[B]y the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 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. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 3:7-13)
I have come across this passage of Scripture twice in the past week, once in a collection of Advent reflections, and a second time in a post by Andrew Perriman found here: http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/1639. Given that the word “Advent” means “coming,” it’s an appropriate passage for the season; but it’s also a difficult one. About 2 Peter one commentator writes, “The formal style and stiff polemical tone of this brief book help to rank it among the least read of the biblical canon.” And Perriman calls the text in question “one of the more garish and disturbing passages of New Testament apocalyptic.”
Perriman holds this opinion in part because some Christians have found in this text ammunition to use against persons who are concerned about the environment. He quotes John MacArthur as an example:
The environmental movement is consumed with trying to preserve the planet forever. But we know that isn't in God's plan.
The earth we inhabit is not a permanent planet. It is, frankly, a disposable planet--it is going to have a very short life. It's been around six thousand years or so--that's all--and it may last a few thousand more. And then the Lord is going to destroy it.
I've told environmentalists that if they think humanity is wrecking the planet, wait until they see what Jesus does to it. Peter says God is going to literally turn it in on itself in an atomic implosion so that the whole universe goes out of existence (2 Peter 3:7-13).
MacArthur goes on to offer “a footnote”: “Though this earth is our temporary home, do take time to enjoy God's beauty. Take care of your yard. Stop to smell the flowers. Enjoy the forests.”
Even ignoring MacArthur’s silly science, his conclusions are questionable on exegetical, hermeneutical, and missiological grounds. Perriman questions MacArthur’s literal and futurist interpretation of 2 Peter 3:7-13 (on which MacArthur appears to rely exclusively), noting that in the Old Testament “the recreation of heaven and earth is a metaphor for the restoration of Israel following judgment (Is. 65:17).” (How can that which “goes out of existence” be restored?) Perriman suggests that “the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple” are in view here, rather than the destruction of all creation.
The book of Revelation makes use of language similar to that found in 2 Peter: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). Lest we conclude that this vision sees all things “go[ing] out of existence,” Revelation 21:5 adds, “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” New Testament scholar Eugene Boring comments, “This world, God’s good creation, is not replaced but redeemed. God does not make ‘all new things’ but all things new.”
In contrast, MacArthur’s vision sees God’s creation destroyed and then replaced. And Jesus is the destroyer. According to MacArthur, Jesus does not save God’s creation; rather, Jesus destroys God’s creation. Here the consequences of a reductionistic understanding of salvation become apparent. MacArthur seems not to see that he has set the second person of the Trinity against the first person of the Trinity, with Jesus annihilating God’s creative work. This oversight is likely due to a truncated understanding of salvation that limits God’s saving work to the deliverance of disembodied souls to heaven. In Gnostic fashion, the material world--rather than sin--becomes the evil from which we are saved.
With its promise of “all things new,” Scripture invites us to hope for more. It invites us not only to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, but also to participate in God’s mission to the world. Like the animal-naming Adam in the garden (Genesis 2:18-20), we are invited to be in the world as co-creators until the king of God’s new creation comes again.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!