Destruction of the world

 

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  • The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly … 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 … That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat” (2 Peter 3:7, 10, 12).
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  • Is this literal? Does it mean the total destruction of the Earth? When will it happen? We shall examine these questions.
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  • Secular interest in the End of the World

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  • Apocalyptic End of the World movies are popular and there have been hundreds of predictions of the date of the end of the world over the centuries. One of the most interesting ones I’ve found recently is that Jesus would return via Sydney Harbour in Australia at 9:00am 31 Mar 1991!  There are also predictions that the world will end in 2028, 2037, 2129, 2240 and 2280!
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  • However, as we have already noted, a lot of secular scholars anticipate the world ending. Professor Stephen Hawking said in April 2013 “We must continue to go into space for humanity. We won’t survive another 1,000 years without escaping our fragile planet.” [1]
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  • We have also noted that the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, founded by Professors Huw Price, and Martin Rees, states: “Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole.”
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  • Also the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford, founded by Professor Nick Bostrom, speaks of “global catastrophic risks, in which an adverse outcome would either cause the extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically destroy its future potential. It would spell an end to the human story.”[2]
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  • Those who dismiss giving serious thought to the end of the world are therefore being rather naïve. If serious secular scholars are taking it very seriously, surely Christians should.
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  • Is prophecy of the destruction of the Earth literal?

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  • Clearly the above-mentioned secular scholars are taking the possibility of the earth being destroyed literally. I see no reason why the description in 2 Peter 3:3-13 should not be taken as literal. I maintain the position of taking Scripture literally unless there is very good reason to take it as symbolical. It is interesting that the author is, by implication, rebuking those who scoff at a literal return of Christ and goes on to point out what will happen in association with that literal return. I hardly think he would respond to their scoffing by conveying highly symbolical information.
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  • The passage prophesies that the heavens will be destroyed by fire and “disappear with a roar.” The elements will also be destroyed by fire, they will melt in the heat and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Professor Charles Bigg comments on the Greek word for “elements” in 2 Peter 3:10 (stoicheia). He says: “St Peter is clearly speaking of physical elements. He may mean (1) the four elements, earth, air, water, fire … (2) [3]The great part of which the world is composed, sun, moon, stars, earth, sea … (3) The heavenly bodies, sun, moon, stars.” He goes on to disagree with the interpretation that the word could mean “not the stars, but the spirits which were regarded as inhabiting and animating them.”
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  • Similarly Michael Green writes that the word “could mean the physical elements of earth, air, fire and water out of which all things were thought to be composed. It might also mean the heavenly bodies, sun, moon, stars.”[4]
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  • Green goes on to quote Professor Bo Reicke on this passage: “The solar system and the great galaxies, even space-time relationships, will be abolished … All elements which make up the physical world will be dissolved by heat and utterly melt away. It is a picture which in an astonishing degree corresponds to what might actually happen according to modern theories of the physical universe.”[5] Green allows for the possibility of a symbolical interpretation but he writes: “Does Peter teach that the whole world will be destroyed by fire? There is no a priori reason why he should not” and he add that it is “by no means incredible to a generation which lives after Hiroshima.”[6]
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  • Professor Al Wolters, having examined the Greek terms used in 2 Peter 3, concludes: “The apostle is describing the Day of the Lord in the terms of cosmic elements which, as the result of intense heat, become incandescent and melt. They do not “burn up,” as is frequently imagined. To use the language of contemporary scientists in describing nuclear accidents, the future cataclysm is not a “burn-up” but a “meltdown.”[7]
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  • Will the earth be totally destroyed or renewed?

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  • This is a very important question and there are different views amongst Christian interpreters. Some say the earth will be totally annihilated and point to various biblical passages which seem to support this. As we have seen, 2 Peter speaks of the destruction of the “elements” and the “heavens”: “The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly …. 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. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? …. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat” (2 Peter 3:7, 10-12).
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  • Also Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt 24:35). The writer to the Hebrews (quoting Psa 102:25-26)  says: “In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed” (Heb 1:10-12). John writes: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them” (Rev 20:11). See also Isa 34:4; 51:6.
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  • However there are various passages which seem to support the idea of the earth being radically cleansed and renewed. Jesus speaks of “the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne” (Matt 19:28). Peter speaks of when “the time comes for God to restore everything” (Acts 3:21).
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  • Paul predicts that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:20-22). John speaks of God saying “I am making everything new!’ (Rev 21:5).
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  • There are other arguments, too:
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  • 1.      The earth will no more be destroyed by the fire than it was by the Flood

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  • 2 Peter draws this parallel between the Flood and the destruction of the earth by fire: “By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:6-7).   The parallel is that the earth was destroyed by the Flood and the earth will be destroyed by fire. However the earth was not totally destroyed by the Flood. It was radically cleansed and survived. The parallel suggests the same will happen by fire in the End Times.
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  • 2.      Destruction of the earth would be total victory for Satan

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  • God is not only interested in human beings and their salvation. He is deeply concerned for the rest of creation. Genesis states: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen 1:31). He gave humans the responsibility to care for creation: “fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:28).
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  • God provides for creation: “All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things” (Psa 104:27-28).
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  • Creation is there to bring glory to God. In poetical terms the psalmist exhorts the whole of creation to praise the Lord (Psa 148). “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psa 19:1).
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  • God also made a covenant with creation. He said to Noah: “‘I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you – the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you – every living creature on earth” (Gen 9:9-10).
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  • In summary God intended that the whole of creation should glorify him, he cares for it both directly and indirectly through his viceroys (humans), he provides for it and he made a covenant with it. In the light of all this the total destruction (as opposed to “resurrection”) of the earth would be a victory for Satan.
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  • Anthony Hoekema put it well: “If God would have to annihilate the present cosmos, Satan would have won a great victory. For then Satan would have succeeded in so devastatingly corrupting the present cosmos and the present earth that God could do nothing with it but to blot it totally out of existence. But Satan did not win such victory. On the contrary, Satan has been decisively defeated. God will reveal the full dimensions of that defeat when he shall renew this very earth on which Satan deceived mankind and finally banish from it all the results of Satan’s evil machinations.”[8]
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  • 3.      God is redeemer of all creation, not just human beings

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  • God aims to redeem the whole of creation, not just human beings. Jesus is the “firstborn over all … all things have been created through him and for him … in him all things hold together” and “God was pleased … through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:15-20).
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  • Paul describes creation as “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” and waiting “in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” when “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:19-22). This will be the fulfilment of the redemption achieved through the cross.
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  • Professor A M Wolters writes: “The redemption achieved by Jesus Christ is cosmic in the sense that it restores the whole creation … Redemption means restoration—that is, the return to the goodness of an originally unscathed creation and not merely the addition of something supracreational. . . . This restoration affects the whole of creational life and not merely some limited area within it.”[9]
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  • So God’s purpose for the earth is not destruction but redemption. One cannot redeem something which has been destroyed.
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  • 4.      Comparison with the resurrection of the body

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  • We have already concluded that the resurrection body is not completely new but is continuous with our old (existing) body. If this is how God redeems human beings then it seems convincing that he will do the same with the redemption of creation.
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  • John Sweet commented on Rev 21:1 “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” saying “We are not dealing here with the brand new but with radical renewal.”[10] William Hendricksen writes: “The word used in the original implies that it was a ‘new’ but not an ‘other’ world. It is the same heaven and earth, but gloriously rejuvenated.”[11]
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  • N T Wright said: “Some sort of 'fire', literal or metaphorical, will come upon the whole earth, not to destroy, but to test everything out, and to purify it by burning up everything that doesn't meet the test.”[12]
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  • Professor G K Beale writes that the renewal of creation is the central theme of the whole of Scripture. He says; “All events since the fall of humankind are to be seen as a process leading to the reintroduction of the original creation.”[13] He refers to the work of William Dumbrell who wrote that all of the OT works toward the goal of new creation, and the NT begins to fulfill that primary goal. He continues (quoting Dumbrell): “The entire scheme of the Bible is structured around the movement ‘from creation to new creation by means of divine redemptive interventions,’ climaxing in Christ’s death, resurrection, enthronement, and second coming, which concludes all things. Dumbrell asserts that redemption is always subordinate to creation in that it is the means of reintroducing the conditions of the new creation.”[14]
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  • When does the ‘destruction’ of the world take place?

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  • Some think the ‘destruction’ of the world is at the beginning of the Millennium but it seems clear from Revelation that it takes place in association with the Great White Throne judgment which is after the Millennium. John writes: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them …. Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away … He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” (Rev 20:11; 21: 1, 5). It seems appropriate that it is part of the final judgment. Even the earth does not escape this judgment.
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  • How then do we understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:29-31? He said: “Immediately after the distress of those days
  • ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
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  • There are various interpretations:
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  • 1.      As we have noted before, some commentators believe this passage doesn’t refer to the end of the world at all but to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. However, it seems clear that Jesus is speaking of the end times Great Distress (Tribulation) because a few verses earlier he predicts “there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equalled again” (v. 21). Terrible though AD70 was I don’t believe it is true that it is the greatest distress ever, never to be equalled. In any case this doesn’t answer our question because it sounds like a prediction of the end of the world. These commentators believe that it is symbolical and not describing literal astronomical events.
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  • 2.      Some argue that because Matthew 24:29-31 says the end of the world will happen immediately after the Great Tribulation and Revelation 20:11; 21: 1, 5 puts it after the millennium, that confirms there is no literal millennium. However I have argued above that it seems likely that there will be a literal millennium.
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  • 3.      Others argue that Matthew 24:29-31 is an example of ‘prophetic foreshortening’ i.e. the prophets seeing two future events as closely related in time, whereas in reality they are separated by a long period of time. I used the analogy of seeing two ‘peaks’ when climbing a mountain that seem to be close together but only to find on reaching the first one that there is a big valley between that and the second one.
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  • 4.      Then there are those who say that Matthew 24:29-31 is not describing the ‘destruction’ of the world but lesser cosmic events (whether literal or symbolical) associated with the second coming. Jesus speaks only of the sun and moon being darkened and the stars falling from the sky. If literal, the darkening could be caused by an eclipse or by, say, an asteroid or asteroids hitting the earth. The ‘stars falling from the sky’ could not be completely literal, but could refer, say, to an asteroid strike. I find this view, namely, that Jesus was describing a lesser cosmic event than the ‘destruction’ of the world, most convincing.
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  • If the earth is to be destroyed does conservation matter?

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  • If we take eschatology seriously we shall not simply try to sort out the order and nature of events in the end times, we shall seek to live in the light of them. That will involve being true disciples of Christ. One aspect of such discipleship is care for God’s earth. Some people have concluded that, since the earth is to be destroyed anyway, we don’t need to trouble ourselves with being conservationists. However, they are mistaken.
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  • We have noted that God is not going to destroy the earth totally but to redeem it and radically renew it. God is not giving up on planet earth and neither should we. 
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  • We have also noted  that God gave humans the responsibility to care for creation: “fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:28). The words ‘subdue’ and ‘rule’ have been misunderstood as approving the selfish domination and abuse of creation which has, in fact, taken place. But it is clear from the Genesis account that humans are meant to be God’s viceroys and to rule in the same way as he does. God does not exploit creation and neither should we.
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  • God cares for creation so if we want to be godly we have to do the same. “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives” (2 Peter 3:11).


[3] Charles Bigg, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St Peter and St Jude, International Critical Commentary, T&T Clark, Edinburgh 1902, p. 296-7.

[4] Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude, Tyndale Press, London 1968, p.138

[5] Quoted in Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude, Tyndale Press, London 1968, p.138.

[6] Ibid, p. 131, 132.

[7] Al Wolters, Worldview and Textual Criticism in 2 Peter 3:10, p. 4  http://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/wolters/amw2peter3.pdf

[8] Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1979, p. 281.

[9] A M Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1985, p. 69

[10] John Sweet, Revelation, PTI New Testament Commentaries, SCM London 1979, p. 297.

[11] William Hendricksen, More than Conquerors, Tyndale Press London 1940, p. 198.

[12] N T Wright, Early Christian Letters for Everyone, SPCK London 2011, p. 119.

[13] G. K. Beale, A New Testament biblical theology : the unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, Baker Academic Grand Rapids 2011,  p. 22.

[14] Ibid p. 21-22.



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