Sunday, May 10, 2020

From the Face of the Lord

These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 NKJV)
This is often supposed, by not a few evangelicals, to be a “kill” verse to any idea of Christian universalism. After all, does it not speak of “everlasting destruction”? Case closed! Or so it is thought.

What goes unnoticed is that the word for “everlasting” (aionion) does not actually, of itself, indicate any idea of endless duration. Oh, it can certainly take on such meaning when applied to God, or to the kingdom of God, or to the life we have in Christ, all of which are otherwise known in Scripture to be without end; but it does not inherently mean without end. Also unnoticed is that “destruction” (olethros) is not necessarily annihilation but may actually have a corrective, therefore, redemptive purpose — I have addressed both these points elsewhere (see “Eternal Punishment, Eternal Destruction?”). To put it simply, in this passage, Paul is speaking of chastisement in the Age to Come.

But there is something else in the verses above that is often assumed to disprove any Christian universalism, and that is the phrase, “from the presence of the Lord.” The assumption is that the “everlasting destruction” is separation from the presence (or face; the Greek word is prosopon) of the Lord. But that assumption fails on at least two counts:

First, it fails theologically, in regard to the relationship between God and creation. Paul teaches us in Colossians 1 that all things are created by Christ, through Christ, for Christ and in Christ, and continue to hold together in Christ. That being so, it is impossible for Christ to be absent from any person or thing in creation, or else such persons or things would simply cease to exist. Of course, that could be a point in favor of the annihilationist view — except that Paul also tells us in Colossians 1 that God is pleased to reconcile to himself, through Christ, all things in heaven and on earth (that is, all that has been created), having made peace by the blood of the cross.

Second, the phrase “from the presence of the Lord” (apo prosopou to kuriou) is used in only one other place in the New Testament, and it does not indicate any separation from God. We find it in Acts 3:19, where Peter is preaching in Solomon’s portico and says, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (apo prosopou to kuriou). Clearly, this has nothing to do with being separated from the Lord but is about the blessing and refreshing that proceeds from the Lord’s presence.

In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the phrase, “from the presence of the Lord,” is not about being separated from the presence of the Lord but is about what proceeds from the presence of the Lord: chastisement in the age to come. Now, the Lord does not have two different presences, one that brings refreshing and another that brings chastisement. Christ is everywhere and always present throughout the universe, but his presence may be experienced in different ways.

The difference is not found in the Lord or his presence but in the disposition of the one who is in the presence of the Lord. For those who turn toward Christ, his presence is experienced as blessing and refreshment, but for those who turn away from Christ, his presence is experienced as torment and destruction. The presence of the Lord is life and light and love, and those who turn to Christ are prepared to receive his presence as such. But those who turn away from Christ experience his presence as torment for as long as they cling to their dead, dark ways. This is just as true in the Age to Come as it is in this present age.

But as the life of Christ overcomes death, and the light of Christ overcomes darkness, so the love of Christ overcomes hate. So the “destruction” in the Age to Come is not a destruction of persons but of the things of death and darkness and hate. It is purgative and corrective, therefore redemptive in purpose.

Make no mistake, the prospect of such drastic measure in the age to come is not pleasant but is thoroughly dreadful, to be avoided at all costs — not only for our own sake but for the sake of others as well. But it in no way forecloses God’s redemptive purpose in Christ, to bring all things in heaven and on earth to unity in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10), and to reconcile to himself all in heaven and on earth, through Christ, by the blood of the cross (Colossians 1:19-20),“so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

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