2 Peter 3:10-13 is one of the most common — and understandable — objections to belief in a general bodily resurrection, as opposed to a disembodied eternal fate for the saved. This familiar passage is usually taken to mean that God is going to take the saved away from earth so that he can then destroy the earth with fire.
(2Pe 3:10-13 ESV) 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
But what if we were to read 2 Peter in light of the Old Testament prophecies he’s referring to, as well as to Paul and Revelation? Does Peter really teach that the world will be destroyed with fire?
2 Pet 3:10a
(2 Pet 3:10a ESV) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.
So far as I can find, Jesus was the first to declare the unknowability of the time of the end of time (Mat 24:42).
2 Pet 3:10b
(2 Pet 3:10b ESV) The heavens will pass away with a roar;
“Pass away” translates parechomai, meaning “leave.” It’s the same word Paul uses of our baptism, when he declares —
(2 Cor 5:17 NIV) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Both passages speak of a new creation by God. And neither means that the old has literally ceased to exist. In fact, the thought is that the old has been radically transformed.
Parechomai is also the root word used by John in Rev 21:1 —
(Rev 21:1 ESV) 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.
(Rev 21:4 ESV) He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
As we saw earlier, the idea in Rev 21 is of renewal and transformation — in parallel with Rom 8 where Paul speaks of the creation being redeemed and freed. “Passed away” — being an English euphemism for death — isn’t really quite the right translation. Better would be “left” or “gone.”
2 Pet 3:10c
Peter next writes,
(2 Pet 3:10c ESV) the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved
The translators aren’t entirely clear on the meaning of the subject stoicheion. The word likely means “heavenly bodies,” as an allusion to Isa 34:4 —
(Isa 34:4 NET) 4 All the stars in the sky will fade away, the sky will roll up like a scroll; all its stars will wither, like a leaf withers and falls from a vine or a fig withers and falls from a tree.
The Codex Vaticanus text of the Septuagint uses stoicheion here. And this sure sounds like the universe being destroyed — except Isa 34:4 is a reference to the destruction of the nation of Edom — a tiny country east of Judah.
Ahh … you see, we spend so little time in the prophets that when we see a near OT quotation in the NT, we miss the point entirely, assuming we’re competent to interpret unaware of the OT background against which the apostles wrote.
The language Peter chooses is apocalyptic and speaks of a major change in the world, but most certainly is not to be taken literally — no more literally than supposing that the stars literally fell from the sky when Edom was defeated. Commentators imagine that the “stars” or “heavenly bodies” are references to pagan gods defeated by the God of the Jews. Or maybe it’s just how the ancients spoke of a nation being defeated. Either way, we should assume that Peter knew Isaiah well enough to know that this was a reference to a major event in world history (as perceived from the Jewish perspective), not to literal destruction of the heavens.
Peter says the heavenly bodies will be destroyed by fire. Where does fire fit in? And the King James says “melt” in fire, which is quite possible in the Greek. Where does the image of melting come from?
(Psa 46:6 NIV) Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
(Psa 97:5-6 NIV) The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. 6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory.
(Amos 9:5-6 NIV) The Lord, the LORD Almighty, he who touches the earth and it melts, and all who live in it mourn — the whole land rises like the Nile, then sinks like the river of Egypt — 6 he who builds his lofty palace in the heavens and sets its foundation on the earth, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land — the LORD is his name.
(Nahum 1:2-6 NIV) The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies. 3 The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. 4 He rebukes the sea and dries it up; he makes all the rivers run dry. Bashan and Carmel wither and the blossoms of Lebanon fade. 5 The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it. 6 Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him.
The Nahum passage is especially vivid and very likely the one Peter had particularly in mind, as the subject is the wrath of God. And God’s wrath is “against his enemies” and “like fire.”
But Nahum isn’t saying that God has literally melted mountains and dried the sea and rivers. The earth, hills, and mountains are likely metaphors for human kingdoms, the capitals of which were typically built on a hill or mountain.
Therefore, “the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved” means “the enemies of God will be uncreated by the wrath of God.” That seems to be the point of Nahum 1:2-6, and Isa 34:4 is certainly about the destruction of the enemies of God —
(Isa 34:9-11 NET) 9 Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch and her soil into brimstone; her land will become burning pitch. 10 Night and day it will burn; its smoke will ascend continually. Generation after generation it will be a wasteland and no one will ever pass through it again. 11 Owls and wild animals will live there, all kinds of wild birds will settle in it. The LORD will stretch out over her the measuring line of ruin and the plumb line of destruction.
2 Pet 3:10d
This bring us to —
(2 Pet 3:10d) and the works that are done on it will be exposed
“Exposed” is translated “burned up” in the King James, but the better texts have a different Greek word here, meaning “revealed.” And this makes good sense when we’re speaking of Judgment Day.
2 Pet 3:11
(2 Pet 3:11) Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness …
“Destroyed” is the same word translated “melt” or “dissolved” in v. 10. It’s luo, meaning most literally loosed or unbound, but can be used to mean melt. Given the use of “melt” in the prophets, we should stick with that sense of the word.
2 Pet 3:12a
(2 Pet 3:12a) as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.
“Day of God” is another term borrowed from the prophets.
(Joel 1:14-20) Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. 15 Alas for that day! For the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. 16 Has not the food been cut off before our very eyes– joy and gladness from the house of our God? 17 The seeds are shriveled beneath the clods. The storehouses are in ruins, the granaries have been broken down, for the grain has dried up. 18How the cattle moan! The herds mill about because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep are suffering. 19 To you, O LORD, I call, for fire has devoured the open pastures and flames have burned up all the trees of the field. 20 Even the wild animals pant for you; the streams of water have dried up and fire has devoured the open pastures.
(Joel 3:14-21) Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. 15 The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 16 The LORD will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the sky will tremble. But the LORD will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.17 ‘Then you will know that I, the LORD your God, dwell in Zion, my holy hill. Jerusalem will be holy; never again will foreigners invade her. 18 ‘In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water. A fountain will flow out of the Lord’s house and will water the valley of acacias. 19 But Egypt will be desolate, Edom a desert waste, because of violence done to the people of Judah, in whose land they shed innocent blood. 20 Judah will be inhabited forever and Jerusalem through all generations. 21 Their bloodguilt, which I have not pardoned, I will pardon.’ The LORD dwells in Zion!
(Mal 4:5-6) “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
As we read these passages, we see where Paul gets the idea found in Rom 8 that the creation “groans” in anticipation of the end of time!
But the thought is one of desolation followed by abundance, not disintegration followed by an entirely new world. The images are of a world brought low and then renewed in glory.
2 Pet 3:12b
(2 Pet 3:12b) the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!
Again, because Peter is basing his language on Isa 34:4, the likely meaning is that the pagan gods who stand against the God of the Jews will be utterly defeated — which is entirely consistent with the Revelation. The language is not referring to the destruction of the literal stars in the sky — although it’s entirely possible that God does this on Judgment Day. The heavens and the earth we be made new in some radical sense that is surely beyond our comprehension.
2 Pet 3:13
(2 Pet 3:13) But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
“New” is kainos, meaning made fresh, instead of neos, meaning newly made. And in the New Testament, the new heavens and new earth are always kainos.
(John 13:34) “A new [kainos] command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
(2 Cor 5:17) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new [kainos] creation; the old has gone, the new [kainos] has come!
(Gal 6:15) Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new [kainos] creation.
(Rev 21:5a) He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new [kainos]!”
The point is renewal and transformation, not replacement.
Putting it all together
So let’s try a different and, I think, better translation —
(2Pe 3:10-13 ESV) 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies [symbolic of pagan gods] will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 11 Since all these [pagan] things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies [symbolic of pagan gods] will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
This is consistent with Paul and with the prophets — and the Greek read in light of the OT. Yes, destruction will occur, but not everything will be destroyed.
(Rom 8:20-22) For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
(Rev 21:5a) He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new [kainos]!”
He doesn’t say, “I’m making new everythings.” Rather, he’s making that which was old new again. This is same promise we have for our bodies. Our bodies will be transformed into something wonderfully different, but it won’t be an annihilation and replacement. It will be like a seed planted and sprouting to blossom as never before.