Who Has the Power to Kill Body and Soul? Matthew 10:28 Reconsidered

Matthew 10:28 reads, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The NIV capitalizes “One” which tips the reader into interpreting this as a reference to God. And this is the way I’ve always understood the passage as well. So I was a bit surprised to read N.T. Wright’s commentary Matthew For Everyone where he says the passage is actually referring to Satan. Here’s what he says:

“Jesus believed that Israel was faced in his day by enemies at two quite different levels. There were the obvious ones: Rome, Herod, and their underlings. They were the ones who had the power to kill the body. But there were other, darker enemies, who had the power to kill the soul as well: enemies who were battling for that soul even now, during Jesus’ ministry, and who were using the more obvious enemies as cover. Actually, it’s even worse than that. The demonic powers that are greedy for the soul of God’s people are using their very desire for justice and vengeance as the bait on the hook. The people of light are never more at risk than when they are lured into fighting the darkness with more darkness. . . . It’s important to be clear at this point. Some people think that when Jesus urges us to fear the one who can destroy body and soul in hell, he is referring to God himself. But the point here is the opposite. God is the one we do not have to fear. Indeed, he is the one we can trust with our lives, our souls, our bodies, everything.” (Bold and italics his. 119-20)

All other commentaries I consulted agreed that the passage is a reference to God. Craig Blomberg in his commentary on Matthew writes, “The NIV rightly capitalizes ‘One’ as referring to God and not the devil (cf. Jas 4:12).” (178) He refers to an article by I. Howard Marshall “on the verse in general.” That article is “Uncomfortable Words: VI. ‘Fear Him Who Can Destroy Both Soul and Body in Hell (Mt 10:28 RSV).’ ExpTim 81 (1969-70): 276-80.” (178n32)

Since the passage has a parallel in Luke 12:4-5 (I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to thrown you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.) I was curious to see Wright’s comments on this passage. He says,

“Not that Herod, or even Rome, are the most dangerous enemy they have. They must be wise in what they say, but they mustn’t be afraid of mere mortal enemies. The real enemy is the one who longs to cast people into Gehenna . . . This cannot mean that one should fear God, though in some senses that is a good and right thing to do. It means that one should recognize who the ultimate enemy is. In this picture, God is not the enemy to be feared; he is one to trust, the one who values his children more highly than a whole flock of sparrows, who has the very hairs of our head all numbered.” (148-49)

R.T. France makes the following comment on the passage, “The ‘one’ who has the power to destroy in hell is of course God himself; there is no suggestion in biblical literature that the devil has the power of judgment, nor that God’s people should fear him, nor is the devil referred to at all in this context. But a healthy ‘fear’ of God is a recurrent feature of OT spirituality which the NT in no way mitigates.” (The Gospel of Matthew, p. 403)

It’s something to think about.



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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3 Responses to Who Has the Power to Kill Body and Soul? Matthew 10:28 Reconsidered

  1. Leave it to Wright to introduce alternatives. That man is an alternative machine!


  2. Dwight Gingrich says:

    I remember hearing Wright make the same point verbally one time. It surprised me then and felt a little stretched. Thanks for summarizing some scholarly support of the traditional view, thus confirming I wasn’t out on a limb with my own assumption. I like Wright, but think he’s almost certainly wrong on this point.


  3. Phil Walton says:

    Peter Kreeft also believes the scripture is referring to the Devil and states in his book, Practical Theology:
    “Thus Christ tells us to fear the Devil: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28).”


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