God’s Righteous Judgment
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10
It is indeed an honor to submit this article with my congratulations for the 200th issue of Expository Files. I appreciate the work Warren and Jon have done with this project over the years, and pray they will continue to abound in the work of the Lord. – Dan Petty
Paul begins 2 Thessalonians with a word of thanks to God about the Thessalonian saints. He is thankful that they have evidenced a growth of faith and of love toward one another. He expresses his admiration of their perseverance and faith, even in the midst of persecutions. Paul states that their faithful endurance is itself evidence that God’s judgment is righteous—it is right, it is just, it is fitting. This passage serves as a commentary on the rightness of God’s judgment as it pertains not only to the Thessalonians but to us as well, and it offers grounds for encouragement.
There are two groups of people under consideration in this text. There are the wicked—enemies of God and of God’s people. These afflict the saints (v. 6); they do not know God (v. 8); they do not obey the gospel (v. 8); they do not believe the truth (v. 11); and they will be punished with everlasting destruction when the Lord comes (v. 9).
Then there are the saints, the people of God. These are those who have believed (v. 10; 2:13). Evidently they are suffering persecutions and afflictions for the kingdom of God (vv. 4-5) but they have faithfully persevered (v. 4). Their faithfulness shows they are worthy of the kingdom (v. 5), and Paul says they will be rewarded when the Lord is revealed from heaven (v. 7).
In these circumstances, Paul assures the saints that God’s judgment will be just. To the saints who have believed and who have remained steadfast even in their afflictions, God will grant relief. Finally there will be no more afflictions. Christ will be glorified in them (v. 10), and they in him (v. 12).
On the other hand, God will repay (recompense) the afflicters with affliction. He will deal out retribution (vengeance, vindication, justice). Their retribution or pay-back will be “eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (v. 9).
What is the nature of this retribution? What is “eternal destruction”? Does Paul mean annihilation, extinction, or end of existence? Or is he referring to everlasting suffering? The traditional view since ancient times is that Paul is teaching that the wicked will experience everlasting suffering. This view can be demonstrated not only in the Old and New Testaments, but also in other writings of ancient Jews and early Christians.
The answer to these questions should not, of course, be based on a sense of what seems fair to man. Nor is it a question of what God can or cannot do. It is a question of what Scripture teaches God will do.
Some have assumed that “destruction” always means total extinction of something, so that it ceases to exist. There are several families of Bible words (both Hebrew and Greek) that have the basic meaning of destroy or destruction or perish. But each of these words is used in various senses, depending on the context. If one looks in a lexicon or dictionary, this fact becomes obvious. You will also find phrases like ruin, perdition, waste, or to be lost.
This is just as true in English. Because of what a certain person has done with his life, it may be said that he has destroyed his life, or he has ruined his life. This does not mean his life ceases to exist; but it certainly may mean his life has been laid waste. Often lives that have been so destroyed or ruined are restored by the gospel and turned to serve God.
The same is true of many other terms, such as death. Death often means physical death. Sometimes, however, it refers to spiritual death or separation from God, as in Ephesians 2:1. Sin causes spiritual death—separation from God. But through Christ we can be made alive again, so not all death is eternal. If we do not turn to God, we face the fate of eternal death or separation from the presence of God.
The word Paul uses in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 for “destruction” (olethros) basically means destruction in the sense of death or ruin. Paul uses the word three other times in the New Testament.
In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul wrote, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction [olethros] of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” In this instance olethros clearly does not mean physical death—that the sinner was to be handed over to Satan at which point he would die. How could Paul then have hoped for his salvation at the time of Christ’s return? Rather, Paul means that he should be handed over to Satan—put back into that realm where Satan still exercises authority, namely the world—so that his fleshly, carnal mind and disposition might be destroyed. This man’s sin, grave as it was, did not permanently move him beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. One of the purposes of putting him out was to lead him to salvation through repentance.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians Paul warned, “While they are saying, ‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction [olethros] will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape” (5:3). And in 1 Timothy 6:9, Paul states, “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin [olethros] and destruction.”
Sometimes in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) the word is used to refer possibly to physical death. 1 Kings 13:34 says, “This event became sin to the house of Jeroboam, even to blot it out and destroy it from off the face of the earth” (emphasis added). Ezekiel 14:16 says, “‘though these three men were in its midst, as I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘they could not deliver either their sons or their daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the country would be desolate. Or if I should bring a sword on that country and say, “Let the sword pass through the country and cut off man and beast from it,” even though these three men were in its midst, as I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘they could not deliver either their sons or their daughters, but they alone would be delivered’” (emphasis added).
The word is also used to refer to the defeat (ruin) of a nation. Jeremiah prophesied of Moab, "The sound of an outcry from Horonaim, 'Devastation and great destruction!’” (48:3, emphasis added). Of Babylon the prophet declared, “For the LORD is going to destroy Babylon, And He will make her loud noise vanish from her. And their waves will roar like many waters; The tumult of their voices sounds forth” (Jer. 51:55, emphasis added). Through Obadiah the Lord warned, "Do not enter the gate of My people In the day of their disaster. Yes, you, do not gloat over their calamity In the day of their disaster. And do not loot their wealth In the day of their disaster” (1:13, emphasis added).
The phrase “everlasting destruction” is also used to refer to unending suffering in the afterlife. The book of 4 Maccabees was a sermonic writing produced by ancient Jews around the first century A.D. It uses the exact phrase Paul uses in 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “the eternal destruction of the tyrant, and by the everlasting life of the pious…” (emphasis added). The context of 4 Maccabees clearly shows the sermon to be talking about how God’s people who were being persecuted would be vindicated in the afterlife, while the enemies of God would be punished with everlasting torments, as the following examples show. They “will undergo unceasing torments” (10:11). They “will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire” (9:9). “Because of this, justice has laid up for you intense and eternal fire and tortures, and these throughout all time will never let you go…but on you he will take vengeance both in this present life and when you are dead” (12:12, 18; cf. 13:15).
Why is this important? It is parallel to 2 Thessalonians 1 in three ways: (1) it deals with the persecution of saints; (2) it deals with punishment in the afterlife; and (3) it uses the same phrase, “eternal destruction.” This shows us what the ancient Jews believed about eternal punishment. More importantly, it shows that Paul was undoubtedly using the phrase “eternal punishment” in the same way—unending suffering in the life to come.
How else does Scripture define this punishment of eternal destruction? Paul says it is a punishment consisting of being separated from the presence of God (2 Thess. 1:9). It is destruction (ruin) in the sense of being deprived of God’s presence. Unbelievers are not described as ceasing to exist because of God’s final judgment, but rather as being banned from ever existing in his presence.
The Scriptures teach this same truth elsewhere. Daniel declared, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt (12:2). Jesus described the judgment: "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’… These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:41, 46). And Revelation describes the fate of the wicked: “…and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).
So the punishment is right—it fits the crime. Those who refuse to know God (2 Thess. 1:8) and want to be separate from him in this life will be punished by being eternally separated from him in the next life.
Paul says this punishment will be meted out when Jesus is revealed from heaven “with His mighty angels in flaming fire” (v. 7). The language is reminiscent of Isaiah 66, where the prophet describes the divine judgment on God’s enemies (idolators): “For the LORD will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the LORD will be many” (66:16). "Then they will go forth and look On the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die And their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind" (66:24). Clearly the natural reading of these passages is that the sufferings of hell will be unending. This is the way the ancient Jews understood Isaiah 66:24. Judith 16:17 reads, “Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance upon them in the day of judgment; he will give their flesh to fire and worms; they shall weep in pain for ever.” The fire and the worm are used to depict the utter and profound depth of suffering involved in hell—it is both external and internal. And it is unending.
Jesus used this language from Isaiah to warn of the sufferings of eternal punishment in Mark 9:47: “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” At the same time, whenever Isaiah 66:22-24 was read in the synagogue, verse 23 was repeated in order to bring the reading to a conclusion with a word of comfort. "‘And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me,’ says the LORD.”
Let’s end the way Paul does in our text. When Christ comes, he will be glorified in his saints (vv. 10-12). Even if we have to suffer affliction for his kingdom in this life, the rewards we look forward to in the presence of God are great. Let us always live in such a way as to be ready for God’s righteous judgment.
By Dan Petty
From Expository Files 17.8; August 2010