For an Informed Love of God
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Renewal or Destruction, and Does It Really Matter? (2 Peter 3:9–12)
At the end of time, will the earth be destroyed or renewed? This is actually an important question for me. I would love to go to New Zealand, and I'm hoping that New Zealand is there after the end of all things. So will New Zealand be renewed or will New Zealand and the rest of the world be destroyed and replaced by something that will possibly be different? To say it another way, should I go to New Zealand before I die? As I dug into this question, it turns out that there is quite the theological debate on the issue.
2 Peter 3:9–12 says, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear (παρελεύσονται) with a roar; the elements (στοιχεῖα) will be destroyed (λυθήσεται) by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare (εὑρεθήσεται). Since everything will be destroyed (λυομένων) in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction (λυθήσονται) of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt (τήκεται) in the heat” (NIV).
BDAG’s third definition of παρέρχομαι is, “to come to an end and so no longer be there, pass away, disappear. Most translations use “pass away.” This is the same verb used in Jesus’ statement, “Heaven and earth will pass away (παρελεύσονται), but my words will never pass away” (Mark 13:31; see also Isa 34:4 and Rev 6:12–14).
The NIV follows the variant reading εὑρεθήσεται, “to be found,” from which you get the translation “exposed, discovered, laid bare.” The NLT explains this to mean, “everything on it will be found to deserve judgment.” And interesting textual variant is εὑρεθήσεται λυόμενα, “to be found dissolved.”
λύω is such a general word that we can’t be too sure of its meaning here. Suggestions are “melt (away), destroyed, dissolved, disappear.” BDAG lists the verse under its third heading, “to reduce someth. by violence into its components, destroy.” Their fourth definition is, “to do away with, destroy, bring to an end, abolish.”
Part of the challenge of interpretation is the identity of “elements” and “everything done in it.” Paul, understanding that this is Peter, generally views the “elements” as hostile spiritual powers (cf. Col 2:8, 20). The “everything done in it,” or perhaps better, “every deed done on it” (NET), refers to the evil deeds (τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔργα) of humanity. The point is that at judgment, all the evil deeds done on the earth will be exposed and destroyed, purifying the earth itself.
The other part of the challenge is the identification of “heavens.” Peter says that the heavens will disappear and be destroyed by fire, but that can't be the heaven where God and the angels live. Jesus tells his disciples, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3). That heaven can't be destroyed, nor does it need to be renewed. Probably, “heavens” refers here to the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars, or it refers to the demonic powers that were often associate with the stars.
Note that while the heavens will disappear and be destroyed, and that the elements will melt and be destroyed by fire, it does not say that the earth itself will be destroyed. The primary picture is the ultimate destruction of evil. Peter concludes, “We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” This is in line with what Paul says in Romans 8:21. “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” This sounds like renewal through the removal of all evil.
When God created this world, he created it very good. And while it has been subject to decay because of human sin, there is no reason to think of the earth in its essence as being anything, but very good. There is no theological reason to destroy it. There is only the theological necessity of judgment and the destruction of all evil so that we may live in our newly transformed earth forever.
Davids summarizes as such. “The picture is indeed that of stripping off everything that stands between the eye of God and the earth. When the sky and the heavenly bodies are gone, ‘the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.’ And that is the goal: to expose all that has gone on and is going on on the earth so that all those things that human beings thought that they were getting away with or thought that that God did not see are suddenly exposed to his unblinking eye.”
Bauckham concludes, “When the wrathful voice of God thunders out of heaven and the fire of his judgment sets the sky ablaze, the firmament and the heavenly bodies will be destroyed, and the earth, the scene of human wickedness, will be exposed to his wrath. Then it will be impossible for the wicked to hide from God’s judicial scrutiny. They and their evil deeds will be discovered by him and condemned.”
Of course, whether the Earth will be destroyed or renewed by the removal of all evil, the point of the passage is that God will expose the evil in this world, especially the evil that we think nobody knows about, and will judge it by destroying it so that the earth returns to its original pristine self.
Come Lord quickly, and in the meantime, may we conduct ourselves with holiness and godliness.