In “from the face of the Lord” Jefferson Vann examines a modern mistranslation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9.
from the face of the Lord
Dr. Glenn Peoples called 2 Thessalonians 1:9 “another biblical reason to give up the traditional view of divine judgement and the eternal torments of hell.”¹
The verse describes those who do not know God, and asserts that they “…shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (KJV).
The presence — or, literally, the face of the Lord — is the cause and source of the destruction in hell.
Traditionalists have taken to reading 2 Thessalonians 1:9 in such a way that it implies separation from God for eternity instead of destruction from God for eternity.
Note the way the NASB translates the verse:
“These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power”
Now, it is certainly true that to be destroyed is to be sent away from the presence of the Lord, because the Lord is everywhere, and if a person is annihilated in hell, he will ceast to be anywhere. However, my problem with the NASB rendering of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is that it seems contrived to me. It seems like the NASB translators were intentionally seeking a translation that left room for the idea of eternal conscious torment.
The ESV does the same thing:
“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might”
Again, as a conditionalist, I see the description of final punishment as “eternal destruction” as destruction that lasts forever — destruction that is permanent. But I wonder why the ESV and NASB translators have decided to break with interpretive tradition and render the final phrase of the verse differently. My suspicion is that they are lashing out against conditionalism.
The NET has done it too:
“They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength”
It seems like the popular translations are ganging up on us. Is there some exegetical work that has been done, proving a precedent for this change in translation? I don’t think so.
The CSB renders the verse this way:
“They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength”
In this straightforward rendering of the text, the destruction is actual destruction, and the cause and source of the destruction is the presence and power of God. That is hell. In hell, God’s power will destroy his enemies. The result is permanent destruction.
But these other modern translations have something else they want to say. They want to say that hell is not really about destruction at all. They reinterpret eternal destruction to mean perpetual suffering. And God’s presence and power are not the cause of that suffering. The lost in hell will suffer perpetually because they have been separated from God’s presence and power.
Now, my question is: Is there biblical precedent for that new twist in translating 2 Thessalonians 1:9?
In the Old Testament, there are four phrases in Hebrew that might correspond with the phrase Paul used:
The most common Hebrew phrase is milpney Yahveh (מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה).
The Phrase is translated variously as “from the LORD” (Numbers 16:46; 2 Chronicles 19:2); “from before the LORD (Numbers 20:9); “at the presence of the LORD” (Psalm 97:5). These are all rare renderings and none of them speak to the issue at hand except for Numbers 14:6.
“Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!””
Since this passage speaks of Judgment, it is relevant for my question. In this passage, the Lord’s presence is the source of the punishment. The plague will destroy the Israelites. It will not separate them from anything but their lives.
The most popular renderings of milpney Yahveh are:
“from the presence of the LORD” (five times).
“Then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”
“And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.”
“Moses then brought out all the rods from the presence of the LORD to all the sons of Israel; and they looked, and each man took his rod.”
“But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.”
“Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.”
Most of these references could establish precedent for the “away from” translation, but it is important to note the verbs associated with the phrase. The verbs “come out,” “bring out,” and “flee” would expect the “min” of “milpney” to function as an ablative.
The significant reference is Leviticus 10:2 because it refers to judgment by fire, and the presence of God is the source of the fire.
Milpney Yahveh is also rendered “before the LORD” four times.
“He shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil.”
1 Samuel 21:7
“Now one of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the LORD; and his name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s shepherds.”
1 Chronicles 16:33
“Then the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the LORD; For He is coming to judge the earth.”
2 Chronicles 33:23
“Moreover, he did not humble himself before the LORD as his father Manasseh had done, but Amon multiplied guilt.”
All of these references apply to the Lord’s presence, not the opposite.
The second Hebrew phrase that might be considered as the origin of Paul’s phrase in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is mipney Yahveh (מִפְּנֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה).
It’s most consistent rendering is “before the LORD” as in:
2 Kings 22:19
“because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before Me, I truly have heard you,” declares the LORD.”
“I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, And all its cities were pulled down Before the LORD, before His fierce anger.”
“Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD; for He is aroused from His holy habitation.”
“You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the LORD of hosts?'”
The most significant of these text is the Jeremiah passage, because it speaks of the Lord’s anger as the source of judgment.
The three other Hebrew phrases appear once each:
minneged pney Yahveh (מִנֶּ֖גֶד פְּנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה).
There is one use of the phrase mineged pney Yahveh that is translated “away from the presence of the LORD.”
1 Samuel 26:20
“Now then, do not let my blood fall to the ground away from the presence of the LORD; for the king of Israel has come out to search for a single flea, just as one hunts a partridge in the mountains.”
These are David’s words to Saul, pleading for his life. It is clear that David expects to die if Saul kills him. He speaks of his blood falling from the presence of the LORD as a description of his death. There is no implication that his blood would be eternally separated from God. Rather, his blood falling from the presence of God is a poetic way of describing his separation from life itself.
me’im pney Yahveh (מעִ֖ם פְּנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃).
“Then the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the LORD.”
me’et pney Yahveh (מֵאֵ֖ת פְּנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה).
“Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”
Again, these might serve as precedent for the modern “away from the Lord” translation, but in all three, a verb indicating that the Lord is not the subject appears.
So, we might summarize the Old Testament findings this way: the only time any of the Hebrew phrases imply separation from God is if there is an accompanying verb that makes it clear that God is not the subject.
The exact phrase that Paul used to describe hell in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (ἀπo προσώπου τοῦ κυρίου) only appears in one other place in the New Testament.
“Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord”
Why did the NASB translate that phrase “from the presence of the Lord” rather than “away from the presence of the Lord”? It is the very same Greek phrase. It is clear that God is the source and cause of both the blessing in Acts 3 and the judgment in 2 Thessalonians 1.
Consequently, we must conclude that these modern translations are stretching the meaning of Paul’s words, trying to make them say something about hell that they believe, but not something that can be established by the use of the words themselves.
For more on 2 Thessalonians 1:9, see:
Instances of mipney Yahveh
2 Kings 22:19
Instances of milpney Yahveh
1 Samuel 21:7
1 Chronicles 16:33
2 Chronicles 19:2
2 Chronicles 33:23
Instances of minneged pney Yahveh
1 Samuel 26:20
Instances of me’im pney Yahveh
Instances of me’et pney Yahveh