Today’s Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1-3
Today’s Reflection: 2 Thessalonians 1:7b-9
7b) when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8) in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9) They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
Here in Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonia, he explains what will happen at Christ’s return. Just as those who believed in Him will be saved—the dead raised to life and the living also—all caught up in the air to meet Him (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17), those who rejected the Gospel will be…
Well, what happens to them now?
Many churches teach of, and many Christians believe in, a place called hell. A place where those judged unrighteous will be sent to be tormented for eternity. But what Paul writes here counters that teaching completely. Though he uses the word ‘eternal’, it is an adjective describing the word following it: destruction (from the Greek ‘olethros’, meaning destruction, ruin, death). Destruction is finite, not an ongoing thing. When something is destroyed there is a definitive end to that thing. However destruction can be described as ‘eternal’ in the sense that it’s effects are permanent. Complete and utter destruction cannot be undone, and that is what is being described here. So those who rejected the Gospel will be eternally destroyed.
Psalm 21:8-9 – 8) Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. 9) You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.
So why then the confusion about hell? This place of eternal destruction that seems so vivid in the church’s imagination? There are only 14 uses of the word hell in the English Standard Version of the Bible (compared to hundreds of uses of heaven), and most are vague enough that they could refer as much to an experience of destruction rather than to a litteral place. And there are 9 more uses of the word hades, the name for the underworld in Greek mythology, but most of these references are clearly to the literal grave where the dead are buried, as in Acts 2:27. That said there are some exceptions that may cause confusion. Let’s deal with some of the most common ones:
2 Peter 2:4 – For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;
This use of the word hell seems to suggest that it is a literal place—the home of demons until the time of judgment. This would seem to support hell being a place the wicked are sent to—and having fallen angels there already suggests it would also be a place of much torment. But to fully understand we’ll have to go back to the source. Most uses of the word hell are translated from the Greek word gehenna, which refers to a literal place, a valley outside of Jerusalem that was used as a garbage dump. Since Jerusalem was the city of God, called Zion, the dump outside was symbolically where those who were judged wicked would be cast out.
Luke 13:27-29 – 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. 29) And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.
But the use of hell in 2 Peter isn’t gehenna. It’s dzofos, which is Greek for ‘blackness’ or ‘darkness’. This isn’t the place of final judgment—the dump outside of the city of God—it is just a holding place for the wicked awaiting judgment, specifically wicked angels. Not wicked people, who go to the grave or hades to await judgment, while they experience the sleep of death (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
The other text about hell (or rather hades) that churches reference when discussing a literal eternal hell is in Luke 16:19-31. This one of Jesus’ parables: Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man was greedy and did nothing to help Lazarus who was poor and begged for food. At death Lazarus went to heaven, while the rich man went to hades and was tormented by flames. He looked up into heaven and saw Lazarus by the side of Abraham, father of the people of Israel. He asked Abraham if Lazarus could comfort him with some cool water and Abraham told him this was not possible.
There’s more, but I think you might already be able to see some problems here. This parable suggests that, yes, hell is a place of eternal torment by flame. But it also suggests that somehow people in heaven and hell are able to see each other and talk to one another. Heaven is to be a place where there are no more tears (Isaiah 25:8; Revelations 21:4). Do you think this would be true if you could look down and see people you once knew and loved being tormented for eternity, and that you could do nothing to help? Or that they could see you in the comfort and splendor of heaven while they suffered? Does that sound like the action of a loving God?
Clearly Jesus is doing something here that He did frequently—used folk tales known commonly among the people but with a gospel twist. He did not mean to literally say there was an eternal hell of ongoing torment (anymore than He meant to say God was like a lazy judge in the parable in Luke 18:1-8) but used this known and understood concept to make a point in a way the common people would understand.
So is there a hell? In the traditional conception of an eternal place of torment for the wicked, no. But rejecting the gospel—something freely offered to all—does have an eternal consequence—permanent destruction. Hell is as good a name for it as any.