Will God Annihilate the World? Part III

(…Continued from Part II)

Peter’s Apocalyptic Problem

But doesn’t 2 Peter say that the universe—nay, even the elements—will melt with intense heat prior to the creation of a new heavens and new earth? Isn’t this a clear support for an annihilation of the present creation in preparation for a completely new creation? To answer this we need to examine Peter’s entire argument more closely. Let me first set up the general context of the letter.

Throughout Peter’s second epistle he makes reference to the coming judgment, which we call the tribulation—the judgment that culminates in the second coming of Christ on earth to establish His kingdom. In chapter 2 Peter uses past judgments as types of the coming judgment. He refers to the days of the flood, during which the “world of the ungodly” was destroyed (2:5). Sodom and Gomorrah are also examples. These cities were condemned to “destruction by reducing them to ashes” and they are thus an example of the coming tribulation judgment (2:6). Yet in the midst of these statements Peter reminds his readers that God knows how to rescue the godly from “tribulation” (2:9), referring to Lot as an example (2:7–8).

Peter then describes the character of the ungodly of this world who await judgment. He notes that they will “in the destruction of those [animal] creatures also be destroyed” (2:12). Peter also refers to the scoffers who make fun of those who are expecting the Lord’s return: “In the last days mockers will come with their mocking, . . . and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’” (3:3–4). Peter has in mind here the condition of skepticism and cynicism characterizing the end of the age.

In response to this skepticism about the Lord’s return, Peter again draws on the analogy of the flood in the ancient world—a world that was utterly destroyed. He writes: “It escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water” (3:5–6). So, just as the initial order of the world of humanity, animals, and even the earth itself was “destroyed,” leaving only a remnant to return and repopulate the earth, the future coming judgment will similarly destroy our present world. But in Peter’s mind the coming judgment at Christ’s return would be more severe, for instead of judgment by water, it will be judgment by fire.

Peter writes, “But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (3:7). Given the context of this passage in Peter’s letter, we must connect this coming judgment with the judgment of the world that accompanies the return of Christ, that is, the tribulation judgment. This is the anticipated “day of the Lord,” during which the current world system will be destroyed, just as the pre-flood world ceased to exist, having been replaced by the new order after the flood. Peter refers to this coming judgment as “the day of the Lord” that would come “like a thief” (3:10). There is no basis for understanding this as anything other than the anticipated tribulation period, to which Jesus and Paul had already referred in similar terms (Matthew 24:42–43; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:15). This coming judgment is what Peter describes with vivid terms of destruction:

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. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! (2 Peter 3:10–12)

 

Who or what are the “elements” that will be destroyed? The Greek word stoicheion (“elements”) must not be read anachronistically as a reference to the atomic “elements” of modern science. According to Gingrich (Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament), this term may refer to angelic beings in Galatians 4:3, 9 and Colossians 2:8, 20. In this sense, it may be a reference to the destruction of Satan and his wicked angelic hosts who currently reign over the heavens, but who will be destroyed and cast into the Lake of Fire—or, in the case of Satan, consigned to the Abyss—at the coming of Christ. This would fit the similar language of the removal of heavenly and earthly powers in Isaiah 24:21–22, a passage we’ve already examined above. It is also possible that the text refers to the destruction of earth, water, and air regarded as “elements” in the ancient world, which destruction we see described in great detail in the book of Revelation (Revelation 8:1–9:21; 16:1–21). This drastic change—not annihilation—of elements in judgment is also seen in Wisdom of Solomon 19:18–20—“For the elements (stoicheia) were changed in themselves by a kind of harmony, like as in a psaltery notes change the name of the tune, and yet are always sounds…. For earthly things were turned into watery, and the things, that before swam in the water, now went upon the ground. The fire had power in the water, forgetting its own virtue: and the water forgot its own quenching nature.” In any case, it would be very misleading to conclude that Peter had in mind the absolute annihilation of atoms or subatomic particles when he used the word stoicheion in 2 Peter 3:12.

So, Peter anticipates this judgment of fire as coming upon the present world system at the return of Christ, that is, in the final days of the tribulation. In a premillennial view of the end times, this tribulation period will destroy the present system, including all evil and sin. It will also include the destruction of demons and a razing of the world’s geography. The world that comes when Christ returns to reign on the new post-tribulation millennial order, then, Peter describes thusly: “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth,” qualifying this statement with regard to its righteous quality, not its creation ex nihilo: “in which righteousness dwells” (3:13).

Peter was no doubt familiar with the Old Testament background of his phrase “new heavens and new earth.” Peter’s reference to the “new heavens and new earth” must be understood in his own context of the anticipated coming of Christ in judgment on the present world during the tribulation and in light of the “new heavens and new earth” promises in Isaiah 65 and 66—both of which refer to the restoration of the world after the tribulation and during the reign of the Messiah and His saints over the redeemed earth.

Therefore, we must understand the destruction language of 2 Peter 3:10–13 as a vivid picture of judgment referring to the tribulation and coming of Christ preceding the millennial reign. It is not a reference to a post-millennial, pre-eternal annihilation or “un-creation” of the universe and its physical elements. Nor is the “new heavens and new earth” in Peter a reference to a re-creation ex nihilo of a world that has no relationship to the present physical world. Just as the pre-flood earth was renewed after the judgment of water, the current world will be renewed after a judgment of fire. However, Peter’s language implies that the coming judgment at the return of Christ will be just as severe as the world-altering flood of Noah.

Return to Revelation

It is in light of Isaiah 65–66 and 2 Peter 3 that we must understand John’s vision of the new heavens and new earth. To read this as annihilation and re-creation out of nothing would be to read into it meanings for “pass away” and “new heavens and new earth” that are foreign to the sum of biblical teaching. In fact, Revelation 21:3–5 actually interprets its own language precisely in keeping with the idea of qualitative renewal and redemption similar to Isaiah and 2 Peter. Note how the voice from heaven interprets the vision for John:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”

 

Revelation 21:4 interprets the symbols of the vision that heaven and earth “passed away”—“the first things have passed away.” What things are these? Not elements, not atoms, not molecules—but the evil order of things: the death, wickedness, grief, suffering, pain, degeneration, and deterioration that had long held all of these physical and spiritual elements in bondage. Look at the clear statement: “There will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

In light of this, I believe the greatest misunderstanding concerning the “new heavens and new earth” described in Revelation 21 has been to take the symbolic vision in Revelation 21:1–2 too literally rather than learning the meaning of the vision from the prophetic interpretation in 21:3–5 and the use of the same phrase in the Old and New Testaments. When we understand “new creation” language in light of the Bible’s entire teaching on this matter, we should conclude that this creation is bound for regeneration and redemption, not annihilation and re-creation ex nihilo.

(Concluded in Part IV…)

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