The Inescapable Love of God: St Paul and Eternal Damnation

2 Thessalonians 1:9—this is the verse most frequently invoked to prove the thesis that the Apostle Paul teaches God’s everlasting damnation of the wicked. Before preceding any further, I’d like to ask you to read the first twelve verses of the first chapter of this epistle, 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 passage. Hence I was unaware of the difficulty of translating the verse into English. Here is the Greek text and three popular translations:

οἵτινες δίκην τίσουσιν ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ κυρίου καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς δόξης τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ

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)

Three similar renderings—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 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)

Who will pay the just reparation of ruin in the Age, coming from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might (DBHNT)

Now matters are not so clear. The source of the future destruction, punishment, ruination is the face of the Lord and his glory. There is no mention of eternal separation, no mention of hell or the outer darkness. Of course, we still need to ask what Paul means by “αιωνιον destruction.”1

So why the difference in translations? All translations, of course, are interpretations; but the translators of the NRSV, NIV, and ESV have introduced a reading that goes beyond the Greek. There is no verb in the original text that conveys separation or hiding; hence there is no need to read the preposition ἀπὸ as “away from” instead of the usual “from.” The “away from” translations must be judged as speculative attempts to bring clarity to a perhaps less than clear original text. Thomas 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.2

Once we have eliminated the “away from” rendering, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 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. The enemies of the gospel will be destroyed; the faithful, vindicated. 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 (αιωνιος) destruction of the tyrant, and by the everlasting (αιδιος) life of the pious, I will not renounce our noble brotherhood.” This verse is of particular interest because the author uses the term aiōnios to qualify the ruination of King Antiochus but 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.”3

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 Israel’s future 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.”4 The Creator takes vessels of wrath and transforms them into vessels of mercy.

Yet despite the grammatical and exegetical arguments advanced by Talbott and others, we still find it hard to believe that St Paul did not teach everlasting perdition. We remain convinced that he must have taught everlasting perdition. Why is that, do you think?

(22 February 2015; rev.)


[1] Those who prefer an annihilationist reading of Paul also appeal to this verse. They have a considerably stronger case than those who interpret Paul as an infernalist. David Bentley Hart comments: “The whole idea [of hell] is . . . entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint.” That All Shall Be Saved (2019), p. 93. It may also be noted that many New Testament scholars believe that 2 Thessalonians was not written by Paul himself.

[2] Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (2014), p. 90.

[3] Ilaria Ramelli and John Konstan, Terms for Eternity (2011), pp. 49-50.

[4] Talbott, p. 71.

(Go to “The Incoherency of Self-Damnation”)

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7 Responses to The Inescapable Love of God: St Paul and Eternal Damnation

  1. Robert F says:

    We (some of us) remain convinced (or afraid) that Paul teaches eternal perdition, despite all this scriptural evidence to the contrary, because we are afraid that not believing in eternal perdition for those who do not “accept the Gospel” might mean that we do not “accept” it either, and would as a result be condemned to the same fate. We make (eternal) Hell — or are afraid that Hell is — an inextricable part of the Gospel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iainlovejoy says:

      If we had a God who sent people to hell for insisting on believing that he is nicer and more loving than he actually is, then we would be cast into the hands of a God who is an insane sadistic monster anyway, and all pretty much damned regardless. If God were like that you would probably be better off in hell than anywhere near him.


  2. Robert F says:

    And then there is this perhaps not uncommon experience: I talked about my belief in universalism in a mainline — mark that, mainline — congregation adult Sunday school class recently, and got kickback from a former evangelical who said, “That’s not in the Bible, you know.” I made a brief comment it depending on how the Bible was interpreted, but had neither the time nor inclination to turn the class, which was focused on other issues, into a biblical interpretation battleground with regard to hell and perdition. But the feeling I went away with was that this person clearly believed that the authority of the church universal (however he defines or understands that) was backing him up, and that he did not have to justify his criticism of my belief, that whatever justification might need to be given would have to be on my part. It is an uncomfortable position to be in for those of us who believe in universalism, and when we are neither Biblical scholars or theologians, we cannot but help doubting our own position and belief in the face of the smug certainty of those who assume that infernalism is the default and obvious belief of the Church.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. David Collins says:

    I think its based on emotion: God would save that wicked, unrepentant monster? After what he did? Where’s the justice in that?

    Hence, the undying appeal of infernalism.


  4. pleppan says:

    Was just wondering … is destruction possibly only relevant in the material world.?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Alyosha says:

    I was just reading this link, which I found posted in the comments of another post on this blog:

    I know, the guy is anonymous, and I have no idea if his work is cogent, but it would be nice to see some greater engagement with these sorts of exegetical arguments concerning Second Temple Judaism, the Enochic corpus et al, and especially critiques of the work of Ilaria Ramelli. I say this in part because DBH and Talbott have simply won the theological argument. Universalism follows from the vision of God revealed in Jesus Christ, this we know. Now to quell my timid, indoctrinated mind, I request more exegesis.

    Liked by 1 person

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