(For those interested in Doctrine)
In the book Rainbow God, we addressed the fact that it is widely believed by many Christians that God will come and destroy the world again because of sin and evil on the earth. There seems to be a lack of understanding of some scriptures relating to the end times, especially 2 Peter 3:3-13. Many believe that the end of all things will be a repeat destruction like the great flood (or worse) of the planet. This subject deserves an in depth study which we didn’t get into in the book, but will in this article for those interested.
So the question I would like to address is, will the earth “melt and be dissolved” as many Christians have thought?
2 Peter 3: 10 says “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with a fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
This passage is often used to prove that the planet will ultimately be destroyed and therefore we can’t honestly contend for a prevailing “heaven on earth” reality that Jesus prayed for. The language of this verse has been used to propose an end-time scenario of the earth’s destruction, possibly by nuclear weaponry. I would like to clearly show that this passage has actually been translated and interpreted in such an incorrect fashion that it reflects the opposite of what I believe the apostle Peter was trying to say.
In order to get the full truth of this one verse, we must see it in the context of the entire chapter and also understand the license that Bible translators have given themselves. I believe that if you will follow me in this discovery of what Peter actually said, you will wholeheartedly agree that we have been almost unimaginably wrong in how we have construed this passage.
2 Peter 3:1 clearly shows us that Peter is not trying to say anything that has not already been biblically established as truth. From verse 1 forward, he is writing what he considers to be “remembrance” of what has already been established. This is an important point. We should consider every aspect of truth he brings forth as being something already established elsewhere. If we haven’t heard it elsewhere first, then we must reconsider our interpretation.
2 Peter 3:2 follows the premise of verse 1. Peter lets us know that the theme of this chapter will be “remembrances” of what the Old Testament prophets and the twelve apostles of the New Testament have been saying all along.
2 Peter 3:3. Here Peter lets us know that he is referring specifically to the “last days” and dynamics relating to that.
2 Peter 3:4. In the “last days,” many will doubt whether Jesus will return.
2 Peter 3:5. Peter points out that it was by His word that God created the heavens and the earth—again, reminding us of truth, as he said in verse 1.
2 Peter 3:6. So Peter moves from the time of creation time to the flood points out that this very word of God then caused the world to flood. Interestingly, he uses the word “perished” or “destroyed” to describe what happened to the earth, giving us an alternate understanding about what it means for the earth to be destroyed. In other words, the earth “perished” then
but was not extinguished. It did not cease to exist.
2 Peter 3:7 is very difficult to decipher. According to the King James, it says, “But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” This verse alone seems to be saying that the world is reserved for fire and judgment, a statement that would war against a hopeful eschatology for the planet. However, we first want to remember that Peter is not trying to tell us something new. He has already established that he is just reminding us of acknowledged truths that have been confirmed by prophets of old and the apostles. Second, there is a reason this verse comes across as dark and cryptic rather than as a clear statement. The translators didn’t know what Peter was trying to say, so they took license with their translation, causing this verse to say in effect the opposite of what Peter was trying to say.
Let’s look at 3:7 line by line:
“But the heavens and the earth, which are now”—this part is clear. “By the same word are kept in store.” The Greek word for “in store” is thesaurizo, which literally means “amassed as treasure.” It’s the same word used in Luke 12:21: “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself . . .” In several other biblical uses of thesaurizo, the word refers to treasure and storing it up—Matthew 6:19-20 and James 5:3, for example. Why is this important? Because what Peter is saying up until this point is that the same God who spoke creation into being, and the same God who then spoke a flood into being, has determined that the present heaven and earth be “amassed as a treasure” or, more simply stated, “treasured.”
“Reserved unto fire.” The word “reserved” is the Greek word tereo, which means “to attend to carefully, take care of, to guard.” It is the same word used in Matthew 19:17 when Jesus tells someone to “keep the commandments.” Tereo is used some 75 times in the New Testament, and this is consistently what it means. The word “unto” was inserted by the translators; it does not actually exist in the text. Neither does the comma, since the Greek text does not have punctuation and translators must insert it wherever they think appropriate. Therefore, the phrase actually means, “taken care of or guarded from the fire”!
“Against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” The fire of the day of judgment comes against ungodly people.
Putting it together so far, here is a more proper reading of this verse: “But the heavens and the earth which now exist are by His same word treasured and guarded from the fire that is reserved for the day of judgment against the ungodly.”
This is essentially a restating of Malachi 4 and the coming day of the Lord, where fire leaves the wicked as ashes while allowing the righteous to dance like stall-fed calves. At no time in this passage is the earth destroyed. Remember, Peter initiates the chapter letting us know he is reminding us of what the prophets have said. He is not giving a new revelation on the end
times. With this verse clarified, we can move on.
2 Peter 3:8. Peter reminds his readers of the Hebraic concept of “a day as a thousand years” so they would not be ignorantly looking for this “day of judgment” to take place in a 24-hour period. It could easily be a thousand year period of judgment on evil and blessing on that which is righteous.
2 Peter 3:9. Peter explains that the reason for the delay in the coming of this day is ultimately mercy—that there is such a distorted perspective on what righteousness is that it must all be redefined before God starts holding the world accountable for being evil.
2 Peter 3:10. Now we come to the central verse of this passage and again will take it line by line.
“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.” This “day of judgment” (which might be 1,000 years) will come when no one expects.
“in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise.” The Greek word for “shall pass away” is parerchomai. Mark 6:48 it says that Jesus came walking on the sea and “would have passed by them.” That word “passed by” is the same word, parerchomai. The translators had a choice here: “pass away,” “pass by,” or simply “pass.” Any of these is legitimate; they are all the same word. But I believe “pass away” doesn’t fit Peter’s intended meaning very well. This line should be, “in which the heavens will pass with great noise,” or “in which clouds will pass by with great noise.” (The Greek word for “heavens” is ouranos, which can also mean “clouds.”) Do you see how different it is for heaven to disappear—and how was that going to happen, anyway?—and for clouds to pass by with a loud noise?
“and the elements will melt with fervent heat.” This line is possibly the most distorted translation in the Bible. Stoicheon is the Greek word for “elements” It shows up seven times in the New Testament and is never referring to either the physical world or the periodic table of elements, which of course wasn’t developed at this time. The word stoicheon always refers to elementary principles of either the Old Testament covenant (as in Galatians 4:3 and 9, “elements”) or foundational cultural assumptions or traditions of the world (as in Colossians 2:8 and 20, “basic principles”). This is a significant point. “Elements” are not the earth or physical matter. They are the ABCs of the law or human traditions.
The word “melt” is also important. This is the Greek word luo, which means “to loose,” “to release,” “to loose from chains,” “to loose from bondage,” and several other secondary meanings. In Matthew 16:19, it is used in Jesus’ statement, “Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in
heaven.” In Mark 1:7, John the Baptist says, “There comes one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” The word “unloose” there is luo. In Mark 7:35, it’s the word used to say that a man’s tongue was “loosed.” The man’s tongue was not melted, nor was John saying he wasn’t worthy to melt Jesus sandals, nor was Jesus saying whatever you melt on earth will be melted in heaven. It’s a versatile word, but “melt” is certainly not its primary meaning. What it means here can be debated, but the idea that it foretells a nuclear meltdown of the earth or anything related to that is really far-fetched.
“the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” If you can follow my assumption that Peter continues to refer to Old Testament descriptions such as Malachi 4, which speaks of a burning hot day of fire, we must deduce that all these descriptions of fire are symbolic descriptions of intensity and of an intense day of kingdom manifestation where wickedness is ashes under our feet (Malachi 4:3) and the fire is His help for accomplishing His purposes.
Of most interest in this last phrase is the last two words “burned up.” The Greek word used here is katakaio and is the same word used in 1 Corinthians 3:15: “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” Again it is not speaking of literal fire but of a testing fire that reveals the truth. The 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 passage, which explains how everyone’s work will be revealed by fire, reflects the same truth Peter is describing. Remember, he is not trying to tell us anything new.
With this understanding, we see that what Peter is saying when he writes of the earth being burned up is not an apocalyptical new revelation on the destruction of the planet. He is referring rather to the testing “fire.” A better translation would be, “The works of the earth will be tested by fire,” rather than “burned up by fire.” The English Standard Version offers a much more accurate translation of this verse than the KJV: “and the earth and the works done on it will be exposed.”
So what does 2 Peter 3:10 really say? I believe this would be a great translation:
“But the day of the Lord (maybe a thousand years) will come as surprisingly as a thief in the night, and the heavens will pass by accompanied by a loud noise (as second heaven powers are overthrown), and foundational assumptions of world systems will be loosed from their operating lies by the coming intensity of God’s palpable presence, and it will be clear on earth what is of God and what is not of God.”
Then Peter tells us the implications of what he has just written.
2 Peter 3:11. “Seeing then that all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness.”
The word “dissolved” is again that same word luo which means “loosed” or “loosed from chains” or “loosed from bondage.” He is saying, “Seeing then that all these things will be loosed from bondage, how should you then live?” This follows the theme of Romans 8—creation being set free by the sons of God into a glorious liberty. As Romans 8:21 sums it up, “Because creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.” Creation gets “loosed” as God’s activated sons and daughters carry His fire, and it translates into wholesale change.
2 Peter 3:12. “Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, where the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?” What Peter is saying is much clearer now: “We anxiously long for this day where His fire invades the second heavens and the heavens are loosed from the demonic influences that affect ‘elements’— the foundational assumptions of life which will be liquefied by the heat of God’s glory on His kids.” (Ironically, the actual word for “melt” is used here, which might explain why translators felt compelled to translate luo incorrectly earlier in the passage.)
2 Peter 3:13. “Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” This verse does not mean a replacement heavens and earth, as many have erroneously construed. It’s talking about a quality characteristic. The Greek word for “new” is kainos, and among its meanings are “of a new kind, unprecedented, novel, uncommon, unheard of.” We know this is what Peter is talking about for several reasons. One, he refers to a promise Jesus made which could not be fulfilled if the earth were to be eradicated. Jesus had already said, “the meek will inherit the earth.” Two, by saying “wherein righteousness dwelleth,” Peter is clearly referring to the dimensional realm of quality rather than in difference of substance. Three, including “heaven” as a place of newness confirms that Peter is speaking of something other than physical reality. It is reality, but it is transcendent reality that overrides physical dimensions, thus causing them to be new.
2 Peter 3:14. Peter is telling us to contend for that new heaven and earth right now by being found in Jesus in practical areas.
2 Peter 3:15.The patience of God gives people time to be saved.
2 Peter 3:16. Ironically, Peter thinks some things in Paul’s epistles are hard to understand.
2 Peter 3:17. Peter warns of falling to the errors of the wicked. Interestingly the word “error” is plane, which means “wrong opinion relative to morals or religion.” This is what Peter is referring to when he writes of “elements” that will be tried and loosed from their lies.
2 Peter 3:18. Grow in grace and in the knowledge of Him . . . because ultimately the knowledge of God is what it is all about. The coming “fire” will be a fire of a new knowledge of who God is. The expanded knowledge of who God is will burn up everything else and cause a shriek in the second heaven where the liars are mixing the batch of lies and distortions as to who God is.