You bring up an extremely important issue here because, so far as I can tell, II Thessalonians 1:8-9 is the only text in the entire Pauline corpus that, as mistranslated in some of our English Bibles, might appear to imply a doctrine of eternal separation from God. For my own part, I believe that the import of this text is just the opposite of what many have taken it to be, and this has nothing to do, by the way, with the controversy over the correct translation of “aionios” (whether it is correctly translated as “eternal,” “everlasting,” or simply “age enduring”). As for that term, I am prepared to accept, at least for the sake of argument, any translation you please.
But in any event, let’s proceed one step at a time and try first to get an accurate translation of the text, which is so badly mangled in so many of our English Bibles. If I am confident of anything, it is that the NIV translation, which you have quoted, perpetrates a serious theological confusion, and no less confused is the translation in the RSV, which reads as follows: “They (i.e., those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel) shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might . . …” Nor need one be a Greek scholar, as I certainly am not, in order to see why these translations are so dreadfully confused.
Ask yourself this question: Where in the world did the idea of being “shut out” or “excluded from the presence of the Lord” come from? Certainly not from the Greek text. If you have any doubt about this, compare II Thessalonians 1:9 with another text whose relevant grammar and phraseology is identical to it, namely Acts 3:19: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” A literal translation of both texts would include the expression “from the presence of the Lord.” So let us suppose that I should translate Acts 3:19 as follows: “…so that refreshing times might come and shut you out or exclude you from the presence of the Lord.” That in essence is what some translators have done to II Thessalonians 1:9. It is just that bad.
The sole reason some translators have for injecting into the text the idea of being shut out or excluded from the presence of the Lord is that the Greek “apo,” like the English “from,” can sometimes mean “away from.” As Leon Morris has pointed out, “This is certainly the meaning . . . in Isa. 2:10,” where we read: “Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust from the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty.” It is also the meaning in Revelation 6:16, where the Kings of the earth and others cry out to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb . . …” But in these texts, the verbs “to hide” and “to conceal” determine the correct translation. When we try to hide or to conceal ourselves from the presence of the Lord–an impossible task–we are indeed trying to get away from that presence. In the context of II Thessalonians 1:9, however, we find no relevant verb, such as “to hide” or “to conceal,” no relevant subject of the action, and no other grammatical device that would entitle us to translate “apo” as “away from”; and in the absence of any such grammatical device, the result of such a translation is simply grammatical nonsense.
Worse yet, when translators try to avoid grammatical nonsense in their English translations by injecting into the text such foreign words as “shut out from” or “excluded from,” which alter the basic meaning of the text, they end up with a conjunction, something like “eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” So it then looks as if the adjective “eternal” qualifies the injected noun “exclusion” as well as the correct noun “destruction,” and this in turn makes it look as if we have here a doctrine of eternal separation from God. But the idea that one can justifiably read all of this into the one little preposition “from” is simply preposterous, and the King James Version, which speaks simply of “everlasting destruction from (apo) the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power,” is both more literal and less theologically biased at this point.
Even if one were to set aside the issue of grammatical nonsense, moreover, the context renders the “away from” translation quite absurd anyway. When Paul spoke of “the presence of the Lord” in verse 9, he clearly had in mind the Lord’s appearance “in flaming fire” (see verse 8); and similarly, when he spoke of destruction in verse 9, his figure suggests, not destruction away from the flaming fire, but destruction that precisely results from the flaming fire. Or consider the expression “glory of his power.” The destruction of the wicked is clearly a manifestation or an expression of his power; it is hardly an escape from it. Just as the Lord’s appearance will bring times of refreshment for the righteous, according to Acts 3:19, so it will bring destruction upon the wicked, according to II Thessalonians 1:9. The idea of separation is simply nowhere to be found here.
So now we must ask: Just what is the destruction of which Paul speaks, if it is clearly not an eternal separation from God?