The Collapsing Universe in the Bible, Part 5
Today's entry was written by Brian Godawa. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
In the previous post of this series, we saw that the language of a shaking heavens and earth seen in the Bible is a metaphorical means of describing a significant event. Today, in part five, Godawa explains that the “new heavens” and “new earth” described by Peter in the New Testament are likely referring to the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection.
2 Peter 3:10–13
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the elements will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed…
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 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 elements will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10–13)
The interpretation I have presented in this essay is no doubt earth-shattering for some eschatological paradigms about the end times. Such radical departures from the futurist’s received wisdom always beg plenty of questions about other passages and concepts taken for granted by the futurist interpretation.
One of them is the apparently clear description in 2 Peter about the day of the Lord and the passing away of the heavens and the earth replaced by a new heavens and earth. Isn’t that unambiguous language to be taken literally? Well, actually, no. As a matter of fact, orthodox believers have wide-ranging interpretations of this passage, so it is a controversial one to begin with.1
We must remember our dictum to seek to understand the text within its ancient Jewish setting steeped in Old Testament imagery and symbols. I believe when we do this, we will have to conclude that the decreation of the heavens and earth is covenantal metaphor not literal physical scientific observation. Peter writes figuratively about the final ending of the Old Covenant, with God’s judgment on Israel for rejecting Messiah, and the final establishment of his New Covenant as a New World Order, or in their case, a “new heavens and new earth.”
In the beginning of chapter 3, Peter compares the scoffers of his day and their impending judgment with the scoffers of Noah’s day before their judgment. So the judgment is near, and what’s more, these scoffers are in the “last days” which we have already seen were considered the last days of the Old Covenant that the New Testament writers were living within. Those last days would be climaxed by judgment. But what kind of judgment?
Peter references creation of the heavens and earth (red flag about covenants!) and then the destruction of that previous world by water. Scholars have indicated how the flood of Noah is described using terms similar to Genesis 1, as if God is “decreating” the earth because of sin, in order to start over with a new Noahic covenant.2 The ark floated over the chaotic “face of the waters” (Gen 7:17) like God’s spirit hovered over the chaotic face of the waters before creation (Gen 1:2). The dry land recedes from the waters (8:3) just as it was separated in creation (1:9). God makes the same command to Noah to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (9:1) that he gave to Adam and Eve (1:28). So the covenantal connections are loud and clear.
As already noted, the Day of the Lord is always used in the Bible for a localized judgment upon a people, which by way of reminder, Jesus had already prophesied was coming upon Jerusalem to the very generation he spoke to (Matt 23:36-24:2). But what makes some interpreters think this is the final judgment of the universe is the very bad translation of the Greek word stoicheion as “elements” in some English texts. This makes modern readers think of the periodic table of elements as being the most foundational building blocks of the universe. They conclude that the Bible must be talking about the very elements of helium, hydrogen, deuterium and others being burned up and melted!
But this is not what the Greek word means. Though some Greek thinkers believed in the existence of atoms, the common understanding was that there were four basic elements, earth, water, wind, and fire.3 Though someone may conjecture that these could still be considered physical elements that could be destroyed, a simple look at the usage of stoicheion throughout the New Testament shows that the Hebrew usage had nothing to do with Greek primitive scientific notions.
In every place that stoicheion shows up in the New Testament it means elementary principle rudiments of a worldview, sometimes a godless worldview (Col 2:8), but more often the elementary principles of the Old Covenant law described as a “cosmos” (Gal 4:3; 9; Col 2:20; Heb 5:12).4
Remember how the cosmic language of creating heavens and earth was used to describe the cosmic significance of God establishing a covenant? And remember how in the Old Testament, the destruction of covenants, nations, and peoples was described in decreation terms as the collapsing of the universe?
That is the case in these passages as well, with the term “cosmos” being used metaphorically for the “universe” of God’s covenantal order as embodied in the Old Covenant laws of Jewish separation: Circumcision, dietary restrictions and sabbaths. Paul is telling his readers that the stoicheion of the Old Covenant cosmos are no longer over them because the people of God are under new stoicheion, the elementary principles of faith (Gal 4:1-11).
Peter means the same thing. When he says that the heavens will pass away and the stoicheion will be burned up, he is claiming that when the Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, it will be the final passing away of the old covenant cosmos, along with all the elementary principles tied to that physical sacramental structure, the laws that once separated Jew and Gentile. The new cosmos is one in which both Jew and Gentile “by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1Pet 1:5).
As Gary DeMar concludes, “The New Covenant replaces the Old Covenant with new leaders, a new priesthood, new sacraments, a new sacrifice, a new tabernacle (John 1:14), and a new temple (John 2:19; 1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:210). In essence, a new heaven and earth.”5 Eminent Greek scholar John Lightfoot agrees, “The destruction of Jerusalem and the whole Jewish state is described as if the whole frame of this world were to be dissolved.”6
The new heavens and new earth, the dwelling places of righteousness that Peter was waiting for, were the New Covenant cosmos of righteousness by faith inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection. The New Covenant inauguration and implementation were not merely abstract claims of contractual change; it was physically verified that the destruction of the Old Covenant emblem, the Temple, finalized the dissolution of the Old Covenant itself.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house [Temple] is left to you desolate.
Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
1. Bauckham, Richard J. Vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Peter, Jude. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002, p. 315-319.
2. Wenham, Gordon J. Vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002, p. 207.
3. Schreiner, Thomas R. Vol. 37, 1, 2 Peter, Jude. electronic ed. Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2007, p. 384.
4. Leithart, Peter J. The Promise of His Appearing: An Exposition of Second Peter. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2004, p.101. Bauckham argues that “The heavenly bodies (sun, moon and stars) is the interpretation favored by most commentators,” for stoicheion. But then we are right back to the sun, moon, and stars as figurative language of covenantal elements. Bauckham, 2 Peter, Jude, 316. But I doubt this interpretation because the clear words for “heavenly bodies” are not stoicheion, but epouranios soma (1 Cor 15:40-41).
5. Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness, p. 192.
6. Lightfoot, John. Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew – 1 Corinthians, 4 vols. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1859, 1989, 3:454.
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and other feature films. He has written and directed various documentaries on church-state relations, stem cell research and higher education politics. He is the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) and Word Pictures: Knowing God through Story and Imagination (InterVarsity Press). He speaks around the country to churches, high schools and colleges on movies, worldviews and faith. His movie blog can be found at www.hollywoodworldviews.com.