The Evangelical Universalist Forum

II Thessalonians 1:8-9

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?


Yep! Nice exegesis there on a difficult passage to translate.

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A little more detail concerning verse 9, for those who don’t have access to a Greek text-apparatus. (Underscores denote that the previous vowel was a long ‘e’ or a long ‘o’, not a short vowel.)

hoitines dike_n tisousin olethron aio_nion apo proso_pou tou kuriou kai apo te_s doxe_s te_s ischuos autou

The first word, {hoitines}, is a referent plural pronoun. (So, to be fair, it cannot refer back to Jesus Christ in the preceding verse.) The closest and contextual most probable grammatically matching reference would be to “those not obeying the gospel of the Lord of us Jesus Christ”. (To which I will note that one’s larger-scale interpretation of this verse will depend on what one considers to be the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ! Be that as it may…)

That second word, {dike_n}, is a verrrrry interesting and crucial word. It’s simply the word “justice” with the grammatically proper suffixes for its logical place in the sentence, but for some reason many translators don’t want to call it justice. Imago quotes or alludes to a paraphrase “punishment” (from the New International Version as Tom points out); ditto the Revised Standard Version. Green translates it as “penalty”, as does my New American Standard (from the 80s, admittedly not the most recent version of the NASV) and my Holman CSB. Knoch’s literal concordance, though, translates it properly: justice.

The whole paragraph (in our English way of thinking) is saturated with references to justice: the afflictions endured by the church are a display of the “just judging” ({te_s dikaias kriseo_s}, and note that “crisising” is here applied to people who all translators agree are God’s people being saved by God) of God; it is a just thing {dikaion} with God to repay the ones afflicting these people with affliction (and also to repay the ones being afflicted!–itself a difficult translation); those who do not know God shall receive {ekdike_sin}, out-justing (usually translated “vengeance”).

The third word, {tisousin}, is only found here once in all the NT, and is a verb meaning ‘to value’. Guesses as to its meaning range from “incur” to “pay”. But maybe it ought to mean ‘to value’ (or more grammatically, will value)?

So: so far we have those who did not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, being brought to value the justice of… what?

To value the justice of that next phrase, {olethron aio_nios}. I’ve argued elsewhere that the adjective “eonian” means that its object comes uniquely from God in His essence. “Eonian” what? Whole ruination. That’s admittedly a strong word, but it isn’t necessarily a hopeless one: St. Paul prays for the flesh of Stepmom-Sleeping Guy to be handed over to whole-ruination so that he may be saved in the day of the Lord to come. (1 Cor 5:5.) St. Paul compares whole-ruination to a pang hanging over the pregnant in 1 Thess 5:3. St. Paul relates that the Israelites who grumbled against Moses were slain by the Whole-Ruiner (i.e. God) in 1 Cor 10:10 (and Peter says that every soul who does not heed the coming Prophet After Moses shall be whole-ruined from among the people); but we already know from Rom 11 that Paul expects those of Israel who have stumbled (including over that Prophet After Moses Who Came!) to still be saved someday. The term is more negatively used in 1 Tim 6:9 in regard to the rich who are being seduced to whole-ruination and destruction, and in Hebrews 11:28 (in regard to the firstborn of Egypt being slain).

I’ve got to leave for a trip this afternoon into Kentucky, but I’ll close by noting that Tom is also correct about how there is no distinction between the uses of {apo} in this sentence: the whole-ruination comes from the Presence/Face of God (a Hebraism referring to the Angel of the Presence Who was YHWH Himself, the Visible of the Invisible, in the OT) and from the glory of His strength. No one would ever bother saying that the whole ruination comes away from the glory of His strength!–and rhetorically the two prepositional phrases stand in parallel unity anyway (the “glory” being another Hebraism for the Visible Presence of God, the Shekinah.)

At the very least, unless translators are content to deny the omnipresence of God (and thus deny a doctrine of even mere supernaturalistic theism, including orthodox trinitarianism), they should either read total annihilation from this or at least translate the thing so that the omnipresence of God is not denied. :wink:

Thank you Tom and Jason for this. I’ve heard about this issue from various Eastern Orthodox people who believe that hell is nothing less than God’s abiding love. To them, the damned are those who experience God’s love in the afterlife in an allegic way while the blessed experience it as bliss. I am just wondering how so many English translations have gotten this so wrong? From what I know, many modern translations include ecumenical boards that are supposed to prevent any translator bias in the text, like my own NRSV. I find it disturbing that such an error would be in our modern translations of the Bible to this day.

To be fair to the tranlsation boards, verses like this are so crucial that it’s impossible to translate them and not at least generate bias. To translate 2 Thess 1:9 as “those who will value God’s whole-ruination, from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His strength”, would be at best a very minority translation and would instantly be decried as biasing toward universalism. Unless the translators sat down and explained in detail (somewhat like Metzger’s notes summarizing the decisions of the USB on their rationales for grading various textual variants) why they had to go with this translation in order to be faithful to the actual content of the text, no reader would ever understand why the hell (so to speak :wink: ) the translators would so flout millennia of traditional understanding regarding this verse.

As a practical matter, that is never going to happen.

(And yes, I agree with those EOx theologians on that score. :smiley: Do you have an English EOx translation that they use in their congregations handy? I’d dearly love to see what they did with that verse…)

I will add here, that I deeply wish that Tom and Gregory and a bunch of trinitarian universalist scholars would get together and edit a translation of the Bible with commentary on rationale for translations. (Which I’d be glad to help with in my own small way, without compensation, just so that the thing would be in existence in the market for the sake of the people.)

Hi Tom,

I also agree that these verses are typically misinterpreted, but I have a different perspective.

For example, I agree with the NASB translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,”.

And I agree with the Young’s Literal Translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “who shall suffer justice – destruction age-during – from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength,”.

I think the key here is how we handle the Greek word aionios, which NASB 2 Thessalonians 1:9 translates to eternal while Young’s translates it to age-during. Aionios sometimes means “everlasting” while Jesus in John 17:3 said that zoe aionios (or life eternal) is knowing God. In this case, Jesus clearly used aionios to describe “quality of life in regards to relationship to God” instead of merely “endless duration of life”. And I suppose that the use of aionios in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 focuses on the quality of life in regards to relationship with God. In this case it refers to a terrible destruction, but by no means a terrible [literal] everlasting destruction with no chance of liberation.

Come on Jason, my friend. In no way am I a Greek scholar; indeed, I have no doubt forgotten more of the modest amount of Greek that I knew during my seminary days than I now remember. So I am not even remotely qualified to translate a single chapter in a single book of the New Testament, and I have no doubt that Gregory would say the same thing about himself. As I look more closely at your statement, however, I see that you were talking about editing (or perhaps commissioning?) a translation rather than doing the translating itself. But in any event, I seriously doubt that we need any more translations, or that Gregory and I could contribute much to one, or that any group of translators would likely improve on what we already have. For even if a new translation should improve upon the NIV and RSV translation of II Thessalonians 1:9, as the good old King James Bible already does, it might still muck things up elsewhere.

Having said that, I would nonetheless make an additional observation: One need not be a Greek scholar, or even know any Greek at all, in order to study up on a specific point so that one can speak accurately and confidently on that specific point. Once one understands, for example, that the Greek “apo” and the English “from” are essentially the same word with essentially the same range of meanings, one can be quite confident, for the reasons I specified in my initial post, that the NIV and RSV translations of II Thessalonians 1:9 are simply irresponsible. Suppose, by way of illustration, that someone were to translate this text in a way that accords with my interpretation: “They (i.e., those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel) shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction coming from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might . . …” Even though “from” clearly means coming from in many contexts and, in my opinion, clearly means this in the context of II Thessalonians 1:9, I would still prefer that translators (as opposed to expositors) not interpret the text for us by injecting the extra word “coming” into the text. For Paul did not explicitly say “coming from” any more than he explicitly said “away from”; he simply said “from” in a context where I believe that he did indeed mean coming from. But that would not entitle me, or anyone else, to inject my interpretation into the translation of the text. Or suppose that, contrary to my own opinion, the text should be objectively ambiguous between “coming from” and “away from,” so that a controversy concerning which rendering most accurately represents Paul’s original intention would be virtually inevitable. In no way would it be the job of translators to resolve the ambiguity for us, particularly when there is no grammatical justification for doing so. I would say the same thing, by the way, about the attempts of the NRSV translators to avoid gender discrimination in the language of the text. For the fact is that Paul used masculine nouns and pronouns in a way that is now politically incorrect. Perhaps he would not have done so, had he been writing today. But again, it is not the job of translators to make the text politically correct. So even though I typically use the NRSV in my own writings, I agree with a colleague of mine who is active in the so-called Jesus seminars and hardly a conservative: It was simply a mistake for the translators to change the text in so many places merely for the purpose of making it politically correct.

I recognize, of course, that a literal word for word translation can be terribly inaccurate as well, not to mention terribly wooden. I also recognize that an overlap between interpretation and translation is inevitable, even necessary; as you point out yourself, some theological bias is inevitable in any translation. Still, it is not the job of translators to rewrite the text for us, or to resolve ambiguities in the text, or to change what Paul explicitly said. If I want to read Calvin’s Institutes, I will read Calvin’s Institutes. I have no desire to read Calvin’s Institutes in the guise of reading the NIV translation of the Bible!


Tom and Jason,

You both make good points about the translation. I’ve downloaded a copy of the Eastern Orthodox New Testament and it renders 2nd Thess. 1:9 “They will face the penalty of eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his power,” ‘From’ here can either mean ‘away from’ or ‘coming from’ as Tom noted. The Eox agree with Tom and interpret it as ‘coming from’ though they follow Tom’s advice in not interjecting ‘coming’ into the text.

I think a large enough pool of scholars would at least be able to run potential translation options past koine Greek experts to see if they fly. I’m sure Knoch wasn’t a universalist, but when he tells me that the verb at the beginning of verse 9 means “to value” (and then translates it a different way himself!) and that it never appears anywhere else in the NT, then I want to run that past a panel of experts to get their evaluations: is “to value” the meaning of the verb in contemporary (or source) Greek works outside the NT? Is it at least possible to translate the term, in context (without theological prejudice), that way? Is there some technical reason why Knoch (not to say other translators) must translate the word “incur” or anything else other than “will value”?

I’m not saying translate the NT (and eventually the OT) simply out of contact with what’s been done before; I sure as heck don’t (and can’t!) do that myself. But Calvinists and Arminians (and their non-Protestant analogues) have special Biblical commentary Bibles, where the editors explain their rationales for going with this-or-that translation, and also their rationales for conceptual interpretation (exposition on the meaning of the text, as you put it.) The two projects can be done without simply making the translation itself into a universalist equivalent of Calvin’s Institutes. (Ideally a Calvinist commentary Bible would explain why translators chose textual variant phrases on text-crit principles; then why they chose translation options on contextual and linguistic grounds; and then why they exposit the scriptures to arrive at Calvinism.)

Jason, I think a more realistic goal is to put together a Commentary and a study Bible based on popular versions of the Bible while including study notes that favor universalism. For example, I’m working on a commentary on Revelation.

Hi Tom,

My first reply in the topic reflected my previous thoughts about 2 Thessalonians 1:9. I’ve been chewing on your view of apo in 2 Thes 1:9 while studying the rest of 2 Thes and the use of apo in a NASB lexicon. I’m leaning toward agreeing with you while I remain undecided. In NASB language, apo sometimes clearly means “away” and sometimes clearly means “because”. In regards to 2 Thes 1:9, we can frame the debate to say that apo means either “away from” or “because of”. The NASB translates apo in 2 Thes 1:9 as “away from”. If you’re right, then it should be “because of”. I’m leaning more toward “because of” after studying a parallel in 2 Thes 2:8:

Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming;

This verse does not use the word apo, but it teaches that the coming of Christ will “bring to and end” the lawless one. Different Greek words are used for destruction and bring to an end while the meanings are similar. Likewise, if you’re right, both 2 Thes 1:9 and 2:8 describe a pattern of the Lord appearing and causing the destruction of evil people.

Matthew 25:41 teaches that Christ will banish the wicked from his presence when he returns, but if you are right, that is not also taught in 2 Thes 1:9.

Either translation of apo works with universalism. But I’m not sure that we can translate aionios to mean “everlasting” in this verse unless only the sin nature is subject to everlasting destruction, whether away from the Lord or whether in the presence of the Lord.

That’s a very interesting follow-up comparison, James!

I know some things I could comment on (or add to) about it, but I want to see what Tom thinks of it first.

Knoch was indeed a Universalist. The below ink details an exchange between Knoch and Charles Russel on the topic of Universal Reconciliation:

Wow… I totally couldn’t have guessed from his translation efforts (interesting as they otherwise were). Thanks!!

I’ll have to see if the forum search engine is good enough to find other places I’ve discussed Knoch, so I can amend any place I said I didn’t understand him to be universalist… I don’t want to propagate misunderstandings about him.

Update: I only found one other place where I stated my belief that he wasn’t a universalist; and I’ve appended a hindight note to that comment. There may be other forums or journals where I’ve said as much, but I hope not. In any case, I’ll keep this in mind for the future.

I love Knoch’s Concordant Version (CV) of the New Testament. So many passages that sound like everlasting Hell in the KJV (for example) have the Hell simply vanish out of them in the CV.

So can anyone please answer the question Tom asked in the OP? I’m interested.

The destruction of one’s fleshly self/old man? (Picking up from Paul’s old self/new self, old man/new man methaphor) Peter Hiett has talked about that a lot in some sermon’s of his I’ve listened to recently.

Hi Caleb, thanks for the reply. I’d like to think you are right, the only problem I’ve got is that I’m not so sure that the text would easily lead to this interpretation. It says:


It does tend to read like the people themselves will be destroyed rather than just some evil within them. Paul seems to be pretty good with his words and I can’t help thinking that if he had meant to convey the idea that they would be purged of all evil, he would have been able to communicate that thought very clearly rather than what seems tantamount to “they will be destroyed”. ??

As I understand it “everlasting destruction” is in itself an oxy-moron, akin to saying “endless annihilation”… one in fact cancels or negates the other.

Firstly: “eternal” simply needs to be seen as qualitative and not quantitative, that is, eternal speaks to the TOTALITY of the event not the LONGEVITY of such.

Secondly: taking an historical perspective with regards to 2Thess 1:9 minimises the difficulties often associated with the passage.

When you understand the absolute pinnacle Jerusalem and her Temple held in old covenant life, being the epicentre of their universe and Presence of God, then its doom and destruction and one’s subsequent banishment from it could and would be described in these terms; and so as such DO NOT require a post mortem and continual fulfilment…

2Thess 1:9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power…

History bears witness to the fact that in the aftermath of Jerusalem’s AD70 conflagration aka ‘the Roman-Jewish Wars’ [what I also understand to be the lake of fire] a good portion of Jewish captives were taken back to Rome and paraded as slaves before the conquering Titus as part of the spoils of war. These captives were all still very much alive, yet having had “their part” in the ‘lake of fire’ were now banished forever… permanently exiled [DEATH] away from the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem – their world lay in ruins and they were as dead-men-walking… judged and found wanting. Nothing of their OC world bar the consequences of blasphemy Mt 12:32] would survive into the coming NC age.