Q&R with Brad Jersak – “Eternal Destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10
Please explain the meaning of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10. Does it mean that those who were disobedient and did not know God are going to punished with everlasting destruction?
- 6 … since it is just, on God’s part, to pay back with suffering those who inflict suffering on you, 7 and to give you, with us, respite from your sufferings.
- This will come about when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his powerful angels, 8 in a flaming fire, meting out punishment to those who don’t know God and those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his power, 10 when he comes to be glorified in all his holy ones, and to be marveled at by all who believe in him, because our testimony to you was met with faith, on that day.
This is a notoriously difficult text for a number of reasons. I won’t purport to explain it but I can at least explain why it’s difficult and the work that would be required to get to the bottom of it.
First, it is absolutely vital to see this paragraph within the broader context of what Paul is doing (what he is up to) and within the genre of “epistolary rhetoric.” That is, we often mistake Paul’s letters as straightforward didactic teaching in letter form. That would be much easier to interpret. But his letters are actually sermons, to be preached in the congregations out loud as a whole.
As such, he used every rhetorical device common to the first century, meaning he was an expert at motivation using a variety of well-known rhetorical techniques that every middle school child in the Empire had studied. To learn more about that discipline and its techniques, see this article: http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/04/nt-rhetoric-handbook.html
So then, in context, Paul is dealing with believers who are under intense pressure and even persecution to return to their old paganism in Thessalonica, a city with temples on every street, which were the social fabric of people’s community, their work connections and so on. They are being sorely tempted to turn back to their old ways and Paul must pull out all the stops to dissuade them.
Effectively, Paul uses a combination of encouragement (flattery) and dire warnings (threats) back-to-back, which was a rhetorical method designed to throw the listener off balance emotionally, making them more suggestible to the truth. Similar to why a preacher today may tell a joke (another method), use poetry or repetition, cite an expert or raise his/her voice during a sermon. The impact of rhetoric is to open you up, even through discomfort, to the point the speaker is making. That can sound manipulative to us, but all public speaking is motivational–an attempt to move a message from the head to the heart to the hands. Jesus did much the same with his parables, a sub-species of rhetorical speech. So for those who preach, we obviously try to be as persuasive as possible while hopefully having the integrity to avoid deception.
But threats? This passage doesn’t sound much like good news. Why would Paul do that? In his defense, Paul is doing what other NT authors (including the authors of Hebrews and Peter’s epistles) do very well and quite frequently. They use the harshest possible terms and tones to say that while there is intense pressure to return to the old system where they once belonged, that would be as crazy as abandoning your liferaft to crawl back onto the Titanic. That ship (structures of pagan religion and emperor-worship) is going down hard and when it does, you don’t want to go down with it, do you? The world system is destined for destruction, so as enticing as it looks now, the end game is disastrous! Don’t go back!
But then, as I said, the immediate context also contains what looks like flattery. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they are dearly beloved children of God and that fiery outcome is NOT their destiny. Patient endurance will pan out for them if they have the courage to hang on. He reminds them of his love for them, his place in their spiritual history and how he brags about them to other congregations. That’s the negative-positive emotional pairing so common to epistolary rhetoric.
That doesn’t mean Paul’s words are ’empty’ rhetoric, as you get with so many politicians. There is a very real danger to be averted, but we mustn’t totalize or literalize his words as if that’s the final word. That’s the major error most epistle readers make. The threat, in this case, is “eternal destruction,” a poor translation for “destruction in the age [to come]”. In other words, those who reject Christ will face a “righteous judgment” resulting in “destruction” (not ongoing torment, but potential annihilation). That’s not what God wants for them. Hence the urgency.
It would have been counterproductive for Paul to undermine his argument in this context, but elsewhere he’s also very clear that there is hope beyond this judgment. He clarifies in 1 Cor. 3 that the destruction is not aimed at eradicating people but rather, consuming the wood, hay and stubble of our worldly attachments and corrupted agendas (1 Cor. 3). He sees a good end for all who were condemned in Adam (Rom. 5, 1 Cor. 15) and ultimately envisions every knee bowing and tongue confessing the Lordship of Christ (Phil. 2). We don’t get to skip the cleansing judgment but neither should we despair in the face of it. Our God is good and merciful and loves humankind.
As readers, we can bear that hope in mind. BUT in this passage, like the original audience, we do well to take heed. There is a danger in aligning ourselves with any system that competes with the Kingdom of God, lest we find ourselves on a Titanic of our own. If only the people of God would bear these sober words when dallying with partisan power politics, to name just one example. And while Christ is our blessed hope of redemption beyond the grave, Paul would be the last to recommend gambling with one’s soul or wasting one’s life on that which “moths and rust can eat.” The call is to faithfulness under pressure–very good advice for the times and systems in which we find ourselves.