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!

+ + + + + + +

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.


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.


What’s a Recovering Libertarian?

At a recent family reunion, sitting over pizza at a Pizza Ranch – one of the great Iowa institutions where politicians come to meet Iowans before the Presidential Caucuses to explain their political views and aspirations – my niece asked me to explain my political leanings. (1) What is Communitarianism? (2) How does it differ from Libertarianism? and (3) Why do you call yourself a “recovering Libertarian”? (That’s in my Facebook profile). Those are difficult questions because both movements are rather amorphous and the simple definitions don’t explain anything.

  • Libertarians, for instance, include people primarily interested in small government (my thing, if you’re curious) as well as people primarily interested in the decriminalization of drugs or a whole variety of other activities. It’s an extremely big tent.
  • Communitarianism, similarly, covers a lot of ground. It’s primarily a Roman Catholic movement promoted by groups such as the Chesterton Society; but it also includes back-to-nature localists, grown up hippies who want to live off the land, and anti-urbanists.

How does one succinctly compare and contrast two such disparate movements? (Especially when distracted by “Cactus Bread”!)

A while ago another relative handed me a CD with a set of lectures by (Notre Dame professor) Thomas F. X. Noble, on the history of the papacy. I’m Orthodox, so (he thought) I would obviously be interested in these lectures. Well, not so much, but one ought to be polite, so I listened anyway. Actually, they turned out to be pretty darn good.

It’s too bad I hadn’t listened to the lecture about John Paul II before sitting down to pizza with my niece. That lecture cut to the heart of why I consider myself a recovering Libertarian (and a practicing Communitarian, even though I’m not Roman Catholic).

I am a small government sort of guy because I think that local institutions are better suited to doing many of the tasks that the U.S. Federal government has co-oped for itself. That was my attraction to Libertarianism. What I came to realize is that Libertarians were radically individualistic and in that sense were not the inheritors of Jeffersonian classical liberalism. In spite of the rhetoric, they were far more interested in the absence of government than its structure. More Nietzschean than Lockean, the Libertarians were committed to a personal autonomy that is not very compatible with Christianity.

With this background I turn to the lectures by Thomas Noble:

John Paul II castigated aggressive individualism and acquisitiveness. He wasn’t opposed to wealth or capitalism per se, … What he was really critiquing was the modern secular tendency to place the isolated individual on a pedestal; to take that individual out of all social connection and all social responsibility. ‘It’s all about me, isn’t it?’ ‘Well,’ John Paul said, ‘no it’s not actually,’

I became Libertarian because I thought that the Libertarian Party and Libertarianism in general was about reining in American federal messianism, the government gone mad with power, under the control of the two major political parties bent on growing the influence of government at home and abroad. What I discovered is that what Libertarians were actually about was placing “the isolated individual on a pedestal,” as well as the “removing of all social connection and responsibility.”

Communitarianism, on the other hand, recognized that the local community, with all of its rootedness in place and people, was the foundation of political culture. Liberty is not an attribute of an individual (unless you equate liberty with solipsism), it is an attribute rooted in a community. Liberty does not define me, it defines my relation to those around me.

With that distinction in mind, let me continue the quote from Thomas Noble;

[John Paul II] was seeking a more authentic kind of community. Not the kind of community that’s forced by Soviet collectivization, but the kind of community that is formed by people thinking in the right kind of way joining together for the right reasons.

Following the line of Leo XIII and Pius XI in defending property and defending a living wage, he is harkening back to the notion that the rich have moral obligations to share with the poor.

Talking to the American youth at one of the youth rallies, John Paul II said,

The great gift Americans have is freedom, and freedom is the opportunity to do what is right, which confers on [us] the obligation to do what is right. Freedom gives us, not the liberty to do whatever we want but the obligation to do what is right.

I have always liked John Paul II. But in the past I’ve always focused on his critique of the “culture of death,” which I believe was one of his greatest gifts to the Western world. Until listening to Thomas Noble I had not realized JPII was such a staunch defender of subsidiarity specifically and Communitarianism in general.

I suspect I’ve had a sense for many years, which I’ve not been able to put into words, that Communitarianism was the correct political posture. It insists that governance (whether church or state) be carried out by the most local authority possible, thus shrinking and limiting national bureaucracy. At the same time it insists that institutions and community bonds are not bad, but are actually necessary to our well being because we were not created autonomous individuals. (That sense of autonomy is a result of the fracturing of sin. Read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, to see a great picture of autonomy gone horribly wrong.)

But being (1) an American and (2) a Protestant with that one-two punch of autonomy and private responsibility that they both celebrate, I had no framework in which to formulate a political philosophy that reflected my sensibilities. Not surprisingly, the church, with it’s long history of struggling for the truth against all manner of cultures and societies, had a long established political philosophy that was actually far more Christian than culture-bound.

That being said, I’m still an American and that Protestant mindset runs deep in my being, in spite of the fact that I left Protestantism behind almost two decades ago. That’s why I self-identify as a “Recovering Libertarian.”

Grace, Effort, and the Majesty of God

What is the glory and majesty of God? One of my favorite pictures of that glory is in Ps 93:1. “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty.” Majesty is also a fearsome concept. Consider Job, for instance, “Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?” Or Ex. 20:19 (the people telling Moses to talk to God): “You speak to God. Do not let him speak to us or we will die.”

In the Old Testament, glory and majesty are overwhelming and fearful realities. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews says in 12:29. “our God is a consuming fire.” And while that image never goes away (Hebrews is in the New Testament after all) a new image of majesty is offered up which transforms the old image. Take the Christ hymn in Phil. 2, for instance. Christ Jesus,

who in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking for form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

This process of being robed in human form, of being robed as a slave is why the Father highly exalted him (or, we might say, robed him in majesty) in the next verse. The New Testament sense of majesty is very upside down. True greatness is found in service (literally, “slavery” to others). Weakness is the greatest strength. Humility is among the virtues.

This redefined sense of majesty is carried all the way to the end of the New Testament. The Eternal Ruler of the Apocalypse is not a great king, he’s a dead baby sheep who has been given life once again.

Once this theme is acknowledged, Jesus’ teaching begins to make sense: His followers will be persecuted and will die. The great are the least among us. There’s even a passiveness to his politics: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. We can safely assume that Jesus understood full well the evil and injustice of the Roman empire, but he didn’t come to fight evil and injustice, he came into the world to be treated like a slave and ultimately to be crucified (the most humiliating form of death).

There’s a profound irony in all this. The Great King over all is a loser. His kingdom is for losers.

Of course those words have huge emotional impact in our society. We can destroy a child’s self-esteem with those words. Those words can start a gang war and lead to drive-by shootings and endless recriminations. In our society being a loser is not a good thing, it’s a humiliating thing.

Losers. … Luke 17:33

But what do losers get? If we can lose our self-will … If we can lose any success we’ve had … If we can lose the accolades of others because we’re so smart, so athletic, so beautiful, so rich … If we can lose our life, there will then be a void which God will be free to fill with divine life, if we give God permission.

And that’s one of the tricks about understanding the magisterial humility of God. Being humble, God isn’t going to pump divine life into us whether we want it or not, he’ll only fill a void and never force something else out of the way to make way for his goodness.

Ah, and it’s at this precise intersection between divine humility and human loss that the true and profound meaning of human effort in relation to divine grace begins to make a world Kingdom of sense. I have built into me a sense of self-preservation. Empower that natural sense of self-preservation with my sinful nature and I find that I have an overwhelming urge to succeed, to look good, to be liked … And my first task as a Christian is to “empty myself” of all those “self” things so that the quiet and humble God can pour his “self,” his Holy Spirit, into the emptiness.

That self-emptying requires effort. But just as God’s actual sense of majesty is ridiculously upside down, and just as God’s Kingdom is ridiculously upside down, so my effort is ridiculously upside down. I’m not striving to be a winner; I’m striving to be a loser. And to the extent that I can lose my self-will, pride, accomplishment, and the admiration of others, the divine life will come rushing in like a torrent.

Once we get this, then that particular both/and of the New Testament begins to make a great deal of sense. The works of the law will only lead to death. But works are absolutely necessary to life.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive was, to a certain extent, the sound track of my youth, so I can’t help but close this essay with the brilliant Randy Bachman. Of course this isn’t what he meant at all, but the thing about poetry is that a good poem can have multiple legitimate meanings. (Okay, I admit that calling B.T.O. lyrics “poetry” is a bit of a stretch, but stick with me for a minute, boys and girls.)

It’s the work that we avoid / And we’re all self-employed / We love to work at nothing all day. // And we be Taking care of business (every day) / Taking care of business (every way). [italics added]

How can we avoid work and at the same time “work all day”? By working at “nothing,” rather than working at something, so that my “nothingness” can become the divine fullness within me? That’s takin’ care of business, every day, takin’ care of business in every way.

And if you do that, well then, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”