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?