If you are at all familiar with Rethinking Hell, you will know that we have never once addressed 2 Thessalonians 1:9.
Just kidding, it comes up all the time, including in a two-part article that is more in-depth than what we are looking at today:
– Part 1: Peter Grice, “Annihilation In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed By The Glory Of His Manifest Presence“.
– Part 2: Ronnie Demler and William Tanksley, “Annihilation In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 2): Separation Or Obliteration?—The Present Controversy“.
Nevertheless, in no small part due to a recent interaction I witnessed over social media, it seemed worthwhile to give a nice, relatively short introduction to the passage and how it is perfectly consistent with evangelical conditionalism.
These people will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thessalonians 1:9, NASB).
Why Traditionalists Think This Passage Teaches Eternal Torment
The “Destruction” Is Qualified as Eternal/Everlasting
In this passage, the “destruction” is qualified as being everlasting/eternal. In many cases, it is taken for granted that because something related to final punishment is qualified as “eternal” or “everlasting,” it therefore means eternal (conscious) punishment.
Separation from God
Many translations indicate that the “eternal destruction” of the unsaved happens apart from God (including the above). Because many traditionalists today put great emphasis on separation from God as being a major part of what makes eternal conscious hell terrible, this separation aspect of the passage is seen as further evidence that hell is a state of eternal (conscious) separation from God.
Furthermore, the NIV and other less literal translations add to the passage in order to clarify its meaning (as they interpret it) for the reader. In doing so, it also implies that one suffers destruction and also is separated from God. Therefore, one is not literally destroyed, since the person is still around to be separated from God even after having been punished with destruction.
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (NIV, emphasis mine).
Why This Passage Does Not Teach Eternal Torment – Eternal Destruction
Not surprisingly, conditionalists are quick to point out that this passage doesn’t say “eternal torment” or “eternal suffering.” Rather, it says “eternal destruction.” Taken at face value, that sounds a lot more like conditionalism than eternal conscious anything. The wicked are destroyed, not kept alive forever.
But why refer to the destruction as “eternal” if it is not eternal conscious hell?
To answer that question, we will first ask the question of how traditionalism would account for a passage that speaks of eternal destruction.
Eternal Destruction As a Never-Ending Process of Destroying The Living Wicked in Hell
Some, mostly laypeople, will argue that this passage teaches that God will be continually destroying the wicked throughout eternity, but they will never actually be fully destroyed. Thus, it is an ongoing process where the person is always conscious (since they are never actually destroyed).
This interpretation is absurd on its face. To destroy something is a binary action. There is a point where something has been destroyed, and until then, it is not destroyed. If you never actually destroy the object, and you know in advance that you will never actually destroy it, how can you say that you are in the process of destroying it? The process of destroying never results in something being destroyed!
Eternal Destruction Is A State That Lasts Forever
A far better traditionalist interpretation is that destruction is a state, not a process. It is not the case that God is in the process of unsuccessfully destroying the unsaved forever. Rather, the idea is that the unsaved are put in a state of destruction, and that state remains forever.
For example, according to the famed 19th century Presbyterian theologian Albert Barnes:
The meaning then must be, that the soul is destroyed as to the great purposes of its being – its enjoyment, dignity, honor, holiness, happiness. It will not be annihilated, but will live and linger on in destruction. 1 Albert Barnes, “Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1:9,” Barnes’ Notes On The Whole Bible (1870), reproduced at studylight.org, n.d., https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/2-thessalonians-1.html (accessed December 15, 2020).
Not shockingly, like most traditionalists throughout history, Barnes made no bones about the fact that the unsaved “live” for eternity in hell (despite the Bible referring to the fate of the unsaved as “death” and “life” being the gift for the saved). 2 For more on the widespread use of such language by traditionalists when describing hell, in contrast to the language of scripture, see Episode 58 of our podcast, featuring Ronnie Demler. But for our purposes, note that in this argument, destruction is a state in which one lingers, not an ongoing act done to them throughout eternity.
Douglas Moo, of Wheaton College, sums it up even more explicitly:
In the nature of the case, a punctiliar action, such as “annihilate,” cannot be “eternal.” By so qualifying olethros, therefore, Paul indicates that it must describe a state (“ruin”) rather than an action. 3 Douglas Moo. “Paul on Hell,” Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, (Zondervan, 2004), 106.
In context, Moo is not even entertaining the idea of eternal destroying that never actually destroys, but argues that the Greek word translated as “destruction,” olethros, must refer to a state because it is qualified as “eternal.”
I agree wholeheartedly that what is in view is a state and not an action. Conditionalism, at least typically, also sees destruction as a state, not a process, in this passage.
As Dr. Moo also correctly points out, there is precedent in the New Testament for this:
In other New Testament passages where “eternal” describes a noun of action, it is sometimes the results of the action that are indicated. The “eternal sin” of Mark 3.29, for instance, means a sin whose consequences last forever (see also Heb. 5:9, 6:2, 9:12, Jude 7). 4 Ibid.
Where conditionalists like myself and traditionalists like Dr. Moo disagree is over what is meant by “destruction.” For traditionalists, it is meant not as literal destruction, but rather, as a state of ruin (which Moo explicitly stated above as a failed argument against annihilationism). Many will claim that the actual Greek word translated as “destruction,” olethros, doesn’t mean to bring something to an end but really means to ruin. So to them, the passage really means “eternal ruin” (even though it is rarely if ever actually translated that way). For more on that, and the rebuttal to it, see Demler and Tanksley (as noted above).
On the other hand, the conditionalist takes this idea of destruction (as presented in English) much more literally. The unsaved are destroyed completely, in body and soul (cf. Matthew 10:28). They are, for lack of a better term, annihilated. 5 For more on how “annihilation” is and is not meant under the doctrine of annihilationism, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: What Do We Mean by “Annihilation”?“. Destruction is the result. It is like a building that is destroyed by fire, and the result of the action of destroying is destruction. The building is in a state of destruction because it is gone. It has been destroyed. Only rubble remains.
For the unsaved, this state of destruction lasts for eternity, so it is “eternal destruction.”
But Why Qualify Literal Destruction As Eternal?
One might ask (and people do) why the Bible would say “eternal destruction” to mean literal destruction. After all, couldn’t the Bible have just said “destruction” and made the same point (as it does in other passages about the final fate of the wicked, e.g Matthew 7:13)?
There is, however, a reason to qualify this as “eternal destruction”; not all destruction lasts forever. If a building burns down, it can be rebuilt. The material that made up the building may be burnt up forever, but the building itself was not subject to any permanent destruction. Similarly, all humans suffer destruction of the physical body at physical death. However, that destruction is reversed at the resurrection. It is a destruction but not an eternal one, since it is reversed and therefore is temporary.
At Christ’s second coming and final judgment, however, the destruction of the unsaved, in body and soul, is never reversed. They stay in that state of destruction forever. Therefore, for emphasis and clarity, it is called “eternal destruction.”
Why This Passage Does Not Teach Eternal Torment – Separation From God and Annihilation
There are two aspects to the separation from God angle of this passage that come up here.
First of all, it is not clear that this passage even speaks of separation. Many translations say things like “away from the presence of the Lord” but others simply say “from” rather than “away from.”
For example, the King James Version simply says “…everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” We see similar wording in the Holman Christian Standard Bible (“…from the Lord’s presence”). The notes of the English Standard Version present, as an alternative rendering, “destruction that comes from [the presence of the Lord].”
It all depends on what one makes of the Greek preposition apo in this passage, a word often translated simply as “from.” It can denote separation, but it can also refer to source or other ideas that correspond to the English word “from.” 6 See “575. apo,” Bible Hub, n.d. https://biblehub.com/greek/575.htm (accessed December 15, 2020). 7 See also Demler and Tanksley
Therefore, there is at least a reasonable possibility that the unsaved are not punished with eternal destruction that takes place away from God. It could be, as co-contributor Glenn Peoples puts it elsewhere:
…that the people are forever removed from the Lord’s presence by means of destruction. This is similar to the way we might talk about a battle at sea where a ship is “blasted out of the water.” 8 Glenn Peoples, “Destroyed from God’s Presence,” Afterlife [blog], posted August 15, 2014, http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2013/church-history/history-of-hell/ (accessed December 2, 2020).
It could even be (as the ESV notes) that God is himself the source of their destruction, the very opposite of the idea that the punishment is being separation from God.
Separation From God Doesn’t Negate Annihilation
Secondly, even if apo is meant to indicate separation (i.e. “away from”), that doesn’t prove eternal torment. It makes perfect sense to say that the unsaved suffer their (actual) destruction apart from God’s presence. God is the source of all life. If one is cut off from him, we would expect that they would die – literally and completely.
Let us imagine that annihilationism is true. Let us imagine that hell is a fire that does what fire normally does to living creatures: it burns them up and kills them (only this time, permanently). There would be nothing non-sensical about Jesus sending people away from his presence into that fire at judgment.
…Because that is exactly what happens in Matthew 25:41 when Jesus says “depart from me…” 9 For more on Matthew 25:41 and “eternal fire,” see “What the Bible Actually Says about Eternal Fire” – Part 1 and Part 2.
Because many people have eternal conscious separation from God in mind when they think of hell, they are inclined to presume eternal conscious experience whenever they see a reference to separation from God. But that is not indicated by the text or by the overall idea of separation from God. If you cut yourself off from the one who keeps you alive, what would you naturally expect to happen – if you don’t already have eternal conscious hell in mind?
Special Note About NIV
As noted above, the NIV and similar translations translate the passage non-literally in order to express the overall idea that the translators think the writer meant to express.
As a result, the NIV adds to the actual Greek text and gives a much more specific meaning than does the text itself (as seen even in other English translations that are more literal).
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (NIV, emphasis mine).
Because of this, one cannot base their case for eternal torment and against annihilationism on the fact that the passage says that the unsaved will be destroyed “and shut out from the presence of the Lord.” The words “and shut out” are added to the text; they are not translating anything in the Greek.
If one argues that the separation from God is separate from the “eternal destruction,” and therefore the person must still be alive to be separated from God after suffering destruction, then they are basing that interpretation on words that specifically are not in the actual text of scripture.
As we now see, a passage that speaks of “eternal destruction” is perfectly compatible with the idea of hell being actual destruction.
As this passage also shows us, one need not distance oneself from the idea of God’s wrath while maintaining the doctrine of evangelical conditionalism. In fact, I often find myself reminding traditionalists of this common traditionalist prooftext when they try to distance God’s active vengeance from the doctrine of hell, as though hell just happens apart from God’s will and action. As we see in the preceding verses, it is Jesus himself who comes in flaming fire to pay back the wicked for what they have done.
Of course, it is not all bad news. That same Jesus who will avenge himself and his people and give sinners their just punishment is also the one who died for sinners so that anyone who reads this and fears the wrath of God can put their faith in Jesus, be forgiven everything, and be given eternal life for no other reason than the fact that Jesus earned it for you. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
|￪1||Albert Barnes, “Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1:9,” Barnes’ Notes On The Whole Bible (1870), reproduced at studylight.org, n.d., https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/2-thessalonians-1.html (accessed December 15, 2020).|
|￪2||For more on the widespread use of such language by traditionalists when describing hell, in contrast to the language of scripture, see Episode 58 of our podcast, featuring Ronnie Demler.|
|￪3||Douglas Moo. “Paul on Hell,” Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, (Zondervan, 2004), 106.|
|￪5||For more on how “annihilation” is and is not meant under the doctrine of annihilationism, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: What Do We Mean by “Annihilation”?“.|
|￪6||See “575. apo,” Bible Hub, n.d. https://biblehub.com/greek/575.htm (accessed December 15, 2020).|
|￪7||See also Demler and Tanksley|
|￪8||Glenn Peoples, “Destroyed from God’s Presence,” Afterlife [blog], posted August 15, 2014, http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2013/church-history/history-of-hell/ (accessed December 2, 2020).|
|￪9||For more on Matthew 25:41 and “eternal fire,” see “What the Bible Actually Says about Eternal Fire” – Part 1 and Part 2.|