Saint Paul did not speak of Hell in the same terms as the other Apostles did. A minority of both believers and non-believers see in St. Paul a door that could lead to a universalist interpretation of biblical soteriology. Some of the passages that seem to reinforce this recent development is the parts where he wishes the reconciliation of everything (e.g. Colossians 1:20). However, though he did not speak a lot about damnation in the same way other Holy Writings did, he is still clear about his interpretation when it comes to the fate of the wicked.
When we take a closer look, however, we see Paul may have believed in the now traditional Christian understanding of Hell. 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10 talks about ‘everlasting condemnation’ for those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel. He prefers the use of words like ‘wrath of God’, and ‘condemnation’ to describe eschatological judgement.
The interesting thing is that, unlike John, the Gospels and Peter, he never refers to the Lake of Fire, Gehenna or Tartarus. In a sense, his idea of ‘separation from God’ will later serve to update our spiritual understanding of these realms, where judgement unfolds.
A few point out that the fire of destruction that Paul sometimes talks about, may not really mean a fire of damnation, but a purging one. This is our opportunity as Catholics to confirm what we have been telling everyone for centuries about our doctrine of Purgatory! Without question, Paul does speak about the cleansing type of eschatological fire. That’s why many Christians have historically found in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 an understanding of ‘refinement’ or ‘purgation’ of the Elect. The innegable connection to Zechariah 13:8-9, 14:1 suggests the Elect will be refined by the Lord in the Judgement Day. Even the Greek construction of the NT passage, when comparing it with the OT Septuagint version, is strikingly similar.
𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘐 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘱𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘳𝘥 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 (πυρὸς), 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘢𝘴 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘴 𝙨𝙞𝙡𝙫𝙚𝙧 (ἀργύριονκαὶ), 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝙩𝙚𝙨𝙩 (δοκιμῶ) 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘢𝘴 𝙜𝙤𝙡𝙙 (χρυσίον) 𝘪𝘴 𝙩𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙚𝙙 (ὡςδοκιμάζεται). 𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘤𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘶𝘱𝘰𝘯 𝘮𝘺 𝘯𝘢𝘮𝘦, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘐 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮. 𝘐 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘴𝘢𝘺, ‘𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘮𝘺 𝘱𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘭𝘦’; 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘴𝘢𝘺, ‘𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘓𝘖𝘙𝘋 𝘪𝘴 𝘮𝘺 𝘎𝘰𝘥.’ 𝘉𝘦𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘥, 𝘢 𝙙𝙖𝙮 (ἡμέραι) 𝘪𝘴 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘓𝘖𝘙𝘋, 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘱𝘰𝘪𝘭 𝘵𝘢𝘬𝘦𝘯 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘣𝘦 𝘥𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘥𝘦𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘮𝘪𝘥𝘴𝘵. (Zechariah 13:9,14:1)
𝘕𝘰𝘸 𝘪𝘧 𝘢𝘯𝘺𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘣𝘶𝘪𝘭𝘥𝘴 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝙜𝙤𝙡𝙙 (χρυσόν), 𝙨𝙞𝙡𝙫𝙚𝙧 (ἄργυρον), 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘪𝘰𝘶𝘴 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘯𝘦𝘴, 𝘸𝘰𝘰𝘥, 𝘩𝘢𝘺, 𝘴𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘸—𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘣𝘦 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘸𝘯 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘪𝘵 𝘪𝘴, 𝘣𝘦𝘤𝘢𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘿𝙖𝙮 (ἡμέρα) 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘣𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘪𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘭𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵. 𝘐𝘵 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘣𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘢𝘭𝘦𝘥 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 (πυρὶ), 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 (πῦρ) 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝙩𝙚𝙨𝙩 (δοκιμάσει) 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘲𝘶𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘰𝘯’𝘴 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬. 𝘐𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘢𝘯𝘺𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘴 𝘣𝘶𝘪𝘭𝘵 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘷𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘴, 𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘦𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘢 𝘳𝘦𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘥. 𝘐𝘧 𝘢𝘯𝘺𝘰𝘯𝘦’𝘴 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬 𝘪𝘴 𝘣𝘶𝘳𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘶𝘱, 𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘴𝘶𝘧𝘧𝘦𝘳 𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘴, 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘪𝘮𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘣𝘦 𝘴𝘢𝘷𝘦𝘥, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘢𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 (πυρός). (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
The nature of the ‘Day’ Paul talks about can be understood as a day that ‘reveals’ (ἀποκαλύπτεται / apokalyptetai) many things. In this Day, the Lord as a refiner’s fire will cleanse His chosen ones (Malachi 3:2-3).
The second type of fire Paul speaks about, is a fire of vengeance (ἐκδίκησιν), which we read in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10. Here he completes the thought on the nature of this day, when the ‘Lord Jesus’ ‘comes’ in ‘the majesty of his power’. Unbelievers and disobedient Christians are the object of this vengeance, awaiting ‘everlasting destruction’ (ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον).
According to some sources, 𝘖𝘭𝘦𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘯 (destruction) does not automatically entail ‘extinction/annihilation’, rather it can be taken as ‘death/punishment/undoing’. The fact 𝘢𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘪𝘰𝘴 can be accompanied by concepts like punishment (Mt 25:46 / 𝘬𝘰𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘪𝘴 𝘢𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘪𝘰𝘴) or life (𝘻𝘰𝘦 𝘢𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘪𝘰𝘴), talks about its use as an adjective. Talking of extinction/annihilation in ‘everlasting’ terms would be misleading, since in a logical sense extermination happens only once, and ceases after the object is destroyed.
The evidence is clear: given these passages, Paul does not uphold an universalist position, where everyone will eventually be saved. Rather, he is constantly concerned to inform believers to attain salvation and avoid the wrath of God.