What Happens at Jesus’ Return
“[The impenitent wicked] will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when 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 1:9–10
God’s righteous judgment, we have seen, is evident in our suffering for the sake of Jesus because our willingness to suffer for the Lord indicates that we have true faith in Christ. It is a faith that lays hold of Christ’s righteousness in our justification and results in God’s judging or declaring us righteous (2 Thess. 1:5; see Rom. 3:21–4:25). Our suffering for the gospel, then, is present evidence of the Lord’s righteousness, as strange as that might seem, for it is tangible confirmation of our faith and thus our possession of the righteousness by which He justifies the ungodly.
However, there is another way that God’s righteous judgment is seen, but this will not happen until the return of Christ. Paul notes that when Jesus comes back to consummate His kingdom, God will repay those who have afflicted Christians even as He gives His people relief (2 Thess. 1:6–7). Then, Jesus will appear with the angels in flaming fire, “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (v. 8). This is a comforting truth for believers, for it reminds us that our Creator has not forgotten us and that He will one day set all things right. John Calvin writes, “Christ will be a most strict avenger of the injuries which the wicked inflict upon us.”
Second Thessalonians 1:9–10 expands on this teaching regarding the appointed end for those who impenitently reject the truth of God. We read that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (v. 9). Some have interpreted this as meaning that the wicked will not suffer eternal conscious punishment but will be annihilated. This view is wrong for several reasons. First, the phrase “eternal destruction” appears outside of the New Testament only one other time in ancient Jewish literature, and there it means eternal conscious punishment. Moreover, Paul relies heavily on Isaiah 66:15–24 in 2 Thessalonians 1, and Isaiah there refers to enduring punishment, not annihilation. Finally, Jesus Himself assumes the reality of an eternal hell in His teaching (Matt. 25:41; Mark 9:43). Scripture is clear: unending, conscious punishment is the lot of all those who do not believe the gospel.
The destiny God has appointed for believers will be far different. Christ will be glorified in us (2 Thess. 1:10). We will be like Jesus and thus enjoy eternal blessedness (1 John 3:2).
Hell is real, and its horror is far greater than we can imagine. All those who do not believe the gospel will suffer eternal punishment there. This is an impetus for us to believe the gospel and for us to share the truth of Christ with others. People can only believe if they know the gospel, and they will know it only as God’s people take it to the nations.
Passages for Further Study