In some translations of 2 Peter 3, we see implied that the planet itself (heavenly bodies/elements) will be “burned up.” The majority view today about this passage is that, indeed, it is talking about the end of time and the destruction of the universe.
However, there are many reasons why this is not literally about the physical cosmos, but rather is be about the coming events of AD 70 when God judged Old Covenant Israel. At that time, over a million Jews were slaughtered at the hands of the Romans, the temple was destroyed, and along with it the last vestiges of the Old Covenant order (Matthew 23:29-24:2; etc.).
The critical verse is 3:10. Here’s how various translations render this verse:
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 [stoicheion] will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up [katakaio]. (2 Peter 3:10, New King James Version)
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 [stoicheion] will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed [katakaio]. (2 Peter 3:10, English Standard Version)
But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements [stoicheion] themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment [katakaio]. (2 Peter 3:10, New Living Translation)
Let’s dig into this text and explore its meaning, using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
- The Greek word for “heavenly bodies/elements” (which were to be “burned up” in verse 3:10) is STOICHEION. Everywhere else in the New Testament that this word is used it is about the “elements” of the OLD COVENANT, not physical universe things. Look up these passages: Galatians 4:3, 9; Colossians 2:8-9, 20-22; Hebrews 5:12-13.
- The Bible elsewhere anticipates a never-ending earth (Ecclesiastes 1:4; Psalm 78:69; 104:5; 148:3-6; Ephesians 3:21), and that God would never again strike down every living creature (Genesis 8:21; 9:11).
- The context of Peter’s letters and speeches is the utter imminence of the culmination of the last days: The end of “all things” was “at hand” per 1 Peter 4:7. It was “time for judgment to begin” per 1 Peter 4:17. Peter was living in the last days per Acts 2:14-20 and 1 Peter 1:20. There are 19 mentions of the last days/end times in the New Testament, and all of the writers of the New Testament spoke with one voice―THEY were living in the last days, which, by necessity means the last days of the Old Covenant, not the end of the cosmos.
- The “Day of the Lord” (3:10) in the Bible is consistently about God’s judgments on specific groups of people—not about the literal destruction of the planet: Isaiah 34 (against Edom); Jeremiah 46:10 (against named nations); Lamentations 2:22 (against Jerusalem); Ezekiel 13:5 (against Israel’s false prophets); Ezekiel 30:2-4 (against Egypt); Amos 5:18-20 (against Israel); Obadiah 15 (against Judah/nations); Zephaniah 1:2-18 (against Judah and Jerusalem). While the others were fulfilled in Old Testament times, Malachi 3:2-5; 4:1-5 ties “burning/ablaze” to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, which is confirmed by Matthew 3:7-12; 13:49-50; 21:33-45; 22:7; etc. Note that John the Baptist spiritually fulfilled the return of Elijah of Malachi 3:1; 4:5 (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13). The clear focus of the New Testament Great Judgment is against the first century Jews (Matthew 23:29-24:2; etc.)—not thousands of years later.
- It is interesting that the Thessalonian Christians thought that the Day of the Lord had already come (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2)! So, they had a different understanding about the Day of the Lord than modern Christians. They believed in a Day of the Lord that could be MISSED.
- The language about COSMIC DISTURBANCES of the created order is standard Hebraic apocalyptic language, used in non-literal terms about THEOLOGICAL OR COVENANTAL events, and especially about actual judgments by God on guilty groups of people. Take the time look up these examples: 2 Samuel 22:8-16 (against David’s enemies); Isaiah 13:10-13 (against Babylon); 34:4 (against Edom); Jeremiah 4:1-31 (against Judah); Ezekiel 32:7-8 (against Pharaoh and Egypt); Micah 1:2-16 (against Israel and Judah), Nahum 1:2-8 (against Nineveh), and Zephaniah 1:2-18 (against Jerusalem, Judah and Judah’s enemies).
- Peter drew the “heaven and earth” language (3:13) from elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments. The foundational passages about the New Heaven and New Earth are found in Isaiah 65-66 and Revelation 21. In these passages we see that God judges his enemies, but regular human history continues, in which there is still sin and death (Isaiah 65:20; Revelation 22:15) and the need for evangelism because some people had not yet heard of God (Isaiah 66:19-24). So, the New Heaven and New Earth cannot be the end of history. It is also found in Matthew 5:17-18 where Jesus ties the New Heaven and New Earth to the age of grace and dissolution of the Old Testament law, which implies past fulfillment―likely culminating with the events of AD 70, marking the final dissolution of the old covenant dispensation (Hebrews 8:13). Thus, the New Heaven and New Earth is not about a shiny new planet, but rather about the new covenant.
- The Greek word for “burned up” is KATAKAIO, which is rendered in various translations as “exposed,” “found to deserve judgment,” or “laid bare.” Fire is judgment language, which can be gleaned from some of the passages above. This is appropriate language for what happened in AD 70 to the old covenant order.
- We are given in the text the comparison of Noah’s day (3:6) when only the ungodly were destroyed, and Noah and his family were saved from this destruction (cf. 2 Peter 2:5). This is similar to what happened in AD 70, where God took vengeance on Old Covenant Israel for their sins and refusal to accept Jesus as Messiah (Matthew 23:29-24:2; etc.). But the physical planet remained. Note that God promised never to strike down every living creature as He did in Noah’s flood (Genesis 8:21).
- The “day as a thousand years” language (3:8) is often used to dismiss the numerous time-statements in the New Testament (“this generation,” “before some standing here taste death,” “soon,” “near,” “about to happen,” etc.). But “day as a thousand years” cannot be literal, otherwise it would be nonsense. Thus, it cannot mean that a short time means a long time. (Was Jesus in the tomb 3,000 years?) A “thousand” in the Bible is often used as a symbolic term of completeness.
- Peter told his readers in verses 11-13 that THEY were to be looking for the coming Day of the Lord. If we are to receive a message as to the timing of the events in the statement about a thousand years being as a day, perhaps we should consider that it means the opposite of what many Christians think. Peter meant that the expected events were a short time into the future―not a long time―especially given the other imminence passages in his epistles (Acts 2:14-20; 1 Peter 1:20; 4:7; 17).
- But WAIT! What about Jesus’ “coming” (3:3)? Surely, He didn’t return in AD 70! There are different ways interpreters may handle this. Some say that this verse is not about the “Second Coming.” Others want to pull this verse out of context and put it into our future, leaving the rest of the chapter as being fulfilled in the past. Still others suggest that this “coming” of Jesus was a “coming in judgment” similar God’s “coming” in judgment in the Old Testament. In any case, the imminence of Peter’s warning is evident from his warning to the “scoffers.” It seems that certain scoffers (3:3) were deriding Christians, claiming that Jesus had not come as He had promised to destroy the temple in their generation (Matthew 24:1-3; 29-34). Peter retorted, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promises” (3:9). Peter was telling the scoffers that they should not make the mistake of believing Jesus had overlooked his promise of judgment on Israel while some of them were alive (Matthew 10:15-23; 16:27-28; 26:64; Revelation 1:1-3; etc.). He was warning the scoffers in no uncertain terms that “the Day of the Lord” judgment would come and that it would come upon those very scoffers “as a thief in the night” (Matthew 24:34-43, 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4; Revelation 16:15; 22:6-20). The perceived delay or “slackness” was simply God’s patience toward all who would come to repentance and be saved in the last days of the Old Covenant Age.
Finally, some questions: Does the thought of a burning planet somehow give us hope? What about the people who would be destroyed that had not yet had time to come to know Jesus? Does this sound like a God who promised not to destroy the earth (Genesis 8:21; 9:11)? Was Jesus’ sacrificial death not adequate for God to satisfy his anger and justice?
Be sure to check out my book CHRISTIAN HOPE THROUGH FULFILLED PROPHECY. It’s available at Amazon!