- I guess the first question to ask is, who needs convincing, is it you, or your friends?
You are unlikely to convert your friends based on this particular point. I would choose another battle because they are likely, so fully convinced of the correctness of their belief, that they are not going to believe what you say about this verse no matter what.
That said, if I were to address this verse, I would point out the following. You said you looked up the Greek and that it indeed said that perish means to die or be destroyed. This ignores the use of imagery and metaphor. Jesus portrays the spiritual life in terms of death and life so that people will understand them.
- When Jesus says that Lazarus has fallen asleep (John 11:11), no amount of Greek vocabulary study will give you the correct interpretation that Lazarus has died, because it's a metaphor.
Likewise, when Jesus refers to perishing, He is speaking of spiritual death, a separation from God, not annihilation of the soul.
- In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the son is portrayed as dead even though he was in fact alive. He was dead with respect to the father, not literally annihilated. So those who are condemned, are dead with respect to God, separated from God, not annihilated.
- Likewise, when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God had said that the day they ate of it, they would die but they were not annihilated on the day they ate of it. Rather, they were estranged from the Father and became spiritually dead.
- In John 8:51, Jesus says, "If anyone keeps My Word, he will never see death."
Obviously, people who keep His Word do die; what is referred here is spiritual death.
The fact that this death is spiritual and not an annihilation is demonstrated when St. Paul says:
|"Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure." (Romans 7:13)
By death, St. Paul is not referring to annihilation but to a condition of separation from God. Similarly in Romans 7:24 and Romans 8:2, 6, 2 Corinthians 2:15-16, James 1:15, 1 John 3:14, and 1 Corinthians 15:53.
It's not sufficient to just say,
"Well, you have to compare them to many other verses in Scripture that deal with this topic and that will give you the answer."
This is actually a tactic used by Seventh-Day Adventists and Fundamentalists. To them, if a whole bunch of verses on a specific topic have one meaning, then the one isolated verse, which seems to suggest a different meaning automatically, means the same as the others.
Comparing Scripture with Scripture is a standard method of exegesis, especially dealing with Sola Scriptura Protestants. Scripture is consistent. You can't take a single Scripture, or a subset of Scriptures, out of the context of Scripture; that is what Fundamentalists and Seventh-Day Adventists do.
If one Scripture says where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:48), and another says And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night (Revelation 14:11), and a third refers to perishing, you can't interpret perishing in a fashion that contradicts (worm does not die or smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever), because one's worm cannot not die if someone has been annihilated, nor can their torment go up for ever and ever, but if you understand perishing as a separation from God, then they are consistent. (It's not a matter of automatically means the same as the others, it's a matter of finding a plausible interpretation that fits both Scriptures.)
Hopefully this sheds some light on the issue.