Will the current heavens and earth be destroyed in order to make way for the new heavens and earth?

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Second Peter 3 verses 3 through 13 is certainly a text that Christians have traditionally gone to on this question. And at first glance, you know, Peter is using a very vivid string of terms to speak about the Day of the Lord, the coming of the new heavens and new earth, and it's been very typical for Christians to go to a text like this, especially from the King James reading of, say, verse 10: "This world will burn up; it will be consumed in fire; it will be destroyed." Sound biblical exegesis, however, in the last number of years has pointed out, and I think convincingly, that the language that Peter actually uses here is not destruction language, but is purgation language. The best manuscripts, instead of using for consumed with fire instead of using a term that comes from a verb meaning to consume, it actually comes from a verb meaning to establish or to find, and it does create the idea of purgation. Interestingly, and importantly, we miss the context of what's going on here. If you skip to verse 10 you get this, again, this very vivid picture. But before that, Peter talks about the Noahic deluge. What we really have here is this world will be destroyed as Noah's world was destroyed. So we really have the picture of three worlds here: Noah's world before the flood, the world that came after the flood, and the world that will come after the return of the Lord. And these three worlds are distinguished by two catastrophic events: the flood and the destruction by fire. But God's only created his world once, and it's still here, so the Noahic flood did not destroy the world, it purged it, it cleansed it. And the language of purgation is actually fairly common in Scripture. It's there in Malachi to speak about the world to come. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians to speak in this way. And I think on balance, then, just within the text itself, on the analogy of the Noahic flood, God is not going to destroy his world and replace it with some other world, he is going to cleanse it. Now, a radical cleansing that will be; it's not simply going to come and pick up the trash, but it will not be a complete destruction.

Answer by Dr. Michael D. Williams

Michael Williams is the Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, where he has been teaching since 1996.