2 Thessalonians: 1:9-10 (Available Light, Part 4)

map of greeceThat’s the OT perspective on the presence of God, and Paul almost certainly thought in these terms. But there’s another way of looking at God’s presence — equally valid. Just think of what it means for God to be present in this world.

(Heb. 1:3a ESV)  3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. 

(Col. 1:16-17 ESV)  16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.  17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

Jesus is everywhere making the world work, holding things together. His will causes the laws of nature to be true. And yet the world, because of sin, is a mess. (This is, I believe, also part of the meaning of Jesus being the Logos in John chapter 1.)

Imagine how ugly the world would be if God and Jesus abandoned it? They are busy doing good for both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). The world is actually, on the whole, good. Evil people don’t want to leave it. They fear death because death will separate them from the pleasures of the world God has made, despite all its imperfections.

Under Torah, if someone committed a particularly severe sin, they were to be “cut off.” Commentators debate the meaning of the term. Some say it means executed (Gen 9:11; Exo 17:14-15, etc.). Other say it means being exiled from the camp as Israel traveled through a dangerous and bleak wilderness to the Promised Land (Num 19:20). Either way, to be cut off was to be separated from the presence of God as well as God’s people. And few would survive alone in the desert. So it was a death sentence however you read the text. The point is that safety and security are only found in the presence of God, which is among God’s people. If you aren’t part of the people of God, you will die.

Just so, to be cast out of the presence of God means not to participate in the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE) promised by Isaiah in chapters 65 and 66 and by John in Rev 21-22 — because God will fill the universe in the NHNE.

(Isa. 11:7-9 ESV)  7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.  9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

It’s not surprising that Paul routinely refers to damnation as “death.” But rather than work through those verses (there are many such verses), let’s look at the “second death”     verses —

(Rev. 2:11 ESV) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

(Rev. 20:6 ESV) Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

(Rev. 20:14 ESV) Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

(Rev. 21:8 ESV) But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

The saved die and are resurrected (made alive again) to participate in eternal life (or life in the next age, which never ends).

The damned die, are brought to judgment, are punished by being separated from the presence of God, and once they’ve been punished fairly and justly by God, they die again — the second death — which is forever. They die never to live again — forever. The second death is an eternal or unending death.

Now, the fate of the damned is plainly described as “death,” and “death” does not mean “live forever in conscious torment.” It’s as though the authors of the NT deliberately chose words that cannot mean “live forever in conscious torment” to describe the fate of the damned.

Punish

There are several passages that suggest degrees of punishment for the damned. Most plain is —

(Lk. 12:42-48 NIV)  42 The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time?  43 It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns.  44 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.  45 But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk.  46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.  

47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

“Few blows” and “many blows” plainly imply degrees of punishment. Clearly, to be just, the punishment has to fit the crime. If both the utterly evil and those who are good but never heard the gospel are punished the same, then God is not just — even by his own standards.

Therefore, it seems that God will punish all who are not saved, but their punishment may be slight or severe, depending on their knowledge of God’s will. The one who “does not know” “the master’s will” will be beaten with few blows. He is not punished as though he were Hitler or Pol Pot. He is punished with perfect justice — no more than he truly deserves — taking into account his knowledge of right and wrong. (See Rom 1 – 3 for an explanation for how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.) It may be hardly any punishment at all.

Part of this punishment is being cast out of God’s presence — maybe for a moment or two or maybe for a very long time — depending on the sinfulness of the deceased. We are promised justice, and so Hitler will suffer more than most. But how many days or millennia someone must be separated from God to suffer a just punishment for millions of deaths, only God knows. I dare not speculate. The Bible just doesn’t say.

But the punishment will be finite because the sin, although great, is also finite.

The lost person will then cease to exist. He or she will die the Second Death, as plainly promised in Revelation (and Isaiah and the Gospels and many other passages), such as —

(Rom. 6:23 ESV)  23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(I couldn’t resist: all die a physical death (the first death). Only the saved avoid the second death. The death that Paul is speaking of is contrasted with “eternal life,” and so Paul is speaking of the second or a spiritual death.)

Therefore, the Available Light theory is not needed to provide a fair and just result for those who’ve never heard of Jesus. They will not be saved — but salvation is a matter of grace. It is, by definition, more than we deserve. Therefore, no one can claim to be unfairly treated for being denied what they did not earn.

The saved often suffer a form of “survivor’s guilt,” that is, feeling guilty for being saved when people just as good as them, perhaps even much better, will be damned and cast from God’s presence. It feels wrong. Which is why the scriptures urge us to send missionaries to preach the gospel.

But we live in an age when it’s very difficult to imagine the damned being, well, you know, damned. Therefore, we feel little guilt at our pitiful efforts to do personal evangelism or even to work with our congregations to seek and save the lost. And so when the subject of the salvation of those who don’t know Jesus comes up, we seek a solution that provides no survivor’s guilt — a solution that declares those who’ve never heard the gospel saved — at least if they’re good people. But there is no such doctrine in the Bible.

In fact, the more deeply you stare into the scriptures, the more plain is the teaching that those outside the Kingdom, being those without faith in Jesus, are certainly lost and need to hear the gospel to be saved. And so Paul lived the life he lived. And so Jesus lived the life he lived and died the death he did. And the other apostles laid down their lives to bring salvation to the lost. None of which makes the least sense if their converts were going to be saved anyway.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to 2 Thessalonians: 1:9-10 (Available Light, Part 4)

  1. Dan Harris says:

    (Jay, Hope you are feeling much better.) I don’t totally disagree, but I do want to bring up a thought or two. I realize we need to be careful not to strain a parable into something it isn’t meant to be…. BUT… Notice that the servant who was evil, beat others, and took the master’s produce as his own, will be cut to pieces. I believe that must mean he would be killed. The other servants mentioned will be beaten with a few blows or many blows. But will they be killed, too? Will they be killed after suffering a little pain (torture) or a lot of pain (torture). That kind of reminds me of some James Bond movie where the evil villain says, “tell me what I want to know now and I will kill you quickly; otherwise you will be submitted to a long slow death!”

    Does God need to threaten us with torture? Does he get some satisfaction out of pain suffered by the evil doer? Would his sense of justice be served by torturing some for a short periods and others for long periods before he destroys them? Or are the few blows or many blows an example of some punishment which is a natural consequence of a life lived in ignorant sin or willful sin? And why any blows in the first place? Again does God really need this? Isn’t total destruction enough? Or is variable punishment a way of teaching, disciplining; a correction to lead one toward repentance and righteousness? What purpose is served when we punish our children? How does a parent punish? >>> 1. “Johnny since you won’t share your toy, I will put it away for the afternoon. Tomorrow when you tell me you can share it I will get it out again.” Taking a toy away is not a large punishment. >>> 2. “Johnny, you have lied to me and put others at risk of being hurt. How can I trust you again? Go to your room without supper and you will not go on the camping trip with the others this weekend.” Johnny will have to think about his deeds a long while and be “cut off” from his friends, a much more serious punishment. Each punishment is geared toward teaching, corrective action, and instructing a child in the seriousness of their act. Is it too much to speculate that God also would instruct, even in punishment, with a view toward rehabilitating the sinful (misbehaving) person (child)? So, is there a possibility that even beyond this life there is a chance for learning and improvement? —– perhaps before the New Heavens and New Earth? —– or along side it in some way? (real speculative, I know.) I’m thinking there must be a whole lot of info that has not been shared with us about the way things work. Just as you wouldn’t always tell your children everything about some situation because either they would not understand it or might be tempted to try to use the info against some other family member. Now, I don’t think that means there is universal salvation. But I do think there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know and it is not wrong to believe that God is more merciful and patient than we could ever imagine.

  2. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    I know that you did not attempt to fill this space with the total concept about this, but in this quote are the damned resurrected from the dead? Assuming they are resurrected, are their bodies as vulnerable to physical death then as they were before being placed into the grave?
    “The damned die, are brought to judgment, are punished by being separated from the presence of God, and once they’ve been punished fairly and justly by God, they die again — the second death — which is forever. They die never to live again — forever. The second death is an eternal or unending death.”
    In what state can we identify that those who are alive in the world today who have rejected God are not separated from God as they live now? God calls those people some very ugly names in scriptures. If they are comfortable now (and we can readily see that they do not see themselves as in need of a relationship with God). How would we even consider that they would be concerned about a rejection of God, separation from the presence of God after being resurrected? If they never valued a relationship, would separation be punishment? Christian bodies which are resurrected are not supposed to feel pain, suffering, etc:. If the bodies of the damned were the same, how would they be punished? By beatings, and blows? What kind? Near death like Christ? It is my opinion that the bodies or whatever they are as they are resurrected will suffer much greater punishment than these physical bodies could have endured, otherwise some on earth may not suffer any greater punishment than they had already endured while here.

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dan H,

    I was intrigued enough by your questions to pull out the commentaries, find them largely useless, and so write my own interpretation of the parable. It’ll show up in a few days. It’s four posts (so far). Very difficult passage — which, of course, makes interpreting it great fun. I can’t say I’m thrilled with the outcome (Jesus is tough on teachers and other leaders), and I’m open to other points of view. Consider it an interpretation in process.

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry asked,

    are the damned resurrected from the dead? Assuming they are resurrected, are their bodies as vulnerable to physical death then as they were before being placed into the grave?

    There is at least one passage that refers to the damned as “resurrected” after death:

    (Jn. 5:28-29 ESV) 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

    Then again, Jesus also uses “resurrect” to refer only to the saved (which is the most common usage)–

    (Jn. 11:25-26 ESV) 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

    The clear implication of 11:26 is that those without faith in Jesus will in fact “die.” Of course, we all die a physical death. Jesus is speaking of death for all eternity — which will be suffered by the damned, whereas the saved will enjoy life for all eternity.

    I have no idea what kind of bodies, if any, the damned will have after being resurrected. The text doesn’t say and shows no interest in the question. After all, it’ll be a temporary state followed by death/annihilation.
    Just so, their susceptibility to physical death is beside the point. Whatever it is that they are, that will die. Only the saved receive immortality.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry asked,

    If they never valued a relationship, would separation be punishment?

    I think so. Some, including NT Wright, argue that we become so like what we worship that we cease to care about other things. But what kind of punishment would that be? Very unpersuasive to me.

    Rather, my view is that God/Jesus/Spirit are vitally a part of all Creation — holding it together and making it rain on the just and unjust. We have no idea how much of this world is good solely because God wishes for it be good. Take God away, and the world becomes hell (metaphorically) — dreadful and fearful to endure because all that is good, beautiful, and enjoyable comes from God. Only the misery and suffering will be left.

    I was sitting in my new easy chair — with motorized controls — and the power went off. The chair was reclined and the leg support was up — and I couldn’t get out of the chair. I had completely forgotten how much I rely on electricity for nearly everything. I mean, I reached for the remote, upset that it was too dark to see the numbers on the control. I soon realized that this was worse than watching TV in the dark — it wouldn’t work at all. So I had to crawl out of the easy chair in the pitch black dark, nearly landing on my face, and barely avoiding tripping as I went looking for a flashlight. I would not do well in a world without electricity.

    God is like that times 10,000. We have little awareness of the moment by moment blessings we receive from him — until he takes them away.

    So, yes, I think they’d suffer when separated from God. They may not think so in advance, but when it happens, they’ll feel punished for sure. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say this is the sum total of their punishment. The Bible doesn’t say. But separation from God is certainly part of it.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    Weren’t the Israelites separated from God many times? They managed to survive for many years until they were once again renewed with God. He also used them to serve judgement upon many different nations, including killing all of them. The enemies of Gods people survived being separated from God? If the lost were not resurrected how would they answer to judgement? I mean every eye will see him and every knee will bow to him, a dead body still in the grave does not appear to be able to perform those actions. Will they be able to gnash their teeth etc; while still in the grave?
    Mat 8:12 ESV while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
    Mat 13:38-42 ESV The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, (39) and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. (40) Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. (41) The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, (42) and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
    Mat 13:47-50 ESV “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. (48) When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. (49) So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous (50) and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
    Mat 22:7-13 ESV The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. (8) Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. (9) Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ (10) And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. (11) “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. (12) And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. (13) Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
    Mat 24:50-51 ESV the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know (51) and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
    Mat 25:30 ESV And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
    Luk 13:23-28 ESV And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, (24) “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. (25) When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ (26) Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ (27) But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ (28) In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.
    Would these comments from Jesus only be applicable to those who are still alive when he returns? Should we just suppose that these messages are just representative of some other condition?

  7. Larry Cheek says:

    P.S.
    Jesus states that there will be, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” while in the fiery furnace. Being consumed immediately by the furnace is not portrayed by Jesus, he is assuring us that they are alive and able to perform actions which we relate to our bodies while there. The lost dead in the grave not resurrected do not seem to fit these descriptions.
    Mat 13:42 ESV and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
    Mat 13:50 ESV and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

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