“…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, 8 in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction (olethros aionios) from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2Thess 1:7-9)
What does the phrase commonly rendered as “eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord” mean? Some say it refers to one’s final annihilation while others understand it as describing eternal torment away from God’s presence. In the following excerpt from the book The Triumph of Mercy I demonstrate that rightly understood, it speaks of a temporal destruction of the sinful independent flesh, resulting in restoration.
In chapter five of the Triumph of Mercy and also in my blog The Duration of Punishment, I demonstrate that aionios means “eonian” or “that which pertains to the age/s,” rather than “eternal.” That being so, it is clear that eonian destruction (olethros aionios) is not referring to something without end but rather to a process which endures for an indefinite period of time.
The word olethros appears four times in the New Testament and means: “destruction, ruin or corruption.” It does not mean annihilation, as the annihilationists affirm, since it is used to describe the condition or state of persons still physically alive, or things that still are in existence. 1Timothy 6:9 is an example: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction (olethros) and perdition (apoleia).” Many who have sunken into the world of sin and vices, reach the point where their lives are in ruins. It is not that they have ceased to exist, but they have made shipwreck of their lives. Jesus said that the prodigal son lived wildly. He didn’t come to himself until his life was destroyed and in ruins.
I spent several months learning Spanish in the beautiful city of Antigua Guatemala where there are many ruins. The buildings were “destroyed” by earthquakes but nevertheless they didn’t cease to exist. Some are still in ruins while others have been restored. Destruction is not synonymous with annihilation.
Also, the noun olethros in 2Thesalonians 1:9 militates against it referring to an unending process in the sense of an “eternal destroying.” The morphology of the Greek word “destruction” (olethros) indicates that it is a noun which speaks of the result of an action rather than the action itself, just as our ending –ion does in English. [i] Even if the action should continue for ages, it must come to an end, because the suffix -ion emphasizes the end result and not the process. The word speaks of a process of destroying that must end once the process comes to completion. As the psalmist says: “You turn man to destruction, and say, ‘return, O children of men” (Ps 90:3). Any theodicy which involves unending torment fails to take into account the morphology of the word olethros, as well as the promised restoration of all. It fails to take into account the climax of the ages, prophesied since the beginning (Acts 3:21,25).
In what sense could one suffer temporal destruction resulting in his own benefit? We don’t have to look far in the New Testament to find the answer. Paul gave orders to the Corinthians, saying they were to deliver over to Satan the man who was in fornication with his father’s wife unto a destruction which had a positive result in view:
“In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction (olethros) of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 5:4-5)
Here we see a restorative purpose in excluding this man from the community of the saints. He was delivered to Satan for destruction. However, not the destruction of himself as an individual, but rather that of his fleshly self – his sinful flesh. If one persists in sin, the destruction eonian is for his own good, and not just for the good of the community. In the same way, those who die physically without having died to the flesh, will undergo correctional punishment (kolasis) for as long as is necessary for the destruction of his flesh or soul life. It will be an eonian destruction but not eternal. It may last two or three days, or it may last for ages. What we do know is that it will continue until the fleshly appetites are destroyed, because without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).
The destruction eonian, according to the King James Version in 2Thessalonians 1:9, is “from (apo) the presence of the Lord.” “Destruction From the presence” can either mean “destruction excluded from the presence” or “destruction proceeding from the presence of the Lord.” The New International Version says “shut out from” which conveys the former idea. The English Standard Version also says, “destruction away from the presence” but gives the alternate reading “or destruction that comes from the presence.” Several Spanish versions render it “destruction by the presence” or “destruction proceeding from the presence” (“por la presencia” Reina Valera 1909, Spanish Sagradas Escrituras, Peshitta Español “procedente de la presencia”).
Grammatically, the Greek preposition apo could be translated either way, and practically speaking I believe the eonian destruction will be both “destruction proceeding from the presence of the Lord” and also “destruction away from the presence of the Lord.” In Revelation 14:10 it says that “he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” We will see this in more detail farther along. Suffice it to say for the moment that one’s torment will be occasioned by the gaze of Him whose eyes are penetrating as a flame of fire, exposing all for what it is. They will suffer eonian shame from (or by) the presence of the Lord; which presence is inescapable. But at the same time, they will be away from the presence of the Lord as long as they remain in their condition, because without holiness no one will see the Lord.
Their torment will be both being seen by Him and seeing from afar the kingdom in its glory and not being able to draw near because of their uncleanness which cannot be hidden in the light of His presence. As the apostle John exhorted us as believers: “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before (apo) Him at His coming” (1John 2:28). Here again the Greek preposition apo appears which could express both the idea of shrinking from His presence or being ashamed by His presence. I believe that both meanings apply. If we don’t abide in Him, our shame will make us want to run and hide before the presence of the Lord, just as Adam did in his shame.
I believe that the second death is this eonian destruction both by the presence and from the presence of the Lord. We must all die two deaths. One is physical death, and the other is death to the independent ego and the flesh. Jesus says to us: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses (apollumi “lose, destroy”) his life for My sake will find it” (Matt 16:25). Both deaths are inevitable. It is preferable to die now in this life than to be hurt by the second death after physical death and judgment (Rev 2:11; 21:8). “And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (Matt 21:44). Those who believe in this life and submit to God’s discipline in order to be sanctified will be broken in this life. It is the painful process of death to the soul life and the flesh. But it is much to be preferred over that which awaits those who do not submit themselves under the mighty hand of God in this life. That’s why Paul said that He is “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1Tim 4:10-11). One day every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil 2:11), but more blessed are those who choose Him now in this life.
But who would be the beneficiary of a punishment consisting of an “eternal” destroying without an end? Our God and Father, Creator of all? Is it conceivable that the God of Love; infinite in wisdom, would predestine a cosmic garbage dump in which the majority of His rational creatures will pass eternity in a miserable state of conscious torment and ruin without any plan for restoration? Is it possible that it would give God satisfaction to contemplate the suffering of so many billions of his creatures for all of eternity? How can we reconcile such a concept of God with such passages as the following?
“The Lord is merciful and gracious; slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. 9 He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever.” (Ps 103:8-9)
“For the Lord will not cast off forever. 32 Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. 33 For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” (Lam 3:31-33)
“For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life; Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps 30:5)
“For I am merciful,' says the Lord; I will not remain angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity…” (Jer 3:12-13)
“He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy.” (Mic 7:18)
Have you heard someone speak of God’s “eternal wrath”? Did you know that that expression does not appear in the Scriptures? On the contrary, what we do see is that His wrath is only for a moment in comparison with His favor which is forever. It says that He will not keep His anger forever. It is His love that never ceases – not His wrath! (1Cor 13:8). How is it possible for God, who doesn’t reject forever, to give the “eternal” sentence of destruction, excluded from His presence forever? On the other hand, if we can see that the destruction has reference to the soul life and the flesh, and if we can see that it is eonian instead of eternal; then we can begin to comprehend how the God of Love could permit it, understanding that it is only eonian, or until all should be perfected. When the second death has fulfilled its purpose, then the last enemy - death, will have finally been destroyed. The purpose of God for the ages is that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him, and it shall be done just as He has purposed (Eph 1:10). Halleluiah! “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Rom 11:36).
There are occasions in which, according to the traditional translations, the wrath of God seems to be eternal. But in each case the context reveals that it is not “eternal” but for a time (olam). Reading in the King James Version what Jeremiah prophesied against Judah, leaves us with the impression that His punishment of them is eternal:
“And you, even yourself, shall let go of your heritage which I gave you; and I will cause you to serve your enemies in the land which you do not know; For you have kindled a fire in My anger which shall burn forever.” (Jer 17:4)
If we were to understand this prophecy against Judah as translated here, we would arrive at the conclusion that He is indeed referring to eternal wrath. Also, chapter 25 verse 9, understood as translated, gives us the impression of eternal destruction or annihilation:
“behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, ‘says the Lord,’ and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual (olam) desolations.” (Jer 25:9)
Nevertheless, “eternal wrath” and “perpetual destruction” in this instance are clearly only for a time (olam). In the case of Judah, He specifies that olam, which was translated “eternal” and “perpetual,” only lasts seventy years, as we see in the following verses:
“And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12 'Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord; and I will make it a perpetual desolation.” (Jer 25:11-12)
“For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. 11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.” (Jer 29:10-14)
In the case of Judah, as confirmed by history, the eonian wrath and destruction lasted for 70 years. Take note that, even in His wrath, His thoughts towards them were still thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give them a future and a hope (v.11). His wrath and destruction were corrective and ended when the 70-year sentence was fulfilled. It was not an eternal destruction but a long-lasting destruction (olam). How can we say that the wrath of the Lord that burns “forever” and the “perpetual” desolation in Judah’s case was only for a limited time, and then insist that the “eternal” destruction of 1Thessalonians 1:9 never comes to an end? Doesn’t Romans 2:11 say that there is no partiality with God? God does not keep His anger “forever” nor reject “forever” because God is Love. Love only shows anger for the purpose of correction. It only rejects until we seek Him - not forever.
[i] Robertson, A. T.. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Kindle Location 2847). Kindle Edition.