Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 5)


2 Thessalonians 1:9

This is the verse most frequently invoked to disprove the thesis that the Apostle Paul believed that God will ultimately restore all human beings to himself in love and faith. Before preceding any further, I’d like to ask you to read the first twelve verses of Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians, just so you can put 1:9 in some kind of context. Somehow I made it through 30+ years of active ministry without ever preaching on this letter. Hence I was unaware of the difficulty of translating the verse into English. Here are some translations:

They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (RSV)

These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (NRSV)

They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (NIV)

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (ESV)

Four very similar renderings from four popular English translations. It sure does sound as if Paul is saying that the enemies of Christ and his Church will be eternally excluded from the divine presence. But now consider these more literal translations:

Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (KJV)

who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might (ASV)

who shall suffer justice — destruction age-during — from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength (YLT)

who shall incur the justice of eonian extermination from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of His strength (CLNT)

Now matters are not so clear. One might read these translations as stating that the source of the destruction the Apostle is promising will be the face of the Lord and his glory. There is no mention of eternal separation from God.

And just to be sure we cover the bases, here are two renderings based on the Vulgate:

Who shall suffer eternal punishment in destruction, from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (Douay-Rheims)

The presence of the Lord, and the majesty of his power, will condemn them to eternal punishment (Ronald Knox)

So why the difference in translations? All translations, of course, are interpretations; but the translators of the RSV, NRSV, NIV, and ESV have quite literally introduced an interpretation that goes beyond the Greek. There is no verb in the Greek text that suggests separation or hiding and therefore there is no necessity to read the preposition “from” as “away from.” At very least these “away from” translations must be judged as speculative attempts to bring clarity to a less than clear original text. Tom Talbot elaborates:

But in the context of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, we find no relevant verb, such as “to hide” or “to conceal,” no relevant subject of the action, and no other grammatical device that would entitle one to translate apo as “away from.” In the absence of such a device, such a translation makes no more coherent sense in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 than it would in Acts 3:19, where the wording is identical: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Just as the presence of the Lord is the causal source, or that which brought about, refreshing times for the obedient, so the appearance of the Lord “with his mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Thess 1:7-8) is the causal source of, or that which brings about, the destruction of the disobedient. No other understanding seems to me even remotely plausible. “Destruction away from the glory of his might” simply makes no sense at all in the context, but “destruction that comes from or has its causal source in “the glory of his might” makes perfectly good sense. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 90)

Once we have eliminated the “away from” rendering, 2 Thessalonians 9 ceases to be the decisive text that ostensibly disproves the universalism of the Apostle Paul. Now Paul simply sounds like an Old Testament prophet declaring God’s judgment upon the wicked. There will be vindication for the faithful Church. The enemies of the gospel will be destroyed. Yes, this destruction is eonian (olethros aiōnios), but it is plausibly interpreted to mean “the destruction that comes from God” or “the destruction the pertains to the future eon” or a combination of both. Olethros aiōnios also occurs in 4 Maccabees 10:15: “No, by the blessed death of my brothers, by the eternal destruction of the tyrant, and by the everlasting life of the pious, I will not renounce our noble brotherhood.” This verse is of particular interest because whereas the author uses the term aiōnios to qualify the ruination of King Antiochus, he uses the term aïdios to qualify the unending and glorious life of the martyrs. “Both adjectives refer to the afterlife, that is a future αἰών,” explain Ilaria Ramelli and John Konstan, “but whereas retribution is described with the more general and polysemous term αἰώνιος, to life in the beyond is applied the more technical term ἀΐδιος, denoting, at least in classical philosophy, a strictly endless condition” (Terms for Eternity, pp. 49-50).

Does the eschatological destruction of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 exclude all redemptive possibilities? Nothing in the text requires such a reading. Consider 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, where the Apostle orders that the man guilty of living with his father’s wife be delivered “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” yet despite the harshness of this judgment, Paul holds out hope for the man’s eventual salvation—“that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” And consider Paul’s discussion of the future of Israel in Romans 9-11. The judgment of God may at times be severe, but it remains mercy and is never its absence. In judgment upon their disbelief and for the redemptive purpose of incorporating the Gentiles into his people, says Paul, God has hardened the hearts of the Jews against the gospel, making them vessels of wrath destined for destruction (Rom 9:22). But when the full number of the Gentiles have been grafted in, all Israel will in turn be saved (Rom 11:26). “Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience,” Paul tells the Roman Christians, “so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy. For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:30-32). It’s not just a matter of God alternating between compassion and severity. He always acts in love and from love. He permits us to harden our hearts, both for the advancement of his salvific purposes in the world and for our own ultimate good. “By literally shutting sinners up to their disobedience and requiring them to endure the consequences of their own rebellions,” writes Talbott, “God reveals the self-defeating nature of evil and shatters the illusion that make evil choices possible in the first place” (Inescapable Love, p. 71). The Creator takes vessels of wrath and transforms them into vessels of mercy.

Yet despite all the grammatical and exegetical arguments Talbott and his fellow universalists advance, we still find it hard to believe that St Paul may really have taught apokatastasis. Why is that?  Is it because the universalist reading of the Scriptures is objectively weaker than the traditionalist reading, or is it something else?

(Go to Part 6)

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60 Responses to Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 5)

  1. Dante Aligheri says:

    It seems to me that universalism appears weak to many, not necessarily myself, for two reasons – first, the traditions of the Church (which you have addressed at least with regards to Origen’s so-called condemnation but nonetheless the post-conciliar traditions remain in many minds; I must admit that a Catholic like myself must therefore contend with the post-Schism regional councils of the West, but that is beyond this scope) but, second, God’s actions in the Old Testament who seems quick to anger despite the appellative. Certainly the OT has many references to the progressive overthrow of the false gods and powers of darkness, maybe handful of references to eternal life for the righteous depending on who you ask and, possibly, a few references to punishment after death, and the in-gathering of the nations (but not all Gentiles). The last verse in Isaiah speaks of such punishment without seeming to hold out any hope. After your recommendation, I read and annotated Ramelli’s book over the summer. But it seemed like the universalist Fathers had to heavily allegorize the OT so as to see universalism in it – readings which work canonically but seem to odd to us moderns. Not to go back to Marcion, but, if the NT were read universalist, God’s character and end goals seem much clearer. A non-universalist reading would seem to many to make the OT and NT much more consistent.

    But…it is interesting that post-Second Temple Jewish theology came to see Gehenna as purifying rather than retributive – at least for most sinners although there are definite exceptions for the most heinous.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for the comment, Dante. You are right that a Roman Catholic must contend with Latin magisterial teachings, which is something that we Orthodox do not have to worry about. Perhaps this is one reason why Balthasar never felt comfortable moving beyond his hopeful universalism.

      You are also right that the Church Fathers read the Old Testament in ways that we moderns find uncomfortable and strange. Perhaps they have something important to teach us here. See, e.g., Robert Wilken, “How to Read the Bible.”

      Can you point me/us to the Second Temple writings that speak of Gehenna as purifying.

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  2. Dallas Wolf says:

    Add to this the reality that the consensus of modern scholarship considers 2 Thessalonians to be Deutero-Pauline; quite possibly pseudepigrapha (attributed to Paul but actually written by someone other than Paul himself) by a member of one of his churches. That casts even more doubt on the validity using it to disprove Paul’s view on universal salvation.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The question of the Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians raises interesting questions, at least for the historical-critical reading of Paul. But as an Orthodox Christian I cannot avail myself of this route in my attempts to read the Bible canonically and theologically.

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  3. I have an odd thought, Father. What if the destruction which is “age-long: (if I have gotten this concept right) is the destruction of the Jewish state as the particular people of God? This is the Preterist eschatological view, i.e. that Matthew 23-25 is speaking about the Judgment which was to come upon national Israel via the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

    Could it be that Paul’s worldview was limited to the Jewish nation and God dealing with them for covenant unfaithfulness? If the New Covenant has fulfilled and thus completely done away with (Heb. 8:13) the Old Covenant, then this is an eternal or age-long (speaking of the age of the New Covenant) destruction.

    It seems to me that this view would be able to reconcile the understanding of a punishment which is age long (eternal) with the possibility of universal salvation for individuals because the destruction is being mandated upon a nation, not upon people. The people in that destruction partake of it not as eternal to their souls, but as part of not turning from the sins of Jerusalem, which Christ wept over in Matthew 23.

    Just some thoughts as I keep kicking this can down the road. I wish I were more erudite in Greek.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Interesting question, Edward. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright has, for the past two or three decades, been pushing the claim that the eschatological predictions of Christ are to be properly understood with reference to God’s historical judgments, e.g., the destruction of the Temple. But can the parable of the Sheep and Goats be properly interpreted in this way? I don’t know. Perhaps those who are acquainted with Wright’s writings might comment further.

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      • Grant says:

        Well I’ll try and give my understanding of Wright’s position on these things:

        Wright, along with a few others, have been arguing for the apocalyptic aspects in the gospels, both within the narratives as a whole and specific actions, the symbolism of events and of course parables, as a way of both proclaiming that Israel’s hope was arriving in and through Jesus of Nazareth and His ministry, where He takes the title of ‘son of man’d which had been an apocalyptic description of Israel (reading Daniel promising the vindication of the human one over the beasts the pagan nations had becoming. bringing in themes of Genesis), and applies to Himself, it’s representative to stand for it, and the one through whom it’s hope and vocation would be realised at last, and through whom Israel would become Israel.

        This would be through His life, death, resurrection and ascension etc, but giving a new way of understanding that hope, how it will come about, just who is vindicated, who God’s people are, and just how the Kingdom comes and what it looks like, what it looks like when YHVH becomes king and the forgiveness of sins comes, and what it looks like to be God’s people. This also relates to warnings to keep following bring the Kingdom of God in ‘as the lords of the Gentiles’ do, either through adherence to a now corrupt Temple system, Herodian kingship and/or Rome that harboured and inflicted injustice or tyranny. Or through violence, the way of the revolutionaries and others who waited for this (‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force’ in Matthew 11:12), that this would not be God’s place of dealing with Israel and humanity and that continued pursuit of this path will manifest the consequences of that destructive path and of missing of the Kingdom and God’s visitation with the visible destruction of the symbols of Temple and Jerusalem itself becoming a like the rubbish heap of Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom when trying to be like the nations of the Gentiles those pagan empires come and respond in kind and do what empires always do and destroy.

        This idea means that these events, and particularly the parables such as in Matthew 25 are discussing in this view the events that happened (Jesus royal entry into Jerusalem, His weeping over Jerusalem, His symbolic act of judgement in the Temple, the context of which the question prompting the parables come, and what is about to happen, giving context to what is coming in the gospel. The parables would represent the promised coming of YHVH to Zion , to His city, people and Temple, announcing the long hoped rescue and vindication, but it functions not only in bringing in the hopes set out in Isaiah 40-55 but tempering this with the warning of Malachi 3:1-3, that Lord whom you seek shall stand before His Temple, but who can stand before Him in His appearing? Israel’s aspirations nationalist aspirations and it’s violence and hope for martial victory over it’s enemies will be unfulfilled, the faithlessness of the Temple hierarchy for their waste of God-given resources and calling and their injustice is now being judged, and those ways will lead to destruction. It is an event of judgement for those who have not responded faithful to Israel’s commission, that those who would be vindicated would be those who would respond to the divine summons, rejecting Him and His way of peace, but continued to pursue a path of destruction will find it in their attempts to establish the Kingdom in other ways, issued in Jesus’ kingdom announcement and inauguration, and that this is now happening. In Jesus now, and not the Temple, was where the Presence of God was to be found and located among His people, that it had left the Temple altogether and was a direct confrontation with it, a direct challenge to Temple power base, and beyond to Herod and to Caesar.

        This is carried on through to the Last Supper, the trial where the Lord declares authority of the Temple, including it’s destruction, which illicits the response that this could only be because Jesus believed Himself to be the Messiah, to which Jesus answers yes, and that they will see Him vindicated, enthroned at the right hand of Power, coming ‘in the clouds of heaven’, a reference to ‘the one like a son of man’ coming before the Ancient of Days and being vindicated, and given authority over the beasts, the pagan empires of the world, the hoped for vindication of Israel over the nations, now in Jesus Himself. He this then crucified and crowned as the King of the Jews, what Pilate intends as mockery not only of Jesus but of Jews as a whole, is instead shown to be the truth, this is Jesus coming into His Kingdom, His victory over His enemies, and YHVH rescue, and coming as King in and through Jesus. And this is demonstrated in the resurrection where Jesus is vindicated and the charges against Him of being a false Messiah and prophet are shown to be false as God reverses the verdict, and as Paul said in Romans 1:4 ‘who was declared the son of God in (or with) power, according to the Spirit of Holiness, the resurrection from the dead’ (where son of god, was a title of the Messiah, as well as a title claimed by Caesar, even before the other meanings it would be found within this) and initiates the resurrection of the dead through Jesus, beginning with Him, and culminating with those following later. Here and the ascension to follow. implied in St Matthew’s gospel and depicted by St Luke in Acts where the Danielic imagery is directly drawn upon and emphasized with Jesus taken up and hidden by a cloud bring in the image of the one like a son of man rising up to the Ancient of Days, vindicated and taking His place of the Lord of the world. In St Matthew is stated with the final resurrection meeting in which Jesus tells the disciples that all power in heaven and earth is His, and will work through them as He sends them out to the nations, as ambassadors declaring and bringing in the Kingdom and declare the new lord of the world and the new way of things to the world, calling the world to allegiance to it’s true King and to the new life.

        This brings us back to the parables that work together to set the scene and help to prepare the disciples and the young Church, and having seen the vindication of Jesus, was also establishing the fact that this vindication and revelation of judgement would be underlined upon the current Jerusalem leadership and violent movements attempting to take over and war on Rome, when it’s destructive path would culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and their rejection of the path and rescue of God and the calling to be Israel embracing a path of destruction in the belief that their way would bring the Kingdom would reach it’s final act, emphasising God’s Presence was not there, and showing clearing His judgement upon the current system, and emphasis the vindication of Jesus and His people as the true Israel. There is a time lag between the vindication of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem, which would be a period in which Jesus’ followers would be open prey to the deceit of false Messiahs and prophets (the many kingdom of god movements for violent revolution in Judea coming to a head in the Jewish War), and would face a period of great suffering. These parables served as a encouragement to disciples (and the early Christians reading the gospel) and a warning to the rest of Israel to depart from destruction before it was to late, where the result of destruction, of the rubbish of Gehenna would be the fate of Jerusalem, when it was destroyed, the events infused with their theological meaning through the metaphor-language of apocalyptic, as the heavenly perspective of events in unveiled.

        And here the parable of the judgement of the sheep and goats links into and is part of the discourse and parables before it, and is focused at addressing His disciples and Israel, which remains the focus, addresses one aspect of the hope of what would happen when YHVH returned as King. This traditionally would be Israel’s vindication which also involved the judging of the nations, of the pagan empires who had oppressed Israel. The nations bring brought to book for how they had treated Israel, and judged in that light however Wright would advocate that Jesus in continuing the them in relation to the previous parables is challenging this expectation as it stands, redefining just who is the true Israel, and that when the King is vindicated and YHVH returns in and through Him, and the nations are called to respond to the new King and the Kingdom now established, preparing and giving context to the end of the the gospel in which this happens with Jesus resurrection and sending out the disciples to make disciples of all the nations, and announce in word and action the new Kingdom and way is now in effect.

        And it declares that the judgement is revealed when the gospel is announced in how people respond to those Jesus identifies with, and that these are, both those in need and those who respond are revealed the true Israel, and those who are not, and by whom the judgement is revealed, in the dynamics of the life of the Kingdom found in Jesus, as St John’s Gospel has it, the light reveals the darkness and reveals who is and does respond to God’s rescue and Lordship of Jesus and therefore is the true Israel and who is not, to remains not. And being focused as a message to Israel, re-defining and rejecting the view that the imminent coming of YHVH to Zion would lead to the nations being judged just in terms of how they treated Israel and being judged also by Israel, those who continued on this path of destruction would not find themselves as Israel and being part of the vindicated people of God, even being born Jewish, but instead revealed to be under a path to destruction that would be revealed in the destruction of Jerusalem, the vindication and judgement of God already in effect being emphasised and underlined, the judgement being revealed by the response to the Gospel, to the lordship of Jesus and it’s proclamation in word and life, and those Jesus identifies with, who are refined and revealed as the true Israel by which judgement is revealed.

        Israel remains the focus, as a discourse and warning to His disciples and warning to Jerusalem and Judea, though it expands to include the nations in their response to the gospel, when it is proclaimed. But centrally Wright would have it fit in with the previous discourse and parables, and challenging view that when God returned and the Kingdom of God was integrated the nations would be judged by Israel and brought to book by God for how they treated her, by redefining who the true Israel is, and just who God identified with, and what revealed who was Israel or not. One which those in Judea and Jerusalem might find themselves outside of, and on a continued path of destruction, but this dynamic has continuing reality today, the dynamic response to participation in the life of Christ in those around us, to respond and interact with Christ in them, and them in us, or to hold away from that life and continue to embrace death, at least for the time being.

        Paul’s message itself my fall into this line, in relation to Caesar and the empire around Him, rather than referring directly to the 2nd coming and the state of things then. None of these things in themselves lead to necessarily to universalism, but it does present a argument I find compelling that at least nothing in the synoptics placed into a 2nd Temple Jewish environment and heard from that 1st century perspective, is referring to the final state of things at all, the events depicted given their theological meaning and perspective using apocalyptic language, and addresses dynamics now and not at least directly the age to come. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the Church has given true readings from these in later centuries assuming these are teaching about the 2nd coming, but not that this is what Jesus is addressing directly in the synoptics or in the parable of the sheep and goats.

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  4. Isaac says:

    As an aside, most Jews would find the Christian reading of the OT as about Christ as a very odd reading of their scriptures. I am not sure why finding universalism there would be problematic after that.

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  5. Yes, this destruction is eonian (olethros aiōnios), but it is plausibly interpreted to mean “the destruction that comes from God” or “the destruction the pertains to the future eon” or a combination of both. Olethros aiōnios also occurs in 4 Maccabees 10:15: “No, by the blessed death of my brothers, by the eternal destruction of the tyrant, and by the everlasting life of the pious, I will not renounce our noble brotherhood.”

    I suppose the question here is what implications this would have for 4 Maccabees 12:12, which is the most explicit of 4 Maccabees’ repeated and parallel contrasts between the punishment of the tyrant and the reward of the righteous: ἀνθ’ ὧν ταμιεύσεταί σε ἡ θεία δίκη πυκνοτέρῳ καὶ αἰωνίῳ πυρὶ καὶ βασάνοις, αἳ εἰς ὅλον τὸν αἰῶνα οὐκ ἀνήσουσί σε. My Greek is not good enough to navigate all these supposed subtleties in possible meaning; I’m not sure what the proposal would be for understanding the “whole eon” that clarifies the sense of the punishment here.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For those who like close exegesis of texts, take a look at Jason Pratt’s reading of 2 Thess 1:9.

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  7. Mike H says:

    The parallel of 2 Thes 1:9 and Acts 3:19 seems particularly strong.

    “Why is that? Is it because the universalist reading of the Scriptures is objectively weaker than the traditionalist reading, or is it something else?”

    I think there is more going on here. #1 – Beyond a “traditionalist reading”, it’s the power that “tradition” itself wields culturally. #2 – Eternal hell (whatever form it takes – there is no shortage of interpretations) has “staying power” for lack of a better phrase. The slightest possibility of such a future existence seems to lead to such fear that it seems unrealistic to expect it to be dismissed. It has deep roots and once the seeds of such a concept have been planted and begin to sprout, it’s tough to uproot.

    In one sense (at least in these matters) it’s understandable that pastors/clergy can’t afford to take the risk that the whole eternal torture thing was just a big misunderstanding – a false positive. Even if all texts and traditions can be adequately explained (or dismissed for whatever reason), is there always a part of you that says “But, what if I’m wrong?”. Perhaps that’s a question that is so important to me at this juncture because this is very new to me.

    I keep coming back to this – what is the foundational truth? What do I take as axiomatic? I REALLY liked this post by Richard Beck today – I Don’t Believe in Universalism (please excuse the link, Father – I just find it very relevant):

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2015/02/i-dont-believe-in-universalism.html

    (Hint: It’s the “ism” part.)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The weight of Tradition is weighty indeed, and it makes me uncomfortable to dissent from the Tradition’s rejection of the universalist hope. Who but the Church can properly determine what is and what is not divine revelation? This was the question with which Newman so profoundly wrestled and which ultimately drove him into the Roman Catholic Church with its infallible magisterium. Believing in an infallible magisterium brings a real measure of peace—until one realizes that Catholics still debate tooth and claw the meaning of infallible dogmatic statements. I guess there is no real escape from “private judgment,” as Newman called it. Perhaps one day I might write something about this, and we can discuss it further.

      Anyway, I agree with Beck that the key issue is belief in God as absolute and unconditional love. I believe this is the heart of the gospel, yet it’s not at all clear to me that the Church has always enjoyed a firm grasp of this truth. If God permits his creatures to do irreparable, irredeemable harm to themselves—which is what the traditional model of hell declares—then is God’s love truly absolute and unconditional?

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      • brian says:

        These are all both interesting and fundamental questions, Father. I think about them a lot, myself. Below are some (lengthy) reflections.

        My own ecclesial experience has been generally disappointing. Also, I am by nature reclusive. I’m not happy around a lot of people — and my own views are always “out there.” I don’t even share half of them here, and this is a place I feel most free to be expressive.

        So, while it seems to me that some kind of magisterial voice is necessary — and I find it hard to explain the perdurance of orthodoxy (small “o”) otherwise — I dislike the tendency for orthodoxy to become rigid, “sleepy,” full of mediocrity and “just so” attitudes. Yet it won’t do to claim to be able to go off on one’s own spiritual quest apart from the Church. Any personal search rooted in or drawn by the Gospel is intrinsically tied to the insight and witness of the Church. Even if I wanted to reject it’s importance — like Descartes trying to doubt everything, yet doubting in French, a language with history and intrinsic ties to society and the outside world he is purportedly doubting — it’s not really possible.

        What I am certain of, however, is that every person’s faith is a unique, lived experience. No one can believe for you and no one can be satisfied with an answer for you. There are places where the standard traditional answers do not satisfy me. It really doesn’t matter if it is a blindness caused by sin on my part or a genuine area that ought to be open. Well, of course, it does matter, but in terms of my unique search, I have to find the path to the truth personally and that necessarily involves struggle. To me, most people aren’t struggling enough. Most are content and don’t see the questions or problems or ambiguities that I think they ought to see.

        If God is not absolute and unconditional love, then the Gospel is a lie.
        The god of Aristotle or the One of neoplatonism is not a creator. The world we know is not chosen, it is not contingent. In contrast, the creation of the biblical God does not have to be.

        I am brought to the complaint of Ivan Karamazov, which David Bentley Hart rightly notes is not, strictly speaking, atheism, and the kind of anguish before evil that could only arise in the context of a Christian notion of divinity.

        God did not have to create, but He did.

        Philip Sherrard says God did have to create; not through inner compulsion, not through ontological necessity; God, of course, is supremely free, but God had to create the way an artist must create. The possibility of the world arose in the simplicity of God and it’s very unique, fragile loveliness called to Him and God could not allow such a world not to be. Naturally, this is an analogy one must treat with the usual necessary care and caveats — for God is always both unutterably near and far from everything we know and understand. (There could not have been a temporal moment before a universe was created; a time when God considered whether or not to create.)

        So, God is free, free in a manner no creature is ever free; but bound in the way that love is bound, freely, but passionately — the unnecessary is nonetheless, absolutely, desperately necessary. God is fundamentally agapeic — he gives as gift; he doesn’t need the kind of lick spittle obeisance that Nietzsche thought he saw in Plato and the Jews and the Gospel. He isn’t jealous of his glory in the anthropomorphic sense that a Calvin idolatrously imagines. What looks like indifference in this world, the absence of God, is a gentle, mysterious patience that nurtures everything to life. (This, if the gospel is true. All those other possibilities are only true if something else is true.)

        And yet, if each unique, unrepeatable part of creation, down to each single blade of grass, as Nicholae Berdyaev says, is infinitely precious to God; one gets this sense in Thomas Traherne as well, and many others, then there is also eros in God, but not the kind of erotic need that a Hegel will posit, where God needs the world in order to realize his own perfection.

        A digression, all that, perhaps, but what I want to suggest is the paradoxical quality of God’s relation to his creation — and also the irreplaceable, precious quality of everything called into being from nothingness. If such is the case, and God did not/did have to create, how could this God reconcile Godself to the loss of anyone or anything? If we, finite creatures, though mysterious, with a center, a soul, that embraces the entire universe and comes from God, can have compassion on an animal, a flower, can come to have affection for an artifact, a chair, for instance, is God less tender?

        Would such a God consent to make a universe where the cost would be the loss of any such good? A beautiful, eternal creation, ultimately, but some hell where some creatures are abjured as “necessary, unending loss.” Think of nature and it’s endless cycle of birth and death. Think of a single sweet dog or horse or cat. Doesn’t the heart protest that any creature should die? It is only the callous or the obtuse who do not. Death is an abomination. It should not be. Can the good God reconcile an eternity of joy that required a possibility and then, the de facto realization of an everlasting second death for a beloved creature?

        Ivan Karamazov could not consent to a heaven built on the tears and degradation of a single child. He could not countenance the reconciliation between a monster and his victims. This is a slightly different question, though it also goes to a kind of instinctive feeling of justice that the monster should be in hell. And the monster should be in hell, though perhaps the person can be separated from such.

        Regardless, I cannot imagine absolute, unconditional love who is supremely free to create or not to create, creating with foreknowledge or even hypothetical knowledge of the possibility of any creature coming to a permanent end in misery or, as some would have it, annihilation. God risks, but he does so knowing that in Christ he will see it through. The Holy Spirit, as Bulgakov suggests, is kenotically present everywhere, awaiting the age where all things shall be made new.

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        • Jonathan says:

          It astonishes me how nearly this expresses my own feelings and experiences. I’m sure others will read your reflection and feel the same. So, thank you. Our minds may form themselves largely in opposition, but the heart craves to find an echo of its own cares. I imagine that even for members of traditional ecclesial bodies (I’m not, at present, such a person), the life of faith is often terribly lonely.

          The only personal conviction I can adduce relative to the extraordinarily articulate and multifaceted discussion of universalism that’s been going on here, runs something like this: If eternity bears any relation to temporality, then our eternal lives are always already, to use Ricoeur’s phrase. It is hard for me to convey this belief in philosophical-theological language. Partly this is because I’m not adept in that discourse, and partly because that discourse cannot be adequate to the matter at hand. Universalism is not really an argument, it is a feeling, one ultimately indistinguishable from the experience of personal forgiveness. I know I have failed catastrophically in my life, even if on paper I’m no great criminal and am accepted socially. Most of the time that is how my failures, my sins, appear to me, how I live them. But sometimes, perhaps in the very nadir of error, I have experienced forgiveness that is most certainly not me forgiving myself — it is my conscience that condemns me in the first place, and the same judge cannot at once pardon and condemn — or even the one I’ve wronged turning the other cheek. No, it is something far profounder, and it is like looking into another world — into the eschaton. And when even I, in my absurd ignorance and folly, am permitted an intimation of this reality, it is something I cannot help but perceive to be true for everyone and all time: in other words, I perceive that it simply is reality. I don’t know how this can be, or even precisely what I mean by forgiveness. It has something to do with our not really being ourselves, but part and parcel of each other (to steal a bit from Emerson, who said the same thing when he said we are “part and parcel of God”).

          This line of thought — rather, this feeling that I later translate into a line of thought — always leads to intellectual trouble. On the one hand it seems to want to pardon sins and failures immeasurably more vicious (apparently) than my own; on the other hand, it tends to posit the Kingdom of God as some sort of transcendental version of prudish, teetotaling “good Christian living.” If the eschaton means the pardon, or at best the consignment to oblivion, of terrible evil, then it can hardly satisfy those who hunger and thirst for justice. And if it consists only of all the nice, respectful deeds done on earth (count them on your two hands), then most of us will, with Huck Finn, prefer “the other place.” There is a disturbing way in which error and disaster are precious. Somewhere the ideas of apokatastasis and the felix culpa are contiguous. . . But this is, like I say, getting to the confusion my simple wits run into when I try to systematize God. In the pitch of life, whether it is apparent failure or apparent triumph, the love of God is clear, if only for an instant. The trick is to recollect it in tranquillity — or complacency.

          How one translates this fundamental insight — and others, such as the intuition of beauty — into a code for living (never mind a series of rational propositions), is where things get really complicated. But that all sound doctrine, whether or not those who devise it so argue, must be based on intuition and insight: this I can’t doubt. This still leaves one in the position of having to judge others’ insight. I can’t say exactly how I do this. I’m reading S L Frank right now, and find him illuminating on the problem. But with arguments there are always counter-arguments. One would rather live than argue. This would apply to universalism as well. Don’t make it an -ism. This poor saeculum has enough of them already. Simply live as if God may be all in all.

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      • Mike H says:

        In my protestant tradition I haven’t encountered the same Tradition (capital T) as my catholic/orthodox brothers and sisters. But there is tradition nonetheless, and it’s powerful. Catholics may argue over infallible rulings, while Protestants argue over the nature of Biblical inspiration (verbal plenary?) and what it means for it to be “authoritative”, and even when that’s settled (which it’s not) there’s the question of why there is staggering disagreement over what the Bible actually authoritatively says. Anyone who has read The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith (who interestingly converted to the Catholic tradition after writing it) knows how messy it can get. So yes, it doesn’t seem that there’s any way to avoid “private judgment”, no matter the tradition.

        I don’t think that the Church has enjoyed a firm grasp of absolute and unconditional love because it flat out doesn’t believe that God’s love is absolute & unconditional. It’s very much conditional, and my (reluctant) acceptance of that has allowed me to examine and critique it. When it comes down to it, much of what has been presented as gospel is about defining and meeting those conditions.

        I’ve had some good conversations w/ people along those lines – and it’s fair to say that in some cases there is simply not an awareness that the conditions are there (they can be well hidden), or a non-recognition of certain things as conditions.

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      • Mike H says:

        It’s interesting to me that you ended with a question – “If God permits his creatures to do irreparable, irredeemable harm to themselves – which is what the traditional model of hell declares – then is God’s love truly absolute and unconditional?” That’s exactly what it declares – and I didn’t recognize that for a long time.

        I don’t think anyone approaches the scriptures or tradition (big or little t) as a blank slate – we have preconceptions of what they are, what they say, how cultural context seems to constantly change what something REALLY means, the limits (if any) of what they can say (remember those scammy Bible Code books from a decade ago, where computers could extract coded information from the Bible??), etc. I think the reality is very complex – there is a sense in which the scriptures, tradition, experience, reason are circular. My teachers, experiences and reason shapes the way that I read the scriptures, the scriptures shape my tradition and, in effect, my experiences and reason. A smaller model of that happens within the scriptures themselves where there is a circular thing going on – and I think that Tom T’s inconsistent triad is a great way to examine our assumptions. But the triad can’t provide the starting point – it can show what our starting point already is.

        If one person starts with the sacrificial system of the OT, penal substitutionary atonement, and the sheep & the goats, they’re going to start with a very different hermeneutic than a person who starts with “God is love” and is reconciling ALL things. IMO, there is a complex web of relationships. Even starting with “the gospel” or “starting with Jesus” is tricky because we ALL have different methodologies of defining them.

        That’s where, for me, asking questions becomes so helpful. It’s a good way to identify presuppositions and perhaps what we DON’T believe. Forget about all the technicalities for a moment:

        If we have to answer the question “Does God permit people to do irreparable harm to themselves? Is that a good understanding of God?” with a “no” or even “I don’t know that I believe that”, it’s going to reframe things.

        Does God equally love all people?
        Does God have the power to save all people?
        Does God give up on or abandon people?
        Does God love people in life and then hate them if they don’t respond the right way?

        Yes, we may (will?) end up in mystery. At times I feel like I know LESS after wrestling with questions like this.

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  8. Many good thoughts there, Brian and Jonathan. Thanks.

    Fr. Aidan (forgive me for calling you Fr. Al in other comments–for some reason I was reading Aidan as Alvin!), I was amazed when I discovered the book known as Esdras 4 in my aunt’s Bible containing the deuterocanon because it so mirrored my own struggle with this subject. I bring it up because I was stunned that its pseudo author/main character (Ezra) is wrestling with this same question. I think it would make a good subject for review on your blog, too, if you might be so inclined.

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  9. Thomas Renz says:

    There is a linguistic argument for translating “apo” here as “away from”. Talbott’s reading may well be preferable but his case would be stronger if he acknowledged and engaged with the argument on the other side which would seem to require a discussion of Isa. 2:10, 19, 21. Cf. Rev. 12:14 for what looks like another use of the same idiom.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Actually, Thomas, Talbott does cite Isaiah 2:10, as well as Rev 6:16, in his book, immediately prior to the long quotation I cited in my article.

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Hi Thomas,

      As Father Kimel has already pointed out, I do cite Isaiah 2:10 and Revelation 6:16, where apo quite clearly means something like “away from.” As I first point out, “The sole reason other translators have for injecting into the text the idea of being excluded or shut out from the presence of the Lord is that the Greek apo, like the English “from,” can sometimes mean “away from.” I then cite the two examples above, pointing out that in these texts the verbs “to hide” and “to conceal” determine the correct translation: “When we try to hide or to conceal ourselves from the presence of the Lord—which is metaphysically impossible, by the way—we are indeed trying to get away from that presence.”

      As for Revelation 12:14, the image of the woman flying “from the serpent into the wilderness” is again that of someone trying to get away from the serpent. And similarly for Isaiah 2:19 and 21: although the verb “to hide” in verse 10 is not repeated in verses 19 and 20, the poetic image here, as in verse 10, is clearly that of certain people desperately trying to escape from the terror of the Lord. But how, I ask, is this even relevant to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, where the subject of the action is the Lord himself rather than those who might wish to conceal themselves, if they could, from the destruction that he brings upon them?

      Anyway, thanks for an important comment and for your interest.

      -Tom

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      • Thomas Renz says:

        It is a fair point but there were two things that troubled me slightly about your argument. One is that you are discussing the function of the preposition “apo” in general rather than the function of the idiom “apo prosopou”. Is the idiom used anywhere else in the sense you ascribe for 2 Thess 1.9? The second reason for reluctance to accept your argument wholeheartedly is that you must assume that the phrase functions differently in 2 Thess 1.9 from its apparent source text. This is not of course impossible but given that the overlap with Isa 2 is quite substantial, there seems to be a prima facie case for assuming that Paul wants to import concepts from this text.

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        • Tom Talbott says:

          Hello again, Thomas:

          You asked: “Is the idiom [“from the face of the Lord”) used anywhere else in the sense you ascribe for 2 Thess 1.9?”

          Yes it is. Look at Acts 3:19-20: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence [or face] of the Lord (apo prosôpou tou kuriou).” The wording here is identical to the wording in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. And it makes no more sense, I claim, to translate apo with the English words “away from” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 than it does in Acts 3:20. In both cases the subject of the action (see my response to Jonathan below) is the Lord himself. Just as the presence of the Lord brings “times of refreshing” to the obedient, so it brings destruction upon the disobedient.

          But suppose now that we did not even have Acts 3:20, and suppose also that Isaiah 2:10 is indeed the source of 2 Thessalonians 1:9. I would still see no reason to treat a case where people are trying to conceal themselves from the terror of the Lord in exactly the same way as a case where they are the passive recipients of a punishment that the Lord himself inflicts. Does not the subject of the action make all the difference here?

          Anyway, thanks again for your contributions to this discussion.

          -Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I confess I do enjoy watching exegetical debates, even though I lack the competence to judge them. The Isaiah 2:10 text interests me. The Greek text reads as follows:

      καὶ νῦν εἰσέλθετε εἰς τὰς πέτρας καὶ κρύπτεσθε εἰς τὴν γῆν ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ φόβου Κυρίου καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς δόξης τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ, ὅταν ἀναστῇ θραῦσαι τὴν γῆν.

      And here’s the NETS translation:

      And now enter into the rocks, and hide in the earth from before the fear of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, when he rises to crush the earth.

      I gather from what others have stated that commentators believe that Paul is alluding to Isa 2:10 in 2 Thess 1:9. I take their word for it, but I am struck by the differences between the two texts. The differences are significant enough that I think it unlikely that the grammar of the Isaiah text should in any sense govern our reading of the Thessalonians text.

      I stumbled upon the following article this morning written from an annihilationist point of view: “Everlasting Torment: An Examination.” I do not know what the qualifications of the author might be. Do take a look at what he says about 2 Thess 1:9.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Perhaps the universalist position would be strengthened if a universalist could give a compelling account of what the fear of God is. And I have to say that writing it off as an atavistic remnant from a harsher age, an earlier stage in the development of human consciousness (as happens so often), seems dubious to me. I would sooner want to admit that the fear of God is a misplaced fear for something else that is terribly real — a lapsed natural world, the wages of sin, whatever makes this world sometimes a nightmare, no matter how much we might glimpse something beyond it — than a figment altogether, a complete mistake. Is “the fear of God” just another phrase for the problem of evil? One way or another, what needs to be accounted for in the passages in question isn’t so much a pesky Greek preposition, as it is the experience called the fear of God. That fear is the gist of both what the prophet and the apostle are saying.

        Not sure I understand what Dr. Talbott means above when he says the Lord himself is the “subject of the action” in the passage in 2 Thessalonians. Grammatically the subject of that clause is oitines, “those who.”

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      • Thomas Renz says:

        Fr Aidan,

        The reason for seeing Isa 2 as a source text for 2 Thess 1:9 is that in the Greek it uses the following string of twelve words three times (I hope the Greek posts all right; I cannot do transliteration of the Greek easily):

        ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ φόβου κυρίου καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς δόξης τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ

        The phrase the apostle Paul, whom I take to be the author of 2 Thessalonians, uses is

        ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ κυρίου καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς δόξης τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ

        This is exactly identical except for the omission of “fear”. This omission is probably to facilitate the application of the theophany to Jesus (“fear of the LORD” being so closely associated with the divine name in the OT that it hinders an application specifically to one member of the Trinity, to use our language).

        If all Paul wanted to say was that “they will suffer God’s age-to-come destruction,” why use such an elaborate phrase taken from the Old Testament? Arguably, he did so to link the destruction of the disobedient directly to the coming of the Lord Jesus described in OT theophanic language (highlighting the divinity of Jesus). Such theophanies have the fleeing of enemies as a regular feature, not least in the source text Isa 2. Add to this the conceptual link between punishment and banishment (from Gen 3 onwards) and the fact that ἀπὸ προσώπου (apo prosopou) regularly means “away from” and you have a good case for translating “away from” here.

        There may be a better case on the other side but I felt that Tom Talbott had not truly engaged with this argument. If I could take the time, the next step for me would be to explore the uses of the idiom ἀπὸ προσώπου (apo prosopou). There are some 300 occurences in the OT, if we include Judith and 1 Maccabees. By no means all of them carry the sense “away from” rather than “from” but probably a good many of them. There are half a dozen occurences in the NT of which Acts 3:20 seems to be the only one for which an “away” notion can be excluded. I noted Rev. 12:14 in particular because the phrase is at some distance from the verb (“fly”) which may suggest that ἀπὸ προσώπου (apo prosopou) might carry an “away from” default sense. If Tom Talbott could cite examples where the idiom is used to introduce the agent or source of an action, it would strengthen his case.

        In addition, given that we all agree that the string of words in Isa 2 means “away from…”, it would strengthen the case for the alternative reading, if we could identify other examples, especially in 2 Thessalonians, where Paul takes a phrase from the OT and twists it so that it functions differently grammatically.

        (Btw, I did not take the time to read Steve Scianni’s essay in full but a glance at it does not inspire confidence. Someone who speaks about translators adding a comma and an “away” that is not there in the Greek text does not undertsand how language works – or at least does not understand it in the way I do. We first have to understand the Greek, then we decide on how to translate it. The idea that something that looks more like a “concordant version” – allegedly rendering the Greek word by English word – is a more accurate translation is erroneous and dangerous.)

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      • Mike H says:

        Thanks for this Father. A few thoughts that I had while reading this:

        1.The author makes a pretty good case that “away from” makes no sense given the context of 2 Thes 1, regardless of any connection to Isaiah 2. Way out of my league here though.
        2.There is no “free will” theodicy of hell here in his view. Nothing here that would indicate that “the doors are locked on the inside”.
        3.The authors section on 2 Thes 1 (and the other references scattered throughout – both NT and OT) are a sobering reminder of just how much violence and death is in the Bible – particularly the OT. It’s no wonder that the expectation of the Messiah was that he’d come as a death dealing terminator (or will come as a terminator the SECOND time). This is where a verbal plenary inspiration approach – where the text and narrative flow of scripture is flattened out into an Engineering Manual of Theology – is problematic. Christ is the hermeneutic.
        4.The way that this author sees 2 Thes 1 (and many other sections), there is no allusion to any possibility of CORRECTIVE punishment. It is seen as “justice” and it is purely retributive, plain and simple. To quote:

        Verse 8 – “The Lord will deal out retribution. That is to say, retribution and destruction are coming from God. He is giving out punitive vengeance and to say this destruction is a shutting out from God’s presence misses the imagery entirely – it is a violent and wrathful event dealt out by Christ”

        Verse 9 – “Paul means that Christ in blazing fire, with mighty angels, dealing out retribution, will destroy sinners using his strength.”

        And plenty more.

        Indeed, there is NOTHING in 2 Thes 1 when taken as a standalone theological statement of fact that indicates to me anything other than retributive punishment. One would have to look elsewhere to see “corrective punishment” IMO.

        5.Regardless of the “away”, I still see “aionios” as hugely important. The writer of this article does concede that it can mean different things in different contexts. In this case, he sees it as relating to a finished action, not an eternal ongoing action.

        6.My own thoughts here – and disclaimer, I have no credentials to exegete anything whatsoever. Many scholars, NT Wright pops to mind, believe that when a biblical author references a single verse (a verse that seems to correlate to Isaiah in this case) that there is a larger purpose for that – to directly connect to some idea in that section – at times to redefine something in light of Christ. I don’t buy that in every case as I’m thoroughly convinced that most of these 2nd temple writers would get a big fat F in Bible for not obeying the historical critical method – they weren’t afraid to change meanings. But suppose it’s true in this case – what does Isaiah 2 actually say? Well it starts with the beautiful vision of a future existence where “nation doesn’t take up the sword against nation” and the nations “will beat their swords into plowshares.” The center of this new world is the “mountain of the Lord’s temple” and all nations will stream to it. So far so good – sounds nice.

        Then we get to the 2nd part on Isaiah 2. This is where we see the “judgment” language. Is the shalom referenced in the first half of Isaiah connected to this, or are they completely disconnected from one another? Now I’m not generally cautious of a “plain reading” because there are always language barriers and cultural backdrops that are ESSENTIAL. But when I look at this section without bringing any preconceptions, what I see isn’t any reference to eternal hell after death or annihilation. This is imagery. I see ,what looks to be somewhat poetic with a lot of repeated phrases, about the “destruction” of those obsessed with wealth, greed and pride. “Proud men will be brought low, arrogant men will be humiliated.” In my view, the men who are trying to “escape this judgment” are trying to hang onto those things. They climb into caves to try to hang onto them. To me though, I hear echoes of “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” from the gospels – the undertones are of a “new world”. This way of looking at it doesn’t necessarily rule out eternal conscious torment, conditional immortality, or universalism, but it very well might suggest that there is a CORRECTIVE component – that the torture or non-existence of humans isn’t the end game. I can say that at a high level, but it’s admittedly difficult to look at individual isolated texts and see that.

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  10. Tom Talbott says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    You wrote: “Not sure I understand what Dr. Talbott means above when he says the Lord himself is the “subject of the action” in the passage in 2 Thessalonians. Grammatically the subject of that clause is oitines, ‘those who.'”

    Yes,perhaps I should have expressed myself more clearly. When I said that the Lord himself, or more accurately, “the Lord Jesus … inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God” (vs. 8) is the subject of the action, i.e., the action of delivering the relevant punishment, my point was not that “the Lord Jesus” was the grammatical subject of the sentence. My point was that the grammatical subject of the sentence, “those who suffer” the punishment, signifies the passive recipients of a punishment that the Lord Jesus actively delivers.

    Thanks for allowing me to clarify this point.

    -Tom

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    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks. I think I understand your point. However, I’m still not sure I understand the emphasis on passivity. Personally, I would try to focus on the active nature of the passage in question. The verb tisousin is in the active voice, it indicates something one actively does, namely to pay a penalty (in this case, diken… olethron aionion). Yes, a penalty is imposed on one, but for actions one undertook, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. The basic idea is that there are consequences for one’s actions. That doesn’t, to me, imply that one is passive, except in the sense that we all suffer the consequences of our actions. Unless, of course, we don’t. Sentence might be commuted, or someone else might take the bullet for us. But consequence of some kind, for someone, there must be. I think if I was going to fixate on a bit of Greek here, it would be the verb tino, teiso, etc. Wouldn’t a universalist want to emphasize this idea of paying a price, since it is not an endlessly iterative action, but something one does in order to be in good standing again? It would make no sense to pay a price endlessly, because that would mean the price couldn’t really be paid. All the translations are bad. All of them, I say! The Greek verb means to pay a price, to pay back, to pay a debt, etc. Simple as that.

      Sorry this is rather off the cuff. I’m sure the point has been addressed a million times by people more learned than I.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Jonathan, how would you translate 2 Thess 1:9?

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        • Jonathan says:

          I guess I had this coming. Like I say, consequences… Seriously, though, I’ll do it. I find the debate about the preposition apo very interesting in a philological sense. I confess to not grasping its theological significance. It seems to me that the penalty may be both imposed by the Lord at the time of his coming, and consist in a certain kind of separation from the Lord, thus catching multiple senses of apo. When a word is used, all its available senses come into play, whether the speaker wants them to or not. It’s already clear, as Dr Talbott points out, that in the larger sentence of which this clause is a part, the punishment is being meted out by the Lord. So to construe apo as specifying the agent of judgment seems redundant. Looking quickly at common translations in French and German, I see that sometimes that is the preferred translation; sometimes it’s not. Anyway, my version would be:

          “…those who will pay as penalty eternal destruction, away from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his strength…”

          I’m just going with the usual “eternal” for aionion here. I don’t believe it has to mean unending. I think its meaning is much more mysterious than such a simplistic conception of temporality would imply.

          I’m particularly interested in the idea of paying a penalty. A penalty must be actively paid, and it must be paid with the aim (on the part of payer or judge or both) of reinstating the one who pays into the right order of things. The fact that none of the common translations seem to want to convey this sense is surprising to me. I had never noticed it before. The one who pays a penalty is actively undertaking a task. At least that’s my understanding of the Greek verb, and the usual sense in English. So the punishment laid out here is not just a one-way affair of the Lord acting on the unbelievers, it is something the unbelievers take up — closer to penance, if you like, or atonement, than an absolutely final event. The word for “punishment” or “penalty” here, dike, can definitely mean atonement or satisfaction, i.e. something restorative. As for the destruction part, olethros, it is admittedly a very harsh word. It connotes ruination, death, ravaging plague, complete undoing. The related verb is ollumi, which is pretty much the same story. But I do think there can be a purgative aspect to it. Evil is one thing that can be destroyed utterly.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            “I guess I had this coming.”

            Yes, you did. >:D

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          • Jonathan says:

            Greek has long been my undoing.

            As Talbott points out, there is no word for hide or conceal in the Greek. There is also no word for suffering in the usual sense, meaning some sort of pain. Even olethros is so annihilative that it’s hard to imagine much in the way of suffering being part of whatever drastic process is being described. The sense is more of total loss, disappearance, effacement. The more I read them, the more I find the translations you quoted in the original post to be disturbing. They smack of gloating over the damnation of one’s enemies. To me, the Greek is a little less cruel and more mysterious. I am very far, however, from being a Biblical scholar, as is obvious.

            What I’m curious about is whether my take on the kind of action involved in the verb makes sense to anyone else and might be important, or whether it’s a non-starter. Just for the record, the Vulgate translates it thus: qui poenas dabunt in interitu aeternas a facie Domini et a gloria virtutis eius. Well, qui poenas dabunt is definitely “will pay the penalty.” At least I have St. Jerome on my side.

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        Hello again, Jonathan:

        You wrote: “I’m still not sure I understand the emphasis on passivity. Personally, I would try to focus on the active nature of the passage in question. The verb tisousin is in the active voice, it indicates something one actively does, namely to pay a penalty (in this case, diken… olethron aionion).”

        Here it is important, I think, not to confuse the passive sense of a verb with the grammatical idea of the passive voice. Many verbs have a passive sense that has nothing to do with the passive voice (as opposed to the active voice). When Paul declared, “Five times I have received [active voice] . . . the forty lashes minus one” (2 Cor 11:24), we understand that he was the passive recipient of these 39 lashes; and similarly, when someone suffers punishment that someone else administers, whether it be 39 lashes or the destruction that the Lord himself inflicts, that person is the passive recipient of the relevant punishment. It is not as if the one being punished has a choice in the matter or inflicts the punishment on oneself.

        Does that make any sense to you?

        Thanks for your further reflections.

        -Tom

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        • Jonathan says:

          It does make sense. I suppose I am trying to read in a single Greek verb a kind of Dantesque, purgatorial judgment. If I want to understand the poenas/diken as something other than total annihilation, for some reason I also want to see will and understanding on the part of the one who has to pay that penalty. If the penalty is absolute, as the main tradition obviously holds, then I hardly see how it matters whether the damned are completely passive or whether, as in my scenario, they are capable of some sort of understanding and volition. In fact, if it’s annihilation we’re up against, better to suffer it instantly and unwillingly. But if the penalty is corrective, then as far as I can figure it, there has to be will and and understanding — or something analogous to these in whatever mode of existence the aion is — or the punishment isn’t really corrective. In fact, it would be quite meaningless, since God could just as easily (I presume) skip the punishment — now purgation — and restore the soul to the beatific vision for which it was created (if that’s what it was created for — I started with Dante so I’m sticking to him). Am I making any sense at all? I hope it didn’t seem like I was deliberately confusing the grammatical active/passive with the semantic. I was trying to use the one to shed light on the other, but it may not have been helpful.

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          • Thomas Renz says:

            Jonathan, I do think you’re reading too much into the use of the active voice here. On the one hand, no-one who prefers to translate “suffer punishment” thereby excludes understanding on the part of the sufferer. On the other hand, translating “pay the penalty” does not automatically introduce volition. I’d say the questions you raise about understanding and volition are simply not answered in the text.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Thomas, You say my questions about understanding and volition aren’t answered in the text. I’m prepared to go so far as to admit they may not even arise in the text.

            You’re certainly right about semantics. But I do think it matters how texts are translated. What, if anything, is the significance of translating active constructions passively, whether with respect to grammar or semantics? Sorry to harp on this. I’ve taught writing too many year to not notice this kind of thing. The utterances “They shall suffer” and “they shall pay the penalty” are rhetorically different, even if they can mean the same thing. It could be that no one hears this but me. I’m also bothered by the fact that there is no word for “suffer” in Greek in the passage in question, not even in the sense of “undergo.” One can pay a penalty without suffering, but if the sentence is “suffer punishment” then that option is out the door. So when someone chooses to translate “they will pay the penalty” as “they will suffer,” it is a conscious choice that reveals something about how the translator perceives the text and his own audience.

            I don’t think its a big deal here, though. The olethron aionion is probably too annihilative to make it matter very much. When it comes down to it, I think it’s hard to understand the Greek other than that oitines is the subject that will be completely eliminated — as you point out somewhere below, I think. My tendencies are universalist, but I’m not convinced Paul is, at least not here.

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  11. How credible is the interpretation of Isaiah-in-Paul in the exegeses to which Thomas Talbott responds with his comments on 2 Thes 1:9? However one construes the agency in this verse, it would be difficult to give much weight to a reading of any allusion that is not congruent with St Paul’s usual use of Isaiah in 30 other passages of the seven undisputed letters. That use is better understood today (cf Morna Hooker, Richard Hays) than it was when prooftexts for and against universalism were being identified. Since the apostle habitually cites the scroll to his mission congregations as a narrative of prophecy to which his experience among them conforms as its fulfillment, our reading is probably constrained by by what motivated St Paul– Isaiah’s narrative and his pastoral purpose. Anti-universalism?

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  12. Thomas Renz says:

    It’s interesting that 2 Thess. 1:9 uses two or three relatively rare words. δίκη (justice, right, penalty, punishment) is barely used more than 20 times in the narrower canonical literature (again as much in the Apocrypha, namely in 2 Macc, 4 Macc and Wisdom).

    τίνω (to pay the penalty, to experience retribution) is attested elsewhere in the Bible (whichever canon) only in Proverbs (20:9; 24:22, 29; 27:12). None of them offers support to the idea of “paying” a penalty in the sense of “paying off” a penalty rather than a simple suffering what one deserves.

    ὄλεθρος (destruction) gets 28 hits, a quarter of which are in Proverbs, Wisdom and Sirach. It is contrasted with παιδεία in 2 Macc. 6:12, the former refering as elsewhere to a punishment of destruction, distinguished from the latter which is a punishment that does not lead to destruction. This makes it hard to interpret ὄλεθρος here as a judgement that might be restorative.

    I fail to see what the problem is with reading the second half of the verse as a reference to Isaiah 2. The idea of people not being able to endure the presence of God seems to me relevant to “suffering the punishment which consists of destruction in the age to come”. Because God is the giver of life and Christ specifically is the source of resurrection life, being “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” means death, ὄλεθρος.

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    • Jonathan says:

      “τίνω (to pay the penalty, to experience retribution) is attested elsewhere in the Bible (whichever canon) only in Proverbs (20:9; 24:22, 29; 27:12). None of them offers support to the idea of “paying” a penalty in the sense of “paying off” a penalty rather than a simple suffering what one deserves.”

      You better tell that to Saint Jerome. I was always under the impression that Latin dare poenam has a legal sense of paying a debt incurred in doing damage or harm, as in American legal English one “pays damages.” It doesn’t mean to suffer the open-ended consequences of something.

      If Paul was alluding to the Proverbs use of tino, fine, but even assuming that, it was an allusion, that is to say a kind of innovation. He certainly could have meant it as it was used in Proverbs. But the earlier instance does not absolutely determine the later. He could just as easily have been using familiar language in a new way.

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      • Thomas Renz says:

        The dictionaries render poenas dare as “to be punished” as much as “to pay the penalty” – are you saying this could not be used for, say, the death penalty or banishment into permanent exile? I am not a Latin scholar and don’t have the means to check the usage of the phrase. It seems to me that the English idiom “pay the penalty” could be used for a penalty with permanent effects (exile, death) and given the way Latin dictionaries render poenas dare cannot see why this should not also be true for the Latin.

        (Btw, I do not think that Paul is alluding to Proverbs. I just find it intriguing that he uses two words which are more prominent in wisdom literature than elsehwere – no idea what, if anything, to make of it.)

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        • Jonathan says:

          Indeed, the penalty could be one of permanent duration. Clearly, that’s how it has usually been construed in 2 Thes. It’s just interesting to me that both the Greek and Latin versions use very active constructions, when there would have been plenty of options to render it more passively. My curiosity was piqued by Dr. Talbott’s emphasis on the passivity of the condemned, which I don’t find in the language. I’m no scholar and may have crept too far out on the proverbial limb. I don’t think Paul was a universalist — or rather, I don’t think he played one to the congregations he was exhorting in his letters. But I do think that language is bigger than the one who utters it, and bigger than the audience that hears it, early or late. Historicism and what’s called the intentional fallacy in literary criticism are twin heresies of interpretation. They are both valuable and true, but neither separately nor together are they the maximum of interpretive possibility.

          I don’t know what to make of any of it either. I find the philological exegesis interesting, but I’m sure it won’t resolve anything. Universalists can dig into the language and find possibilities that are there even if Paul didn’t want them to be. Anti-universalists can say, Of course that’s not what he meant, just look at the tradition, etc etc. None of it is decisive, but the discussion can reveal to us where our own deepest sympathies lie.

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          • Thomas Renz says:

            I hear where you’re coming from. I would agree that philological analysis won’t resolve *everything* but I could not agree with the claim that it cannot resolve *anything* but maybe this reveals some of my deeper sympathies – honouring the integrity of texts.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Yes, I may have overstated the case. A common fault of mine. Incidentally, I have always found haunting the exhortation (and resignation?) in 2 Timothy 4:1-8, “the good fight” bit. It seems right to me, yet it also seems doomed to incite the very sort of problem — dissension over the interpretation of the word, proliferation of interpretations — that it urges against. It’s not always obvious how to honor a text or a person. In this case, it’s not quite clear to me what the text is, or in what its integrity consists. Is the text 2 Thessalonians? All the Pauline Epistles? The whole NT? The whole Bible?

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          • Thomas Renz says:

            The integrity I had in mind is primarily to do with the relationships of words in the sentence, including an awareness of idioms, and secondarily with how the sentence fits within the argument at hand. But as a churchman I would also want to ask how the argument here relates to the whole Bible, believing that the church must not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another” (Art. 20 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England).

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  13. Tom Talbott says:

    Thomas Renz wrote: “ὄλεθρος (destruction) gets 28 hits, a quarter of which are in Proverbs, Wisdom and Sirach. It is contrasted with παιδεία in 2 Macc. 6:12, the former referring as elsewhere to a punishment of destruction, distinguished from the latter which is a punishment that does not lead to destruction. This makes it hard to interpret ὄλεθρος here as a judgment that might be restorative.

    Gee, Thomas, I guess I’m not following why you think the lexical considerations you have cited make “it hard to interpret ὄλεθρος here [i.e., in 2 Thess. 1:9) as a judgment that might be restorative.” For starters, the language of correction and that of retribution often get completely mixed up in ordinary linguistic contexts, and this is as true of Greek, surely, as it is of English. A man seeking pure vengeance or revenge may thus use the language of correction: “I’m going to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget!” And a loving mother, seeking to correct her child forcefully, may use the language of retribution: “If you disobey me again in this matter, you will pay for it.” Lexical considerations alone, in other words, will never suffice to establish a theologically adequate theory of punishment.

    In particular, you cannot infer the absence of a corrective purpose from harsh language alone, as Paul himself illustrates in 1 Corinthians 5:5, where he used the same word ὄλεθρος in an explicitly redemptive context. He thus commanded the Christians in Corinth to hand a “man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Here are a couple of points I make about this in my book:

    First, the sin concerning which Paul was so exercised, a man’s living with his father’s wife, was one that he regarded as utterly heinous; it was “of a kind that is not found even among pagans” (5:1). And second, the punishment he prescribed had a real retributivist flavor to it: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (5:2—RSV). Paul went on to pronounce judgment on the man in the name of the Lord Jesus (5:4) and ordered the Corinthians to deliver him “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” Given the harsh tone of Paul’s remarks—as harsh as anything we encounter in the first chapter of 2 Thessalonians—one might never have guessed that Paul intended the punishment for the man’s own good, had Paul not explicitly said so; his tone was not the kind that would suggest a mere chastening of a believer, something akin to parental chastisement. And yet, as frightening as the idea of delivering someone to Satan may be, the resulting destruction of the flesh is precisely what would make possible, Paul seemed to think, the redemption of the man himself. Paul thus demonstrated how, on his own view, even harsh punishment, the kind that may appear vengeful and unforgiving, can in fact serve a redemptive purpose.

    The real issue, then, is what is it, according to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, that gets destroyed and destroyed forever, if you will. Not one word in the context implies that the thing destroyed is an individual center of consciousness. And if we consider this text from the perspective of Paul’s theological discourse in Romans 9-11, we should be able to see, I believe, why the relevant concept of destruction, whether signified by such nouns as ὄλεθρος or απώλεια or whether indicated by a particular use of the verb ἀπόλλυμι (“to destroy”), must itself be a redemptive concept in the end. But all of this is, of course, a much longer story…..

    -Tom

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    • Thomas Renz says:

      Tom, my point about the contrast between ὄλεθρος (destruction) and παιδεία (correction) in 2 Macc. 6:12 is analogous to your observation of the distinction between αἰώνιος and ἀΐδιος. You argue that ἀΐδιος means “eternal” in the fuller sense and that αἰώνιος is distinct from this. More so here where the author of 2 Macc. explicilty contrasts the two, saying let this punishment be considered παιδεία, not ὄλεθρος.

      In 1 Cor. 5:5 the flesh is not given over for ὄλεθρος so that it (the flesh) might be redeemed but so that the spirit might be redeemed. So here as elsewhere what is given over for ὄλεθρος is not redeemed. (I find it intriguing that here and 1 Tim. 1:20 where we have clear examples in Paul of a hope for saving / educating punishment, Paul talks about “handing over to Satan” which is something that arguably cannot happen post-mortem when Satan is entirely bereft of power.)

      You are therefore exactly right to observe that the real issue is what is it, according to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, that gets destroyed. The answer seems to be οἵτινες = “those who do not know God / those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” in the preceding verse. There is no hint in the text that they will be split apart – one part being destroyed, the other redeemed as hoped for in 1 Cor. 5:5.

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        I think we are now getting to the crux of several issues, Thomas, and so I thank you for your latest comment, which I find very helpful. But first I must clear up a misunderstanding. You wrote:

        Tom, my point about the contrast between ὄλεθρος (destruction) and παιδεία (correction) in 2 Macc. 6:12 is analogous to your observation of the distinction between αἰώνιος and ἀΐδιος. You argue that ἀΐδιος means “eternal” in the fuller sense and that αἰώνιος is distinct from this.

        When I read this, I found myself wondering where on earth you got the idea that I have ever made any such observation as that. For you will never find anything even remotely like that in any of my own writings. Some universalists do make such a claim, no doubt, but I never have. Indeed, I tend to be suspicious in general of a heavy reliance on word studies, as if the etymology of a word were decisive for a given author’s use of it. If, for example, one wants to understand how the concept of destruction functions in Pauline theology, whether signified by such nouns as ὄλεθρος or απώλεια, whether indicated by a particular use of the verb ἀπόλλυμι (“to destroy”), or whether implied in a host of other ways, why turn first to 2 Maccabees 6:12? Why not first think through with Paul his own theological arguments: how according to Paul, so I argue, every Christian represents the destruction of a vessel of wrath, how salvation itself requires the complete destruction of something so intimately connected with us that we can refer to it with the same personal pronouns that we use to refer to ourselves, and how Paul could write that “whoever has died [in the sense of having been destroyed] is freed from sin” (Rom. 6:7)?

        Now we certainly agree concerning this:

        In 1 Cor. 5:5 the flesh is not given over for ὄλεθρος so that it (the flesh) might be redeemed but so that the spirit might be redeemed. So here as elsewhere what is given over for ὄλεθρος is not redeemed.

        Of course the flesh is not redeemed; the flesh is destroyed (annihilated), so that the person might be redeemed. But just what is the flesh in the present context? Is it not the very thing to which Paul referred with the personal pronoun “I” when he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live …”? According to Leon Morris, “The flesh in this sense denotes the whole personality of man as organized in the wrong direction, as directed to earthly pursuits rather than the service of God” (see the entry on Flesh in The New Bible Dictionary). So the destruction of a person in this sense is the very essence of salvation, according to Paul; in cases where one continues to cling to the false self or the old person, as Paul called it, the destruction of the flesh may even be experienced as the very destruction of oneself. For what we think ourselves to be, what we call ourselves, must be destroyed and destroyed forever in order for a true child of God to emerge. (This is also relevant, I believe, to the importance of name changes throughout the Bible.)

        We thus approach the very crux of the matter. You wrote:

        You are therefore exactly right to observe that the real issue is what is it, according to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, that gets destroyed. The answer seems to be οἵτινες = “those who do not know God / those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” in the preceding verse.

        Here is where our most basic disagreement may lie, I think. In one sense we agree concerning what it is, according to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, that gets destroyed: it is “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” But we disagree concerning what this expression would signify within the context of Pauline theology. I hold that from a Pauline perspective it is “the whole personality of man as organized in the wrong direction” that eventually gets destroyed, and you seem clearly to disagree with that. I do not claim, by the way, that anything in the immediate context of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 requires such an interpretation; I claim instead that Pauline theology as a whole requires it and nothing in the immediate context of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is inconsistent with it. Neither would I expect my ever so brief remarks here to persuade you or anyone else: that would require far more detailed arguments than I have space (or time) for here. Still, I think it clear that these theological issues are far more relevant to the correct interpretation of our text than how the word ὄλεθρος might have been used in the Septuagint or in 2 Maccabees 6:12.

        Anyway, thanks again for your latest comment, which I found very constructive indeed.

        -Tom

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        • Thomas Renz says:

          Tom, apologies for attributing the distinction between αἰώνιος and ἀΐδιος to you. Fr Aidan was in fact summarising Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan here. I agree that an author like Paul can give terms a particular twist but an examination of general usage is important and the default position is surely that authors use terms in the ways in which they are generally udnerstood (4 Macc. merely providing an especially clear instance). Authors who want to be understood cannot be like Humpty Dumpty. I don’t think you disagree with this. In fact, as you suggest, we may be agreed on the semantics.

          I argue that in general usage ὄλεθρος refers to punishment that is destructive rather than corrective, or, to put it differently, that “destruction” is a good translation a lot of the time. If I understand your latest post correctly, you are not actually questioning this. ὄλεθρος is indeed destruction, even annihilation. But you argue on the grounds of Paul’s theology that annihilation need not be, indeed is not, the end. To use Tom Wright’s “life after life after death”, you argue that there is “life after annihilation after death”. Is that right?

          If so, I wonder whether the question of how best to translate the citation from Isaiah 2 is really as significant as it looked in this blog post. Would it really deal a death blow to apocatastasis if the judgement of destruction in the age to come involved a banishment from the presence of God? On your reading in which there is, as it were, an aeon after the aeon to come, the first “eternity” could be “away from the presence of the Lord” to create a hunger for it which is fulfilled in the second “eternity”.

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          • Tom Talbott says:

            A couple of clarifications, Thomas, lest there remain any misunderstandings between us. I think we agree that the Greek word “ὄλεθρος” and the English word “destruction” are (roughly) synonymous or equivalent in meaning; I think we also agree that such English words as “correction” or “redemption” would represent an utterly inaccurate translation of the Greek word “ὄλεθρος.” So as you put it yourself, we are “agreed on the semantics” here. But now things get a bit tricky. Within the context of Pauline theology, I claim, the destruction of a disobedient person, or someone who does “not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus,” just is the redemption of the individual who was disobedient. Similarly, if every Christian represents the destruction of a vessel of wrath, as I claim, then the destruction of a vessel of wrath just is the redemption of the individual who was a vessel of wrath. When someone becomes a Christian, after all, the vessel of wrath that once existed no longer exists.

            Nor can one block this move merely by pointing to the meaning of “ὄλεθρος,” which we both agree is correctly translated as destruction. For consider the following very old example that is also very familiar to philosophers. The two descriptions “the morning star” and “the evening star” are hardly synonymous or equivalent in meaning. But in fact the morning star, namely Venus, just is the evening star. Or, if you prefer an example that does not depend upon empirical discovery, consider the terms “equilateral” and “equiangular.” These terms are hardly synonymous or equivalent in meaning. Still, an equilateral triangle just is an equiangular triangle; indeed, this is a necessary truth. In no way, then, does the claim that the destruction of a disobedient person just is the redemption of the individual who was disobedient require the assumption that the terms “destruction” and “redemption” are synonymous or equivalent in meaning.

            Here is a second clarification. I never intended my remarks about the correct translation of “ἀπὸ” (as coming from) in the context of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (or the discussion of Isaiah 2:10 in that connection) as a decisive argument for apocatastasis. That would be absurd given that virtually every annihilationist I have met agrees with me on the particular issue of translation here. But notice that, if we translate “ἀπὸ” as away from and “αἰώνιος” as eternal, then we are apt to end up with a very tortured English translation, something like: “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (RSV). And such an English translation seems to imply not only exclusion from the presence of the Lord, but also an eternal exclusion, which is simply too much, I claim, to read into a reasonable translation.

            Hope these clarifications are helpful.

            -Tom

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          • Thomas Renz says:

            Yes, they are. Thank you.

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  14. Out of curiosity, Fr. Kimel, could someone who is saved experience eternal ruin (destruction)? I give the example of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son as an example. For him, his ruin was that he hated that his “atrocious” brother could possibly have found favor with the father in the story. He never participates in the welcoming party in the story and in that sense misses out on the big picture and suffers eternal ruin.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Daniel, we’ll be getting to Dr Talbott’s proposal about how God might save all, even while respecting their personal freedom, probably in the next installment.

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