Hell 23: Paul and the river of Jesus-fire

Posted: May 9, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Paul doesn’t have much to say about what it will be like for God’s enemies when Jesus shows up: not much detail, that is. This is about the fullest description we get:

…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 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.   These will pay the price: eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might…     2 Thessalonians 1:7-9

There is the traditional image of fire. The fire is coming from heaven to earth, as at Sodom and Gomorrah. Gehenna-fire falling on earth was the dominant image of judgement in Luke, we saw in a recent post. Paul paints the same picture as Luke.

The fire here is associated with ‘the face of the Lord.’ Here ‘the lord’ is clearly Jesus. But the image echoes Daniel 7, where the fire came from the Ancient of Days, who sat surrounded by attendants:

his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire. 
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his face.        Daniel 7:9-10

The fire streams out from his face to bring judgement on his enemies.

Paul rejigs this image: now it is Jesus in the role of Ancient of Days, complete with fiery face. The highest possible Christology is clearly functioning here.

The result for the enemies is also as it was in Daniel 7: they are completely destroyed. The word ‘destruction’ (Greek olethron) is only ever used in the NT to mean destruction. In Daniel 7 the destruction was ‘to the end’ (7:26): ie. destruction from which there is no coming back. The same idea seems to be in view here with Paul’s phrase ‘eternal destruction.’

The whole phrase ‘from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might’ is taken from Isaiah 2, where it is repeated several times. There the Lord’s face is the source or agent of destruction. The people are pictured trying to hide from that face and that terrifying, glory-filled power. They hide in caves etc.

The common translation ‘away from the presence of the Lord’, while grammatically possible, doesn’t really do justice to the whole scene or its prophetic background. This reading pictures the destruction in terms of banishment or isolation from God – which is probably the opposite of Paul’s intention. Being away from this presence is what they would like!  In Isaiah 2 and Daniel 7 the terrifying thing is the face itself. The people cannot escape it. It is that face which brings the peoples down to shame, and which destroys the beast..

Paul is trading on the ambiguity of the preposition apo (‘from’). It can be used to mean ‘away from’. But it can also be used of a source or cause:

He was heard because of (Greek. apo) his piety.  Hebrews 5:7

Grace to you and peace from (apo) God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Romans 1:7

his divine nature…has been understood and seen from (apo) the things he has made. Romans 1:20

It fits the context much better to translate here in 2 Thes. 1, ‘destruction from the face of the Lord‘ or if you must paraphrase, then ‘destruction in the presence of the Lord‘. There is no other place where the punishment occurs: it takes place right here in the sight of the King. This is the fate of the enemies of the Christ.

This is as close as Paul comes to teaching a doctrine of Gehenna. It’s not very close, is it. Going from the Pauline corpus of writings alone, Paul sounds more like an annihilationist.

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