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)

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Like Angels and Eunuchs

Those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.

Luke 20:34-36 (// Matthew 22:30 // Mark 12:25)

Jesus’ ethic around sex, marriage and family is rooted in both God’s creation of this present age and in his promise of a new creation in the age to come.

Jesus affirms the vision put forth at the very beginning of the Bible in the Book of Genesis: God made men and women to live together as equal partners in unbreakable bonds of lifelong sexual and emotional intimacy through which succeeding generations are born and nurtured. This is the “one flesh” of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 19:4-6. This is the way of blessedness and happiness.

Marriage is one of God’s good gifts. Nevertheless, it is not for everyone. The sexual and procreative relationship of marriage is a this-age phenomenon. In the age to come, Jesus says, we will be “like angels” who do not marry. Presumably, Jesus is not announcing bad news for the blessed: “Tough luck folks; no more sex in heaven.” On the contrary, it suggests that human intimacy in the age to come will transcend even the intimacy of marital relations. The joys of heaven may be difficult for us to envision, but we can be certain that God will make our lives more complete when Christ gathers us to himself in glory.

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Seated at the Right Hand of God

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am,and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Mark 14:61b-62

After Jesus was arrested he was brought before the high priest and the ruling council to stand trial. Many made false accusations against him, but notably no two witnesses agreed. The law required that two or three witnesses must provide the same testimony in order to convict a person, particularly in death-penalty cases. (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15)

Finally, the high priest asked Jesus directly. “Are you the messiah?” Any kind of affirmative answer would have resulted in Jesus’ conviction, not his acquittal. The high priest wasn’t looking for a reason to believe.

To the high priest’s amazement, Jesus didn’t just say, “Yes, I am the messiah.” He claimed much more than that. His response had the high priest tearing his clothes at what he could only hear as blasphemy. Who did Jesus think he was?

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The Wedding at Cana

John 2:1-11

Jesus’ first sign in the Gospel of John takes place at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Although the wedding occurs at the beginning at John’s gospel, it takes place “on the third day,” immediately putting us in mind of post-resurrection realities.

The wedding feast, then, is not just a wedding. As we find in the writings of the prophets and throughout New Testament, marriage is a symbol of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and the wedding banquet is a metaphor for the joy of the age to come. For John, the eschatological wedding feast has already begun when Jesus appears on the scene.

So how does one participate in the eschatological banquet with Jesus? As I have written previously, the Gospel of John is the most sacramental of the four gospels. The waters of baptism and the wine of holy communion are both prefigured here. The servants plunge their vessels into the waters of purification and withdraw vessels filled with wine to gladden the heart. Something similar happens to baptized Christians, whose lives are filled with the joy only Christ can give.

Like the wedding feast, the fruit of the vine is a stock image in the prophetic canon. Good wine is both God’s gift to his people and what he looks for from his people. God blesses the land of promise with the fruit of the vine. But Israel is also God’s vineyard; God looks for good wine but too often finds bloodshed. Just as the wine the servants found in their vessels was meant to be shared with all the guests, so the wine of Jesus is not for me alone; it, too, is to be poured out for others. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims that he is the true vine; only those who abide in him bear fruit that glorifies God. And in John 6, we learn that abiding in Jesus is nothing less than eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

The wine that Jesus gives is something new and unexpected in a thousand-year old religion. One typically sees movements filled with inspiration and enthusiasm at their beginnings evolve into staid and stable institutions as they age. Could God have saved the best wine for Israel’s second millennium? Jesus says, “Yes.”

At one level, this is a wonderful story of Jesus’ power and his compassion for a newly married couple about to be greatly embarrassed by a social faux-pas, perhaps engendered by poverty. It’s also the story of Mary’s faith, even when she didn’t fully understand what Jesus was up to. “Do what he says” is good advice for all of us. For John, however, it is also a sign of another banquet, another cleansing and another kind of wine.