Every early church father that I have found (Justin Martyr, Chrysostom and Origen) understands Christ in Matthew 10:28 to be saying that God can destroy body and soul (or breath) in hell (Vale of Hinnom). Only a tiny minority of recent scholars think that Christ is talking about Satan in Matthew 10:28. According to Peter Kreeft, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington, Christ is saying that Rome is not the real enemy because Rome can only destroy your body, while Satan can destroy body and soul.
Reading over the passage some more, “fear” appears four times within a few verses: “do not fear” (them) twice in verses 26 and 28 followed by “instead fear” (the one) in verse 28 and finally “do not be afraid” (of my Father) almost immediately again in verse 31. This makes it clear that the overall message of Christ to his disciples is that they do not need to fear those who can kill them now and that their Father in heaven cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on their heads and will honor this care for them despite their calling now to pick up their own cross and to suffer with Christ.
Finally, Christ speaks positively about the loss of our soul (or breath) just a couple verses later: “whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it” (verse 39). Paul also says that our “soulish body” must die in order for us to receive our “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44-45). The same Greek word for soul (or breath) is used twice by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ uses in Matthew 10:28 and 39, with both Christ and Paul indicating that our soul must be lost in order to inherit the fullness of life with God (having received what Paul calls a “spiritual body”). [As an aside, N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart had an exchange a few years back over this passage from 1 Corinthians 15.]
Taking all of this together surrounding Matthew 10:28, a good case can be made for understanding Christ to be saying:
- Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body because the real threat is Satan who can kill body and soul. My Father in heaven, however, cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head, and you therefore have no reason to be afraid. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
However, the vast majority of Christians from the earliest years understood Christ to be saying something more like:
- Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body. Only God has the power to destroy your body and your soul in the final refuse heap. Do not fear my Father in heaven, however, who cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
Here are a variety of resources that I found on Matthew 10:28 from various places:
- N.T. Wright on Matthew 10:28 – Satan or God?
- Matthew 10.28 — Why Annihilationism is not Universalism
- Peter Kreeft makes the same claim “Satan not God” as the destroyer of souls in his book Practical Theology.
The earliest commentary I could find, takes the position that has been the strong majority understanding throughout Christian history:
“Fear not them that kill you, and after that can do no more; but fear Him who after death is able to cast both soul and body into hell.” Matthew 10:28. And hell is a place where those are to be punished who have lived wickedly, and who do not believe that those things which God has taught us by Christ will come to pass.Justin Martyr in The First Apology, Chapter 19
When Origen comments on Matthew 10:28 (and Luke 12:45), he admits that it is God who ‘can destroy both the body and the soul in Gehenna’ but emphasizes that while the text speaks of human beings who do in fact kill, it says of God only that God can destroy the sinner. How could God actually do such a thing, he wonders, ‘since the Savior has come to seek and save those who perished’? In view of Christ’s saving act, Origen seems inclined to doubt the eternal character of divine punishment, If there are some texts in which he speaks of Gehenna as a definitive state, there are many others which seem to view it as a purifying chastisement.“Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology” by John R. Sachs, S.J., Weston School of Theology. Theological Studies 54 (1993).
In “Homily 34 on Matthew,” Saint John Chrysostom makes the case that Christ in the 10:28 passage is giving his disciples the ultimate confidence against persecution:
Then, because He had lifted them up on high, He again gives warning of the perils also, adding wings to their mind, and exalting them high above all. For what says He? Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Matthew 10:28 Do you see how He set them far above all things, persuading them to despise not anxiety only and calumny, dangers and plots, but even that which is esteemed of all things most terrible, death? And not death alone, but by violence too? And He said not, you shall be slain, but with the dignity that became Him, He set this before them, saying, Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell; bringing round the argument, as He ever does, to its opposite. For what? Is your fear, says He, of death? And are you therefore slow to preach? Nay for this very cause I bid you preach, that you fear death: for this shall deliver you from that which is really death. What though they shall slay you? Yet over the better part they shall not prevail, though they strive ten thousand ways. Therefore He said not, Who do not kill the soul, but, who are not able to kill. For wish it as they may, they shall not prevail. Wherefore, if you fear punishment, fear that, the more grievous by far.
Do you see how again He does not promise them deliverance from death, but permits them to die, granting them more than if He had not allowed them to suffer it? Because deliverance from death is not near so great as persuading men to despise death. You see now, He does not push them into dangers, but sets them above dangers, and in a short sentence fixes in their mind the doctrines that relate to the immortality of the soul, and having in two or three words implanted a saving doctrine, He comforts them also by other considerations.
Thus, lest they should think, when killed and butchered, that as men forsaken they suffered this, He introduces again the argument of God’s providence, saying on this wise: Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall into a snare without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:29-30 For what is viler than they? says He; nevertheless, not even these shall be taken without God’s knowledge. For He means not this, by His operation they fall, for this were unworthy of God; but, nothing that is done is hid from Him. If then He is not ignorant of anything that befalls us, and loves us more truly than a father, and so loves us, as to have numbered our very hairs; we ought not to be afraid. And this He said, not that God numbers our hairs, but that He might indicate His perfect knowledge, and His great providence over them. If therefore He both knows all the things that are done, and is able to save you, and willing; whatever ye may have to suffer, think not that as persons forsaken ye suffer. For neither is it His will to deliver you from the terrors, but to persuade you to despise them, since this is, more than anything, deliverance from the terrors.
Finally, here is the passage form Matthew’s Gospel with context (from a recent translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart):
13And if in-deed the household should be worthy, may your ‘Peace’ come upon it; but if it should be unworthy, may your ‘Peace’ revert back to you. 14And whoever should not welcome you, or should not listen to your words, on departing outside that household or that city shake the dust off your feet. 15Amen, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that city. 16See: I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as guileless as doves. 17And beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and they will flog you in their syna-gogues; 18And you will be led before leaders and even kings for my sake, as a witness to them and to the gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up do not worry over how or what you might speak; for whatever you might say will be given to you in that hour; 20For you are not the ones speaking, but rather the Spirit of your Father is speaking in you. 21And brother will deliver up brother to death, and father child, and children will rise up against parents and put them to death. 22And you will be hated by all on account of my name; but whoever endures to the end, that one will be saved. 23And when they persecute you in one city, flee to another; for, amen, I tell you, you will most certainly not have finished with the cities of Israel before the Son of Man arrives. 24A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his lord. 25It suffices that the disciple become as his teacher, and the slave as his lord. If they have arraigned the master of the household as ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more so those who belong to his household? 26Therefore, do not fear them; for there is nothing that has been veiled that will not be unveiled, and nothing hidden that will not be made known. 27What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in your ear, proclaim upon the house-tops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in the Vale of Hinnom. 29Are not two sparrows sold for the smallest pittance? And not one of them will fall to earth without your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. 31So do not be afraid; you are of greater worth than a great many sparrows. 32Therefore, everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in the heavens; 33And whoever denies me before men, I also will deny him before my Father in the heavens. 34Do not suppose that I have come to impose peace upon the earth; I came to impose not peace but a sword. 35For I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law-36And a man’s enemies: the members of his house-hold. 37Whoever cherishes father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever cher-ishes son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever gains his soul will lose it, and whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it. 40Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who has sent me forth. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet because he is called prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a just man because he is called just will receive a just man’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these humble ones a cup of cold water solely because he is called disciple, amen, I tell you, he most certainly will not lose his reward.David Bentley Hart’s translation of this passage (Yale UP, 2017).