Pay Back: The God of Vengeance

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:3-12)

Commentators assume that one major reason for this second letter is to encourage the believers as the persecution against them has become more severe. However, the text does not in fact say that persecution has increased, and it is invalid to infer that it has because Paul is writing a letter to them about it. But whether or not the persecution has become increasingly severe, we can say that it has been ongoing, and that it has not been mild.

What Paul says is that their “faith is growing more and more” and that their “love…is increasing.” This growth occurs with “perseverance” and in the face of “persecution and trials.” Endurance under persecution implies that Christian belief, profession, and action are preserved. If the Thessalonians no longer believe what they first believed, or if they no longer make the same profession before the world or perform the same actions that are consistent with this profession, then the persecution would have ceased, or would have been reduced.

As Paul writes to the Galatians, “Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished” (Galatians 5:11). If our message and our practice offend unbelievers and incite their outrage, then compromise ought to appease them, rendering endurance unnecessary. But if the offense continues, the persecution also continues. The Thessalonians’ perseverance implies that they have not compromised their faith, whether in doctrine or in practice. Paul says that they are “worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (v. 5).

Paul continues, “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you” (v. 6). The Christians will inherit the kingdom of God, but their persecutors will reap the whirlwind. Revenge is an offensive idea to misinformed believers. As mentioned in connection with 1 Thessalonians 5:15, revenge itself is not wrong, and in fact justice requires revenge, or as Paul puts it, justice means “pay back.” The Bible does not teach against revenge, but rather insists that revenge is necessary. However, it forbids us to take it upon ourselves to exact revenge on those who wrong us, for God reserves that right for himself. It is important to correct the misunderstanding on revenge.

If we are against the very idea of “pay back,” then although we would refrain from taking revenge, we would be doing this for the wrong reason. Moreover, this can also misdirect our thinking when it comes to the legal system, as in the punishment of criminals, as well as our understanding of the everlasting punishment of unbelievers in hell. So to summarize, God makes justice necessary, and justice makes revenge necessary, but God should be the one who carries it out. Therefore, Christians ought to endure persecution without compromise, while looking to God for justice, to “pay back” trouble to those who trouble us (v. 6).

Christians often discourage one another from thinking this way, that God would “pay back” those who trouble them. However, the apostle regards this as the proper perspective to offer those suffering persecution, so if a Christian finds this offensive, it is only an indication that his understanding is defective, and not in accord with divine justice. A person who refuses the principle of retribution, of “pay back,” cannot at the same time grasp and accept the biblical doctrines on sin, and on redemption and atonement. Sin incurs a debt that man cannot pay, and through the atonement, Jesus Christ sacrificed himself to pay this debt. For those who look to him and call upon him in faith, this payment is credited to their account. The principle of retribution is a necessary presupposition behind the ideas of justice, sin, and redemption.

If some unbelievers who persecute Christians finally repent and convert to the faith, then of course their sins are forgiven. They will not suffer a “pay back,” especially the kind that entails hellfire, since their debt has been paid by Christ. It would mean that Jesus has already endured the pay back that is meant for them. We have no objection to this, since our own debt has been paid by Christ as well, and we cannot dictate to God as to how he must dispense his mercy. He has said that he will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and he will harden whom he wishes to harden.

Since the “pay back” principle is derived from God’s justice, it is applicable to any period in history, and to believers in any setting. God will exact revenge on those who persecute Christians today. He will avenge even us. The ultimate manifestation of retribution will occur when God throws all non-Christians into the lake of fire, in which they will suffer constant conscious extreme torture forever. But God may at times also deal out temporal punishments against the unbelievers. Whether these occur or how they occur is up to him. The principle of retribution, or “pay back,” is in force in all cases.

Earlier, we observed that Paul has introduced two major future events to the Thessalonians:

The first is the coming of Christ in temporal judgment that would result in the destruction of Jerusalem, and the slaughter and dispersion of the Jews (1T5 and 2T2). History tells us that this occurred in AD 70, but as we noted, our belief of this event and interpretation of the passages concerning it do not require the confirmation of historians. Jesus said that the event would happen to the same generation to which he ministered, so that even without the testimony of history, we would know that the event occurred within a matter of decades since the ministry of Jesus. Of course, this would have been a future event to the Thessalonians, but a past event to us.

Then, the second major event is the coming of Christ to receive his people (1T4). Those who are dead will be resurrected, and those who are alive will be caught up to be with him forever. This event is also accompanied by a final judgment against non-Christians, although 1T4 does not emphasize this, since the purpose of that passage is to encourage bereaved Christians. This event is what we usually call the “second coming” of Christ, and it remains in our future.

Some have offered reasons to believe that Paul is referring to the first event (AD 70) in our passage. First, the text focuses on the punishment that would come upon those who are persecuting the Thessalonians at the time of the writing of this letter. These persecutors mainly consist of Jews, and the punishment in view here seems to correspond to what Paul means in the first letter when he writes concerning them, “The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:16). Second, the language in our passage parallels that of Daniel 7:9-12 and Joel 2-3, which include prophecies that are now understood to have occurred in the first century. Third, the language in our passage parallels that of Matthew 16:27-28, where Jesus says that “some who are standing here will not taste death” before they witness the event. Thus it is more than possible that the punishment in our passage refers to God’s coming in judgment to slaughter the Jews and destroy their temple in AD 70.

The apostle stresses punishment in our passage, saying, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (v. 8-9). The words denote retribution and recompense. Our God is a God who punishes. We must become accustomed to this, but more than that, we must come to like it. To dislike the idea that God punishes is to dislike God himself, since he acts out of his nature of justice. That God would punish them with “everlasting destruction” does not mean that they would cease to exist, since then they could not also be “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” Paul means that God would kill them and then send them to hell. They will have no share in the joy and glory that the faithful Thessalonian Christians are destined to receive.

Although it is likely that the passage refers to God’s coming in judgment in AD 70, the principles that determine the persecutors’ punishment and the believers’ inheritance remain applicable, since they are stated as universal principles.

Paul does not say, “God will punish these very Jews who persecutor you and no one else.” But he writes, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (v. 8). Those who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” make up a very large but well-defined group, namely, all non-Christians. God is coming to punish all non-Christians, if not in AD 70, then at some other time, and if not by a temporal punishment followed by hellfire, then immediately by hellfire at their death or at the second coming of Christ. There will be no escape.

As for the Thessalonians, Paul says that they are numbered among Christ’s own people, not because they are Thessalonian Christians, but “because you believed our testimony to you” (v. 10). We have believed on the same apostolic testimony, and therefore we are also numbered among Christ’s own people, and will share in the same glorious inheritance.