By Jeffery M. Leonard, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biblical & Religious Studies, Samford University
IS HELL REAL?
2 Thessalonians 1:3–12
The opening chapter of the Book of 1 Samuel paints a very difficult scene. In the story, a man named Elkanah had taken two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. As is almost always the case in the Bible’s stories involving polygamy, things in this story were complicated. Hannah was greatly loved by her husband, but she had never been able to bear him any children. Peninnah had produced children for Elkanah, but she remained unloved by him.
Those familiar with the Scriptures will know that Hannah did eventually give birth to a son, the boy who would grow up to be the famous judge Samuel. Of particular interest is Hannah’s song of praise following Samuel’s birth. This song in 1 Samuel 2 is one all about reversals. Warriors’ bows are broken, but the weak are given strength.
The full go without food but the hungry are full. And in a not so subtle reply to Peninnah, “The woman who is childless gives birth to seven, but the woman with many sons pines away.”
Words like those in Hannah’s song are found all over the Scriptures. Psalm 113 sounds remarkably similar, as does the Magnificat, the song Mary sings in Luke 1 when she learns she will give birth to the Messiah.
At the heart of these passages is a longing for divine justice, a longing for God to “turn the tables” so that the weak will no longer be oppressed and the righteous will no longer be persecuted. We find this same sort of idea in the opening chapter of 2 Thessalonians.
God watches over His faithful followers. (3–7a)
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians reaches a group of Christians suffering considerable persecution. Paul commends the believers there and taps into language from the Old Testament as he directs the Thessalonian believers to remember that a time would come when God would make all things right.
The Day of Judgment would come, and these suffering believers could take comfort in the fact that on that day, when God “turns the tables” in an ultimate sense, they would be found worthy of God’s Kingdom.
Those who do not follow God will face eternal destruction. (7b–10)
The day that would come as a comfort for those who suffer would come as judgment for those who caused that suffering.
Paul insists that God is just and will pay back those who afflicted them and give relief to the persecuted.
Paul’s description here is not pretty. It is one that describes punishment with “eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength.”
We are called and equipped to do good and bring glory to God. (11–12)
A careful reader will note a nearly autobiographical element in Paul’s words in the passage. As Paul describes the appearance of the Lord Jesus from heaven “with flaming fire,” we are reminded of Paul’s own encounter with the risen Jesus in Acts 9, when “a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him.”
Those deserving punishment for not obeying “the gospel of our Lord Jesus” sound a great deal like Paul when he was traveling from town to town persecuting Christ’s followers.
The sense of undeserved rescue from well-deserved punishment was what motivated much of Paul’s ministry. It was what led him to pray constantly for the Thessalonians so that the very Messiah who rescued Paul could be glorified in them.