What do you think of when you think of heaven? Chubby angels floating amidst the clouds, playing their miniature harps? A long line of eager believers at the pearly gates, awaiting their acceptance by St. Peter?
Scripture reveals that the new heavens and earth will be not a world of clouds brimming with baby-faced angels, but a bustling metropolis with both architecture and nature (Rev. 21:12; 22:1). As Nathan Bierma writes in Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, “Heaven will be terrestrial. We will not be floating on clouds, but walking on terra firma—firm ground” (42). The new heavens and earth will be like the earth we live on presently, but transformed in the glorious coming of Christ.
But how does this transformation come about? Some Christians argue that the earth will undergo total annihilation, followed by recreation. The main passage used to defend this view is 2 Peter 3, where Peter talks about the “day of the Lord,” when “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” (v. 10). I would like to offer three reasons why this passage does not portray God making all new things, but rather shows his refining judgment making all things new.
1) Peter compares the coming judgement with Noah’s Flood, which did not destroy the world but purged it of unrighteousness.
Verses 5 and 6 refer to the judgment of water that purified the earth at the time of Noah. That watery grave, which shattered the windows of heaven, didn’t obliterate the earth but washed it of accumulated unrighteousness (Gen. 6:5–6). We can expect “by the same word” (2 Pet. 3:7) that God’s refining judgment will purify and renew the old heavens and earth—not annihilate them completely.
2) Peter’s mention of fire burning the heavens and heavenly bodies (v. 12) likely refers to metals being refined, not total annihilation.
There are two reasons for this. First, the word Peter uses to describe the earth being set on fire (puroó) is the same word that both Old and New Testament authors use to describe the process of refining precious metals by fire (Rev. 1:18; 3:18; see also the LXX for Zech. 13:9). Second, Peter’s prophecy of the day of the Lord shares strong parallels with the prophecy in Malachi, where Malachi refers to the coming of the Lord as a “refiner’s fire,” an oven meant to purify gold and silver (Mal. 3:2–3; 4:1).
Bierma draws on scholar Al Wolters’s extensive writing to explain Peter’s fire imagery. Bierma writes
The third chapter of 2 Peter is full of Greek verbs that describe what Wolters calls “a state of intense heat, as when a person is ‘burning’ with fever, or a piece of metal is red hot.” But Peter doesn’t use any words in this chapter that mean “going up in flames,” in Wolters’s words. So there is a lot of burning and melting going on, but not utter annihilation. (44)
In Bierma’s words, Peter sees God’s refining judgment on the earth as being “more like a blacksmith’s fire than an incinerator” (45).
3) When Peter says the earth “will be exposed” (v. 10), he is using a word that he also relates to the process of refining.
Peter says this refining process will occur in three phases: (1) the heavens, (2) the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars), and finally (3) the earth itself (2 Pet. 3:10). While the first two are said to pass away, the earth and it’s works “will be exposed,” or literally “will be found out” (heurisko). Why does Peter use this term? The key, Bierma notes, lies in how Peter uses this word elsewhere. In 3:14, Peter calls his readers to “make every effort to be found [heurisko] spotless, blameless and at peace with him,” and earlier, in 1 Peter 1:7, he says, “These [trials] have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes though refined by fire—may be proved [heurisko] genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (emphasis added). Bierma concludes
What Peter is doing by saying “will be found” and alluding to a refiner’s fire is using a physical process to explain a metaphysical mystery—the awesome purification of the entire universe, including planet earth. Somehow “the entire cosmos,” Wolters says, “is to be refined . . . [and] emerge purified. (45)
The Lord in his coming will not give up on his cosmos. He will come and establish his new creation on earth. Though Satan attempts to corrupt the world to the point of no return, the Lord will come to make “all things new.” (Rev. 21:5). This includes not only the world we live on (Rom. 8:21), but the bodies we live in (1 Cor. 15:52). Let us hope for this day and live according to the promise when
All will be changed.
All will be restored.
For further study, check out Bringing Heaven Down to Earth by Nathan Bierma.
Roger Festa holds a degree in Biblical Languages and Theology. He is a blogger for P&R Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter