Yesterday, we took a look at the terms eternal fire, unquenchable fire, and consuming fire [here]. I want to direct our attention to the phrases eternal punishment and eternal destruction in this article. Let’s do it.
First, we have eternal punishment. Let’s go back to Matthew 25. We had taken a look at it before because it contained the phrase Eternal Fire (v. 41). This time, verse 46 will be highlighted for your consideration. It is here where we find the reference to Eternal Punishment. Check it:
46 “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Someone might be tempted to argue that this verse speaks of ongoing conscious torment. But verse 46 doesn’t say anything like that. It simply says “punishment.” The term punishment is too general to say that this verse proves ongoing conscious torment or pain. People can be punished any number of ways. Some people might be punished by having to wash the dishes, pick up trash, or stay in their room. I may put my son or daughter in time out. These are forms of punishment. In this verse we are only told that an eternal punishment exists.
Thankfully, Paul sheds some light on this verse. Notice what he says in 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10:
6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you,
7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire,
8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,
10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed–for our testimony to you was believed.
2 Thessalonians 1:9-10
Here, Paul is using this judgment in flaming fire language much like what we read in Isaiah 66:15-16, 24.
15 For behold, the LORD will come in fire
And His chariots like the whirlwind,
To render His anger with fury,
And His rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For the LORD will execute judgment by fire
And by His sword on all flesh,
And those slain by the LORD will be many.
24 “Then they will go forth and look
On the corpses of the men
Who have transgressed against Me.
For their worm will not die
And their fire will not be quenched;
And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.”
Isaiah discloses to us a scene of corpses and slaughter by God fiery judgment. In 2 Thessalonians, we read that they will pay the penalty of Eternal Destruction. The ESV says, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” From this text, we see that the punishment is eternal destruction. Some may say that the ETERNAL modifies DESTRUCTION in such a way as to denote an ongoing destructive process. In Matthew 25:46, for instance, you have Eternal Punishment contrasted with Eternal Life. It is argued that since life is ongoing, so is a process of destruction.
But is this necessarily true? In other words, should we conclude from the argument that there is absolutely no other way to view this? I think not. Consider the following passages:
but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin
And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,
he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
Should we suppose that after the resurrection we will undergo an ongoing process of saving or an ongoing process of redemption? On what grounds then should we grant that “destruction” is different?
In 2003, my house burned down. We lost everything but one of two dogs and some clothes. The next day we came back to go through the rubble and see what we could salvage. It was a scene of destruction. It wasn’t as though it was still burning in some process of destruction. It did that already. And yet, we would agree that it was a scene of destruction. I could have easily said that the house was “gone forever” or even eternally destroyed (although a lot of folks would wonder what planet I just landed from) – that is, the house as it was at one time will never be again. Sure, we built a new house, but the old one is gone forever. In such a case, the definition of eternal would be more along the lines of “permanent” or “irreversible” in regard to the effect of the destructive process. By the way, that reminds me, I love this band (relax your brain for 2 minutes and 47 seconds and listen to one of the most underrated bands of all time):
EXAMPLES OF THE WICKED AND DESTRUCTION
Ironically, it’s often said that the Old Testament is silent on the topic of the final judgment of unbelievers. But let’s just quickly take a look at how the Bible describes the end of the wicked, beginning with the Old Testament.
The wicked will become like:
a vessel broken to pieces (Psalm 2:9)
smoke that vanishes (Ps 37:20)
a slug that melts (Ps 58:8)
and a dream that vanishes (Ps 73:20)
the wicked will gnash their teeth and melt away (Ps 112:10)
straw that is burned (Isa. 1:31)
they will be no more, and not be found (Ez 26:21)
thorns and stubble in the fire (Isa. 33:12)
ashes trodden underfoot (Mal. 4:3)
A common objection is that the conferred immortality position takes these passages too literally, and doesn’t allow for a fuller meaning. But what is really being said is that we don’t allow these verses to somehow translate to eternal conscious torment. But we don’t take them literally. For instance, I don’t believe that God will hit the wicked and they will fragment into tiny pieces like a clay pot. I don’t believe that unbelievers will have thorns on them. These are each metaphors that each have the same conclusion. Destruction. An end of existence. This fits perfectly with Paul’s language from 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10.
In the New Testament, we are shown other examples of what will happen to the wicked that depict the same type of imagery – that of being destroyed.
are on the wide road that leads to destruction (Mt 7:13)
will be destroyed (both body and soul) in hell (Mt 10:28)
are like tares thrown into a fire (Mt 13:40)
are like a tree that is cut down and thrown into fire (Lk 3:9)
are like chaff that is burned up with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:17)
When unbelievers face the final judgment they will be destroyed forever, never to come back. It will be Eternal, or permanent and irreversible punishment of destruction.