Retributive Justice and Eternal Damnation in 2 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians 1:3-12

Relief for the Persecuted

In the first chapter of Second Thessalonians, Paul seeks to encourage a persecuted church to persevere in the faith. To that end, he promises the church two things: God will permanently relieve their suffering and he will bring their persecutors to justice.

Retributive Justice

“Someone needs to be accountable for killing my child,” a mother pleaded on the local news this week. People want those who have painfully wronged them to face justice. Every day, it seems, the press carries stories of families who demand that offenders “pay for what they’ve done.” This is true on a community level as well. Holocaust survivors still seek punishment for those who tortured them in concentration camps nearly 80 years ago. Minority communities still want violent racists who terrorized them decades ago to be punished in a court of law. They want the same thing for officers of the law who abuse them today. Justice often demands some form retribution.

Persecuted Christians long for justice as well. The author of Revelation records this vision: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'” (Revelation 6:9-10)

To the Thessalonian Christians who were facing persecution, Paul promised retributive justice. “It is just for God to repay with affliction those who have afflicted you.” (2 Thessalonians 1:6) The godless persecutors of the Thessalonian Christians will pay a penalty “when (Jesus) comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.” (2 Thessalonians 1:10)

God’s promise to provide his saints with retributive justice is the foundation for Christian forbearance. “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

Jesus Paid it All

It’s important to remember, however, that God himself paid the price for the sins of the world in the death of Jesus. If the death of Jesus satisfies the debt humanity owes God, can it also satisfy the debt owed those who have been wronged in this life? Can it satisfy the debt of Nazi prison guards or bomb planting Klansmen?

Surely, Christians need to accept Christ’s sacrificial death as payment in full for the sins of the penitent. We may not feel that Christ’s death is sufficient now, but we will. In the age to come, at Christ’s appearing, we will be satisfied that justice has been done. The lamb who was slain will say, “Put it on my account” and that will be enough. We will embrace our penitent tormentors as brothers and sisters with the kiss of peace. And if that is how it will be in the coming day, perhaps that has something to say about how we engage our enemies and former enemies now. We pray, do we not, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” I will leave it to God to bring justice and mercy together in eternity.

Eternal Damnation

Unfortunately, I expect few of the Church’s tormentors to change allegiances and unite themselves to Christ. What will God do about the evil people who are persecuting the church? Will he slap them on the wrist and let them continue their evil deeds? Will he strike them down only to let them rise up again and continue their reign of terror?

Evil may raise its ugly head again and again in this age, but Christ’s appearing will deliver God’s people from evil forever. On that day, the church’s unrepentant persecutors “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10) Since Jesus died to save these folks, that is sad news indeed. Though we do not know them all, perhaps we can mourn them at least as much as we do the victims of human tragedies. Compared to the worst human disaster we can imagine, the scale of human loss to eternal death is staggering.

Eternal destruction is tragic, but it’s basically the fate that science says awaits everyone and everything in cosmos. For individual organisms, death is the end. The brain stops working. The body decomposes. Individuals cease to exist. Stars grow old and die, too. Eventually, the dying sun will burn the earth to a cinder. Our atoms will be recycled in the birth and death of stars until the universe itself comes to an end that physicists are still working to understand. Eternal destruction is a fact of nature. Without the resurrection from the dead, the end of all things is certain.

Eternal destruction, understandably, separates those destroyed from “the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10) In one sense, this returns us to the theme of punishment. Alluding to Psalm 6:8, Jesus said that some will hear him say, “Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity.” (See, for example, Matthew 7:23, Luke 13:27, Matthew 25:41) Can God’s word of judgment and the experience of eternal separation come to those who undergo eternal destruction? Only God knows how that works.

Safe Spaces

Looked at from another perspective, though, eternal destruction and separation from God’s presence serve the same function. They keep God’s eternal kingdom safe for its inhabitants.

When I was a Boy Scout, I learned how to put out a camp fire safely.

  • Drown it.
  • Stir it.
  • Feel it.

Thoroughly drench the fire with water until the flame is completely extinguished. Then stir the water and ash to soak every hidden ember. Finally, use your hand to feel every part of the fire pit to make sure that all the heat is gone. Only then is it safe to leave the area. No fire remains to ignite the surrounding forest.

No ember of wickedness can be allowed to remain to set the kingdom on fire. Or to use another analogy, the deadly disease of sin must be eradicated.

Malignant tumors are our own cells which have mutated. They no longer function as they should. Instead of serving the needs of the body, they threaten to kill the body.  Following cancer surgery, patients and their families wants to hear these six words: “I think we got it all.” Cancer cells left behind portend the return of the disease.

Sin and evil are cancers that destroy human beings and their communities. Like malignant tumors, they must be completely excised from the eternal kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, the cancer isn’t just out there; it’s in us as well. Just sending the really, really bad people to hell doesn’t solve our problem. We are all, individually and corporately, part of the problem.

Now we human beings are particularly inept at operating on our own souls and on the souls of our neighbors. We are often like the servants in Jesus’ parable who destroy the wheat while trying to uproot the weeds. And we are like the hypocrites whom Jesus chastised for attempting to remove the speck of dust from their neighbor’s eye while ignoring the plank in their own.

We make a mess of it when we try to create a perfect world and we make a mess of it when we try to perfect ourselves. We build empires of judgment in the world around us and become absorbed in ourselves as we strive to become perfect people. We fall in defeat and self-condemnation when we fail, as we always do.

It’s important to remember that operating on a sin-sick world is God’s work. We are the patients in this analogy, not the physicians.

Being Perfected

John Wesley, an English priest in the 18th century, reminded the church that God is at work in those who believe even now, transforming us, cleansing the thoughts of hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that we might perfectly love him and worthily magnify his holy name (to paraphrase the Collect for Purity).

God has given his church the means of grace in order to irradiate our souls with his healing light.  In our union with Christ, we are cleansed and made holy. Using the means of grace which God has provided is “actively striving” in the same way that going to see the doctor for healing is active. We turn to the means of grace in faith that God will use them for our good as he has promised. We trust in the great physician, not ourselves.

Whether in this life or the next, the old, sinful self must be completely destroyed.

How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:2b-6)

If we are indeed new creations in our crucified and risen Lord, perhaps only the new version of me will rise when he appears.  Even in Wesley’s scheme, those delivered from the power of sin in this life still await deliverance from its presence in the age to come. Again, I will leave the heavenly details to God.

Only when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels and “flaming fire” will the last vestiges of sin and evil be burned away once and for all. The Lord will eternally destroy the sin of those who afflict us, but he will also destroy the sin that remains within us. He will destroy powerful evil that surrounds us and entangles us. He will even destroy the devil himself forever.

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.