Great title, huh? Very peppy, very upbeat . . . well, okay. Maybe not so much. The thing is, though scripture is chock full of verses that seem to say that God fully intends to save the whole world, there are also a goodly number that seem to say the exact opposite. Not as many, but they are there and they need to be considered honestly and in light of the whole witness of scripture. The one I want to look at today is, in my opinion, the hardest one to fit into the idea of universal reconciliation. That’s a matter of opinion (mine) of course, and there are others nearly as difficult, but I want to start with 2 Thessalonians 1:9. Here it is, in its context:
It is a clear evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you will be counted worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you also are suffering, since it is righteous for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you and to reward with rest you who are afflicted, along with us. This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His powerful angels, taking vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength in that day when He comes to be glorified by His saints and to be admired by all those who have believed, because our testimony among you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 HCSB)
It seems only just that God would “repay with affliction those who afflict.” Even Paul, who started out as a persecutor, suffered great things for the message which Jesus called him to bring to the Gentile world. Was this suffering some form of recompense? Scripture doesn’t say. It does, however, suit our sense of justice that the one inflicting pain and anguish should be made to understand precisely what his victims have experienced and in fact to experience it himself. It doesn’t logically follow, though, that the perpetrator should suffer forever and ever, nor even that he should be permanently extinguished from existence (again, forever and ever.) Even if he is repaid ten-fold, such a punishment wouldn’t begin to last for eternity as we perceive it.
Verse nine is the challenge here for any idea of eventual reconciliation. It’s important to note that the Greek can be read to indicate either that the persecutor will be shut away from the Lord’s presence in eternal punishment, or that the eternal punishment has the Lord’s presence as its source. Thomas Talbott believes the context favors the latter view, and in my own opinion, since Paul’s other writings are replete with references to all people being reconciled, such an interpretation makes more sense. Otherwise, this verse would contradict a lot of other very clear Pauline statements. This is what Talbott has to say:
“In the context . . . we find no relevant verb . . . no subject of action, and no other grammatical device that entitles us to translate apo (from*) as away from. To the contrary, the context seems to render such a translation logically absurd . . . (the picture Paul paints*) suggests, not destruction away from the flaming fire, but destruction that precisely results from the flaming fire.” (Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, p 93) (*my clarification)
I was speculating about this a couple of years ago. I think I may have mentioned it in one of my earlier posts, in fact. The idea that God’s very holiness is perhaps itself the fire that torments the wicked has a certain appeal (at least to me) in that, in a sense, it isn’t God’s fault if His holiness is naturally destructive of wickedness. After all, even Moses was told that he couldn’t see God’s face and live.
But the other concept in this passage that causes problems for any hope of universal reconciliation is that little word, eternal, and that word pops up regularly in proximity to both outer darkness and hellfire in the New Testament. I’ll talk about it in my next post.