2 Thessalonians 1:9 is one of those texts which first convinced me to take the idea of annihilation seriously. Not just in isolation, where it seems obvious that destruction due to Christ’s coming is the point, but in the context of what is being said in the first couple of chapters of the epistle. (The NRSV even uses the word “annihilating” a mere eleven verses later concerning the “man of lawlessness,” which is intriguing enough on its own!) The overall impact of the passage I think should give anyone pause about this issue, since it portrays the day of judgment and the fire of judgment differently from familiar expectations from Christian tradition. Too often, our critics treat a single word of this verse as an isolated proof-text, or suggest that’s how we treat it, when of course each side must give due consideration to the fuller structural context.
“Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power”—2 Thessalonians 1:9, KJV
The conditionalist reading is that the glorious presence and power of the Lord causes the punishment of destruction, which is everlasting because it is God’s permanent judgment. Let’s explore how this makes the best sense.
Essential Context: Power and Manifest Presence (2 Thess 1:5–2:12)
From 2 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul connects the suffering of persecuted Christians with their inheritance in the kingdom of God, saying that when God judges the wicked, this will “grant you relief.” Jesus is coming back “on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (v10). It is the day of judgment, and the impression given is that once judgment occurs, the community of the righteous will continue on with their Lord and King, without unbelievers.
When will this be? There’s no room for speculation. It will be precisely “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God” (vv7, 8). This is not metaphor. It’s not apocalyptic symbol. It’s presented as a very real event, known as the Parousia, or returning presence of Jesus Christ. This glorious presence will appear “on that day . . . to be marveled at” (v10). This “day of the Lord” is very much a real future event in the discussion to follow, too (2 Thess 2:1-3). From now until that day comes when Christ intervenes in history, there are forces at work called “the mystery of lawlessness” culminating in the appearance of a “man of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:7, 3).
Speaking of mysteries, it’s unclear why our critics so rarely mention the description of the Parousia in 2 Thessalonians 2:8—
“And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.”
Here, the very appearance of Jesus destroys the man of lawlessness. The NIV translates it as “splendor,” for indeed it is the glorious presence of Christ that is in view, associated with the direct encounters with God’s glory in the Old Testament (sometimes called the Shekinah glory). Many of those encounters involved God killing the unrighteous, much like Jesus is said to kill here. The destructive power issues from the very presence of God, to consume those who are unholy in his presence. That’s why Hebrews 10:25-27, speaking in terms of drawing near to God and being sanctified by Christ’s sin offering (vv1, 14), says:
“. . . as you see the Day drawing near . . . if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
There are “those who shrink back and are destroyed,” it adds, and “those who have faith and preserve their souls” (v39). The theme of holiness in an encounter with God is picked up again in Hebrews 12:10-29, and it culminates in the warning that the heavens and earth will be shaken—as the earth shook at Mt. Sinai—leaving only what is acceptable remaining, “for our God is a consuming fire.”
The involvement of fire in this motif explains why Jesus is said to appear for vengeance “in flaming fire” with his angels in 2 Thessalonians 1:8. The typical destructive power emanating from the glorious presence of God in righteous judgment is none other than fire (divine fire). For example, in the judgment of Aaron’s sons, when “fire came out from the Lord and consumed them” (Lev 10:2). Or in Korah’s rebellion, when “fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense” (Num 16:35).
But the most telling connection here in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 is the inclusion of “the breath of his mouth” in the act of slaying, in conjunction with Christ’s splendor itself which apparently consumes the object of wrath (or as the text puts it, “bring to nothing”). The breath is an unmistakable allusion to the Old Testament poetic descriptions of appearances of God (theophanies), in which a blast from God’s “mouth” (tongue, lips, nostrils) signifies just such a destruction. For example, when the Psalmist writes that the Lord was roused from his heavenly abode, and “Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth” (Psa 18:8 cf. v15). Or when Isaiah envisioned the destruction of Assyrian armies, but also gave us a prophetic type for Gehenna as a valley of fire and sulfur:
“his lips are full of fury, and his tongue is like a devouring fire; his breath is like an overflowing stream that reaches up to the neck; to sift the nations with the sieve of destruction . . . in furious anger and a flame of devouring fire . . . a burning place has long been prepared . . . its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of sulfur, kindles it.” (Isa 30:27-28, 30, 33 cf. Jer 7:31-33)
As we’ve seen, the descriptions of the return of Jesus in 2 Thessalonians 1 & 2 make use of Old Testament motifs describing the manifestation of God in glory and power. Our interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 1:9 should therefore be informed by this context.
More Essential Context: Sources in Isaiah 2 and 66
Absolutely critical for gaining the right context for 2 Thessalonians 1:9, and entirely consistent with the above, is the appreciation of two allusions to the book of Isaiah.
Firstly, the juxtaposition “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” from the previous verse is found elsewhere only in Isaiah 66:15, in the midst of the great final battle scene which Jesus reveals in Mark 9:48 as occurring at Gehenna:
“For behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many . . . And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:15-6, 24)
Secondly, the phrase “from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power” is virtually identical in the Septuagint to “from before the terror of the LORD, and from the splendor of his majesty,” which is found repeated in Isaiah 2:10, 19 and 21, where idolaters are fleeing to hide in caves and holes among the rocks on the Day of the Lord. Paul knows the context—and obviously there is no escaping God’s wrath—so resolves the idea of fleeing and hiding into the inevitable “destruction” to follow.
Before turning to Isaiah to see what is going on there, let’s look at another New Testament echo of the same scene. In Revelation 6:15-16, the people of the earth are likewise hiding in caves among the rocks of mountains, wishing for those rocks to fall on them “and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” The “face” of God here refers idiomatically to the manifest presence of God, as in such usages as Psalm 68:1-2 (“God shall arise . . . those who hate him shall flee before [his face] . . . as wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God!”) and Nahum 1:5-8 (“The mountains quake . . . the earth heaves before [his face] . . . His wrath is poured out like fire . . . with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness”). After this, a scene of salvation, where God shelters the redeemed “with his presence” (Rev 7:15), a probable allusion to Isaiah 4:5-6. Acts 3:20 may also draw upon the positive vision of Isaiah 4, since it refers to the time of restoration given in the prophetic writings (v21), and since the idiom “from the presence of the Lord”—a phrase also found in 2 Thess 1:9—appears in Isaiah 2 in the Septuagint.
“But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed . . . And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them . . . Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made. So man is humbled, and each one is brought low—do not forgive them! Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the LORD, and from the splendor of his majesty . . . 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 splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth . . . Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he? . . . Your men shall fall by the sword and your mighty men in battle . . . In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning . . . Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them, and the mountains quaked; and their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets.”
One thing should be clear from all this: God is not banishing anyone from his returning presence. He’s not sending them away to live somewhere else, nor is He permitting them to find relief from the clear mode of judgment by destruction. Those who try to escape from the terrifying splendor of God’s glory simply cannot. This is significant, because some traditionalist commentators have tried to argue that because they hide in caves, the picture of “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is just one of separation from God’s presence—a point which will be covered in more detail in the second part of this series.
Conclusion: Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence
“Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction [from] the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power”—2 Thessalonians 1:9, KJV
In the above quote the brackets indicate a translational question to be dealt with in Part 2 of this series. The main alternatives are “from” (KJV, HCSB and the more literal translations), “away from” (ESV, NASB, NET), and the NIV’s “and shut out from” (which we will dispute in the next article).
For our purposes here, given the choice between a passive or active reading of what is going on, what should the inclusion of “the glory of his power” tell us (some translations have “his glorious power”)? Surely it’s very clear, in light of all the context we’ve seen, that this power is an expression of the manifest presence of the Lord?! Remember, Jesus has only just burst forth from heaven in flaming fire to inflict vengeance (v8), and as the text continues we soon learn that he will kill the one whom he will “destroy by the splendor of his coming” (2 Thess 2:8, NIV).
So it is that eternal destruction is being issued in power, by or from the glory (splendor) of God’s manifest presence. When considering all of the context, the passive-separation reading should not be a viable option. Regarding those who think that is what Paul is saying, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that a prior commitment to eternal separation is in play.
So what does “eternal destruction” mean, in context? It means just what it means in everyday English (i.e. destruction with an eternal outcome), just as “destruction” in English refers to something that is brought to an end (cf. “bring to nothing” in 2 Thess 2:8). The context we have looked at gives us no reason at all to think that there is some special kind of perpetual destroying process in view, that wouldn’t actually result in something said to have been destroyed.
Postscript: Matthew 25:31-46 and Just What Eternal Fire Is
The above discussion explains a conditionalist reading of 2 Thessalonians 1:9. However, it should not be taken to suggest a sequence where the ungodly will instantly be destroyed at the return of Jesus, like the man of lawlessness, without being given so much as a fair trial, so to speak. The Bible contains a number of depictions of what will happen on judgment day, and they all will finally harmonize. There is certainly room for a deliberative judgment scene, such as that presented in Matthew 25:31-46.
In fact, when we compare the two passages, we see that they correspond. The Matthew passage begins with Jesus returning “in his glory, and all the angels with him,” which is just what occurs in 2 Thessalonians 1, and ends with an unspecified “eternal punishment,” the nature of which is apparently specified by Paul as “the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:9 cf. Matt 25:46).
While the role of the angels isn’t detailed, they are apparently involved in the gathering of people from across the earth, the concept of gathering being mentioned in Matthew 25:32 and 2 Thess 2:1. This may be gleaned from the explanation of the Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:36-43). Assistance in being gathered to where Christ returns makes sense on a practical level, however hard it might be to imagine.
In Matthew 25:31, “the Son of Man comes in his glory” and “will sit on his glorious throne,” where all the nations are assembled (v32). This alludes to Daniel’s vision of thrones and judgment, when the Son of Man receives dominion from the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:9-10; 13-14). Jesus had already promised a throne to each disciple “when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt 19:28 cf. Rev 20:4). When he now explains that he will deliver the kingdom to his followers as their inheritance, that’s precisely what occurs in Daniel (Matt 25:34 cf. Dan 7:18, 22, 27).
There is no direct parallel in Daniel for the statement, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). However, there is an indirect parallel. In the vision, in conjunction with the fiery throne-chariot of the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:9 cf. Ezek 1:4-28), “a stream of fire issued and came out from before him” (Dan 7:10 cf. Rev 4:5). This river of fire may be considered a special preparation of divine fire, emanating from the glorious throne and divine presence. If associated with what Jesus says about the preparation of eternal fire and its purpose, there may even be a connection to Isaiah 30:33’s “long been prepared” (the key term in the Septuagint being the same as in Matt 25:41). Here the preparation is a stream of fire from the Lord; there it’s kindled as if by a stream of sulfur from the Lord’s mouth (Dan 7:10 cf. Isa 30:33, 28).
In Daniel’s vision, a beast “was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire” (Dan 7:11). This corresponds with John’s vision about the end, where the beast and false prophet are “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” while “the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth” of the one understood to be Jesus (Rev 19:20-21). As the vision continues to unfold, we see the glorious throne judgment (whiteness indicating glory), in which books are opened, reminiscent of Daniel 7:10, and the ungodly thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15).
What Jesus calls “eternal fire” in Matthew 25:41 and elsewhere, then, may turn out to be more versatile than we think. Outside of the gospels, this term only appears in Jude 7, which links it to the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The way in which this “sulfur and fire from the Lord” rained down from above is indicative of how dynamic it can be (Gen 19:24). Fire from heaven—the consuming fire of God—may be considered eternal at its source, without this meaning that any manifestation or emanation of it must continue to burn forever.
Nor does justice demand that it should burn people alive forever, according to 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10. In verse 9, the active participation of unbelievers in the verb means that they will “pay the penalty . . . on that day” (2 Thess 1:9-10, NASB). On that day, according to verse 6 and 7, “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you . . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed” (2 Thess 1:6-7). In other words, the suffering of believers now at the hands of unbelievers will be reciprocated then, with the payment of eternal destruction meted out then too, both aspects of just punishment occurring on that day when Jesus returns. The overall sense is of an eternal fate that is experienced in affliction “on that day.” We may also include from elsewhere other aspects of the judgment day experience, such as terror, shame, anger and regret.
In our quest to understand what is entailed by the “eternal destruction” of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, we have considered the essential context, and also briefly considered some related passages. The more we assemble the full range of relevant texts, the more we may struggle to integrate what is visionary symbol, and what is described more plainly and literally. Descriptive texts should take precedence over apocalyptic ones, however the good news is that if actual destruction is in view, as it is with conditionalism, then both kinds of passages are pointing in the same direction anyway.
In the end, whatever sequence or scheme we may come up with, it seems that everything, including “eternal destruction,” must play out on the Day of the Lord, or what Peter calls “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet 3:7).
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This article is part of a series. Read on to Part 2.