If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll know that I’ve been talking (with the occasional interruption) about 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9. In this post, I want to focus on verse 9, particularly on the word destruction. Destruction sounds pretty serious; pretty final. As we’ve seen, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the word eternal. But how is destruction used elsewhere in the Bible?
These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength . . . (2 Thessalonians 1:9 HCSB)
The word translated “destruction” in this passage is the Greek word olethros, and while it isn’t the usual word for destruction in the NT, it is also used in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 . . .
When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus with my spirit and with the power of our Lord Jesus, turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:4-5 HCSB)
Paul clearly states here that the purpose of the destruction of the flesh is that this brother’s spirit should be saved in the Day of the Lord. Certainly olethros refers to the ruin of something, and the something in view here is the flesh — the sinful nature. The ultimate goal is that this man should gain blessedness and acceptance into the beloved in the Day of the Lord. So the goal of the destruction is in fact salvation.
This passage sounds harsh. The idea of handing someone over to the devil is offensive to the modern ear. Can you imagine your council of elders announcing to the congregation that brother so and so was hereby delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh? Paul makes it clear that the goal of this action is that the man in question should be saved in the day of the Lord. So the purpose of the judgment is in fact remedial.
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that 2 Thessalonians 1:9 teaches universal salvation. It’s a cry of pain and anger, and an attempt to comfort a body of believers that has lost loved ones to persecutors. The epistles were written by men not so different from the men and women of God many of you know personally. Paul knew the Thessalonians; probably slept in someone’s guest room and had breakfast with the brothers before they started the day’s work. He loved these folks. And now they were being persecuted and killed for their faithfulness to Christ. Yeah . . . he was angry. So I’m not sure we should look at this letter, and particularly this portion of this letter, as systematic theology. It isn’t Romans, for sure. It’s a different sort of thing, but Paul is nothing if not consistent, so I have a problem with Paul saying one thing in Romans and quite another here, even though he’s obviously hurting for his beloved friends.
The thing is, this passage could be interpreted either for or against the idea that all people will be reconciled in the long run. As Paul clearly talks about a universal victory for Jesus in many, many other places, I don’t think it’s necessary to take the less optimistic view here. It isn’t a universal salvation proof text by any means, but it also isn’t sufficient to prove eternal conscious torment or annihilation.
I’m not positive what I’ll be covering in my next post. If any of you guys (I know you’re out there, even if you don’t talk much!) have ideas for a scriptural text you’d like to get some insight on re: Christian universalism, feel free to suggest it.
Blessings, CindyCredit where credit’s due: Many of the ideas in this post hearken back to Thomas Talbott’s excellent book, The Inescapable Love of God.