As our church is reading through the New Testament together, I’m pointing out passages that look a little different when you read them with the eyes of a universalist. Today we encountered another, II Thessalonians 1:3-10:
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 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. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
Once again, there are concerns about the way this is translated. The Greek word translated “everlasting” is the same Greek word eonian which means “of the ages,” and “everlasting” is a misleading translation.
I looked over my books on universalism and a few address this passage. Thomas Talbott goes on at great length in his book The Inescapable Love of God, also looking at where the word “destruction” is used elsewhere by Paul and it is a redemptive kind of destruction. George Sarris says some of the same things in Heaven’s Doors, but he’s a lot more concise, so I’ll copy that out here:
In II Thessalonians 1:9, the apostle Paul tells his readers that those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus will be “punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . .”
Those are pretty strong words! If you were punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord, where else would you be but in hell? Here again, the translation into English is misleading.
As we have seen, the word translated as everlasting does not mean never-ending. It means the end is not known. The verse definitely talks of punishment, but it does not talk of punishment that never ends.
The actual Greek text of this verse also does not say that those punished will be shut out from the presence of the Lord. It simply says that the punishment is from the presence of the Lord. Depending on the context, that phrase could mean punishment away from or punishment coming from the Lord.
A few verses earlier, Paul says that God is just and will punish those who unjustly treated the Thessalonian Christians. He’s not talking about punishment that keeps people shut out from the presence of the Lord. He’s talking about just punishment that comes from the presence of the Lord on those who are mistreating His people.
The destruction Paul refers to literally means ruin or desolation. In this passage, Paul is simply saying that those who are unjustly persecuting the Thessalonian believers will experience ruin from the hand of God in the age to come. He’s not talking about endless torment. He’s talking about how the wicked will be humbled before God, and the plans of their hearts will be brought to nothing, as God justly pays them back for the trouble they have caused His people.
Again I’m reminded that the teaching that hell is never-ending torment was not part of the teaching of the church fathers as long as they were native Greek speakers. When Augustine, who did not speak Greek, came to be a leader of the church, he popularized the idea that hell is unending torment.