The End: Flaming Garbage or New Creation? Part 2

As said in the previous post, contemporary apocalypticism is more a product of American consumer culture than of sound biblical or theological thought.  Yet this doesn’t mean that scripture hasn’t been twisted to support the view that God created the earth for planned obsolescence.  As a case study, let’s look at one passage that has been used to support such a view, 2 Peter 3:10: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (NASB).  It seems like a pretty straightforward prooftext for the idea that the earth turns into flaming garbage at the end of time. 

But the interpretative problem here comes on two levels.  First, when we read the word “elements” from our modern scientifically-informed perspective, we think of elements like we find on the periodic table.  The Greek word behind this, though, is broader.  It’s stoicheion. In some parts of ancient Greek, the word refers to the four elements, “earth, air, fire, and water”.  In the seventh-century Bede apparently accepted this meaning, but explained it away: “There are four elements, earth, air, fire and water, all of which will be swept away by a great fire.  Yet that fire will not devour them all but only two of them (fire and water), for there will be a new heaven and a new earth after this destruction has passed” (Ibid.)   Elsewhere, the word means stars, which here would be supported by verse 12.  Still elsewhere, it has the connotation spirits, or supernatural beings (i.e. demonic or angelic powers).  The last meaning is most likely that intended by Paul in Colossians 2:8 and 20, and is possibly present also in Galatians 4:3 and 9.   But scholars are divided about what it means in 2 Peter 3:10.  Some lean towards stars (Charles Bigg, ICC; also the translators of the ESV).  Others toward the supernatural powers.  Others note that stars were often associated with supernatural spirits, angelic powers presiding over nature (Bauckham, Word).  This would imply that both the stars and the spirits associated with them are destroyed.  The text of 2 Peter itself may be inconclusive, but in light of verses like Revelation 20:10 and 21:23, I certainly lean toward the latter option, reading it as a reference to the end of celestial bodies and the spirits associated with them.

Second, the NASB’s use of “burned up” at the end of the verse is based on a mistake in the Greek text.  When scribes copied the text of the NT throughout history, they sometimes made mistakes or “corrections”, some as simple as transposing a letter or two, some as big as intentional replacements of words.  This verse is an example of the latter.  At some point, a scribe inserted the word katakaesetai here, which means “will be burned.”  [Excursus on Text Criticism: Skip this part if you don’t care about it. One method scholars use to decide which text is closer to the original involves comparing the variants and thinking about which would logically arise through simple scribal mistakes.  For example, if I write “The dog chased the cat” and someone later slips and changes it to “the dog chased the cut”, we can tell which is more likely the original.  Here, katakaesetai isn’t even similar to the other variants.  It would be like having “The dog chased the cat”, “The dog chased the cut”, and “The dog chased the rock”, and trying to choose the original.  In this case, there are at least eight other versions of this verse, but none would logically derive from katakaesetai.]

Scholars now think that eurethesetai is the version most likely to be the original.  And what does that mean?  It’s from the same root that gave us the word “Eureka!”  It means made to be “found” or “discovered”.  Hence the NRSV’s translation, “the earth and everything done on it will be disclosed”, or the ESV’s, “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”

So add this up, and 2 Peter 3:10 gives a picture not of the earth being burned up, but of the “heavenly bodies” and “elemental spirits” being destroyed and the earth and the works of humanity being discovered, or revealed – ready for God’s reign to come.  2 Peter 3:11-13 continue a description of the end of the world, but these verses are consistent with the above interpretation.  Verse 12 says the “heavens (ouranoi) will be set on fire” and repeats that the stoicheia will be burned.  Then, verse 13 finally gets to the point: “we wait for a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness is at home” (NRSV).  The end result is new, tangible creation. 

Beautifully, this ties back to the theme of resurrection, now applied to all of creation, not just human bodies.  As  the seventh-century monk Andreas said, “It is not just we, says Peter, but the whole creation around us also, which will be changed for the better.  For the creation will share in our glory just as it has been subjected to destruction and corruption because of us.  Either way it shares our fate” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol XI, p. 160).

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