The Evangelical Universalist Forum

II Thessalonians 1:9: Part II

As I have pointed out in a previous post, II Thessalonians 1:9 no more entails that some sinners will be excluded from the presence of the Lord than Acts 3:19 entails that the repentant will be excluded from the presence of the Lord. But if, according to Paul, God is the source of the destruction that befalls the wicked, just how should we understand the relevant destruction? Leon Morris has offered the following suggestion:

It seems to me, however, that there are several confusions here; and since I have addressed them elsewhere, I’ll simply reproduce below two paragraphs from what I wrote in Chapter 3 of Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, pp. 40-41.

Any comments? Is it possible that, within the context of Pauline thought as a whole, all the symbols of divine judgment turn out to be redemptive concepts in the end? Does not every Christian represent the destruction of a vessel of wrath?


Morning (here anyway) Tom:

I recall thinking, as I read those paragraphs from “The Current Debate” a few weeks ago, just how strained Leon Morris sounded; almost desperate to dispatch what clearly was, and is, a very troublesome text for his position. And I’ve had that sense too listening to people explaining away the clear reading of 1 Cor 15:22 – how strained and desperate. Then again I must confess that to those who toss II Thess 1:8-9 our way like a hand grenade, intending to shatter Universal Salvation theology, our responses must raise in them similar feelings and impressions!

Malcolm Gladwell talks about a Tipping Point; and it seems something like that happens in minds that weigh UR versus eternal damnation. ALL the texts must fit in one basket or the other; the two positions are mutually exclusive. So the psychology of human conviction is a subtext to these kinds of discussions that fascinates me. Sure of the rightness of his conviction of eternal damnation, Morris finds a way, as he must, to make problem texts “fit”. And we are accused of doing the same thing with our problem texts.

For me, my “tipping point” came when I accepted that were God to condemn to eternal damnation, those left behind would have a very logical reason to love God from fear. Which seems to me to be the precise motivation He is seeking to dispel. Further, I accepted that I could no longer embrace a definition of “love” that allowed for eternal lostness, I could no longer comprehend eternal happiness when members of the “family” were missing, nor could I accept that God’s Victory was total and complete if death yet held it’s victims. Texts read very differently from the other side of the “tipping point” don’t they!

The biggest challenge for me personally, before reaching my tipping point, was to challenge the idea that our fate is sealed forever at death. All subsequent events merely served to satisfy ceremony; rigged trials the outcome of which was already known. Pondering concepts like “all will confess” and “the kings of the earth will bring their glory in” and shepherds not giving up till all sheep are home, eventually placed me in position to say Yes – judgement IS redemptive! (though I’m no linguist, theologian, or language expert; I leave all that up to you guys!)


Hi Tom,

I suppose “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 could specifically refer to only the destruction of the sinful nature, but I’m not sure that it’s a cut and dry case. And we still need to consider that Paul used the phrase “cursed (or anathema) from Christ” In Romans 9:3, which most likely means “separated from Christ”. Or do you have a different Pauline meaning for anathema?

I think it’s possible that “eternal destruction” is a temporary opposite to “eternal life” while 2 Thessalonians 1:9 likely suggests that the “eternal destruction” at least started from the presence of the Lord.

I have a lot to pray about and examine with this.

Hi Bob,

Although I have nothing to add to your thoughtful post, which I agree with entirely, I do want to thank you for it. I also want to endorse what you say (following Malcolm Gladwell) about a Tipping Point. For me that Tipping Point came when I realized that Paul really meant what his words in fact say in Romans 11.


Thanks for a typically thoughtful post, Jim. Although you may find it surprising, I agree with you that my interpretation of II Thessalonians 1:9 is hardly “a cut and dry case.” Certainly a consistent theological interpretation of the Bible as a whole, which some believe to be impossible in any case, is never a cut and dried matter; for one thing, some texts and themes must inevitably be adjusted and interpreted in light of others. So with that in mind, I should perhaps emphasize a point that I may not have made sufficiently clear in my original post. In no way do I claim that the immediate context of II Thessalonians 1:9 requires my interpretation of this text. I claim only that nothing there excludes it; that is, nothing there excludes the idea that the eternal destruction of the wicked, on the one hand, and the eternal salvation of those individuals who are wicked, on the other, turn out to be two sides of the same coin. For we simply cannot infer from harsh language alone, or even from the language of retribution–which loving parents use quite frequently, by the way–the absence of a corrective purpose. But when we turn to the larger context of Pauline thought and specifically to the teaching in Romans 11 that God is merciful even in his severity, are we not then required to interpret all the symbols of divine judgment as redemptive ideas? Does not every Christian, or every vessel of mercy, represent the absolute destruction of a vessel of wrath?

As for Romans 9:3, it seems to me that the NIV and RSV translators made the same mistake here that they also made in translating II Thessalonians 1:9; they should not have used “apo” as an excuse for injecting into the text the words “cut off.” According to the Arndt and Gingrich translation of Bauer’s lexicon, moreover, the meaning of “anathema” here is “object of a curse.” So a literal (and rather wooden) translation of Romans 9:3 might read as follows: “For I was praying I myself to be the object of Christ’s curse” (or a curse coming from Christ).

Perhaps, however, we can here set aside the translation issue, because it seems likely that a curse coming from Christ would include a kind of spiritual separation from him in any case. The more important point, as I see it, is that Paul attributed the same kind of spiritual separation to his unbelieving kin. Is not the whole point that his beloved kin were separated from or cut off from Christ and in that sense under a curse? And is that not precisely why Paul experienced such “unceasing anguish” at the beginning of Romans 9? But now consider the “sudden joyous turn,” if a may borrow a term from J.R.R. Tolkien, that occurs in Chapter 11, and ask yourself this further question: Just what is the surprise that Paul has in store for us in Chapter 11? What is it that converts his unceasing anguish at the beginning of Chapter 9 into ecstatic joy at the end of chapter 11? Is it not just the following? At the end of Chapter 11 we learn two facts that Paul regarded as utterly astounding and glorious: first, that “as regards election they [Paul’s unbelieving kin] are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors” (11:28), and second, that “they have now become disobedient [and are now under a curse] in order that they too might receive mercy” (11:31-NIV). So evidently, in Paul’s scheme of things, being an object of God’s curse, no less than being blinded or hardened (see verses 7 & 24), is also to be an object of God’s mercy–a severe mercy, no doubt, but mercy nonetheless.

And finally, here is a point that too many seem never to appreciate. Paul also explains exactly why in our natural state we are bound to find God’s judgments so unsearchable and his ways so inscrutable. The reason is that God is far more merciful than we could ever have imagined and that his mercy, encompassing as it does even the destruction of the wicked, is far more extensive than we might ever have thought.

Thanks again for a good question.


Thanks for your post! There is a problem that I have with a universalist reading of Romans 9.
1: If Paul started the writing of Romans as a universalist, why go through the “unceasing anguish”? If he knew of their eventual reconciliation, why bother with the anguish?

I have a few thoughts about “destruction”. Consider the following verse:

… that the testing of your faith, more valuable than gold which is being destroyed through fire and being tested, may be found for the purpose of praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ. I Peter 1:7

Peter compares the testing of the faith of disciples with the testing of gold being refined through fire. He writes of the gold “being destroyed” through fire. We all know that fire doesn’t destroy gold. It may melt it, but it never destroys it. So what was Peter saying? He was writing about gold ore ----not pure gold. Gold ore is placed in fire to refine it. The original form of the gold (the ore) is destroyed so that the pure gold might melt and separate from the impurities, and thus remain. So it is with our faith. When pure faith is separated from the impurities mixed with it, it is then worthy of praise and glory and honour.

We might now look at the 2 Thessalonian passage in this light.

They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 2 Thessalonians 1:9,10

“They” refers to those who “do not know God and those who do not listen to the gospel of our Lord Jesus”. These people (as they are presently constituted) must be destroyed. They must be refined through the fires of Gehenna. They, as they now are, will be permanently destroyed and excluded from the presence of the Lord. Only when their characters are refined and the glorious nature which our Lord intended, comes forth, will they be able to come into His presence.

A young friend tried to bring up the idea that death was not a slammed door to salvation and was met with near complete silence as several of us stood around a fire a couple of weeks ago. One person spoke up and reminded the small group that it was appointed unto men ONCE to die and after that judgement. Me being the Undercover URist that I am said nothing.

My question is: what is the best argument for death being too late at salvation.

I hope you at least consoled your young friend afterward that, right or wrong, he wasn’t just pulling that notion out of nowhere. :frowning:

I have yet to hear a philosophical argument (recognized as such by the proponent or otherwise) that I could in good conscience label “best”.

I’d have to say that the best argument that Christianity should be non-universalistic (a conclusion that could in principle be reached by non-Christians, too, whether they’re sympathetic to non-universalism or not), is that a significant number of scriptures seem at first glance, or when taken by themselves, or when creatively translated that way :wink: , to point toward death being too late for salvation and (which is more important for non-universalism per se) for the condemnation to be hopeless.

So Jason, what are your thoughts on Heb 9:27? I find the verse to be rather strange, but I haven’t spent much time studying it.

Anybody else is free to chime in on my question about “unceasing anguish”. I have wondered about this for quite awhile and have never heard anyone’s opinion on it, so I am eager. It always seems like it didn’t fit the universalist view of Paul.

Could it be that Paul was concerned about the trials and death they would face during the Neronian persecutions in '64 and '65 and ultimately the Fall of Jerusalem in '70AD.

just some initial thoughts without much research.

I’ll get to it presently, I hope. (Right now I’m drafting a post for Kav’s request. :slight_smile: )

Thanks for raising an extremely important question, one that has no doubt occurred to other readers as well. The answer requires, I think, three clarifications.

First, we must distinguish Paul’s sorrow and “unceasing anguish” over the present condition of his kin, as expressed in Romans 9:2, from a kind of ultimate despair and hopelessness about the future. As an illustration of the distinction, suppose that a devoted Christian mother should discover that terrorists with a reputation for beheading their victims had kidnapped her equally devoted Christian daughter. Despite her confidence that her daughter was destined for heaven in the end, we can easily imagine her confessing to a friend, “You know, I have been in unceasing anguish ever since that happened. I am praying that I can somehow exchange myself for her, putting myself into the clutches of those terrorists for her sake.” That is just how love operates. Even as Jesus became accursed for our sake, according to Christian theology, so Paul would gladly have become accursed for the sake of his unbelieving kin. But the main point I would emphasize here is this: Fear of eternal damnation is not the only possible source of anguish in this “veil of tears.” The mother’s anguish in the above example had nothing to do with a fear that her daughter’s ultimate fate would include eternal damnation and therefore nothing to do with a kind of ultimate despair and hopelessness.

Second, we must come to understand why, given our human condition, even a glorious hope for the future can exist alongside and in a kind of dynamic tension with real anguish in the present. Although the devoted Christian mother in our example above already illustrates the point nicely, consider also how Paul, speaking to believers, described their condition prior to their having become Christians:

As Paul understood it, then, our natural state is one of bondage to sin, which is the ultimate source of misery in the world, and it is this bondage, not some future punishment in some future age, from which we need to be rescued. As George MacDonald once put it, “‘Salvation from hell’ is salvation as conceived by such to whom hell and not evil is the terror.” According to Paul, however, sin itself is the terror, not hell. So it was quite natural for him to experience real anguish over the present condition of his unbelieving kin.

And finally, we must come to appreciate how Paul finally resolved the tension between his anguish, on the one hand, and his glorious hope for the future, on the other. He accomplished this in exactly the right way: by repeatedly reminding himself of the ultimate ground for hope. He thus reminded himself that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, “the word of God had not failed” (9:6), that God has not rejected his people, the children of Israel (11:1), that a faithful remnant is always a pledge on behalf of the whole (11:4,5 &16), and that not even those who “have stumbled over the stumbling stone” (9:32) have stumbled so as to fall with ultimate consequences(11:11). To the contrary, they have stumbled in order that they too might receive mercy” (11:31-NIV), so that all Israel can be saved (11:26). In a word, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32). Accordingly by repeatedly reminding himself of the ultimate grounds for hope, even as the mother of the kidnapped daughter might also do, Paul successfully converted his unceasing anguish into ecstatic joy.

Thanks again for an important question.


Thanks for the reply. At first glance it looks like a good answer. I have many other questions about universalism that remain unanswered, but you did well in this case!

Yep, agreed. :slight_smile:

I am very well aware of the unceasing anguish felt by St. Paul. Whenever I see my most-beloved doing things that amount to shoving a scalpel in her ear and rummaging it around… it doesn’t matter that she herself cannot feel how much it is hurting her, and even feels pleasant for her to be doing. In several ways, that makes it all the worse; and I suffer the pain she is inflicting on herself at this present time.

How could my anguish not be unceasing so long as that’s happening?!

But, that’s very different from having no hope for her, or for her being at risk of ultimate hopelessness.

Just a catchup note: I’ve been very busy the past few days (mostly on ‘work’ work), and haven’t had time yet to finish the post I’m drafting on Kav’s request. I hope to post it up in its own thread (for topical focusing purposes) later this week.

I have also a guestion on this verse:

the Greek word olethros is translated perdition in German bibles, while destruction implies extinction, perdition might imply conscious suffering (but not necessarily).

the same word is used in 1 Corinthians 5:5

To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

what do you think is meant in 1 Corinthians 5:5; the extinction of an allegorical flesh, maybe the carnal mind - or the perdition of this man’s literal flesh?

I understand this verse as being “cut of from the living” for the millenium age to come, does olethros include (or at least not exclude) the idea of extinction or does it rather imply suffering perdition consciously?

I don’t want to take over Talbott’s forum, but here are some quick thoughts:

I think that question is moot because, either way, the olethros is for the purpose of saving the man’s spirit – i.e. it is a remedial punishment.

The Thessalonians passage also says that the olethros comes from God’s presence, which is also described as “flaming fire”. The thing is… the Bible repeatedly used fire as a symbol for purification, especially when it is said to be God’s presence (e.g. sons of Levi “refined” by God - described as “the refiner’s fire”).

Talbott will give you a more detailed answer, but I’m sure he’ll probably agree with me that God’s refining/fiery presence causes destruction (olethros) – but “only” destruction of that which causes sin, of that which separates us from each other and from God, etc.

best wishes

  • Pat