Friday, June 19, 2009

Wrestling with Retribution

For my research I have somehow ended up focussing on 2 Thessalonians. My actual title is going to be something like 'A Critical Examination of the Significance of the Roman Imperial Order as a Background to II Thessalonians'. Basically I am going to look at the three main issues in the letter, steadfastness under persecution, eschatological teaching about the "man of lawlessness", and the issue of idleness, and examine them all with the imperial cult and imperial patronage as a background. I have done a general literature survey on the imperial cult, and am now researching the history of Thessalonica with this in mind.

Anyway, in the process of reading the letter, and working through the commentaries, I am realising that 2 Thessalonians in one of the most unpleasant and difficult books of the New Testament, if not the bible, and I am struggling with it, and to be honest it is getting me down. Why so? Well, for a Pauline letter (if indeed it is by Paul, which is a major question) it has few of the key Pauline themes, there is no mention of the cross, or resurrection, there is very little grace, no discussion of the Spirit and salvation seems to be expressed entirely in future terms of escaping the wrath which is about to fall. What there is a good dose of, on the other hand, is retribution.

Paul (or whoever) writes 'For it is indeed just if God to repay with affliction those who afflict you.' (1.6) Here it seems clear that Paul is writing to comfort and encourage the Thessalonians with the thought that those who are persecuting them will get what's coming to them, their just deserts as it were. So far, so good. However, he goes on to say that this will happen 'when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty 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. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.' (1:7b-9)

Here, many commentators move from seeing Paul giving a description of those persecutors (they don't know God and have not obeyed the gospel) to seeing a universal condemnation of the vast swathes of humanity that are outside the church. Furthermore, most commentators are at pains to explain that the 'punishment of eternal destruction' cannot mean annhilation, but is referring to a conscious punishment and devastation which is everlasting in duration. This is a move which, as you can imagine, I am not comfortable with.

Bear in mind that the Thessalonian church was probably tiny at this stage. Estimates range between 25 and 75 members. The population of Thessalonica was probably around 100, 000. Is Paul really saying that God has chosen this tiny elect, less than 0.1%, for salvation, whilst the 99.9% (most of whom will clearly have never heard the gospel) are to suffer the vengeful wrath of God for all eternity? Was Paul really this myopic?

One perspective that may help is the correlation between apocalyptic and persecution/social alienation. Paul's teaching here is certainly apocalyptic in style, with its dualisms of heaven and earth, present and future, the elect and the lost. When this worldview is combined with a situation of social alienation and persecution, the context and the theology reinforce one another. The closest parallel in the New Testament is probably the book of Revelation. This was also probably written in a situation of persecution (interestingly, almost certainly connected to the imperial cult) and is full of colourful and lurid language of vengeance. So I need to unpack how the language is being used in 2 Thessalonians. Is it hyperbole? Is it literal? How should we interpret this extreme language of vengeance and eternal destruction?

Rather than being the basis of a doctrine of eternal conscious torment for 99.9% of humanity, I think it is far more likely that Paul is wanting to stress to the Thessalonians, in the strongest possible terms, that there will be a great reversal - those who are suffering persecution now will be granted relief, and those who are doing the persecuting will get what's coming to them.

There is another thought that I struggle with though. I can understand how, on one level, it is comforting for those who are being persecuted, to contemplate the future punishment of their tormentors. But, I would like to think (and here I am probably being naive and showing that I've never experienced persecution) that I could try and cultivate the attitude of Christ, who said 'Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you'. He after all, when he was undergoing the ultimate persecution, prayed for his torturers and murderers 'Father forgive them, they know not what they do.' On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be too much of this attitude exemplified in 2 Thessalonians. In the first letter, however, Paul does instruct them to 'abound in love for each other and for all' and to 'see that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all'

So there you are, my current struggles. If you're the praying type, then please pray for me as I try to study, understand, and be faithful to the scriptures. It's not always easy.


Lewis J. Boulton said...

So good to see you back in the "blogosphere". Always a fascinating read. Out of interest, what does Wright make of those passages?

Jon said...

Hi Lew,
thanks for the comment.

In 'Paul for Everyone', Wright says that his passage is about God's justice, and thinks that 'vengeance' is not a the best translation in v8.

He says it has echoes of what happened to the enslaving Egyptians at the Exodus, or the defeat of Babylon.

He describes the recipients of this justice as 'those who cling to wickedness, injustice, violence and lies'. He says this particularly applies to the oppressors, but doesn't limit it to them. He doesn't really go into whether this literally means everyone outside the church, those who haven't heard etc.

and he doesn't deal with what 'punishment of eternal destruction' means. (who can blame him? :))