Gospel Guidebook: Getting and Keeping It Right  

Is Universalism Compatible with "Eternal Destruction" in 2 Thessalonians 1:9?

In 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, we read the following: "6 Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; 7 And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, 8 In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: 9 Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;"

One common question posed to Universalists is how can Universalism be true if some people suffer "everlasting" or "eternal" destruction? Most Universalists would respond by saying that the Greek word aionios translated "everlasting" (KJV, NKJV) or "eternal" (MEV, NET, ASV) doesn't actually mean "forever," but means "age-during" as translated in Young's Literal Translation or "eonian" as translated in the Concordant Literal Version. However, as I argued in my article Aionios: Eternal or Age-Lasting?, I don't think this explanation is correct. I believe that in the context of the eschatological judgment of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, "eternal" is the most suitable translation of aionios. As I mention in that article, the "age to come" (Luke 18:30) is not simply "an age." Rather, it is "the Age" of Christ. And we learn from other passages such as Daniel 7:14 and Luke 1:33 that the Age of Christ has no end. Therefore, Young's Literal Translation really should be interpreted as "Age-during" with a capital "A."

Granted that the traditional renderings of "everlasting destruction" and "eternal destruction" are correct, how is it possible to still maintain that Universalism is true? To answer this question, I would first refer the reader to my article Is Universalism Compatible with "Eternal Punishment" in Matthew 25:46?. In the latter half of that article, I comment on the phrase "eternal punishment" found in Matthew 25:46. What I wrote there about the word "eternal" in Matthew 25:46 equally applies to the phrase "eternal destruction" in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. Of particular importance is the observation made by Christopher Marshall in footnote 123 on page 186 of his book Beyond Retribution:

The word "eternal" is used in both a qualitative and a quantitive sense in the Bible. It is sometimes urged that if eternal life in Matthew 25:46 is everlasting in duration, so too must be eternal punishment. But "eternal" in both phrases may simply designate that the realities in question pertain to the future age. Furthermore, inasmuch as life, by definition, is an ongoing state, "eternal life" includes the idea of everlasting existence. But punishment is a process rather than a state, and elsewhere when "eternal" describes an act or process, it is the consequences rather than the process that are everlasting (e.g., Heb. 6:2, "eternal judgment"; Heb. 9:12, "eternal redemption"; Mark 3:29, "eternal sin"; 2 Thess. 1:9, "eternal destruction"; Jude 7, "eternal fire"). Eternal punishment is therefore something that is ultimate in significance and everlasting in effect, not in duration.

As for the Greek word olethros translated "destruction" found in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, it does not necessarily mean "being destroyed without hope of recovery." In fact, this is the same word used in 1 Corinthians 5:5 where we read the following: "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." In this instance, the "destruction of the flesh" is clearly corrective in nature. Likewise, its use in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 could also be corrective.

In light of the above, "eternal destruction" in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 could mean "corrective destruction in eternity with everlasting results." My current opinion is that people who undergo "eternal destruction" will eventually be saved in eternity, but will everlastingly suffer the results of an inferior social status compared to people who are saved on this side of eternity. In other words, they will eventually enjoy the bliss of "eternal life," but not to the extent of people who are saved here and now. So, in conclusion, I do believe that "eternal destruction" is compatible with Universalism.