This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.
Last week’s post was about our first “problem” text, 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17. In that post, I argued that, when properly understood in its historical context, paying close attention to the specific Greek words that Paul uses, this passage isn’t actually a “problem” for the NHNE perspective at all; it actually supports renewed eschatology.
For me, the “problem” passage we are going to look at today was even more important in my own journey, because this was the passage that to me most seemed to refute the notion that God would renew and redeem creation when Jesus returned. I am talking about 2 Peter 3.1-13, which is another “problem” in the sense that it supposedly opposes renewed eschatology. When properly understood, I don’t think it does, and I think it actually fits quite well with the NHNE perspective.
There is a lot going on in this passage that we will need to consider, and even in what I am sure will be a very long post, we won’t be able to fully do it justice.
Let’s start by taking a look at the passage itself (I have the verse that people tend to focus on in bold):
1 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, 3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
When I taught through this passage in Bible class, I made sure that we read from several different Bible translations, paying close attention to the different ways that 2 Peter 3.10 is translated. Above, I quoted from the ESV. Here is verse 10 again:
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Here is the same verse in the KJV:
10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.
And also, the NASB:
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
Lest you think that the ESV is the oddball and that all other translations say that the earth will be “burned up” in v. 10, here is the NIV:
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
And, finally, the NRSV:
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Obviously, we have a translation issue here: one group of translations says that, in this context, the earth and its works will be “burned up”, while the other translations say the earth and its works will be “exposed”, “laid bare”, or “disclosed”. We will get into the details of this textual problem later, but for the moment, we will just acknowledge why this appears to be problematic for the idea of a renewed cosmos when Jesus comes: if you are reading from the NJKV or a similar translation, this verse makes it seem like the earth is going to be destroyed or annihilated by fire. Thus, we will either (1) go off to heaven with Jesus (which works well if paired with a faulty interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4), or (2) live in a “new heavens and a new earth” (v.13) that is completely distinct from our current system.
In other words, the idea that our current earth will in some way be renewed, redeemed, transformed—the perspective I am presenting in this series—is dismissed, because it sounds like it’s going to be burned up.
Is this the best way to read this passage? In this post, we’re going to take a closer look. I will confess that this is a challenging passage, but I think we can bring some clarity to it.
First, let’s look at the point of what Peter is trying to say in context. In this section, Peter is talking about sinful people who scoff at the notion of judgment. They say things like, “You say judgment is going to happen, but everything just continues as it always has!” (v.4), but Peter points out that judgment came upon the earth before when God judged the world by a flood (v.5-6). In the same way, “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and the destruction of the ungodly” (v.7).
This knowledge—God’s impending judgment upon evil—should encourage the wicked to repent.
When the day of the Lord comes, the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be…burned up? exposed? (This is the verse that we looked at in multiple translations; we’ll get to it in a few minutes.)
Because of all this, Peter says that we should be motivated to live lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for the coming day of God, and anticipating “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (v.13).
So, to keep things in perspective, whatever v.10 is talking about, what is the main point of this passage? Judgment upon evil has happened before (flood), judgment upon evil is going to happen again (fire), and the knowledge of this should motivate us to live holy lives.
Interpreting the Passage: Important Ideas to Consider
Three Worlds, and the Comparison to Noah:
In 2 Peter 3.1-13, Peter refers to three different habitable worlds:
- Past: The original “heavens” and “earth” that emerged from and through water by the command of God. This world “perished” in the flood of Noah (2 Peter 3.5-6)
- Present: The “heavens and earth that now exist” that are “stored up for fire” at the command of God (2 Peter 3.7,10,12)
- Future: The future “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” according to the promise of God (2 Peter 3.13)
Keeping these three worlds in mind is helpful as we consider the comparison that is made to the days of Noah: whatever is going to happen with fire in this present world, Peter compares to the judgment that God brought on the world through the flood.
Did the flood of Noah destroy the world? Well, yes…and no.
Certainly, the world as it had previously been was no more, but it’s not like the earth ceased to exist. The flood brought judgment upon the sins of the world and it certainly changed things. In some ways, it reset the system and perhaps even instituted a new system of existence (kind of like reformatting the hard drive of a computer after it crashes).
The flood of Noah washed the earth clean, preparing it to be a new sort of world (the “Present” world, as described above). But the earth was not annihilated.
Biblical Use of Fiery Judgment
The notion of fiery judgment upon the earth that Peter uses in this passage has a background in the Hebrew prophets, where it is a repeated motif.
One example of this is Malachi 4.1 (though, see also Malachi 3.1-4, Isaiah 34.4, Isaiah 64.1, and Zephaniah 3.8, among others):
1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
This is common judgment language, but in Malachi 4, who is the focus of it? Who will actually be burned up? The arrogant and all evildoers. Compare that to 2 Peter 3.7, which says that this fire is being stored up to bring destruction on the ungodly. The emphasis here, and in the entire passage, is not on destroying all that has been created, but a judgment of destruction upon the wicked.
“The earth and the works that are done on it will be __________.”
We noted this problem at the beginning of the post, that different translations render 2 Peter 3.10 in very different ways, and one of those ways indicates that the earth will be “burned up.”
This is not a translation problem, but a textual one. As you probably know, we have thousands and thousands of hand-copied New Testament manuscripts, and, as you can imagine if you were responsible for copying the entire New Testament by hand, no matter how hard you tried, you would make some mistakes. Textual criticism is the academic study of comparing manuscripts with one another to determine which is more accurate and reflects the original reading.
Textual criticism is a complex field, and I do not pretend to be an expert, but here are two major rules of textual criticism:
- Older manuscripts are considered to be more reliable than recent ones. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it: since you are trying to figure out what the original copy said, it would be more likely that manuscripts that are closer chronologically to the original would be closer in content as well, because there would be less time and fewer iterations for mistakes to accumulate.
- When you have two textual variants (a disagreement between two manuscripts), the more difficult reading is considered more likely to be authentic. This one might seem counterintuitive, but also makes sense when you think about it. A scribe copying a manuscript is unlikely to change a word or passage that reads satisfactorily into something that is less clear; he is much more likely to smooth out passages that seem difficult to make them understandable.
In 2 Peter 3.10, different manuscript traditions have different words. Some have the Greek word heurethesetai/εύρεθησεται (will be found, will be exposed, will be laid bare), while others have the word katakaesetai/κατακαησεται (will be burned up, will be consumed).
- The older, more reliable manuscripts (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus) have heurethesetai (will be found, will be exposed, will be laid bare) in v. 10.
- This is also the more difficult reading and thus, preferred. If you are a scribe copying this text, based on the language earlier in this passage (that talks about fire and destruction), it would be easy to lose your place or make an assumption and think that katakaesetai fits here. It is much more difficult to explain why a scribe would insert the word heurethesetai in this context.
To sum up, going back to our rules for textual criticism: “exposed/laid bare” is the older reading, and it is the more difficult reading as well. So even though we have different translations of the Bible that have different readings here, our best guess is that the Greek text originally said heurethesetai. This is what my Greek New Testament has as well.
So, the idea here is that when this fiery judgment comes, it will work in such a way as to expose the things that have been done on earth, not destroy the earth. It is like a refining or purifying fire—God’s judgment determines what is pure and what is not.
What Are the “Elements” or “Heavenly Bodies” of v.10,12?
Unlike the textual issue we have been discussing, this is a translation issue. The Greek word stoicheia/στοιχεια can be translated in different ways in English, and each of those English renderings has multiple possible meanings:
- Stoicheia could refer to Elements, like the basic building blocks of the physical universe. As modern readers, we hear this word and probably think of things like carbon, hydrogen, etc. that we would find on the Periodic Table of Elements. Obviously, this would have been unknown to Peter’s audience, and cannot be what he was referring to. There is evidence in the ancient world that stoicheia was used to refer to the “elements” of earth, air, fire, and water, but interpreting the word in this way would mean that the earth is included in the meltdown, whereas 2 Peter 3 doesn’t say that the earth will be destroyed or burned up, as already explained above. Thus, this meaning seems untenable.
- Stoicheia could refer to Elements, in the sense of “elementary teachings” or false teaching. It is used in that way elsewhere in the New Testament (Colossians 2.8,20), so the idea could be that these false teachings will be destroyed, and the false teachers themselves will be exposed and subject to judgment.
- Stoicheia could refer to Heavenly Bodies, like the sun, moon, and stars. If this is correct, perhaps what this passage is referring to is that the “top layer” of the world will be removed (see Isaiah 34.4), so that what lies beneath on the world can be exposed and judged.
- Stoicheia could refer to Heavenly Bodies, as a reference to angelic powers, beings that Paul describes as powers, principalities, etc. This would make sense in that it could be talking about God bringing judgment upon spiritual forces that are in rebellion to God, paralleling the humans who are in rebellion to God and are going to be judged as well. So, first, the heavenly bodies are judged and destroyed, then the earth is laid bare/exposed, and finally the ungodly are next in line for God’s judgment.
Ultimately, I am not sure which of these understandings is correct, but I lean toward “heavenly bodies” being the better translation.
“New heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells”
When all of this happens, when the present world is judged, when evil is exposed and destroyed and the world is changed (“destroyed” through a refining process), 2 Peter 3.13 describes the future world as a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
There are multiple Greek words for “new”, which have overlapping but somewhat distinct meanings:
- Neos/νεος: the primary usage of this word in the New Testament refers to something that has been in existence for a relatively short time. Something that is “fresh” or “brand new.”
- Kainos/καινος: this word can be used similarly to neos, but also can refer to that which is recent in contrast to something old in the sense that what is old has become obsolete. It is a newer and better version of what has been.
It is interesting to note that kainos is the word used here. On its own, this doesn’t prove anything, but it does give additional evidence to the idea that the new heavens and new earth is a refined, purified, restored, recreated heavens and earth rather than a brand new replacement for something that has been destroyed. It is a newer and better version of what has been.
Putting all of this together, 2 Peter 3 is not about the annihilation of the earth; it is about a fiery judgment upon sin, analogous to the watery judgment on sin through the flood. This judgment will expose all that has been done, and wickedness will be judged and destroyed in some sense.
The fallout from all of this is that everything will be changed. Just as things were dramatically different after the flood of Noah brought about a new world, this instance of fiery judgment will purify and refine God’s creation and will bring about a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. As Christians, this is what we look forward to, and our hope, as well as our sober acknowledgment of the certainty of judgment, motivates us to live in a certain way.
Far from refuting the notion of a renewed earth, 2 Peter 3 actually teaches it.
Most people who hold to (1) would probably acknowledge the existence of “new heavens and a new earth” because 2 Peter 3.13 mentions it, but would just equate that with heaven. This interpretation is perplexing to me (talking about “new heavens and a new earth” seems like a really confusing way of talking about “heaven as it already is”), but I wanted to acknowledge that these people, though mistaken in my view, are not ignoring 2 Peter 3.13.
Depending on your translation, “heavenly bodies” is instead rendered as “elements.” We will discuss this later.
This listing is based significantly on John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, (Abilene, TX: Leafwood: 2016): 197, but altered to fit a different translation.
This is just one example to show the common biblical practice of using language fiery destruction to talk about God’s judgment upon sin. J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014): 109-28, discusses at length the ways in which biblical authors depict God coming in judgment upon the world, how storms, earthquakes, and fire are a part of this imagery, and how the effects of God’s judgment are cosmic in scope.
It is also worth pointing out that this is apocalyptic language, commonly used in biblical prophecy, and not always intended to be pressed literally. For example, in Acts 2, Peter describes the events of the Day of Pentecost as fulfilling the prophecy of Joel: “And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…” (Acts 2.19-20, quoting from Joel 2.30-31). Obviously, these things did not literally happen on that Day of Pentecost. I am indebted to Mark Wilson for pointing this out.
Middleton, 160-62, overviews the text-critical issue and explains in greater detail why heurethesetai/εύρεθησεται is the preferred reading.
The UBS Greek New Testament: Reader’s Edition with Textual Notes (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2010).
I have heard that more recent versions of the Greek New Testament have a negative rendering of heurethesetai/εύρεθησεται (“not found”), but have not confirmed this. Regardless, Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson, Embracing Creation, 198, address this: “The addition of the negative (“not found”), favored by some textual critics, lacks support from any Greek manuscripts, and it cannot explain the origin of the more difficult reading (“found” rather than “not found”).
I am indebted to Andrew Gass, preacher at the West Oaks church of Christ in Columbus, Texas, for pointing out that Peter himself uses the imagery of fire as a refining and purifying force in 1 Peter 1.7.
Middleton, 194, “…the image of judgment by fire in 2 Peter 3 is not purely destructive, but instead may be understood as a smelting process by which the dross of human sinfulness is burned off, so that “found means something like “standing the test” or “showing one’s mettle.” John C. Nugent, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 38n1, “In [2 Peter 3:10] the earth is disclosed or revealed, whereas only heavenly elements are burned. Together they convey a refining of God’s good creation. The impurities are burned off so the true essence will shine forth all the more brilliantly.”
Middleton, 190-93; 198-200.
In this discussion, it is easy to focus on the language of “new heavens and a new earth” in 2 Peter 3.13 and overlook the second part, “in which righteousness dwells,” but the second part is essential: the context of this passage is directly about the judgment on and destruction of evil; once evil is dealt with, the future world that is brought about is a place characterized by righteousness.
Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd rev. ed., ed. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 669.
How does this fit with the 1 Thessalonians 4 passage that we discussed last week? Because I am hesitant to speculate, I have relegated this to a footnote, but let me offer a hypothetical reconstruction of how these may fit together: Jesus returns with the sound of a trumpet as the heavenly bodies are destroyed, we meet Him in the air as this earth is laid bare, the evil works are exposed and destroyed, our world is refined/renewed/recreated, and then we escort him back here, to live with God eternally in a New Heaven and New Earth.