(1 Cor. 5:5) Handed over to Satan? (cf. 1 Tim. 1:20)

CLAIM: Paul writes, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Elsewhere, Paul writes, “Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20). What does Paul mean by this expression?

RESPONSE: Let’s consider this difficult passage closely:

“I have decided…” The NASB obscures this passage somewhat. This does not exist in the Greek text. This is an addition of the translators to make sense of the choppy Greek. NIV captures this better: “When you are assembled… hand this man over to Satan” (vv.4-5). This shows that Paul is commanding the church to hand the man over, rather than doing this himself.

“…to deliver such a one…” When Paul says that he will “deliver such a one” (NASB) or “hand this man over” (NIV), he is using the Greek term paradounai, which is the same language of Romans 1:24, 26, 28 (“God gave them over…”). In Romans 1, people rejected God, and so God “gave them over” to what they wanted. Similarly, Paul is giving this man over to Satan.

“…to Satan…” Remember, in biblical thinking, Satan doesn’t live in hell. He lives on the Earth. Satan is “the ruler of this world” (Jn. 12:31; cf. 14:30), as well as “the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). John writes that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19). Jesus prayed that we would be kept from the evil one, as we move out into the world (Jn. 17:15). Paul calls Satan “the god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel” (2 Cor. 4:4). Therefore, to hand the man over to Satan, does not mean to send him to hell. Rather, it means to hand him over to the kosmos—the world-system controlled by Satan.

“…for the destruction of his flesh…” Morris holds that the “destruction of his flesh” refers to the man’s physical body (cf. 1 Cor. 11:30; Acts 5:1-11; 13:8-11; 2 Cor. 12:7).[1] Many commentators even go so far as to say that Paul is calling for his physical death.

We reject such a bizarre reading of the passage for a number of reasons: First, Paul never uses this expression (“destruction of his flesh”) to refer to physical death.[2] Second, Paul often contrasts “flesh” and “spirit” to refer to our inward spiritual battle (Gal. 5:17). Third, the contrast between the “destruction of his flesh” and the “saving of his spirit” cannot refer to death and resurrection, because the latter (pneuma) refers to an immaterial soul—not a physical body. Thus the terms are not parallel from a physical perspective. Fourth, why would Paul call for them not to eat with the man (v.11), if he was going to die?

By contrast, the “destruction of the flesh” refers to the breaking of the man’s pride and sin nature (7:18, 25, 8:3-5). Living in the world and apart from God leads to a breakdown of the flesh—that is, the pride of a person. They start learning humility after trying to do things their way and seeing the brokenness of a life apart from God’s will.

“…so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Ultimately, the purpose of discipline is for redemption—not punishment. Paul uses the subjunctive mood (“may be saved”). He isn’t sure if the man’ pride would be broken, but this is his expressed goal and desire.

Jesus allowed Peter to be handed over to Satan. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; 32 but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:31-32). But this act of Christ was redemptive—not punitive. Peter didn’t go to hell, rather he went through suffering (of his own causing) by denying Christ. As a result, Peter’s pride and self-confidence were broken, and he was restored to a greater influence for Christ. Likewise, this man caught in adultery was eventually restored to fellowship in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8.

[1] Morris, L. (1985). 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 7, p. 89). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 211). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.