This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you were considered worthy of the kingdom of God, on account of which you are suffering—6 since it is just in God’s eyes to repay those afflicting you with affliction, 7 and rest to you who are being afflicted with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power 8 in a fire of flame, giving vengeance to those who do not know God and to those not obeying the gospel of our Lord Jesus, 9 such as will pay the just price of destruction of the age from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 whenever he comes to be glorified in his saints and to be wondered at among all who believed, because our testimony to you was believed, on that day.
The 9Marks site had an eJournal devoted to the “Awful Reality” of hell last year. Reading through the various articles in defence of the traditional interpretation goaded me into starting a general account of New Testament teaching on this thing which we wrongly label “hell” as part of my vaguely proposed “glossary” series. I got as far as Andrew David Naselli’s first point under the heading “How does the New Testament describe hell?” and realized that it was not going to be easy to keep matters concise.
Naselli bases his straightforward study on a “little book” by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson called What is Hell? The first of five truths about hell in the New Testament is that “Hell is punishment”, and 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 is offered in support.
The “judgment” that Paul describes, however, in intensely apocalyptic language in this passage is not a post-mortem punishment of the wicked. It describes a visible, public, and therefore historical event, when those who persecuted the churches will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord” (1:9). The context is quite clear. This is not a final judgment but the specific judgment of a culture that sought to eradicate the churches.
The most that is described here is the “execution”—the destruction—of the wicked opponents of the righteous king when he comes at his parousia to “inflict vengeance” on those who afflicted his loyal people. But Paul later speaks of the revelation of a man of lawlessness, “whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming”. This suggests a rather more symbolic “destruction” of the persecutors of the churches. The narrative expects the king to judge the persecutors, to bring them to nothing, and permanently to exclude them from his presence. The punishment is a destruction by exile.
A good gloss on this passage is found in Lactantius’ treatise on the death of the persecutors:
They who insulted over the Divinity, lie low; they who cast down the holy temple, are fallen with more tremendous ruin; and the tormentors of just men have poured out their guilty souls amidst plagues inflicted by Heaven, and amidst deserved tortures. For God delayed to punish them, that, by great and marvellous examples, He might teach posterity that He alone is God, and that with fit vengeance He executes judgment on the proud, the impious, and the persecutors. (De Mortibus, 1)
He then goes on to relate “what were the punishments by which the divine Judge, in His severity, took vengeance” on the emperors who persecuted the churches. Lactantius was something of an apologist for Constantine, but his argument is entirely biblical: God will sooner or later judge—that is, overthrow, in the arena of history—the powerful, idolatrous and unrighteous nation which destroyed Jerusalem and persecuted the saints of the Most High. Hell in the traditional sense has nothing to do with it.