Will the Unsaved Suffer Eternal Judgment? (2 Thessalonians 1)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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5This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—6since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,7and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels8in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.9They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
—2 Thessalonians 1:5–10

Be Steadfast

2 Thessalonians 1:6–7 explains how the believers’ steadfastness constitutes evidence of God’s righteous judgment (v. 5). The word “just” in verse 6 is the same Greek adjective (dikaios) translated “righteous” in verse 5. Combined with “since” at the beginning of verse 6, this indicates a strong connection between verse 5 and verses 6–7. God’s judgment comes with the dual components of vindication for God’s people and the destruction of his opponents.

Verse 6 focuses on the destruction component of that pairing. Just as the Thessalonian believers will participate in the eternal kingdom, so will their opponents be excluded from that kingdom, to their own destruction. These persecutors of God’s people will be repaid in kind in the eternal judgment. God looks justly with wrath on those who have rejected him, despised his law and moral instruction, injured his people, and sought to hinder the progress of the good news of his kingdom. The specific nature of their destruction is developed in greater detail in 2 Thessalonians 1:8–10. This is consistent with OT prophetic expectation (e.g., Isa. 66:15–16; Jer. 25:15–38; Joel 3:1–21); the teaching of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 10:14–15; 11:20–24; 12:38–42; 25:41–46; Mark 9:42–48; John 3:36; 5:25–29); and apostolic witness (e.g., Rom. 2:5–11; Eph. 5:3–6; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2 Pet. 2:1–3; 3:1–13; Rev. 6:10; 20:11–15).

Salvation comes by grace through faith to believers, who consequently display their faith as they continue to trust in Jesus, heedless of suffering and persecution in this life.

Combining verses 5–6 of 2 Thessalonians 1, we may observe how the believers’ endurance under suffering evidences God’s justice both (1) through how these believers will be delivered fully into God’s kingdom, and (2) in how their suffering for Christ proves that those who persecute Christ’s church properly deserve destruction and exclusion from God’s kingdom.


Verse 7 returns to the deliverance of God’s people (cf. v. 5). This verse opens with the word “and” (Gk. kai ), indicating that God “considers . . . just” both the contents of verse 6 “and” those of verses 7–8. As God’s righteous judgment brings destruction on God’s opponents (v. 6), so his decree also grants his people eternal relief from their sufferings.

This too is consistent with OT prophecy, the teaching of Jesus, and apostolic instruction. Thus, if we reexamine the biblical passages cited in the previous verse concerning the retribution God brings upon his opponents, we observe that the contexts of many of those same biblical texts also reflect the vindication of his chosen people, since these two aspects of judgment (destruction on God’s enemies and salvation for his people) come in tandem.

Note how Paul includes himself, along with the Thessalonians, among those who will experience relief from persecution when Jesus comes in judgment. Paul certainly has endured much suffering and hardship (cf. comment on 1 Thess. 2:2); he too was longing for God’s deliverance. But this also serves to remind the Thessalonians of (1) how Paul identifies with them, and (2) how, as they suffer, they are following the pattern of the apostolic witnesses who first announced the gospel to them (1 Thess. 1:6).

Although God does grant times of relief and blessing to his people in this life, the epoch of “relief” in 2 Thessalonians 1:7–8 is that of future judgment, referring to the age “when the Lord Jesus is revealed.” The return of Christ serves as a major theme in both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; 3:13; 4:13–5:11; 5:23–24; 2 Thess. 1:5–2:15). Not surprisingly, key features in the following verses correlate with Paul’s teaching in his previous letter to Thessalonica and his other letters. For example, cf. the discussion of the descent of Christ from heaven with angelic accompaniment in the comment on 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

Verse 8 adds that Jesus will come “in flaming fire.” OT prophetic literature often invokes imagery of fire, especially in light of the Assyrian and Babylonian use of fire in siege warfare (e.g., Jer. 21:10; Ezek. 15:1–8; Joel 2:3; Amos 2:1–5). Many OT prophets portray God’s arrival in fiery judgment (e.g., Isa. 66:15–16; Nah. 1:5–8; Zeph. 3:8; Mal. 4:1). We should note especially that Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man reveals a blazing stream around him as he brings punishing fire (Dan. 7:9–12). Images of fire are also common in NT passages addressing divine judgment (e.g., Matt. 13:40–42; 18:6–9; 25:41; Luke 16:22–28; 2 Pet. 3:7–13; Rev. 20:10–15; 21:8).

Second Thessalonians 1:8 references divine “vengeance.” The Greek word ekdikēsis indicates justice or punishment, referring to God’s redeeming justice on behalf of his elect (Luke 18:7–8) or to his just punishment on those who oppose him (Luke 21:22; Rom. 12:19). The people who will experience God’s punishment in verse 8 are “those who do not know God” and “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” It is possible that these constitute two categories of people—some know nothing of God, while others have heard the gospel and refuse to follow Jesus. More likely, however, the two categories are intended to emphasize one another—those who do not assent to the gospel of Jesus also do not know God.

The knowledge of God is a vast biblical theme, extending throughout the OT (e.g., Ex. 6:7; Deut. 4:35–40; Ps. 46:10; Prov. 2:5) and into the NT (John 17:3; 2 Cor. 2:14; 4:6; Gal. 4:8–9; Eph. 1:16–23). Such knowledge does not comprise mere intellectual understanding but also incorporates a personal engagement in knowing God with all of one’s being, in light of God’s revelation. Paul elsewhere writes about the lack of knowledge of God (1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 4:8; 1 Thess. 4:5; Titus 1:16).

Paul speaks of those who “do not obey the gospel.” The gospel is the good news that Paul heralds concerning salvation by faith in the crucified and risen Messiah. Some might be struck by the words “obey the gospel,” since we more often talk about believing in the gospel. However, Paul elsewhere similarly talks of “obeying” the gospel (Rom. 10:16; cf. 1 Pet. 3:1; 4:17) or of “obeying” God’s truth (Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7). The good news of Christ requires submission to its message, for submission is the proper response once one believes in the truth of the message (note how Paul connects all of these themes in Rom. 10:16). Eternal punishment awaits those who refuse to follow the good proclamation of the Lord Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Verse 9 begins with a relative pronoun in Greek (hoitines, “who”). Thus verse 9 connects its subject with the people indicted in verse 8, and verses 9–10 continue the Greek sentence that began in verse 3. These people who do not know God or obey his gospel face eternal “destruction” (Gk. olethros; cf. Rom. 9:22; Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:3). Paul here follows Jesus’ teaching that, just as Jesus gives eternal life to his believing followers, so will he render eternal judgment of destruction on those who reject him and his gospel (Matt. 18:8–9; 25:41–46; John 5:21–29; Gal. 6:7–8).

This destruction is “away from the presence of the Lord” (Gk. “away from the Lord’s face”). The primary physical metaphor for hell involves suffering and fire (e.g., Matt. 5:22; cf. comment on 2 Thess. 1:7–8), but the essential spiritual reality of hell places the faithless outside of the discernable presence of the Deity. The destruction is further noted as being away from the “glory of his might.” The Lord here is Jesus (cf. 1:10), and Paul elsewhere associates glory, authority, and power with him (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:8; 5:4; Eph. 1:17–23; 2 Thess. 1:12; Titus 2:13).

Jesus’s Return

Jesus will return on “that day,” which draws on OT and NT imagery of the “day of the Lord” (cf. comments on 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:2). Paul asserts two purposes for Christ’s return: “to be glorified in his saints” and “to be marveled at among all who have believed.” These believing saints will render glory and admiration unto their Savior and Lord. Paul stresses to the Thessalonians that he considers them to be among these believers (“our testimony to you was believed”), again conveying confidence that they will be among the throngs Jesus will deliver into his eternal kingdom (1:5, 7).

This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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