(2 Thess. 1:9-10 ESV) 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
There are several challenging words and phrases here to sort through. For example, “eternal destruction” is not altogether obvious.
“Destruction” translates olethros, meaning destruction or death. BDAG translates “pert. to being totally destructive, deadly, destructive.” For example,
(1 Ki. 13:33-14:1 ESV) 33 After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. 34 And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.
The house of Jeroboam (his dynasty as king over the northern tribes of Israel) was destroyed, and so it longer exists.
(Jer. 25:31 ESV) The clamor [LXX: destruction = olethros] will resound to the ends of the earth, for the LORD has an indictment against the nations; he is entering into judgment with all flesh, and the wicked he will put to the sword, declares the LORD.’
In Jeremiah, God’s destruction comes in the form of a sword and death.
That is, there is nothing in the word olethros (destroy) to suggest perpetual conscious torment. Rather, the word is used of killing someone, of destroying a city by tearing it down, or ending a dynasty so that it no longer exists. The word means to destroy so that the thing destroyed ceases to exist.
“Eternal” can refer to something that will exist forever (“eternal God”) but can also refer to a finite, even momentary, event that has forever consequences. For example,
(Heb. 6:1-2 ESV) Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
“Eternal judgment” is not referring to a continuous, never-ending process of judging. Rather, the judgment occurs and then is complete, but the consequences of the judgment will last forever.
A more exact definition of “eternal” in many contexts is “pertaining to the next age.” The Greek is aionios, with the root being aion, meaning “age.” Hence, “eternal judgment” is probably more precisely defined as “judgment relating to the next age.”
(Heb. 9:12 ESV) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
“Redemption” refers to buying a slave’s freedom. It happens at once — in a moment. “Eternal redemption” does not mean that we are continuously being redeemed forever but never fully redeemed. Rather, we will be fully redeemed when Jesus returns — in the twinkling of an eye — and the effects of the redemption will last forever, never to be undone.
Or we can consider “eternal redemption” to refer to redemption in the next age. The meanings aren’t greatly different, but you get a better sense of the word looking at both senses.
Hence, “eternal destruction” does not naturally refer to perpetual conscious torment — that is, an unending process of destruction that is never complete. “Destroy” does not mean “keep alive forever” or “torture in perpetuity.” That’s in fact the very opposite of the word’s meaning. Rather, Paul is prophesying a death that will last forever. There will be no opportunity for resurrection and inheritance for the damned. When God completes his punishment, the damned, like Jeroboam’s dynasty, will cease to exist.
Or we could think of it as destruction in the next age or that lasts through the next age (which never ends). That is, you can be destroyed in this age and be resurrected to live again in the next age. But if God destroys you in the next age, there is no resurrection. The destruction will be eternal — for the entirety of the never-ending final age.
But Paul assures us that God will exact punishment. It’s not just ceasing to exist. It’s God’s righteous punishment following by extinction.
Away from the presence of the Lord
Paul gives us an insight into the nature of God’s punishment in v. 9 —
away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might
The saved will be in the Lord’s presence forever (Rev 21-22). Indeed, while Jesus, Peter, and James speak of gehenna (the garbage dump outside the City of Jerusalem), generally translated “hell,” Paul and the other NT authors say nothing of “hell” or gehenna. Rather, Paul speaks in terms of being in the presence of Jesus or God or being excluded from the presence of Jesus or God.
Salvation is often spoken of as being allowed into the Presence of God:
(Gen. 3:8 ESV) 8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
(Jer. 3:17 ESV) 17 At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.
(2 Cor. 4:13-14 ESV) 13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
(Rev. 7:15 ESV) 15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
Then again, sins that merit exile result in being driven away from God’s Presence:
(Jer. 23:39-40 ESV) 39 therefore, behold, I will surely lift you up and cast you away from my presence, you and the city that I gave to you and your fathers. 40 And I will bring upon you everlasting reproach and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.'”
In the OT, the Presence is sometimes clearly the tabernacle or Temple. The Jews thought of heaven and earth both existing in the Holy of Holies. God was simultaneously present in the Holy of Holies, above the Mercy Seat, and in heaven. Therefore, references in the OT to being cast away from the “Presence” of God could simultaneously refer to being cast from the Promised Land (where the Temple is) and to loss of salvation and relationship with God in heaven. To a First Century Jew, there was no real difference.
Therefore, when Paul declares that those who do not know God will be cast away from God’s presence, he is saying that their punishment will consist of being separated from God — in parallel with the eviction of Adam and Eve from Eden and the exile of the Jews from Judah and Jerusalem. Either we enter into God’s presence through Jesus or else we join Adam and Eve and the Jews of Jeremiah’s day in exile from God. There is no in-between position.
The land or inheritance of God’s people is expanded from the Garden, to the Promised Land, to the entire earth, to the New Heavens and New Earth — the entire cosmos. To be exiled from the cosmos is to die, of course, as there’s nowhere else to be. The NHNE includes the dwelling places of both God and man.