A Whole New World: Won’t the World Be Destroyed by Fire?
Dr. Chuck Crisco
We can’t be living in the new heavens and new earth because the Bible teaches that the whole world will be destroyed by fire first, right? Eh, thank God that’s not true!
Let me explain. The Bible doesn’t actually teach that there is an end of the world. Repeatedly we read scriptures like:
Ephesians 3:21, “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
God intends the church to glorify him through the ages of an unending world.
Isaiah 9:7, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end…”
If there was an end of the world, how would his government and peace continue to increase?
Psalm 78:69, “And He built His sanctuary like the heights, like the earth which He has established forever.”
Psalm 148:4-6, “Praise Him, you heavens of heavens, And you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, For He commanded and they were created. He also established them forever and ever; He made a decree which shall not pass away.”
Ecclesiastes 1:4, “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.”
When God speaks of the physical realm of the heavens and earth he says that they are decreed to be established forever.
You may not know this, but God did not say he was going to destroy the entire planet by fire. In fact, the judgment of fire was localized to the city of Jerusalem. More on that later.
Do we believe that God keeps his word? I’m assuming that I’m writing to people who already believe that. This is an important realization: God promised to never destroy every living thing, therefore a world-wide destruction of the earth by fire will never happen.
Genesis 8:21, “And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done.’”
This is God’s response after the Flood. It is the expression of his mercy, that even though there will still be evil in the world and in the hearts of people in the future, he promises he will not curse the entire earth, nor destroy every creature in it again. As David Curtis suggests, this isn’t a comparison between methods of destruction. What kind of promise of mercy sounds like this: “I will never flood the earth again, but fire, yes, I will burn you up instead because of my great mercy for you!”?
So where does this fire idea come from? Let’s go verse by verse here in 2 Peter 3:
5 For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, 6 by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water.
Think carefully about what Peter just said. He said the world was destroyed in the flood. Yet here we are and the world still exists. Apparently it wasn’t the physical universe that was destroyed, right? Rather, it was “their” world, the governing powers of that day. It was those in whom the only thoughts and intentions of the heart were wickedness all the time, that were destroyed by the flood. It was their world that perished, not the cosmos, not the physical matter of the planet.
7 But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
Remember in our previous study that the phrase heaven and earth beyond the creation account usually referred to the old covenant that God made with Israel (Is 51:15,16) In the same way that the flood did not destroy the literal earth, so too this fire was not going to destroy a literal heaven and earth, but the old covenant heavens and earth. It was metaphor for Jerusalem and its government. Israel’s old world was about to be destroyed.
In fact, this is exactly how it happened. After a 3 ½ year siege of the city, Rome broke through, and as they rushed to the temple a fire was started, even against the plea’s of Titus, in the flurry and fury of war, it began to blaze so hot that the gold melted off into the ground. Here is what Josephus records of the terror:
While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance.
Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise - nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.
There were the war cries of the Roman legions as they swept onwards en masse, the yells of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the panic of the people who, cut off above, fled into the arms of the enemy, and their shrieks as they met their fate. The cries on the hill blended with those of the multitudes in the city below; and now many people who were exhausted and tongue-tied as a result of hunger, when they beheld the Temple on fire, found strength once more to lament and wail. Peraea and the surrounding hills, added their echoes to the deafening din. But more horrifying than the din were the sufferings.
The Temple Mount, everywhere enveloped in flames, seemed to be boiling over from its base; yet the blood seemed more abundant than the flames and the numbers of the slain greater than those of the slayers. The soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives." (Josephus' account appears in: Cornfield, Gaalya ed., Josephus, The Jewish War (1982); Duruy, Victor, History of Rome vol. V (1883).)
This was promised hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Malachi 4:
1 “For behold, the day is coming, BURNING LIKE A FURNACE; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ABLAZE,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
5 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. 6 He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”
Who was this Elijah that would warn them once again? None other than John the Baptist who came in the power and spirit of Elijah (Luke 1:17) in Mathew 3:
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath soon to come?... 10 And even NOW the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the FIRE. 11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and FIRE. 12 His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will BURN UP the chaff with unquenchable FIRE.”
The fire is both imagery and literal and was to come upon apostate Jews as reaping what they had sown in their violence as Jesus describes in Matthew 23:
31 “Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt.33 Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of Gehenna?34 Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them YOU WILL KILL AND CRUCIFY, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, 35 that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Assuredly, I say to you, ALL these things will come upon THIS generation.
Back to our text in 2 Peter 3:10, 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.
The thief in the night motif is one which Jesus (Matthew 24:43) and Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:2-5) both remind us is in regard to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in their day, not ours. In fact, both tell them to watch for the signs and be sober minded so that day doesn't catch the believers by surprise.
But notice the word “elements” in this passage. We all tend to associate this word with the periodic table’s references to hydrogen or carbon. But this Greek word, stoicheia has nothing to do with such things. It is a word that is used 7 times in the New Testament:
Galatians 4:3, "Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:"
Galatians 4:9, "But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?”
Colossians 2:8, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (NASB)
Colossians 2:20-22, “ If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as,21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?” (NASB)
Hebrews 5:12, "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food."
In each case, the elements are described not as atoms, but as the basic principles of human religion, the Law, or religious instruction. What was to burn up with fervent heat? The entire Old Covenant religious system, the Law, the temple, the system of priesthood, the sacrifices… everything that had to do with the old covenant world melted with fervent heat that day.
'13 Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Peter, in his day, (present tense) in his lifetime, was looking for the new heavens and the new earth based on the covenant of righteousness. He knew the promise was near to him. We get to look back on this event, while Peter was looking forward to the removal of the persecuting Jewish religious system being replaced with the new heavens and the new earth. It is the new covenant in fullness.
Will the earth be destroyed by fire? Never! This is God’s promise to us as we live in the new heavens and new earth in the covenant of everlasting righteousness.