St Paul’s description of the judgement of God in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is another biblical reason to give up the traditional view of divine judgement and the eternal torments of hell.
Back in 2007, my article “Fallacies in the Annihilationism Debate” was published in JETS (The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society). To be honest, the article was born out of my own frustration at just how bad the state of Evangelical theology is when it comes to the issue of hell. Annihilationism, the view that the lost will one day be no more, has clear support in the teaching of Scripture, but traditionalists were engaging in some of the worst handling of Scripture that I have seen in order to dismiss it. The article was a critique of the various responses to the arguments for annihilationism, especially those advanced by Robert Peterson (somebody who has made the subject a focus of his writing). One such argument for annihilationism is the overwhelming tendency of the biblical writers to speak of the alternative to eternal life as being death or destruction. This idea is expressed in a wide range of language, in repeated biblical claims such as that the wages of sin is death, that the lost will perish, that they will be destroyed both soul and body, that they will be like those annihilated in Sodom and Gomorrah, that they will be like weeds burned up in a furnace and so on. A specific passage that uses the language of destruction appears in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, where he says (1:9) that those who do not know Christ or accept the Gospel suffer “flaming vengeance” and will be “punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.”
It is evident why, on the face of it, this description of the fate of the lost favours an annihilationist perspective, since a fate of everlasting destruction seems much more naturally to describe a final fate of being destroyed forever, never to live again, as opposed to an eternal state of being kept alive in suffering or misery. New Testament Scholar F. F. Bruce makes this observation on Paul’s description of final punishment here: “If eternal life is the life of the age (αἰών) to come, the resurrection age, “eternal destruction” is the destruction of the age to some, with a strong implication of finality.”1 I agree.
In addition to the sense of a destruction “of the age to come,” which is a qualitative way of using the word “eternal,” there is also a quantitative sense of the word to be found here, where it refers to duration. The destruction of which St Paul speaks is “eternal” in the sense of lasting forever. There is no coming back, ever.
Robert Peterson, in dialogue with Edward Fudge, sought to fend off this line of argument by appealing to the wording chosen by the translators of the New International Version, which adopts a minority translation as follows: “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord [etc].” Peterson grounds his argument in the appearance of the words “and shut out,” arguing as follows:
Paul says of the disobedient, “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power.” Annihilationism is an unlikely meaning for the words “everlasting destruction.” 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?2
In other words: Yes, the text does say that these people will be destroyed, but that’s not all. St Paul also says that they will be “shut out” of God’s presence, and that is only a meaningful thing to say if the lost will still exist. Otherwise, surely, they can neither be allowed into nor shut out of God’s presence. This was Dr Peterson’s argument.
As I pointed out in my 2006 article, this is a surprisingly superficial argument, relying entirely, it would appear, on a surface reading of one particular English translation, namely the NIV. The words “and shut out” do not answer to anything in any Greek manuscripts of this passage, and other more literal translations do not include them. Literally, the passage says that these people will be “punished with everlasting destruction from the face of the Lord [etc].” This is recognised by any literal translation. For example:
… who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (KJV)
… who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might (ASV)
… who shall suffer justice—destruction age-during—from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength (Young’s Literal)
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (ESV)
A number of theologians and even biblical translators, however, have sought to make some mileage from the claim that the real punishment here is separation or being shut out, in spite of separation not being specifically mentioned in the text. Popular writer Hank Hanegraaff explains,
When Paul informs us that those who do not love God or live according to his precepts “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:8–9), he hardly suggests annihilationism. To experience everlasting destruction is to experience everlasting separation from the love and grace of God. To leave no doubt, Paul equates everlasting destruction with being “shut out from the presence of the Lord.”3
On the face of it, Hanegraaff’s first claim is visibly untrue, because being punished with everlasting destruction does, at first glance, suggest annihilation. It is clear that the argument here depends on the crucial words “and shut out,” which are an addition. The consequences of these additional words are becoming visible in the discussion around the doctrine of hell.
The Faithlife Study Bible notes say in their comment on this verse that “Those who reject Jesus Christ will be separated from God’s presence and glory. This punishment will be everlasting.”4 The one thing the comment focuses on – separation – is not mentioned by St Paul, and the way that Paul describes the punishment – destruction – is not mentioned by the commentators! Or witness the indefensible reading given in the New Living Translation: “They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power.” By inserting the words “forever separated” into the text, the translators apparently make up for what St Paul was lacking in doctrine! The sins of the NIV are minor by comparison.
“Destroyed from” or “Destruction that comes from”?
When it comes to the actual wording Paul uses, there is a small degree of ambiguity, as acknowledged by the translators of the English Standard Version in a footnote. The translation reads “eternal destruction away from,” with a note adding: “Or destruction that comes from.” As written, the statement might refer, as the ESV footnote suggests, to fiery destruction that issues forth from the presence of the Lord. If this is the intention, the picture is rather like that of the fate of Nadab and Abihu who died when they offered “strange fire” before the Lord in Leviticus 10. There, “fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (v. 2). The Hebrew word translated “before” literally refers to the “face” (פָּנֶה, paneh). The same is true in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where Paul, on this view, describes a fire that literally comes from the “face” (πρόσωπον, prosopon), creating a striking similarity between the two passages.
Alternatively, “everlasting destruction from the presence…” may indicate 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.” This possibility, I think, makes better sense of the adjective “everlasting,” because it is easy to think of something being destroyed forever from God’s presence. But whichever of these two meanings is intended, nothing suggests that in addition to suffering destruction, the lost will also be shut out into a place beyond the Lord’s presence. There is just no foothold in the text for this argument.
Apo – Does it change anything?
However, in his response Dr Peterson claimed that my argument has been addressed by Douglas Moo in Hell Under Fire, a book that was published while I was writing my article.5 Moo argues against our interpretation of this passage by appealing to Isaiah 2. Isaiah says that on the Day of Judgment, men will try to hide from the Lord and “the splendour of his majesty,” establishing a similarity between the two passages. An example of this wording is in Isaiah 2:19, “And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the LORD, and from the splendour of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth” (ESV). These people still exist while they are trying to hide, reasons Moo. Therefore, when Paul says that the lost will be punished with everlasting destruction “from” (apo) the face of the Lord, a word used in both passages, it indicates an ongoing existence separated from the presence of the Lord, just as the people in Isaiah 2 who are trying to hide in caves and under rocks still exist. But even on the face of it, this appeal to Isaiah is clearly not successful. It should be fairly clear that in Isaiah 2, no punishment has been handed out when the people speak their words. They are unsuccessfully trying to hide from the presence of the Lord and the splendour of his majesty in order to escape his wrath, but it is impossible to do so. They wish to carry on existing but to escape the Lord’s presence, because they are afraid of what he will do to them. But what is the Lord going to do to them? Isaiah writes that the haughty looks of men will be brought low and the lofty pride of men will be humbled (v. 11) so that only God will be exalted. But after the enemies of God have tried – in vain, let us remember – to escape “the terror of the LORD” and “the splendour of his majesty,” what does he do to them? What does their impending fate consist of? We are not told, so to appeal to this passage to show us what the “everlasting destruction” of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 looks like is surely a mistake. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul speaks directly about what will happen when God does punish the lost, saying that they will in fact be destroyed from God’s presence (or alternatively, their “destruction” issues from the presence of God). The comparison between Isaiah and Paul does not harm the annihilationist’s point: The wicked may have wished to hide from God’s presence in safety, avoiding judgement altogether, but now that it is upon them, in perhaps a terrible irony, they will leave his presence after all, because the Lord will destroy them. God will give them what they want, but it will not turn out as they might have hoped. They will not escape God’s presence on their own terms – in safety, avoiding judgement, kept hidden from the Lord. Rather they will face him in judgement and then be destroyed, thus removed from his presence forever. If St Paul did have the scene from Isaiah 2 in mind, there is nothing in that connection to work against the annihilationist interpretation of his words.
We know that in Scripture the term apo does not necessarily indicate ongoing existence in another place, although in some contexts this may be the case. For example Micah said (7:2) that “The godly has perished from the earth,” where in the Septuagint, the Greek word for “from” is apo and the word for “perished” is απόλωλεν (apololen), from the same word group as ὀλέθριος (olethros) in 2 Thessalonians. Micah does not mean that the godly people have all gone somewhere. He simply means that there are no more of them on the earth. In another example that uses the apoleia word group and the preposition apo (in the Septuagint), Moses warned the Israelites what would happen if they began to worship idols: “then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish [απολεισθε, apoleisthe] quickly from [apo] the good land that the LORD is giving you” (Deuteronomy 11:17). The warning was not that the people would have to find homes elsewhere. On the contrary, the warning was that they would die. This sort of language was used in the Talmud as well. For example in Sanhedrin 10:6, the writer declares that “Whilst the wicked are in the world, wrath is in the world. When the wicked are destroyed from the world, wrath retires from the world.”6 For the wicked to be destroyed from the world does not mean that they go somewhere else (whether you believe that this is what will happen or not). In context it simply means that the wicked are eradicated. Similarly in the Jewish book of Jubilees uses the phrase “destroyed from the earth” numerous times to express the same concept: Utter destruction.7
With due respect to Moo, it is somewhat pretentious to think that we can prove the ongoing existence of the lost simply because of the presence of the word “from” (apo). I would describe that as over-exegesis in the extreme, trying to make far too much of far too little. Whether or not the people who are removed “from” God’s presence have ongoing life or existence will depend, not on the presence of that innocuous word, but on the context, which is surely the golden rule of all biblical interpretation. Where the context shows that a person does not merely go “from” somewhere but is destroyed from that place, our biblical precedents point to death, not just separation. These biblical examples serve to reinforce the straightforward interpretation that annihilationists use when they read St Paul’s reference to “destruction” in 2 Thessalonians. If he meant that the lost would be destroyed from God’s presence forever, then he was an annihilationist.
There are other passages in the Hebrew Scripture that St Paul might equally likely have had in mind as he penned 2 Thessalonians 1:9, if he meant to talk about fiery destruction that issues forth from God’s presence. We have already seen Leviticus 10, where fire comes out from the presence of the Lord and consumes his enemies, destroying them. Shortly before this in Leviticus 9, the Lord accepted Aaron’s sacrifice and there too, we read of flames issuing forth from the presence of the Lord: “And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar” (v. 24). In Daniel 7 we see a vision of the “Ancient of Days” sitting on his throne with fire issuing forth from his presence. In verse 11 one of the beasts is slain and its body is given over to the fire. Perhaps the most famous example of a fire coming from God is in 1 Kings 18, when the prophet Elijah defeats the prophet of Baal. The story is well known: Elijah challenges the prophets to call on Baal to accept their sacrifice, but nothing happens. Then after drenching his sacrifice with water, Elijah calls on the Lord. “Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (verse 38). In an earlier example, this time in Numbers 16, at the time of Korah’s rebellion, we read that “fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.” The image of flames issuing from the presence of the Lord then is a vivid one that has an established meaning of utter destruction.
Taken in isolation then (that is, without going searching to see what background ideas Paul may have had in mind), St Paul’s words appear to indicate an annihilationist view: The view that in the end the lost will be destroyed forever. In fact if we compare Paul’s comments with the language of Jesus, not only is the theme of destruction in Jesus’s teaching confirmed here (the words of Jesus indicate the final destruction of the lost more than the words of any other New Testament figure), but Paul’s terminology can be used to explain one of Jesus’s most well-known phrases, “eternal punishment” (the word for “everlasting” and “eternal” are the same in New Testament Greek, aionion). “Eternal punishment” does not specify what the punishment is, whereas “everlasting destruction” is more explicit, revealing the nature of that punishment to be destruction (as opposed to anything like on-going suffering). But if we follow the lead of Peterson and Moo, drawing comparisons between Paul’s language and the language of the Hebrew Scripture, the point is only amplified (which, doubtless, was not their intention). Their efforts to find another meaning based on Isaiah 2 does not succeed, because that passage never describes anyone being removed from God’s presence. Instead it describes people who wish that they could live outside of God’s presence.
So then, whether taken on their own, or in comparison with other language used in the New Testament, or viewed through the lens of Old Testament prophecy, St Paul’s claim in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 – on the face of it – constitutes a problem for the traditional view of eternal punishment, strongly favouring annihilationism.
- F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 152.
- Robert Peterson, “A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:4 (1994), 555.
- Hank Hanegraaff, “Is Annihilationism Biblical?” https://www.christianity.com/blogs/hank-hanegraaff/is-annihilationism-biblical.html, accessed 1 August 2014.
- Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (2 Th 1:9). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
- Douglas Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (ed), Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 91-109.
- This work is available online here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/bar/bar082.htm
- The book of Jubilees is available in its entirety at the Wesley Centre here: https://wesley.nnu.edu/index.php?id=2127