Break Your Bible: 2 Thessalonians 1 and the Revenge of Jesus

The first post in this series examined Numbers 25 and religious zeal, a troubling text from the Hebrew Bible and the equally troublesome strand of biblical theology that it inspired. The second post explored Jeremiah 7, a text which seems to openly contradict one of the central tenets of Torah law. Those posts were intended to dramatically illustrate real conflicts between Bible texts and to highlight the problems with forced assumptions of biblical homogeny.

For this third (and final?) installment, I want to undertake something even more potentially unsettling for Christian Bible readers: I want to assess the moral integrity of a standalone passage of scripture, and one from the New Testament, no less.

“In Flaming Fire, Inflicting Vengeance”

Let’s get to it. Here is the text of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (ESV):

[5] This 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 — [6] since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels [8] 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. [9] They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, [10] 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.

I hope the difficulties in this text are as obvious to you as they are to me. Even if you feel compelled to affirm everything you read in the Bible, I truly hope that the content of this passage gives you pause. There is a gleeful attitude of retribution, vengeance, and an appetite for divine violence in these verses that is unbecoming of a Christian, much less of a prominent apostle like Paul. Am I out of line for suggesting this? Are we permitted to make moral judgments like these about what we read in scripture? If not, why not? Does this author get a pass because he is writing scripture? Is scripture good by virtue of being called scripture, or because it says good things?

The Impulse to Make Excuses

As an amateur Bible scholar, I am tempted here to offer up some caveats. 2 Thessalonians is a contested book, understood by some to be the work of an unknown author writing in Paul’s name. But this doesn’t get us off the hook. The letter is received into the canon as a genuine work of Paul, and whatever the case it is Christian scripture. It is ours, but what shall we do with it?

Another possible caveat: These early church texts often reflect a context of persecution and fear, wherein Christians faced brutal dangers at the hands of Rome. Given these realities, isn’t it understandable that they might write a desperate text like this? The premise may or may not be true; the level of persecution facing the church in this early stage appears to have been minimal, though specific campaigns against Christians were not unknown. The question persists: Even if we can discover a context that helps us understand the reason for the bloodthirst apparent in a text like this, must our sympathy make space for acceptance and approval? Are the expectations and attitudes displayed in this passage normative for all Christians?

Clarifying The Text

It is helpful (and necessary, in a case like this) to be as precise as we can about what the passage in question is actually saying.

Our author says that Jesus will return in fiery judgment against unnamed enemies of the community to whom the letter is addressed. This divine act of vengeance will be “just,” since the enemies deserve it for the way they’ve treated God’s people. Jesus himself and his “mighty angels” will dole out this punishment, which will apparently involve obliterating the enemies of the Thessalonians before Jesus is received and celebrated by his true followers.

Some aspects of the judgment envisioned by this passage may align with general Christian expectations and teachings. Jesus the king will return, whatever that looks like, and he will “judge” the world and dwell with his people. Jesus himself described a judgment scenario in the form of a parable (Matthew 25:31-46). The judge in Jesus’ parable, the “son of man,” doesn’t personally unleash a violent attack on those judged unworthy, but he does send them away into (parabolic) “fire.” At first glance, this seems at least somewhat compatible with Paul’s shocking oracle in 2 Thessalonians.

On closer inspection, however, the basis and standard of Jesus’ judgment are completely different from those implied by this passage. The coming judge, says Jesus, will judge people from all nations, not just enemies of this church or those who oppose them. And that judgment will be based on ethical standards of personal integrity and charity, not on how badly they persecuted his friends. It’s about human decency, not petty revenge.

Jesus’ parable of final judgment, in addition to being universal and ethical in nature, was meant to challenge his hearers and call them to repentance, not to give exclusive comfort to “us” while guaranteeing the destruction of “them.” In this way, the judgment scenario imagined by the 2 Thessalonians passage seems to profoundly misunderstand and misrepresent Jesus’ vision of judgment, and to misapply it as tribal rhetoric to rally and rattle an insular community. This is judgment not as a clarion call to all humanity, but as a screed against a hated enemy.

Reading The Bible With Moral Discernment

We might give Paul a pass for the fear and aggression which informed a text like this. He was a human being, and clearly wanted to instill his readers with hope. But where his words clash with the teachings of Jesus – regarding love of enemies and the nature of God’s judgment – I conclude that we must read them through a Jesus-shaped lens and acknowledge their folly.

Wrestling with a passage like this is not about “undermining the authority of the Bible” or “questioning God.” I simply suggest that we do not numb our minds or hearts when we read scripture just because we consider it sacred. In fact, its sacredness ought to demand our full sensitivity. A major Christian value is discernment, paying attention to whether something bears good fruit or bad. Why should this not apply to our reading of the Bible?

This might be the test of a vision of judgment: does it present the same challenge to me and my community of “true believers” that it does to all humankind, or is it designed to target those I hate the most while giving my tribe a free pass? The latter type has been pervasive in American Christianity in the last century. While Jesus emphatically decried the “us versus them” mentality, his followers throughout history have found it irresistible, and Bible passages like this one have fanned the flames.

2 Thessalonians is ours. We cannot mute it or snip it out. We can, however, face it head-on and look to Jesus to help us understand and interact with it in a constructive or even a cautionary way. It simply won’t do to read a text like this without discernment, allowing it to temper or compromise the message and legacy of Jesus. Protestants have a history of doing this, especially with the writings of Paul. Learning to read the Bible with spiritual and moral sensitivity in pursuit of divine revelation is our best and only hope. We may need to break our Bible open to get at its heart.