In 2 Thessalonians, after Paul gives thanks to God for the church’s growing faith and love, especially because it has come in the face of affliction, he turns his attention to the second coming of Christ and the final judgment. While the focal point of 2 Thess 1:5-12 is the comfort that Christ’s sheep can have from this picture of the powerful coming of Christ and the end of suffering and injustice, there are also strong words against unbelievers. These words cannot be ignored, even if talking about final judgment and hell is hard.
And, indeed, it is hard in our world today to say anything negative about anyone, let alone that unbelievers will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of this might” (2 Thess 1:9 ESV). How can we believe such a hurtful and intolerant thing, the world asks? So, then, for this reflection, we will spend some time thinking about talking about hell and God’s just judgment.
To start, it's helpful if you ever get into a conversation in which this topic comes up to begin with some basics. The first basic point that helps to explain the doctrine of hell is that sin is serious. God does not wink his eye at sin, and if we’re honest, we don’t want him to. Evil people need to be brought to justice. Then, of course, we need to establish that we are all evil people. Hitler was evil—but so are you. Then, we need to acknowledge that God has already offered an alternative to the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. That alternative is to believe that Christ is the one who saves us from our sins by taking that penalty of eternal death and destruction upon himself.
At this point in any conversation about hell and judgment, there can be some clarity for anyone who has ears to hear. There is an alternative to judgment. The problem, however, is that this alternative to the otherwise universal condemnation of mankind has been despised and rejected by unbelievers. God has freely offered an alternative to eternal punishment in the lake of fire. But, when that free offer has been shoved away, God, because of who he is, will not change his mind or change the rules. Those who reject Christ receive their just deserts. Because God cannot pass over obstinate rebellion, he will inflict vengeance on those who have scorned his goodness and kindness, his forbearance and his grace.
Hell is, ultimately, the only fitting place for those who do not know God because they have lived their whole life fleeing from his presence. As hard a doctrine as hell and eternal punishment is, it is a straightforward consequence of everything else that precedes it in God’s revelation. So, then, we can begin with the basics of sin and salvation when we are questioned about the doctrine of hell. It is not an irrational doctrine, even if it is unwelcome news for many.
But there is another question that is raised by Paul’s words here, and it is this: what should our attitude be toward unbelievers?
Here we first need to recognize that Christ and his church have responded in different ways to different types of unbelievers. To the non-threatening ones, Jesus responded with pity. He looked upon the crowds that gathered around him, even the Gentiles who engaged with him, with pity. He had compassion for the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Wretched sinners as they were, they were non-threatening, and so he responded with pity.
But to the persecutors and false teachers, Christ and his church have responded with righteous anger. Jesus had strong words of condemnation for the Pharisees; Paul had strong words of condemnation for the Judaizers; the church is right to have strong words of condemnation for those who seek to destroy her.
But at the same time, we must always remember that it is only God’s grace that separates the church from those who persecute her. Let’s appreciate that grace is the difference between sheep and goats, and not anything intrinsically better in the sheep. Moreover, we should remember that the categories of sheep and goats, from our limited human perspective are highly fluid until Christ comes again to separate the sheep from the goats. Let’s have some humility, then, by appreciating that our enemy today very well might be our brother tomorrow, and our brother today might even end up being an enemy tomorrow. We have no way of definitively dividing sheep and goats until Christ does the dividing at the final judgment.
Pulling this all together, we can rightly pray against the enemies of the church, but we should pray with a modesty that acknowledges that Christ will rule and subdue his enemies however he wills. We should always pray with the knowledge that this is a season of God’s grace and salvation. May our enemies become family.