I was reading your article on Heaven and Hell. What is your explanation of the words "everlasting destruction" in 2 Thess 1:9? -- B.W.

You were reading the article on Terminal Punishment. There is also a fuller explanation in my book Heaven & Hell.

There are also numerous uses of words like “forever” or “eternal” in the Bible that do not convey the notion of infinity, but simply extended time or permanence.

Quoting from my paper,

Hebrews 9.12 speaks of the "eternal redemption" that Christ has effected. Hebrews, of all N.T. books, makes it clear that the redeeming itself is a once-for-all event. So we're speaking of the results or consequences of the redemption Jesus Christ has purchased for us. His atoning death is over; now he is resurrected and at the right hand of the Father. What can we conclude from these three passages?
1. In all three cases above the word "eternal" is not used in the usual, more familiar way. So "eternal" can be understood in more than one way.
2. In Matthew 25.46 there's no compelling reason to take "eternal" in the traditional way. The language and interpretational possibilities don't demand it.
3. Jude 7 supports the terminal view against the traditional view.

Matthew 25 by no means forces us to accept the traditional view! We have to let the Bible define its terms. In the case of the word "eternal," we must determine whether biblical writers and speakers mean eternal in the sense of a continuous action or state, or eternal in the sense of a consequence or result. In addition, there are a number of scriptures where words such as “forever,” “eternal,” and “everlasting” do not necessarily entail a sense of infinite duration. For example, the following list is based (only) on the Greek root aion*, which appears in the LXX (the Greek OT) and the NT numerous times, with the general sense of (world) age, forever, always, eternity, etc. In none of the following cases does the word aion* bear the sense of infinite eternity.

  • Genesis 6:4—“Men of old” (giants/ungodly persons/fallen ones/sons of Cain) did not live infinitely
  • Jeremiah 25:12—Destruction of Babylon (though not literally destroyed)
  • Genesis 9:12—Perpetual generations
  • Exodus 21:6—The man or woman would become one’s servant “forever” (!)
  • Leviticus 25:34—Perpetual possession of fields
  • Deuteronomy 23:3—“Forever” || the 10th generation
  • 1 Samuel 2:22—Young Samuel was to serve at the house of the Lord “forever”
  • 1 Chronicles 16:5—“Forever” ~ 1000 generations—also Psalm 105:8
  • Ezra 4:15, 19—Israelites had been “eternally” resisting political domination
  • Psalm 24:7—“Ancient” doors
  • Proverbs 22:28—“Ancient” boundary stone
  • Jonah 2:6—Prophet confined in (the fish) “forever”

(Similarly, Josephus uses the phrase "eternal chains" to refer to life imprisonment in BJ 6.434, while Jude speaks of angels in "eternal chains" in Jude 6, even though the chaining lasts only until the day of judgment.)

In the same way, "everlasting" in 2 Thess 1 refers to the permanence and irreversibility of the situation of the lost. We could say that their lostness is forever, even if they are not going to be tormented forever.

Paul teaches in 2 Thess 1 that three things happen to the lost when Jesus returns.

  • Privation – they are separated from the “party,” and from all access to heaven.
  • Punishment – they are punished in the fire (if the fire isn’t literal, then it’s something even worse) – for as long as justice demands.
  • Perdition – they are destroyed. Matt 10:28 – God destroys even the soul – what Rev refers to as the second death (Rev 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8).