It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘from’ is

Proper manners include refraining from talking religion at work. But at my recent jobs it’s been known that I used to be a pastor, so manners be damned. People come to me with the strangest religious questions, conversations, and controversies. Most recently, a colleague asked about a fringe heretical group who believes in the destruction of the soul after death. (The person asking is a fiery Baptist and prefers eternal torment of wicked souls in hell fire and brimstone.) The text in question was 2 Thess. 1:9. The context is vv 5-10, so I’ll quote the paragraph.

[5] This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering — [6]  since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, [8] inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. [9] They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, [10] when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

The specific answer to this question, by the way, is twofold. First, there is no exact equivalent to the Greek word used for “destruction” (olethros). It does not mean “annihilation.” It is closer (but not exactly like) “corruption.” So destruction is a sort of ongoing and progressive death. It is what happens when there is an absence of life. One might think of the lives of Adam and Eve after the Garden. In the Garden they had ongoing life because in the Garden the source of life was present and renewing them regularly. Outside the Garden, they died. It wasn’t instantaneous (as if they were annihilated), but rather progressive; and it occurred precisely because they were then separated from the source of life in the Garden. So this verse about the destruction of souls is not contradictory to the idea of eternal punishment.

Second, the overwhelming New Testament evidence is that life continues for all after death. Building a doctrine on one passage which seems to disagree with the majority of evidence is a dangerous business indeed!

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But what is the “punishment” to which this text refers? (v. 9) Well, it turns out (to misquote former Pres. Clinton), “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘from’ is.”

The cubicle conversation was notable for me because it brought 2 Thess. 1:9 to my attention, and I’ve been looking for this verse for some time. My problem was that my preferred English translation is the RSV (quoted above) and the way it chooses to translate the verse is rather opposite of the classical understanding of what this verse says. So I kept overlooking it because what I was expecting it to say something other than what the RSV says. The problem is in the prepositions.

The preposition in question is “apo,” which means “from” (translated as “exclusion from” in the RSV) But there is subtlety to the word that cannot be captured very well in English. The picture (below) is a graphical representation of the most common Greek spatial prepositions. It is adapted from Lexical Aids for Students of the New Testament Greek by Bruce M. Metzger, p. 80. The Greek is transliterated into English for the sake of this blog audience.

gk_rel_preps

Note that there is a preposition (ek), which is graphically similar to the preposition “apo.” Both represent the same movement but are spatially different. “Apo“ implies a sense of distance that “ek“ does not. So, if I was going to say, “The light comes ‘from’ the sun,” I would use “ek” because the sense is that the light and the sun are, in a sense, the same. But, if I was going to say, “The shock waves that tipped the Humvee on its side came ‘from’ a bomb beside the road, I would probably use “apo” rather than “ek” because this is an action that emphasizes the distance and the disjunction of the bomb and the Humvee.

As a result, the Greek preposition “apo” can also be translated “away from” in many instances (or “exclusion from,” as in the RSV). The command, “Get “away from” me!” would probably use the preposition “apo” (although there would be other ways to say it in Greek that would add the word “away” so that the meaning would be clear.

And here’s the problem. You could properly use either “apo” or “ek” in the sentence about the bomb and the Humvee, but it would not be correct (or at the very least, quite misleading) to use “apo” when saying, “Light comes ‘from’ the sun,” or “ek” when saying, “Get ‘away from’ me.” In short, discerning the force of “apo” in English is a bit tricky and involves as much art as science. And this brings us back to 1 Thess. 1:9.

I do not have the resources to  trace this back in an authoritative manner, but it appears that the Greek East tends to understand this verse as, “[The wicked] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [resulting] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” The Latin speaking West tends to understand it in a manner similar to the RSV: “[The wicked] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [and exclusion] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Both are grammatically legitimate understandings of the verse, based on different interpretations of the force of the preposition “apo” (from).

Given the fact that the original text is in Greek rather than Latin, I would tend to agree with the former version that the ancient Greek speaking Christians preferred. (Full disclosure: I am Eastern Orthodox, and that is the normative understanding of the text throughout the Orthodox Church.) So, what does that version of the text mean?

The divine presence (the glory of God, the face of God, the divine fire … whichever Old Testament image you want to use) is a double-edged sword. The normal human was warned against approaching it because it would kill them (or destroy them, to use the word from 1 Thess. 1:9). Human sinfulness is incompatible with the purity of the Divine Light. To switch metaphors slightly, if we are nearly pure gold, the fire will only purify us further. If we are primarily impurities rather than gold, the fire will destroy us.

It is this very metaphor (based on 1 Thess. 1:9) that gets at the heart of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of heaven and hell (and “vengeance” in v. 8). They are the same place, the same thing. God casts no one aside; everyone comes in. But this is no sloppy universalist vision of eternal bliss for everyone. For the Christian, who has been transformed by life in Christ, there will be no more night “for the Lord God will shine on them” (Rev. 22:5). But for those who have rejected Christ, his presence is “the punishment of eternal destruction resulting from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might.”

This idea is not new with the ancient Greek speaking Christians. The very same sensibility can be found in Prov. 25:21f, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” (Paul quotes this  passage in Rom. 12:20.) Furthermore, this perspective solves many of the tensions between the love and justice of God and the problem of divine vengeance that has befuddled the Christian West for 1500 years. And thanks to the fact that a co-worker was rude enough to talk about religion in the workplace, I managed to find this verse once again.

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