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Lesson 2: Eternal Destruction or Eternal Glory? (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10)

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January 29, 2017

The doctrine of the eternal conscious punishment of unbelievers is probably one of the most difficult teachings in the Bible to comprehend and embrace. The thought of those we know and love, as well as other people around the world, suffering eternally seems out of character for a loving God. And what about the millions throughout history who never even heard the name of Jesus? Most of them loved their families and acted decently toward others. How can God consign them to eternal punishment? We may be prone to think that the punishment exceeds the crime.

The difficulty of this doctrine has led some evangelicals, such as the late, respected Anglican pastor, John Stott, to reject or at least modify it. The pastor of a popular evangelical church here in Flagstaff does not believe that unbelievers will suffer consciously forever in hell. Several years ago, a man who formerly attended here would stand in front of the church handing out a paper which argued that eventually, everyone will be saved. And in 2011, Rob Bell, who was then the pastor of a 10,000-member church, wrote Love Wins, which challenges both the traditional understanding of hell and of Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

Those who reject the eternal punishment of the wicked, but still claim to believe the Bible, have two options. Some argue that the wicked will suffer for a period of time and then be annihilated. This is also the view of the Seventh Day Adventist sect. Others use Colossians 1:20 (and other texts) to argue that through the cross, God will eventually reconcile all people to Christ. Some go so far as to say that eventually, even Satan and the demons will be saved! This view is called “universalism.”

In line with Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” I think that we struggle with the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked to the degree that we do not understand or embrace the infinite holiness of God and the infinite heinousness of sin against such a holy Being. But when we realize that God is absolutely holy and just, then we know that He must punish all sin. And when we see that we all have repeatedly, defiantly sinned against this holy Sovereign of the universe, then we can understand why the punishment must be infinite.

Paul elaborates on God’s judgment of the wicked to bring comfort to these persecuted recent believers in Thessalonica. He appeals to the sense of justice that we all feel: Those who deliberately persecute or wrong others someday should pay for their crimes. God would not be God if He were not just. If He merely excused sins without punishment He would not be righteous. Either the sinner must be punished or an acceptable substitute may take his punishment. God sent Jesus, the Lamb of God, to be the substitute for all who believe in Him. But everyone else will be punished for their sins. Here Paul says that when the Lord Jesus appears, there will be two and only two outcomes:

When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven, He will deal out eternal punishment to unbelievers, but share His eternal glory with His saints.

Before we work through this text, I should acknowledge that it presents a problem for us who hold to the premillennial view of future things. Paul states that when Jesus returns, He will judge those who do not know God, consigning them to eternal destruction. But, if that is so, then who (other than glorified saints) would be left to populate the millennial kingdom? Other Scriptures indicate that there will be people in that kingdom in mortal bodies (Isa. 65:20), and that some of them will participate in a rebellion against the Lord at the end of that period, followed by the final judgment (Rev. 20:7-15). So if believers receive resurrection bodies and everyone else is judged when Jesus returns, how can there be mortal unbelievers in the millennial kingdom?

Our text is not a problem for the amillennial view, which believes that the millennial kingdom is taking place now in heaven and that when Christ returns, He will judge the world and usher in the eternal state, consisting of a new heavens and new earth. But in my opinion, that position does not square with many other texts. I don’t have time in this message to go into the pros and cons of each view. (For a concise treatment, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 1116-1121, 1127-1131; or, my sermon, “God’s Prophetic Plan,” 10/23/16.) While I recognize that many godly scholars argue for amillennialism, I think the premillennial view is the better view with the least problems.

But, then, if Christ judges the wicked when He returns, who will populate the millennium and who would be left to rebel at the end of that time? Those who hold to the premillennial, pretribulation rapture view say that the Jews who are saved during the tribulation will enter the millennium in their natural bodies. They will have children during that time, some of whom will not believe and will join the final rebellion at the end of the millennium, followed by the final judgment. I used to hold to that view, but I have difficulty finding two separate comings of Christ (one for the church before the tribulation, plus His second coming after) in Scripture.

Wayne Grudem (ibid. p. 1133), who holds to the historic premillennial view (a single, post-tribulation coming of Christ), says that while Christ will defeat His enemies at His coming, He won’t annihilate all of them. Some will surrender without trusting in Christ. Either they or their children who do not believe will constitute the rebel forces at the end of the millennium. My speculation is that perhaps when He returns, Christ will judge and send to hell all who have heard and rejected the gospel. Others, who have not yet heard (young children and those from unreached peoples) will enter the millennium in their natural bodies. Many of them will come to faith during that time, but others will chafe under Christ’s rule and eventually join Satan’s final rebellion. But Scripture doesn’t say that, so my suggestion must be tentative.

Turning to our text, we can affirm three truths:

1. The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven in a mighty display of power and glory.

Paul often refers to the coming of the Lord (Greek = Parousia, presence; 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1, 8). Sometimes he refers to His appearing (Greek, epiphaneia, “epiphany,” 1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 4:1, 8; Titus 2:13). But here he uses the Greek verb apokalupto (“apocalypse”), meaning that Christ will be “revealed.” He is presently hidden from view in heaven, although not absent, in that He dwells in His people. But when He comes again on the clouds of glory, every eye will see Him (Matt. 26:64. Rev. 1:7). His coming will be bodily (Acts 1:11), visible, and glorious. He will be accompanied by His mighty angels in flaming fire, a symbol of judgment. Many commentators point out that the language used here is similar to that in many Old Testament theophanies, where the Lord appears in bodily form. Language used of Yahweh is here applied to Jesus, showing His deity.

When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven, unbelievers will cry out to the mountains and rocks to fall on them and protect them from the wrath of the Lamb (Isa. 2:10, 19, 21; Rev. 6:16). Believers will marvel, but unbelievers will be terrified. The point is, unless Jesus and the apostles were lying or mistaken, He is coming! Mockers will say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet. 3:4). But they will be shocked and terrified when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in power and glory.

2. When Jesus is revealed from heaven, He will deal out eternal punishment to unbelievers.

Paul says (2 Thess. 1:6), “For it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” He adds (2 Thess. 1:8-9) that this will involve “dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” As I said, my speculation is that this punishment at this time may only apply to those who have heard and rejected the gospel. They will not have another opportunity to believe. Note three things:

A. God’s judgment on unbelievers is absolutely righteous.

Psalm 98:9 exults that the Lord “is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Paul refers to the Lord as “the righteous Judge” (2 Tim. 4:8). In Revelation 19:1-2, John hears the voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God; because His judgments are true and righteous; for He has judged the great harlot who was corrupting the earth with her immorality, and He has avenged the blood of His bond-servants on her.” Or, as Abraham asked rhetorically (Gen. 18:25), “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

No one can hide any deed, word, or thought from the penetrating gaze of the omniscient God (Heb. 4:13). So there will be no escape and no mercy for unbelievers on that day—only justice. God “will render to each person according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6). None will be able to argue his case against the Lord. Every mouth will be stopped (Rom. 3:19). Each person will get exactly as he or she deserves.

Jesus taught that there will be degrees of punishment in hell, proportionate to the person’s sins and to the degree of light which he rejected (Luke 12:47-48). In a remarkable passage (Matt. 11:21-24), Jesus reveals that God knows not only what everyone did, but also what everyone would have done if they had had different revelation! He said that it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon, and for Sodom and Gomorrah, in the day of judgment than for the cities that had seen Jesus’ miracles and yet rejected Him, because if those ancient cities had seen such miracles, they would have repented!

The angels who went to Sodom to rescue Lot could have performed impressive miracles if that had been God’s will. And Jesus indicates that if they had done so, Sodom would have repented! But God did not grant such miracles and Sodom will be judged, although not as severely as Capernaum, which saw Jesus’ miracles! And the people of Sodom will have no grounds to accuse God of injustice because He did not perform miracles that would have led them to repent. He does not owe mercy to any sinner. Every sinner who is not covered by Jesus’ blood and righteousness will be judged by the righteous Judge of all the earth.

B. Unbelievers “do not know God” and “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”

Some scholars think that these two phrases (v. 8) refer to two distinct groups: the Gentiles “do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:5), whereas “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” refers to the Jews. But I agree with the majority of scholars who argue that such a distinction is too subtle and that rather, Paul is using synonymous parallelism here. Both phrases refer to unbelievers in similar language with slightly different nuances.

“Those who do not know God” does not refer to people who are innocently ignorant, but rather to those who have willfully turned away from the revelation that God has given them. They have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). As Paul argues (Rom. 1:20), God has clearly revealed His invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature through His creation. He adds (Rom. 1:21), “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” So people who do not know God are culpable. They do not know God because of the hardness of their hearts (Eph. 4:18).

Because they love their sin, such willfully ignorant people “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thess. 1:8). Jesus preached (Mark 1:15), “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” It wasn’t a helpful hint; it was a command. Paul told the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:30-31), “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” To repent and believe the gospel is to obey the gospel.

Because it is “the gospel of our Lord Jesus,” believing the gospel entails obeying the Lord Jesus Christ. John 3:36 equates believing in Jesus with obeying Jesus: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Paul referred to “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; cf. Acts 6:7). If someone claims to believe in Jesus as Savior but he isn’t submitting to Jesus as Lord, his claim is questionable. Those who live in disobedience to the Lord Jesus do not know Him and will face His judgment.

C. Unbelievers will suffer terrifying, irreversible, eternal affliction and punishment when Christ is revealed.

God will repay them with “affliction” (v. 6). He will deal out retribution to them (v. 8). And (2 Thess. 1:9), “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” Those who argue that the wicked will suffer for a while and then be annihilated point to the word “destruction.” But the word does not mean that the wicked will cease to exist. If that were the punishment, the penalty of being away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power would be nullified, since they would not be conscious of it. It refers to total ruin.

Paul’s language in our text comes from different texts in Isaiah. Isaiah 66:15 prophesies,

For behold, the Lord will come in fire
And His chariots like the whirlwind,
To render His anger with fury,
And His rebuke with flames of fire.

In our text, Paul uses several of the words used in the LXX version that verse. G. K. Beale (1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 189) says, “This is noteworthy because only nine verses later comes the well-known description of those who have been judged—“their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched” (Isa. 66:24)—a clear reference to an unending punishment of conscious beings.”

The phrase Paul uses in verse 9, “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” comes from the LXX of Isaiah 2:10, 19, 21, where it is repeated three times. Each time, Isaiah adds the description, “from the terror of the Lord and the majesty of His power.” Isaiah 2:19 predicts,

Men will go into caves of the rocks
And into holes of the ground
Before the terror of the Lord
And the splendor of His majesty,
When He arises to make the earth tremble.

In Revelation 6:15-17, John picks up Isaiah’s language to portray the terror of Christ’s return: “Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’”

All of this tells us that hell is not going to be a wild, eternal party, as the world often portrays it! All of the language of the Bible indicates that hell will be eternal, awful, conscious torment. No one spoke more about hell than Jesus. He spoke of the rich man in hell who was in torment and cried out (Luke 16:24), “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.” Using the imagery of Isaiah 66:24, Jesus also referred to hell as, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). If you ask, “Are the flames of hell literal?” my answer is, “I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out!” The language Jesus used is horrifying!

He repeatedly referred to the final state of unbelievers as the place of “outer darkness,” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Some try to argue that “eternal” in the Bible doesn’t always mean “forever and ever.” But Jesus referred to it (Matt. 25:41) as “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” He added (Matt. 25:46), “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” If eternal life lasts forever, then eternal punishment must also be forever. We dare not use softer language than our Savior did with regard to the eternal punishment of those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus! There is nothing but really bad news for all who reject Jesus Christ!

But there is also good news in our text:

3. When Jesus is revealed from heaven, He will share His eternal glory with His saints.

There will be relief from the affliction of persecution (v. 7; “relief” in Greek is, anesin, from which the pain relief medicine got its name). But, also (2 Thess. 1:10), “when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed.” “On that day” reflects language used in Isaiah 2:11, 17, the same chapter cited in verse 9. The Lord’s being glorified in His saints comes from Psalm 89:7 [88:8 in the LXX], where “holy ones” probably refers to the angels. But here, “saints” refers to believers, who are “holy ones,” set apart to the Lord from this evil world.

In Colossians 3:4, Paul states, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” In Ephesians 3:21, Paul prays, “To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” We will marvel at the glory of the Lord and give Him all praise when we see Him. But also, as His bride adorned for the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:5-8), we will actually share His glory throughout all eternity!

Conclusion

We need to believe the biblical doctrine of hell to burden our hearts with compassion for the lost, to motivate us to share the good news with them. Paul was so burdened for the unbelieving Jews that he said that he could wish that he himself was accursed, separated from Christ, if it would result in their conversion (Rom. 9:1-3)! The point of the gospel is not to tell people how they can have a happier, more abundant life now. The gospel is God’s only means of rescuing people from His eternal wrath!

Whether a person is judged to suffer eternal destruction or can look forward to eternal glory hinges on the word that Paul repeats in verse 10: “believed.” He repeats it to reassure the Thessalonians that they had believed the apostolic testimony about Jesus. The same word is in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” As we’ve seen, believing in Jesus is not just intellectual assent, with no repentance. To believe means to entrust your eternal destiny to Jesus’ death as the payment for your sins. It means to receive Jesus as your Savior and Lord.

So the crucial question is, “Have you believed in Jesus as your Savior and Lord?” If you haven’t, you should be terrified, because Jesus will deal out eternal destruction to you when He returns with His mighty angels in flaming fire. But, if you have believed in Him, you should be comforted, because no matter how much you may suffer here, eternal glory awaits you. It’s a no-brainer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

Application Questions

  1. Should Christians rejoice at the thought of God’s judgment on the wicked (Rev. 18:20) or weep (Rom. 9:1-5; Phil. 3:18-19) or both? Explain your answer.
  2. If God did not choose some for salvation (e.g. the men of Sodom), why can’t they charge Him with being unfair?
  3. How would you reply to someone who used Col. 1:20 and 2 Cor. 5:19 to argue that eventually, all will be saved?
  4. List all the practical benefits you can of believing in the biblical doctrine of the eternal punishment of unbelievers.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come), Hell, Rewards