekiel 16:44-63).
Someone will probably say, Yes, that is clear enough, but how about the statement of Jesus, "fear Him Who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" ("Gehenna) ( Matt.10:28). Well, that does sound formidable, doesn't it? At least until we learn that the same word is used in the statement, "He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth [destroyeth] his life for My sake shall find it" (Matt.10:39). If his life was exterminated it couldn't be found again. Perhaps someone else may ask about the statement, "punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess.1:9). That sounds unanswerable, doesn't it? Well, maybe; but only until we learn that the Greek word 'olethros' translated 'destruction' here, is used in other places where it cannot possibly mean "extermination" (see 1 Cor.5:5; note the verb "destroy" in Hebrews 11:28, which is from the same root).
Do you think that all the "first-born" of Egypt, including the innocent babes were exterminated and will never have a chance to be justly judged nor receive any recognition from God that they ever existed? Surely God does not deal with anyone in such a way as that! Please note, too, that the word 'destruction' in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, is limited by the word 'everlasting,' and that the word 'everlasting' is a misleading translation. We shall study that Greek word more carefully later but suffice it to say for the present that the idea of the Greek word here is 'eonian,' or 'pertaining to the age(s).' It does not mean unending. It is usage that determines meaning--the Scripture's own usage, not man's. What counts is the meanings that the Biblical writers themselves gave to their own words, not the meanings that our English translations may sometimes provide.
According to Biblical usage, there is not a single clear statement of the "endless extermination of sinners" in the whole Bible--not even one. The doctrine of extermination is based wholly on inferences--according to human traditions and pre-suppositions. Thus the doctrines of both eternal torment and extermination are based wholly on false translations. There is not a single clear statement, correctly translated, in the entire Bible which supports either doctrine.