2 Thessalonians and Hell: Separation From or Wrath Coming Forth From God?

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Is Hell eternal seperation from God or the experience of wrath pouring forth from God for an eternity? Those who argue for the former often appeal to 2 Thessalonians 1:9. In this paper, I argue that the best reading of the Greek preposition apo
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  J. Alexander Rutherford  –   2017 1  2 Thessalonians and Hell: Separation From or Wrath Coming Forth From God? By J. Alexander Rutherford  –   March 20, 2017 Many writers and preachers today speak about Hell as, among other things, eternal separation from God. Hell, it is said, is receiving what the sinner wanted all along, freedom from God, the absence of His goodness. Such a state would be horrifying indeed  —  the One who is Goodness, Love, our Joy Himself completely absent!  —  yet is this what the Bible pictures? The text often cited in this regard is 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “to those who do not know God and to those who do not submit to the gospel of our Lord Jesus, 9 who will receive as punishment eternal destruction  from  the presence of the Lord and  from  the glory of His might. ” 1  The key word here is “ from, ”  the Greek preposition απο  ( apo ). It is often understood in terms of separation, “eternal destruction separated from the presence of the Lord and separated from the glory of his might.” Though this is a valid and a common sense of απο  (e.g., Matt 8:30, Matt. 11:25, 1 Thess. 4:3), I would like to argue that the immediate context, Paul’s use of απο  elsewhere, and the greater perspective of Scripture indicates that the text means “coming forth from” (preposition indicating location from which something comes). 2  Our first consideration is the context in which v. 9 is found: the context indicates overwhelmingly that this final judgment the unbeliever faces is the active judgment of God, the pouring out of his wrath. In 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul is interested in explaining the day of the Lord, arguing that God will repay those who presently afflict believers when Christ returns and that those who have died will not miss out on the resurrection. Thus, Paul is interested in the two 1  My translation unless indicated otherwise 2  Both uses of απο  indicate separation, but the former is static; the latter involves movement away from.  J. Alexander Rutherford  –   2017 2 sides of final judgment: the resurrection to eternal life and the final judgment, beginning with Christ return. In 1 Thessalonians , Paul explains that the day of the Lord, Christ’s return, will come quickly and be inescapable. The salvation the Thessalonians await is contrasted with the wrath unbelievers await (5:9). Then in 2 Thessalonians , Paul explains further this ‘wrath.’ In 1:5 -7 Paul explains that in the final judgment, God in justice will repay with affliction those who  presently afflict the Thessalonians; this will begin when “the Lord Jesus will be revealed fro m heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, 3   dealing out retribution” (1:7 -8 ESV). Thus, God’s righteous wrath against unbelievers manifests in His active judgment against sinners, retribution. This then brings us to v. 9, which is expanding upon v. 8. The end of v. 8 tells us that Jesus is dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not “submit to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus ” ; v. 9 then describes further the retribution they will receive: “[they] will receive as punishmen t eternal destruction  from  the presence of the Lord and  from  the glory of His might.” In the context  of Christ coming for judgment from the throne of God, απο  ( apo ) clearly does not indicate separation from  God ’s  presence but the horrifying truth of  judgment pouring  forth from   God’s presence. This is consistent with Paul’s use of απο  throughout 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Consider this (ridiculous) sentence, “to bear   arms is part of the great responsibility we, as citizens, bear  ; we bear   many burdens in our lives as responsible citizens, this is why we bear    resemblance to our forefather.” The first three uses of “bear” represent the sense “to carry,” the latter two metaphorically; the fourth has a different sense, “to bear resemblance.” I n this context, the switch in sense is quite obvious, but if it was more ambiguous ( “ this is why we bear the 3   Or “with the angels of His host (e.i.   army).”  J. Alexander Rutherford  –   2017 3 image of our forefather ” ), the consistent use of one sense of “bear”  (to carry) would suggest that we read “ bear ” in this sense and  not the other: “this is why we [carry] the image of forefather.” 4  This idea, that a writer will avoid ambiguity if he is using a word in a different way than it was consistently used before, lies behind my first argument. Paul uses απο  (apo) 15 times in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Of the 8 uses in 1 Thess., only 2 have the idea of separation without movement from  —  and both of these are signalled by the verb they accompany (“to abstain”). Of the seven uses in 2 Thess., four uses (other than v. 9) indicate movement away from (1:2, 7; 2:2; 3:2). The first two of these come immediately before our verse and refer to the same subject or sphere (peace comes forth from God in v. 2, Jesus from heaven in v. 7). This suggests to me that, in the absence of any clear indication of a shift in sense, the ‘ambiguous’ use in 1:9 should be taken in the same way—“[coming] forth from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might.”  That Hell is the experience of God ’ s wrath and not His absence is consistently attested elsewhere in Scripture Three other Scripture should serve to confirm this. 5  In Matt. 10:28, Jesus instructs the Twelve not to fear man, but rather “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (ESV). That is, Jesus looks to hell as the place where God will actively (He will do something) destroy 6  the body and soul in Hell. Furthermore, in Rom 2:8 Paul contrasts eternal life w ith “wrath and fury” towards unbelievers: wrath and fury both are active, they are something inflicted. This is affirmed in Rev. 14:9-10, 4   We of course don’t read it in this manner because even in this example, it is not ambiguous—  context makes it pretty clear  —  and the idea of carrying around an image of an ancestor or predecessor is not common. 5  For a more detailed argument, see my paper The Comprehensive and Eternal Retributive View of Hell . 6   Some suggest that “destroy” here means that Hell will have an end, but the horrifying truth is that to destroy something immortal (resurrected for judgment) is to subject it eternally to the forces that would ordinarily end mortal life. Thus, the horror of hell is underscored: we must be passionate to rescue unbelievers from this fate through the preaching of the Gospel.  J. Alexander Rutherford  –   2017 4 “ 9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And   the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name .” (ESV)  This is horrifying language, but it is consistent with 2 Thessalonians 1:9. In all three of these Scriptures we see that final judgment is not being left in one’s own misery, to be finally separated from God, but to have God excruciatingly present in judgment: even in Sheol, God cannot be escaped (cf. Psalm 139:8, Job 26:6). This is no trivial issue; this is not merely academic discussions of the minute details: it is deadly serious! 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the rest of Scripture, teach that Hell is horrifying: it is the place where God’s wrath is poured out in judgment against both the body and the soul! This is what Scripture teaches, and it does so for a reason. The doctrine of Hell in all its horror underscores two key Christian teachings: the nature of our God and the necessity of vigorous evangelism. God is just, all Scripture testifies to this: what does this mean? It means that God has to punish sin; Hell demonstrates the seriousness with which He takes sin. Yet, God sent His Son to save us from that reality: to properly understand Hell is to properly understand the cross. When  J. Alexander Rutherford  –   2017 5 Jesus cried out to the Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” He was not lamenting the absence of His Father. Jesus was expressing the agony of His Father turning the weight of His wrath towards Him, wrath which He had patiently withheld for thousands of years: Jesus was experiencing the Father orientated towards Him with pure white-hot wrath against sin; He was experiencing there on the cross the equivalent of an eternity of burning fire, darkness so deep it hurts, eternal destruction  —  destruction pouring forth from the throne of God. 7  Jesus suffered that for you, for me: He suffered God’s wrath against sin that we who believe might be forgiven and sanctified, glorified as members of His bride the Church. Yet there are those of whom this cannot be said: members of my family and old friends face that fate. Everyone who has not confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, who has not believed that God raised Him from the dead after He was crucified (Rom. 10:5-17), faces this fate: that is why the great commission, to go out into all the world with the message of the Gospel, is as vital today as it was 2000 ye ars ago. People need to hear God’s truth desperately; their lives are on the line: but how can they hear if no one goes, if no one tells them? The doctrine of Hell is absolutely horrifying, yet it is the Truth: Jesus teaches it, Paul and John teach it, so that we will go out and fulfill this commission. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 teaches that God is active in judgment in Hell: this means that we must be active in our mission to save people from this fate through the preaching of the glorious good news that Jesus Christ came and gave His life for sinners on the Cross. We must be bold in proclaiming the good news that Christ rose again on the third day, victorious over death and the grave, and now reigns at the right hand of the Father and through His people on earth. People need to hear the good news that sin has an answer, His name is Jesus 7  The description comes from the language of Hell; that Christ bore our punishment in our place, the punishment we would have faced in Hell, is testified throughout Scripture: e.g., Isa. 53:4-6, 10-12; Rom. 3:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:10-14; 1 John 2:2, 4:10.
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