Everlasting Destruction and Shut Out? – Help me with 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10
Question: As I was reading my bible, I came upon a confusing verse: 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10. In the NIV, part of this verse reads: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.” I am struggling with how to reconcile this passage with the idea that there aren’t any who will be tormented in an eternal hell.
Response: I’m glad you asked about this passage. I honestly think the NIV is a pretty bad translation. That’s because they take liberties with the text to make it understandable to modern day readers. And in doing so, they make it consistent with terrible theology. But, even the more precise translations butcher this text, and I think you’ll see why.
This is 2 Thess. 1:7b-10 in the ESV: “…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed…”
You’ll notice that it reads “eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord…”
The NIV reads “everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord…”
The word translated “eternal” by the ESV and “everlasting” by the NIV is that Greek adjective aionios, which means something like “of the age.” You can make an argument that it should be translated eternal (as in beyond space and time) or everlasting (as in all of space and time), but now notice that these two definitions are then the exact opposite of each other. “Beyond space and time” is not the same as “all of space and time.” That tells us that we don’t have a good understanding of the word or concept. I think that it means something like “of God’s age,” or of the “age to come.”
The ESV has “away from the presence of the Lord” and the NIV has “shut out from the presence of the Lord.” The ESV is a little more literal, but it adds a word “away” for NO REASON other than that it makes more sense to the translator. So, the ESV includes this footnote: Or “destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord.” They do that because they are slightly more conscientious than the NIV translators AND because that is exactly what the text says. A literal translation reads: “They will suffer the punishment (also translated justice and judgment) of eternal (of the coming age) destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord.” In the next chapter Paul says something very similar when he writes that the antichrist (imitation christ) will be destroyed by Christ with the “breath of his mouth and the appearance of his coming” (literally the “epiphany of his effective presence,” the epiphanao of his parousia).
Paul is saying that the Judgment of eternal destruction simply comes from Jesus appearing as he truly is. Paul is describing exactly what happened to him on the road to Damascus. He was an “antichrist,” Christ appeared to him, killed him, and resurrected him. He writes in Galatians “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” He suffered the destruction that comes from an encounter with Eternity. He died with Christ and is rising with Christ, just as he describes in his epistles, especially Romans.
So, eternal destruction does not mean endless conscious torment. It means torment that comes from “The End,” who is literally Jesus. Scripture tells us that God alone has immortality. God is the eternal punishment. The punishment is eternal, because the punishment is God. However our experience of burning, or pain, or punishment, is not forever without end; it is the presence of the end, which destroys temporal evil. And notice that the very thing that destroyed Paul on the road to Damascus becomes his deepest desire worth suffering the loss of all things – that is “to know him.” What once blinded him and made him suffer, has become his hearts greatest desire.