2 Thessalonians 1:9 is often cited as scriptural testimony for either eternal conscious torment or for annihilation.
As the New American Standard Version translates: “And these [who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, per verse 8] will pay the penalty [literally ‘the justice’] of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
The term “eternal destruction” is “olethron aiônion”. “Olethron” is an emphasized variant of “ollumi”, to ruin; it may be thus translated “utter ruination”, or a bit more colloquially (as in Knoch’s Literal Concordance) “whole-ruination” (also there “extermination”).
To begin with, the term itself is not inherently hopeless, as the same term is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:5 to refer to the destruction of the flesh that he curses the Stepmom-Sleeping Guy with so that the SSG’s soul may be saved in the day of the Lord to come. It may be noted that the same term is used in Hebrews 11:28 to describe the extent of the physical destruction of the firstborn sons of Egypt (all the firstborn), and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:10 to describe the deaths of those who murmured against Moses in the wilderness.
This will especially have bearing when considering my main concern for this article, which is the Old Testament context for this phrase. Paul is alluding to the coming judgment of YHWH in the day of YHWH’s forthcoming appearance, Isaiah 2:10: “from the terror of YHWH and from the splendor of His majesty”; also paralleled 2:21 as “before the terror of YHWH and the splendor of His majesty”. (Similarly, in verse 7 Paul when speaking of the Lord Jesus being revealed from heaven with the angels of His power, is referencing Zechariah 14:5b where the prophet says in regard to the same situation, “Then YHWH my Elohim will come and all the holy ones with Him.”)
This Isaianic prophecy extends from what we call chapter 2 through the end of chapter 5. While the term “whole-ruination” is not used in this Isaianic prophecy, the bulk of the prophecy is aimed at criticizing unjust and oppressive Jewish rulers and population, although especially the rulers. YHWH declares that they shall eventually be (in effect) ruined in the Day of the Lord to come, at the coming of YHWH among them.
This is not the end of the story for them, however, in these chapters, although this can be obscured by the fact that Isaiah does not report coming things in sequence. He starts with the end result, for example, 2:1-4 where mountain of the house of YHWH will be established as the chief of mountains, and all the nations shall stream to it to be taught YHWH’s ways by YHWH so that they may walk in His path; and YHWH will act as arbitrating judge among the nations so that they will live in peace with one another ever afterward.
It is in context of looking forward to this day that Isaiah calls Israel to stop their injustice and their idolatries and repent and come back to walking in the light of YHWH. People, especially the egotistical leaders, who refuse to do so will be humbled and abased so that YHWH alone will be exalted in that day. A repeated theme (2:10, 19, 21) is that doers of injustice will try to hide from YHWH’s appearance in caverns; but they will also throw away their idols (2:18, 2:20)–possibly into the same caverns (with the moles and the bats) where they themselves attempt to hide.
In the second half of chapter 3, Isaiah switches metaphors and begins to speak of rebel Israel as daughters of Zion who are proud, seductive adulteresses who shall be humbled in fashions analogically parallel to the more masculine humbling imagery elsewhere in the prophecy. The outcome of this, however, is more fully reported than in some other places of the same prophecy: defeated rebels shall appeal to the righteous to save them and to take away their reproach (the imagery is that of desperate women after a battle begging to be made the indentured servant concubines of the conquerors). Notably, the righteous remnant, “everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem”, the holy ones “who are left in Zion and remain in Jerusalem”, servants adorned by the beauty of the Branch of YHWH, are called the survivors in distinction from the rebels pleading for salvation. (4:1-3)
Nor shall the pleas of the defeated rebels go unanswered: YHWH shall wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion, purging the bloodshed of Jerusalem from their midst by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning. The result will be that the pillar of daysmoke and nightfire (as in the presence of YHWH during the Exodus) will be a shelter from the storm and the rain and the heat. (4:4-6. Chapter 5 goes back to the theme of coming punishment for rebel Israel and does not mention salvation of the rebels.)
In this context, verse 2:9 (preceding verse 10, referenced by St. Paul in 2 Thess 1:9) should not be translated “But do not forgive them”, as for example the NASV. Rather the primitive verb there, which means to lift, and has a wide variety of usage in the OT, should be interpreted in a sense parallel to other portions of the same chapter: do not lift up the humbled proud again to their former status of exalted rebellion. (For example 2:22, “Cease from man whose breath is in his nostrils, for in what should he be esteemed?”)
In any case, the context of Isaiah 2 through 5 indicates that the fate of rebels wholly ruined from the presence of YHWH is not hopelessly final. The proudest rebels are shown in a process of preliminary repentance (though not yet seeking salvation) by throwing away their idols; other proud rebels seek repentance (including by petitioning the victorious righteous) and receive reconciliation with YHWH; and the whole prophecy begins with a portrait of broad repentance among all the nations in the day of YHWH to come, which by narrative and thematic logic must necessarily be subsequent to the punishment related afterward in the chapter, resulting in loyal fellowship with YHWH where no such fellowship previously existed and peace among the nations under YHWH’s fair justice.