Around the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul wrote the following to the church in Thessalonica:
…which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe…
This is how the NKJV renders 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (note in particular verse 9, in bold). Some other translations render this passage a little differently, so you might be surprised to learn that it is often touted as a text which speaks in favor of traditionalism. On its face, “affliction” leading to “everlasting destruction” at the revealing of Christ from heaven sounds a lot like the punishment that conditionalists believe will befall God’s enemies. And as the previous article in this series shows, a simple yet thorough reading of the text in its context does indeed support conditionalism.
Despite this, some traditionalists well-versed in the biblical languages have raised arguments suggesting we should look beyond the apparent meaning of this passage. We will now consider their arguments, as we study this passage more closely. What we will discover will add nuance to our understanding, but it will also confirm that the simple, obvious reading is just what Paul intended.
Separating the viewpoints
The ESV translates verse nine differently from the NKJV:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might
Notice that the most substantive difference between the two translations is the addition of “away” in the ESV. At issue here is the meaning of the preposition from, or more precisely, its Greek equivalent, apo. Just like from, apo can signify separation (e.g. running from the wolf), source (e.g. raining from the clouds), or cause (e.g. weeping from joy), among other things. Two of these options are illustrated for us in the ESV, for although it translates apo as “away from” in the main text, conveying separation, it offers an alternate rendering in a footnote, conveying source:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might
While the Greek most literally reads, “everlasting destruction from [apo] the presence of the Lord,” the translators of many modern English versions take the apo to mean separation. They therefore insert the word “away” to guide the reader to this alternate meaning.
Clinging to separation
When traditionalists cite this passage in order to explain what “hell” is like, they almost always claim that verse nine teaches that the unsaved will suffer separation, exclusion, or banishment from God’s presence. For instance, Norman Geisler quotes this verse as evidence for the claim that “The apostle Paul spoke of everlasting separation from God.” 1
In his commentary on this passage, Thomas Constable writes:
Separation from the Lord’s presence is the essence of eternal punishment . . . the judgment of unbelievers is to be eternally inaccessible to His presence . . . Unbelievers will be forever shut out from the Lord’s presence and His power. 2
In a 1992 sermon on this passage, John Macarthur said:
That’s what hell is, it’s away from the presence of the Lord. There is nothing of God there, therefore there’s no beauty, there’s no joy, there’s no pleasure, there’s no purpose. God isn’t there. You’re gone, banished, exiled from God. 3
Craig Evans writes:
Unlike later Christian apocalypses, contemporary Jewish apocalypses and even parts of the New Testament, Paul views judgment in terms of the separation the judged will ultimately have from the Lord. 4
Additionally, many traditionalists claim that the notion of separation is somehow incompatible with the idea that the unsaved will literally be destroyed. John Gerstner writes:
[the] punishment puts the wicked “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” It is hardly a way to describe non-existent beings as “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power.” Annihilated wicked men are neither near nor far from the Lord or anything. They do not exist. 5
The only way that Gerstner’s argument can look interesting, let alone persuasive, is by inserting the idea of distance into the discussion, “neither near nor far.” But the Bible contains no discussion whatsoever of a separation in terms of distance between the final state of the wicked and God, so speaking of “near” and “far” is introducing claims without evidence.
Minus the idea of distance, the concept of separation is perfectly compatible with—and possibly favorable to—conditionalism. Various conditionalists have argued that to be separated from God is to severed from the only source of life and existence, and that the only way to be separated from an omnipresent God is to be destroyed, and that the damned are removed from God’s presence by being destroyed. Any or all of these can be true.
Finding the source and the separation
And yet 2 Thessalonians 1:9 remains a fixture in books and articles that set out to challenge conditionalism. An unbiased reader of the passage may well wonder why that’s the case. The answer for this is almost certainly found in the influential NIV. The NIV translators took hold of this idea of separation and really ran with it:
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power
It’s easy to see how this particular rendering of apo can be used to argue against conditionalism! It suggests that instead of actively paying the penalty of destruction, the unsaved will passively suffer destruction and be shut out from the Lord’s presence. This is not direct translation, but interpolation, and in this case it changes the entire sentence structure and even the actors in the sentence. Not surprisingly, when confronting conditionalism, traditionalists will usually cite the NIV’s translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9.
J. I. Packer, for instance, credits the NIV’s phrase to the apostle Paul:
Paul explains, or extends, the meaning of “punished with everlasting destruction” by adding “and shut out from the presence of the Lord”—which phrase, by affirming exclusion, rules out the idea that “destruction” meant extinction. Only those who exist can be excluded. 6
Sinclair Ferguson likewise acts as if this is just what Paul said:
It seems to me in that context that the words of Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 can never really be weighed by an annihilationist. You remember what he says? “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and the majesty of His power.” You see, if you adopt an annihilationist exegesis of that text, the adjective becomes redundant: “everlasting destruction.” And the words that follow have no force: shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power. 7
GK Beale does so as well, when commentating on the NIV text:
In [verse nine] Paul defines this ongoing punishment as being separated from close relationship with God, “destruction in the sense of deprivation of the Lord’s presence”. . . Unbelievers do not cease to exist because of God’s final judgment, but they are banned from ever existing in his presence . . . If Paul had intended to convey a notion of annihilation, he could have merely said, they will be punished with everlasting destruction, without mentioning that those judged would be excluded from God’s presence… 8
Likewise, Robert Peterson asks:
Furthermore, does it make sense for the apostle to describe unbelievers’ extinction as their being “shut out from the presence of the Lord”? Does not their being shut out from his presence imply their existence? 9
The natural and obvious meaning of an “everlasting destruction” that involves being “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” is that the wicked exist forever in a state of absolute ruin away from the blessed presence of Christ the King.
JP Holding argues similarly:
…Paul here describes the punishment as being “shut out from the presence of the Lord,” there is a strong implication that the persons in question will exist and continue to exist . . . It is therefore perhaps the strongest verse against annihilationism, and the least able to be re-interpreted. 10
Robert Reymond quips:
“[To] describe the soul’s annihilation in terms of being ‘shut out from the [approving] presence of the Lord’ is a strange phrase, to say the least.” 11
During the Q&A of a recent apologetics conference, William Lane Craig paraphrased the RSV translation and affirmed that “everlasting exclusion from God” is the true essence of hell. The RSV renders the verse similarly to the NIV:
They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
As we will argue below, the NIV and RSV have inserted gratuitous and prejudicial alterations of the Greek into the passage in question. Needless to say, these translations should not be relied upon exclusively by exegetes examining such a contentious question in the debate over final punishment.We hope that future criticism will consider the Greek, or at least an examination of multiple translations to ensure that one is not arguing from an eccentric paraphrase. For now, let’s address the matter at a deeper level.
Does the apo of this passage actually denote separation?
As noted, all of the arguments and translations above are based on a single Greek word, apo (ἀπὸ), which is a preposition. The passage in the original Greek contains no verbs, nouns, or adjectives that so much as hint at the idea of separation, so apo is the only word that could possibly suggest this. It might mean that destruction occurs during or after removal from God’s presence (a separation reading). Or it might mean instead that God’s presence actively instigates the destruction (a source or cause reading). So which reading did Paul intend?
Despite the rising popularity of the separation view, C. L. Quarles, while defending the traditional view of hell versus conditional immortality, has urged caution. Alluding to the NIV, he writes, “one modern version confidently rendered the ἀπὸ, ‘shut out from,’ essentially dismissing the ambiguity of the Greek preposition . . . Such confidence may erode when contemporary interpreters reevaluate the alternative causal sense of the ἀπὸ.” 12
The view of Moo
In his essay Paul on Hell in Hell Under Fire, Douglas J. Moo sets out an overview of Paul’s teachings on final punishment in order to show that they are at odds with both universalism and conditionalism. In responding to conditionalism, he focuses on 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and presents a few arguments for why the “destruction” mentioned means something like “ruin,” or “the situation of a person or object that has lost the essence of its nature or function.” His second argument, not surprisingly, hinges on this idea of separation:
A second reason for thinking that “destruction” refers to the end of any prospect of a meaningful relationship with God is that Paul expands the concept of “destruction” with just this idea: People are “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” 13
Moo is the chair of the TNIV translation committee, so as might be expected, he opts for the TNIV here. 14 Like the NIV, the TNIV inserts the phrase “and shut out” into the verse, a point that Moo acknowledges:
This TNIV translation, it must be pointed out, reflects a key decision about the meaning of the Greek preposition apo that occurs at the beginning of the phrase. The TNIV translators, following most commentators, take the preposition to denote separation and thus translate as “shut out from.” To be sure, other options are possible; it could denote source (“destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord”), cause (“destruction because of, or through, the presence of the Lord”), or even time (“destruction when the Lord comes”). 15
Moo’s Argument from Frequency
The first reason Moo gives for this choice is that apo is “most often used in the New Testament with the sense of separation.” But this claim, which Moo doesn’t even bother to quantify, could not lend any weight to his desired conclusion even if it were true, because the actual meaning in any context is determined by that particular context and not by a simple majority vote. The preposition apo can be—and in fact often is—used in biblical Greek to denote source, a usage catalogued in the Louw-Nida lexicon under “sense 90.15.” 16 For an example of this use, the exact phrase translated “from the presence of the Lord” (ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ κυρίου) is found in Acts 3:19 where apo clearly denotes source or cause, not separation:
Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.
Moo’s Argument from Intertextuality
In any event, Moo’s second reason is more substantial. He writes:
Confirming this meaning [of separation] is the almost certain dependence of Paul on Isaiah 2:10-21. 17
Let us look at the actual passage of Isaiah 2:10, marking the similar phrase:
Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty.
Surely the similarity is striking. But there are two problems with his argument: one in his interpretation of Isaiah and the other in using Isaiah to interpret Paul.
The first thing to notice about this passage is that the word Paul has edited out, phobos or “terror,” is in the original passage the thing the people are said to “hide from”—not the Lord, but the terror of the Lord. Without ambiguity, in Isaiah people are not hiding in a place separated away from their terror; they are hiding because of the presence of their terror. This meaning of “from” is far more common in Hebrew and Greek than modern English, but is still recognizable to us as when someone says “I turned white from terror.”
The translations we are examining agree with me elsewhere; the exact expression we examined in Hebrew and Greek (“from the presence of the fear of the Lord”) appears elsewhere in the Old Testament, as in Nehemiah 5:15, where the ESV translates it “because of the fear of God,” just as this analysis would predict (the NIV similarly has “out 18 of reverence for God”). Among the Bible translations interpreting Isaiah 2 in the sense of cause we have the venerable KJV, which says “hide thee in the dust, for fear of the LORD…”
Rounding this out is the second problem with Moo’s argument about Isaiah’s sentence: the sentence is about the ultimately unsuccessful act of hiding, whereas Paul addresses the absolutely sure and conclusive fate of “paying the penalty.” Moo’s argument extracts the plausibility of separation being implied by “hiding from” in Isaiah, and attempts to inject that plausibility into Paul’s sentence—which is not about hiding at all! Instead, Paul is stressing the actual execution of the punishment that Isaiah 2 only hinted at (but is explicit in Isaiah 1:31, to be burnt up utterly as a result of one’s oppressive deeds).
Quarles, discussing Isaiah as an aid to understanding Paul, says:
Destruction did not come by separation from God’s presence and glory. Separation was a relief and escape which the sinners sought. Punishment came by encountering the presence and glory of God. Paul’s intention in quoting Isa 2 was not to utilize ἀπὸ in a way identical to the OT passage but to borrow the prophetic theme of the divine presence serving as the source of the sinner’s destruction on the Day of the Lord. 19
So Moo’s appeal to a dependance on Isaiah works against the traditionalist reading in every way. His argument appears to succeed only so long as one ignores material details of the actual phrasing of the passage to which he is appealing. He is simply wrong about Isaiah’s meaning due to ignoring crucial cues in Isaiah’s writing, and unjustified in superimposing his interpretation of Isaiah onto 2 Thessalonians given that Paul is inserting the phrase into a different context.
The immediate context of ‘from’
We have examined some incorrect ideas about how to interpret a preposition. What is the correct way? Immediate context is how readers naturally understand the sense of a preposition such as “from.” We often simply need to examine the noun or verb phrase that the preposition modifies. For example, the verb phrases “hide from x,” “run from x,” and “escape from x” all use “from” in the sense of separation; while the verb phrases “pay from X” or “shoot from X” both have the sense of source. On the other hand, noun phrases like “blessings from x,” “gifts from x,” or even “flaming fire from x” use “from” in the sense of source or cause.
In general, the English “from” and the Greek apo when used for separation and for source are similar enough that it’s not unusual to be able to translate them directly. In its entire text the ESV only translates apo as “away from” in this one case, 20 and the readable modern HCSB joins the more formal translations like the NKJV to show that using only the word “from” can result in a highly readable translation.
Given the ambiguity of ἀπὸ, the nuance of the preposition must be interpreted in light of the nature of the verb or noun which it modifies. Verbs or verbal nouns which involve movement, separation, or departure normally suggest the sense of separation. Verbs or verbal nouns which speak of a state, condition, demonstration or rendered effect suggest the sense of cause. 21
It happens that this preposition has both a verb and a verbal noun which it could be modifying. We will now examine other biblical passages that cast light on both the verb ‘pay the penalty’ and the verbal noun ‘destruction.’
The English word “from” in the noun phrase “destruction from X” usually refers to source or cause (the distinction between the two can be subtle). Consider the phrases “destruction from the tsunami,” “destruction from the war” and “destruction from the sky.” We see many examples of this in Scripture, as Isaiah 13:6:
Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!
Interestingly, there is at least one biblical example of “destruction from the face of X” (in Hebrew and Greek) being used in the sense of separation:
This was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to its downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth. (1 Kings 13:34 NIV)
But notice, this isn’t at all the sort of separation that traditionalists like Moo have in mind. In this case, the house of Jeroboam was removed from the face of the earth by being literally and utterly destroyed:
So Baasha killed [Nadab] in the third year of Asa king of Judah and reigned in his place. And as soon as he was king, he killed all the house of Jeroboam. He left to the house of Jeroboam not one that breathed, until he had destroyed it, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by his servant Ahijah the Shilonite. (1 Kings 15:28,29)
We see the same thing in Psalm 104:3, where “consume” is used instead of “destroy.”
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more!
The wicked are removed from the Earth by being consumed. The separation is simply a consequence of the destruction (compare this to Moo’s conception where separation seems to redefine, or even override, destruction). Therefore when we read that unbelievers are said to “pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord,” even if we take “from” to refer to separation, the context still supplies us the sense of removal by means of explicit destruction.
Pay the penalty from…
There is more to the verb “repay” (or as the ESV puts it, “suffer the punishment”) in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 than at first meets the English eye. The LSJ lexicon gives the verb’s primary definition as:
I. Active, pay a price by way of return or recompense, mostly in bad sense, pay a penalty, with accusative of the penalty…
The noun that appears in the accusative is the Greek word for a just punishment, so that the LSJ’s literal translation is “…[they] will recompense justice…” This sense of just repayment, though, naturally calls for either a source or a cause of repayment, and does not naturally call for a location or direction. The context of Jesus finally bringing the full power of His divine presence to those about to pay naturally anticipates that His encroaching presence would be the source, both legally and practically, of their penalty. And if apo signifies that the Lord’s presence is the cause and source of their penalty, it follows that the penalty cannot, by that same word, consist simply of absence from that presence. As Quarles warned, an “attempt to interpret the preposition in two opposing senses at once is hermeneutically awkward.” 22
Notice, though, that the ESV’s translation, which makes “they will suffer” the main verb, actually leads the reader to ask the question “where?” This is not a question the Greek verb leads us to ask. And of course, the NIV has completely inverted the sentence to make the Lord’s action of “punishing” happen by means of “shutting out,” unsurprisingly sounding like an answer to a “where?” question. Although Gordon Fee is a traditionalist and therefore considers Paul’s use of paying the penalty of eternal destruction to be a “striking metaphor,” he nonetheless calls the TNIV to account for changing the “payment” from an action the unbelievers are compelled to perform, into a passive process God carries out merely by beginning it:
The T/NIV’s “will be punished” puts into an English passive what Paul’s Greek expresses with an active verb and an object, (lit.) “[they] will pay the penalty.” Thus the translators have turned Paul’s striking metaphor into something a bit more manageable in English, but at the same time have lost the force of the metaphor itself. It is true, of course, that “being punished” is a form of “paying the penalty,” but the change of grammatical subject (from “the persecutors’ paying the penalty” to “their being punished [by God]”) seems to put the emphasis at the wrong place. 23
In both cases, ESV and NIV, by removing the role of the wicked from the Day of the Lord, they make it possible to assume that it continues past the Day. But the passage, contrary to this, says the repayment begins “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven,” and extends through “when He comes on that Day.” It implies that the payment made is the just and appropriate amount for the deeds of the persecutors, leaving no room for eternal torment (or being consciously shut out forever) to pay an additional cost.
* * * * *
Taking a broader view
We finished examining the grammatical context of ‘from’ in this sentence, and we have confirmed that whether Paul intended the preposition to modify the verb ‘pay the penalty’ or the verbal noun ‘destruction’, either way the meaning is compatible with conditionalism.
With the narrow context clarified, we now examine the broader context of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, to see how the specific meaning of the sentence fits into the picture of the passage as a whole.
The elements in the scene
Affliction, the unveiling of Christ, mighty angels, flaming fire, justly inflicting vengeance—what do these things evoke? When Paul says that Christ will draw near, in flaming fire with his mighty angels for the purpose of affliction and vengeance, and reveal Himself before every eye … do we suppose that his purpose is to separate Himself from some people? Such a contrast between a setup of aggressive wrathful presence and a denouement of detached absence is so ironic and anticlimactic as to be almost humorous.
We previously saw that there is only one word in the entire passage that might refer to separation, and we demonstrated that it is most likely that it does not. But what about the rest of the passage? Let’s look at some of the elements here in more detail:
In Scripture, what do angels typically do to God’s enemies? Are angels agents of God’s presence who kill, destroy, and slaughter his enemies? Or do they separate people from God’s presence and ruin their opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with him?
Anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows the answer immediately, but a few examples might help to illustrate:
Psalm 78:49-50 ESV:
He let loose on them his burning anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.
He made a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death,
but gave their lives over to the plague.
2 Kings 19:53:
And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.
We see examples of angels being agents of wrath in the New Testament, too. For instance, in Revelation 14:14-20, angels “reap” and gather people to be thrown into “the winepress of the wrath of God” (v19). In Revelation 16, angels pour out seven bowls of God’s wrath. In Matthew 13:37-43, which is the interpretation of a parable, Jesus sends his angels to gather lawbreakers and stumbling blocks and throw them into the fiery furnace, just as “weeds are gathered and burned with fire” (v40); with those weeds in the parable said to be “burned up” (v30). Moreover, the purpose of applying fire to the wicked is to “burn them like the tares,” “along with all causes of sin” so that the righteous can shine like the stars in the Kingdom (v41).
Flaming fire and vengeance
As GK Beale points out, this particular combination of words is only found in one other place in Scripture:
…Paul derives the phrase “in a blazing fire, giving vengeance” from Isaiah 66:15 – “the Lord will render his vengeance… in a flame of fire,” the only place in the Old Testament where this combination of terms is found. 24)
But the lesson that Beale draws from this observation comes as a jarring surprise:
This is noteworthy because only nine verses later comes the well-known depiction of those who have been judged—“their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched” (Is 66:24)— a clear reference to an unending punishment of conscious beings.
Of course, even a cursory reading of verse 24 shows that corpses, not conscious beings, are being consumed by fire and worms. But if Beale had simply included the verses directly following verse 15 we would see that extirpation is the purpose of the fire and vengeance:
For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many. “Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the LORD. (Isaiah 66:16-17)
Clearly the picture in 2 Thessalonians is not identical to Isaiah’s picture, but in both cases the “affliction” by means of “flaming fire” carries out the vengeance due for specific sins of the wicked, leading to death and destruction.
Nicholas Quient of Rethinking Hell points out another use of the term “flaming fire,” this time from a miracle in which flaming fire did not produce the expected results:
Ex. 3:2 states that the angel of the Lord came out of the bush ἐν φλογὶ πυρός, and the significance of this is that the bush, contrary to modern science and our own expectation, was not incinerated (οὐ κατεκαίετο). In any normal circumstance, that bush would be ashes. 25
The surprising safety of the bush is reminiscent of Isaiah’s unexpected and God-provided protection from being “undone” after having seen the Lord in Isaiah 6:5. This theme is strengthened and given prophetic significance in Isaiah 33:11-16, in which—after God has threatened to burn up the peoples “like thorns in the fire”—the sinners exclaim in terror over the upcoming cleansing of Jerusalem, “who can dwell with the consuming fire?” The answer comes as a description: the ones who do right and resist profiting from evil “will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure.” The motif of protection of the righteous from fiery destruction extends even to ordinary fire, as in the episode of Daniel’s friends thrust into Nebuchadnezzar’s “fiery furnace,” an episode recalled in Hebrews 11:34 with the phrase, “quenched the power of fire.”
The face or presence of the Lord
The word translated as “presence” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is prosopon in Greek, and literally means “face.” In Scripture, God’s face is something the righteous seek. But are God’s enemies punished by being separated from God’s face? Or are they destroyed by his face? Scripture does not speak with scientific precision on this point, but the repeated theme throughout is that God’s presence or face is something the wicked avoid, and that in the end is either the source or direct cause of His enemies’ destruction.
According to the TDNT’s entry on prosopon,
Seeing God involves the greatest peril, for man necessarily perishes before God’s holiness. The OT does not dispute the fact that man may see God’s face in certain circumstances, yet in general he may not do so, since the consuming holiness of God destroys man. 26
In Exodus 33:5, Moses is warned about the deadly consequences of an unrepentant people being in the presence of an angry God:
For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’”
A few verses later, in Exodus 33:20, Moses is warned that for even the ritually pure:
“But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
Leviticus 10:2 shows the same wording regarding the ritually impure Nadab and Abihu:
And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.
The Hebrew word translated “before” and “face” here is paneym, which is equivalent to prosopon in the Greek, often being translated as “presence.”
We see much the same thing in Psalm 9:3:
When my enemies turn back, they stumble and perish before your presence.
Hence Young’s Literal Translation puts it this way:
In mine enemies turning backward, they stumble and perish from Thy face.
About this verse, Gill comments:
…they shall stumble at one thing or another which divine Providence will throw in their way to hinder them from executing their designs, and so fall before them they meant to destroy, and perish at the presence of God as wax melteth before the fire; so antichrist shall be consumed with the breath of Christ’s mouth, and the brightness of his coming. 27
Gill alludes to Psalm 68:2, which reads:
As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away; as wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God!
Regarding this verse, Quarles argues,
The comparison of divine destruction with wax melting before the face of the fire confirms the author’s intention to describe destruction caused by confrontation with the divine face or presence. The melting of the wax was not caused by the wax being moved away from the face of the fire but was caused by encountering the heat of the fire. 28
Gill also perceptively referenced 2 Thessalonians 2:8, which appears only eleven verses after verse 9 in chapter 1:
And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.
This is cited by Quarles as a useful passage to interpret the operation of the presence of God of our primary text, saying that:
Paul clearly spoke of a destruction that resulted from encountering the presence of Christ rather than suffering the absence of Christ. The destruction of the man of sin did not result from Christ’s departure but from the splendor of his “coming” (παρουσίας). 29
The ESV rightly cross-references this text with Isaiah 11:4 and Daniel 7:10-11. Isaiah 11:4 prophesies that the coming Messiah will judge in favor of “the meek of the earth,” and that “with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Daniel 7:9-11 is part of a vision of the judgment of all humanity, where books are opened, the Ancient of Days sits on his throne in fiery flames, and “a stream of fire came out from before him . . . the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire.” This scene is picked up in John’s vision, where he saw earth and sky flee from the Lord’s prosopon, and those whose name was not recorded in the book of life thrown into the lake of fire, their second death (Rev 6:14, 20:11-15).
Hopefully the point has been made: the presence of the Lord brings about destruction to the unholy; it literally kills and consumes those who have not had their sin covered. In the Old Testament, even those who found favor in God’s eyes expected that being in God’s presence, or “seeing his face” would kill them (Gen 32:30, Jdg 6:22-23, Isa 6:5).
The power of His might
One of the most overlooked phrases in the passage is “and from the power of His might.” Paul took this phrase verbatim from Isaiah 2 in the LXX, but given the modifications he made to the previous copied phrase, he did not copy it mechanically or accidentally. Recall Robert Reymond’s strained translation, “the approving presence of the Lord”? When traditionalist exegetes think along these lines, they are surely not suggesting that God’s glorious fortified might wreathed in flame and surrounded by mighty angels is “approving”; rather, they are temporarily disregarding the context of the phrase “and from the power of His might.” Paul has described both the presence of the Lord and the glory of His might in great detail in the previous verses, and they are starkly disapproving.
But if we wish to compare the positive experience of believers as mentioned in verse 10 to the negative one of their persecutors, the Greek word for “strength” need not be exclusively disapproving. The Bible also uses this same Greek word to characterize God’s power positively, as can be seen contrasted in the LXX’s Greek for the parallel poetic verses of Exodus 15:6,13 in the Song of Moses:
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
There are many uses of this Greek word in the New Testament describing the strength of God being used for His people, but most of them refer to His power made available for the working miracles, overcoming sin, and loving one another. Although it would be tragic to be separated from this power, it is clearly not the burden of Paul in this passage to show that unbelievers are forever banned (say) from having the fruit of the Spirit (the Thessalonians did not need to be told that persecutors will someday be forbidden to be gentle or patient!).
There is one deeply eschatological passage using this word, however, which is worth quoting at length. Ephesians 1:18-20 says:
… that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…
This passage covers many aspects of our salvation, all tied together with the working of God’s might which was displayed in the resurrection of Christ, which is the inheritance and hope waiting for us as believers. This inheritance, of course, is an aspect of God’s power that conditionalists by definition affirm that the wicked are separated from, and which actually seems to be strongly connected to Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 1:10 about believers being with Christ: God’s power will raise us from the dead and give us immortality like Christ’s.
With this meaning in mind it makes sense to speak of the wicked being separated forever from the glorious power of God—even though this passage does not explicitly discuss that.
On the face of it, the phrase “eternal destruction,” which is the consensus of all translations concerned with the Greek at all, conveys the sense of “the act or process of damaging something so badly that it no longer exists or cannot be repaired,” 30 The Greek words composing the phrase have the same obvious sense of producing a permanently destructive change in all other Greek literature in which they individually appear and can be translated as “destruction”, and non-theological Greek dictionaries define the words in the way anyone would expect. Wannamaker, whom we will quote and discuss in full later in this section, says of one possible meaning of the phrase:
If it were literal here it would imply the annihilation of the enemies of God. … [αἰώνιος or eternal] can mean … something that is final or ultimate. [This] would accord with the sense of annihilation.
In contrast, we saw further above that Sinclair Ferguson thinks that if “eternal destruction” refers to annihilation, “the adjective eternal becomes redundant.” He does not explain why he thinks that’s true. In addition to Wannamaker, we quoted Beale effectively disagreeing with him by saying “If Paul had intended to convey a notion of annihilation, he could have merely said, they will be punished with everlasting destruction.” However, even assuming that those two words are redundant, it is common to use redundant language to express a point strongly, making it harder to miss. Paul has just used redundancy by repeating the words affliction, justice, and “flaming fire.” Whether or not there is redundancy, destruction is surely explicit and emphasized, so it’s ironic that this is completely passed over in favor of a “separation” which is not emphasized at all, but only ambiguously implied by a single preposition.
Yarbrough offers an explanation of ‘destruction’:
… in Jesus’ usage “destroy” can also mean to inflict enduring torment. That is, unclean spirits who ask whether Jesus will “destroy” them (apollymi; Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34) understand that destruction in terms of unending torment (basanizō; Matt. 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28). 31
Yarbrough’s claim fails logically and exegetically. The logical failure is that he simply picks the conclusion he wants and ignores all other possibilities: assuming his exegesis were right, we could reasonably conclude that demons expect torment until destruction, or that demons think destruction actually means torment, or that demons think torment actually means destruction. By failing to argue for his position, he fails to notice the fact that his claimed evidence could actually support either position.
Exegetically, however, he makes several errors which would undermine the logic even if it were valid. First he conflates two separate incidents (one at Capernaum, the other at the Gadarenes), and calls both “Jesus’ usage” even though it is the demons speaking in both cases. Second, he simply smuggles in the concept of “unending torment,” where what the demon says is simply “torment”—obviously a time of torment is compatible with a final destruction. But the overarching error is that his support for his basic claim (that destruction means torment) is found only by reading between the lines across multiple authors, rather than in explicit Scriptural teaching. Even if it were angels rather than demons speaking, we should insist that doctrine be taught somewhere explicitly, not by questionably cobbling together passages from two different authors—especially when the doctrine is being used to alter the meaning of yet another passage.
Moo offers a rather more subtle argument, that “The words need not mean ‘destruction’ in the sense of ‘extinction’.” 32 He later explains that sense by quoting an annihilationist:
We have shown that annihilation is not the required meaning; but, of course, it is a possibility. Dan Reid, for instance, notes the many Old Testament passages that present God as the “divine warrior,” visiting vengeance and destruction on his enemies (e.g., Isa. 66:15-16). In these texts God is uniformly presented as annihilating his enemies. 33
So Moo considers Reid’s view of God’s actions in the Old Testament to satisfy the “sense of extinction” with which he disagreed. He then specifies what he actually thinks the phrase means:
We would suggest, therefore, that the “destruction” of which Paul here speaks may just as likely refer to “ruin.” In this sense olethros would mean not that the wicked simply cease to exist but that they suffer ruin: “an eternal plunge into Hades and a hopeless destiny of death.”
We will discuss the above literary claim by looking at a lexicon in a moment; but first, we allow Moo to continue with a biblical explanation:
“Ruin” must be placed alongside other Pauline depictions of the state of the wicked: suffering wrath, spiritual death, tribulation, and condemnation. 34
Moo lists all of the things Paul says the wicked will consciously suffer on the Day of Wrath, and correctly says that we must understand “destruction” in a way compatible with them. Paul lists almost all of these, for example, in Romans 1:32-2:11, when both Jews and Greeks receive what even pagans “know God’s righteous decree” to be, namely, that “all who do such things deserve to die,” in a “Day of Wrath” with “tribulation and distress.” So those can all be put together, as Moo suggests; but nowhere does Paul, or any other Biblical writer, imply that these things will continue forever to be the state of the wicked after the Day of Wrath.
And so after Moo’s recommended “placing alongside” is complete, we are left with the same question: what does being “destroyed” (or “ruined”) by flaming fire and mighty angels when the Lord is revealed from heaven do to a person?
Lexicons can provide only small clues, but Louw-Nida explains about the word for ‘destruction’ here:
ὄλεθρος suggests a type of ruin or destruction which is somewhat more violent and extensive than in the case of φθορά (20.38). 35
The latter Greek word, pronounced phthora, means primarily “corruption,” “spoilage,” or “ruin,” and includes killing only in a remote sense. So Moo has extended the narrower and more violent Greek word for “destruction” into and past the meaning of the weaker word for “ruin.”
And yet, although Moo backs away from the translation “destruction” given by all translators, broadening its semantic range beyond normal uses to insist that “ruin” would be better, he then defines “ruin” in a strangely specific way that does not actually include any “ruin” as it’s ordinary understood even in English. There is no example of the usage Moo would have us see here—vines that are ruined in Jeremiah 38:32 are trod down by soldiers and burned by fire. Perfume that is ruined in Matthew 26:8 is used up in a single application, rather than lasting for months. Food that is ruined in John 6:27 changes into compost dirt. And of course the Old Testament towns that left “ruins,” first had their inhabitants killed and their buildings burnt. As Quient put it in his exhaustive study of the Old Testament Greek uses of this word, “Moo, counter to basic exegetical principles, simply adopts a wider semantic range without sufficient justification.” 36
Wannamaker goes into more depth in the full passage we quoted earlier:
Going back to the OT, ὄλεθρον had an eschatological application in judgment pronouncements (cf. LXX Je. 28:55; 31:3, 8, 32; 32:17 [25:31]; Ezk. 6:14; 14:16). This eschatological dimension is characteristic of its usage in Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Thes. 5:3). But it can either denote destruction in a physical sense or possess a metaphorical connotation. If it were literal here it would imply the annihilation of the enemies of God. On the other hand it may have a more metaphorical signification. The problem is made more difficult by the qualifying adjective αἰώνιος. It can mean either something without end or something that is final or ultimate. The latter would accord with the sense of annihilation, while the former would fit with the idea of destruction in the metaphorical sense of punishment. 37
Any word can be used in a metaphor. But if “destruction” has some more metaphorical signification, we should find some hint at that signification in actual exegesis of text; some indication that the author intended a metaphor that the reader would recognize. Wannamaker explains what he thinks the marker is:
As there is no evidence in Paul (or the rest of the NT for that matter) for a concept of final annihilation of the godless, the expression “eternal destruction” should probably be taken in a metaphorical manner as indicating the severity of the punishment awaiting the enemies of God. 38
An exegete facing ambiguity should look for a resolution within the given text before pulling in systematic theology. Wannamaker cites no ambiguity, but simply decides that the ordinary meaning is unacceptable for reasons not in the given text. His choice of meanings for the “metaphor” seems doctrinally driven and arbitrary; why should “eternal destruction” mean “severe punishment,” rather than allowing all of the rest of the context to show the severity? Additionally, his claim of “no evidence” is wrong, since this text itself is direct and clear evidence; and of course we would disagree that “there is no evidence in Paul” of the annihilation of the godless.
Wannamaker’s “literal” analysis of the text was clear and precise, and his attempt to back down from a clear-sighted accurate reading to a blurry and allegedly metaphorical reading fails to explain anything about the text at all.
In Paul’s text, “eternal destruction” is described as the cumulative summation of a process of “affliction” which is a proportional and just response to the persecution against believers. This makes perfect sense if the “affliction” leads to and has the purpose of “eternal destruction” (in the literal and final sense). But if both ultimately are synonyms for torment, then the affliction of the believers has nothing to do with how the persecutors will be afflicted; the wicked will consciously repay infinitely more affliction than they gave the righteous. Yet Paul’s entire argument depends on this predictability, since he begins the passage by proposing that the suffering of the righteous is evidence for the eventual just, retributive judgment of the persecutors.
The timespan of the passage
Quarles, whose article we have approvingly quoted many times, has a different challenge for us. He is making an argument against Edward Fudge’s, and his tactic is to prove that “if the sinner’s eternal destruction consists of encounter, especially continuing encounter, with the presence of God, the annihilationist deduction becomes much more problematic.” 39 We can see that he believes the presence of Christ continues eternally causing destruction. His concept of an eternal time span of active destruction brings up the question of the timespan over which the wicked will pay the penalty which this passage says amounts to “eternal destruction.”
Let us set the scene for the timespan of this passage. During the present age, persecutors are afflicting believers, causing injustice to build up. Paul sees that the believers remain faithful through that persecution, and assures them that this is evidence that a faithful God will justly repay the persecutors with affliction. At the end of the age, therefore, Jesus arrives in an event in which He oversees the balance of injustice being justly and completely repaid by all of the unrepentant (unbelievers in general, but specifically persecutors) beginning in 2 Thessalonians 1:7’s “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels” and extending to verse 10, “when He comes on that Day to be glorified in His saints…”
Any reasonable interpretation must place the entire action of the passage in that finite timespan. And the action of the passage is necessarily given by the verb phrase, “they will pay the penalty,” not by the noun phrase “eternal destruction.” There can be no valid interpretation which claims the imbalanced justice started in the present age continues forever due to a penalty eternally incompletely paid. Rather, it is trust in God’s balanced justice that motivates Paul’s argument from the beginning. Therefore, the affliction that allows the wicked to experience paying the penalty happens over a finite time span; the “eternal destruction” that results is the fulfilment and outcome of having paid the penalty to the last penny.
* * * * *
So what’s at stake here? Traditionalists have a lot riding on a particular interpretation of apo. The fact that the apostle Paul does not once mention everlasting torment is a bit of a scandal, and 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is the only passage that traditionalists are able to appeal to as describing any kind of eternal fate for sinners. That’s why so many respectable traditionalists base their entire case on the idiosyncratic and highly dubious wording of the NIV, usually without attempting to exegete or explain the Greek as it is actually used.
For the conditionalist, surprisingly little is at stake. If the apo of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is one of source or cause, then we have yet another passage that explicitly describes final punishment in terms of affliction leading to destruction. And even if we are wrong and apo connotes separation, conditionalists understand it as separation from God as the source of life and existence, or separation from the resurrection power of the Godhead. Either way, the participation of the wicked ends with the full and final payment of the penalty.
Our investigation therefore aligns us with the conclusion of C.L. Quarles, who happens also to be a critic of our view:
“The locative interpretation of ἀπὸ in 2 Thess 1:9 is not as incontrovertible as some modern interpreters assume. The common adjectival force of the preposition, the OT background, and the parallels from both the NT and Pseudepigrapha lend strong support to the causal interpretation. The implications of the causal interpretation are significant for understanding the author’s eschatology. His view of divine wrath is active rather than passive. Eternal destruction does not consist of the Lord’s evacuation but of his confrontation with the unrepentant sinner. . . The exegetical evidence clearly stands in favor of the causal view as opposed to the separative view.” 40
* * * * *
- If God, Why Evil?: A New Way to Think about the Question, 98
- Constable, Thomas L. “2 Thessalonians.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: an Exposition of the Scriptures, Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Victor, an Imprint of Cook Communications Ministries, CO Springs, CO, 2004, pg. 716.
- See http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/53-3/the-vengeance-of-the-lord-jesus-part-2
- The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Acts-Philemon, 629
- Repent or Perish, 166
- See http://www.the-highway.com/annihilationism_Packer.html
- See “Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment,” Desiring God 1990 Conference for Pastors.
- Beale, G. K. (2010-02-17). 1-2 Thessalonians (The IVP New Testament Commentary Series) (pp. 188-189). Intervarsity Press – A. Kindle Edition.
- See http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/37/37-4/JETS_37-4_553-568_Peterson.pdf
- See http://www.tektonics.org/af/annix.html
- Reymond; A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition – Revised and Updated, unknown page
- C. L. Quarles, “The ἀπὸ of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and the Nature of Eternal Punishment,” WTJ 59 , 201–11
- Douglas J. Moo, Morgan, Christopher W., et al.; Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Kindle Locations 2495-2496). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
- See http://www.niv-cbt.org/translators/
- Moo, op. cit., (Kindle Location 2498).
- According to a quick search of the Louw-Nida markings in the Logos ESV, Moo’s basic evidence is weaker than his phrasing indicates; of all the 645 appearances of apo, a minority of 235 are marked as “separation” while 155 are marked as “source,” and another 47 as “extension,” which is a slight variant of source. “Agent,” “Instrument,” and “Reason” all likewise stand as possibilities, all obviously compatible with conditionalism.
- Moo, op. cit.; (Kindle Location 2503).
- The NIV here uses the English word ‘out’, which most often means separation, confirming that what a word “most often means” does not lead to correct understanding; any English speaker will understand that this phrase refers to cause, not separation.
- C. L. Quarles, op. cit.
- A Bible search confirms that every other use of “away from” for apo in the ESV is explained by the lexicon listing “from” as part of the verb (in most cases, simply click the verb directly in front of the phrase “away from,” and the short LSJ definition at the bottom of the screen will include “away” as one of the suggested glosses).
- C. L. Quarles, op. cit.
- C. L. Quarles, op. cit.
- Fee, G. D. (2009). The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (p. 258). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Beale, G. K. (2010-02-17). 1-2 Thessalonians (The Ivp New Testament Commentary Series) (p. 189). Intervarsity Press – A. Kindle Edition.
- Nicholas Rudolph Quient, “Destruction from the Presence of the Lord: Paul’s Intertextual Use of the LXX in 2 Thess. 1:9” (paper presented at the Rethinking Hell Conference in London, UK, 7-8, October 2016), 1-24.
- Eduard Lohse, et. al.. Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 6, p. 773). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Gill; public domain, see http://biblehub.com/commentaries/gill/psalms/68.htm for example.
- Quarles, op. cit.
- Quarles, op. cit.
- Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, “Destruction”
- Yarbrough et. al., Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Kindle Locations 1788-1790). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
- Moo, op. cit. (Kindle Locations 2452-2454).
- Moo, op.cit. (Kindle Locations 2467-2470).
- Moo, op. cit. (Kindle Locations 2477-2481).
- Footnote on entry 20.33, “ὄλεθρος”; Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.). New York: United Bible Societies.
- Quient, op. cit.
- Wanamaker, C. A. (1990). The Epistles to the Thessalonians: a commentary on the Greek text (pp. 228–229). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
- C. L. Quarles, op. cit.
- C. L. Quarles, op. cit.