But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
2 Peter 3:10, CSB vs KJV (other translations)
Jon: Peter, I think, talks about “the earth will be destroyed by fire”—something like that?
Tim: He uses images of fire, yes, and things melting. The things that are melting… there’s an interpretative translation challenge there, of whether it’s “elements” or whether it’s “the rebellious angelic hosts of heaven”… Either way, he uses fire imagery to talk about the purifying of Creation.
Jon: Ok. In the Flood narrative with the sign of the rainbow and God’s not going to [destroy all life again by a flood]. If the Flood represents Creation collapsing back on itself, that seems to be the paradigm of, “Start over—let Creation collapse back on itself and I’m going to pull out the remnant and start fresh”, and that’s kind of like: “let everything burn”, “Titanic’s going down”, “rapture people out”, “start afresh”. But it seems like the promise, the sign of the promise, in the Flood story is, “I’m not going to do that!”
Tim: “I won’t ever do that again”. Yes.
Jon: So is that just the end of discussion? That’s not going to happen, God isn’t going to do that.
Tim: Yeah, I think that is what that means. The reason he brings the Flood is that the heart of humans is screwed up all the time. Then the moment Noah get’s off the boat he repeats the same thing! God says, “You know what I know about humans… therefore, I’m never going to do that again.”
Jon: And if it was, “I’m never going to flood the earth again”, it’s kind of like, “Ok, thanks God, but you could burn the earth!” … But the Flood story is not about how God’s going to destroy the earth as much as it’s showing you the collapsing of Creation.
Tim: Yes, correct, that’s right.
Jon: And He’s saying, “I’m not going to do that again” So is it “I’m not going to flood the Earth” or “I’m not going to collapse Creation on itself”?
Tim: Yeah, I think it’s that. So when Peter brings up that narrative, he says, “Remember by the word of God the heavens existed and the Earth was formed out of water by water” [2 Peter 3:5] So the word of God, waters separate from waters, dry land.
“And through it the world was also destroyed—flooded with water.” [v6] God allows the waters to come back over.
“But by His word the present age—the present heavens and the Earth are being reserved for fire—kept for the day of justice for the destruction of…” [v7] I’m not going to finish the sentence but what in your imagination? …
Jon: Destruction of the land?
Tim: Yeah, the cosmos or something. [But] what he says is, “the destruction of the wicked”
Tim: The purifying fire is about the removal of evil, which maps on precisely to the nature of fire imagery in the prophets. God says he’s going to burn Jerusalem so that he can remove the wicked and restore the repentant remnant into the New Jerusalem, which is purified.
Or the best is Zephaniah chapter 3, when it’s like, “I’m going to assemble all nations and pour out my burning wrath and fire on them”, and you’re like, “Oh, no more nations—they’re done for”, and then the next sentence is, “so that they can call upon me with a pure speech”—“pure” being purified. So even the fire imagery is metaphorical.
Therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; for in the fire of my passion all the earth shall be consumed.
At that time I will change the speech of the peoples [the nations] to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.
Zephaniah 3:8-9, NRSV
Jon: It’s not about deescalating Creation into nothingness.
Tim: Then [Peter] goes on later on in the paragraph and talks about the Day of the Lord comes like a thief, the heavens pass away with a roar and then the “something” will be destroyed with heat and the land and all of its works will be… and then there’s a textual variant. One is “burned up”, the other one is “discovered” [“disclosed”], in which case, it’s another melting down to expose what needs to be removed. Like melting down metal so the dross comes up. For me at least, I think the most coherent reading is that the fire imagery is metaphorical because the things that are getting burned up isn’t Creation, it’s evil deeds.
Jon: Whether or not the fire is metaphoric, like is it getting to that this needs to be destroyed or does it need to be remade new?
Tim: Yes, so I think depending on the communication goals of an author. The Apostles will sometimes really want to emphasise the continuity between this age and the new age, and so John will talk about “I am making all things new” and this has the parallel in the resurrection narratives where Jesus is showing them his hands that have the scars and he has a human body, and they can recognise him most of the time. So the same Jesus they hung out with in Galilee is the same that is risen. So the point there is about the continuity and God’s not going to give up—He’s going to redeem this thing—the redemption from slavery imagery—Creation redeemed from slavery and decay.
But then there are other times, especially when the Apostles are focusing on the tragedy and the horror of what humans have done to the place and when they want to emphasise how that won’t be around anymore—God’s going to deal with that—what you find is that they typically use images or metaphors that emphasise discontinuity. So the world as we experience it will be burned.
Jon: “The sky will fade away”.
Tim: Correct. Again none of this is about video camera footage, it’s telling us something about the nature the world as we know it and the nature of the world to come. And there it’s evil won’t be allowed to pass through the Day of the Lord—it will stop and be removed.
My transcript above is of the last 10 minutes of Design Patterns in the Bible Part 4: Chaotic Waters & Baptism by Jon Collins and Tim Mackie (slightly edited for readability). I’m delighted that Tim views divine fire as purifying—eradicating evil deeds rather than evildoers themselves. I think the logical trajectory of this is that only evil will be entirely eradicated forever, which seems to leave no room for eternal conscious torment or annihilationism.