Is God Going to Go All Death Star on the Earth When Jesus Returns?

Via Google Images

A common view I often encounter is that God is going to completely obliterate the entire physical universe at Christ’s return and basically just start over. It always reminds me of Darth Vader destroying Alderaan in Episode IV.

Alderaan Destroyed

The text most often used in these encounters is 2 Peter 3:1-13, which says this:

3 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you,[a] not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies[b] will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.[c]

11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12  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 heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

The common assumption is that the language in this text about “burning” and “dissolving” and “passing away” means that the physical world will be completely annihilated. There are a number of reasons, though, why I doubt this is the meaning of the passage.

  1.  The meaning of the word “pass away” – In the New Testament, the verb used for the phrase “pass away” in 2 Peter 3 takes on a number of different meanings.
    1. Concerning Heaven and Earth
      1. Matt. 5:18 – “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”
      2. Matt. 24: 34, 35; Mark 13:30, 31; Luke 21:32, 33 – “this generation will not pass away before these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”
      3. Luke 16:17 – “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void”
    2. Generic sense of walking, going, or coming – Matt. 8:28; 14:15; Mark 6:48; 14:35;  Luke 12:37; 17:7; 18:37; Acts 16:8
    3. Generic sense of time passing – Acts 27:9; 1 Peter 4:3
    4. Neglect or disobedience of a command – Luke 11:42; 15:29
    5. Jesus prior to arrest, “let this cup pass from me”  – 26:39, 42
    6. Mortality of human beings  – James 1:10
    7. Referring to our salvation – 2 Cor. 5:17
  2. Notice that Matt. 24:34, 35 and parallels and 2 Cor. 5:17 seem to indicate that at least part of the “passing away” has already taken place. In other words, this “passing away” in at least those verses is not obliteration but simply the removal of the old and replacement of it with the new.
  3. Use of “melt” and “burn up” metaphor elsewhere in the NT – In at least two places in the NT, fire is used not as an agent of annihilation but as an agent of refining, sifting, and perfecting (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 1 Peter 1:3-9; cf. also James 1, esp. 2-4, for similar language about testing but without explicit use of the fire metaphor).
    Additionally, I cannot think of a place in the NT where fire is explicitly used for annihilation or obliteration.
  4. In the context of 2 Peter 3, perhaps the most important point is that Peter compares this coming judgment by fire with the historical judgment by water in Noah’s flood. The earth was not obliterated during that judgment, but was purged of sin. Peter’s parallel with Noah’s flood points to the fact that they are similar in effect although not in means. The difference noted by Peter is between the different means of water and fire, not between the ultimate effects of either judgment.
  5. Corroborating Evidence
    1. A view of God’s creation as “good” – God creates the world as good, and connects his image-bearers to it by giving them the task of caring for it in the Garden. He does curse it because of Adam’s sin, but it is also clear that the Abrahamic covenant is a reversal of not only the spiritual effects of Adam’s sin but the physical effects of it on the land as well (Gen. 12:1-3; cf. James Hamilton, “The Skull Crushing Seed of Woman and the Promises to Abraham”; Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15). In other words, God cares about his creation – all of it. The obliteration of it would be contrary to his creational and redemptive purposes.
    2. Revelation 21 – The word “new” in Rev. 21:1 is kainos, and denotes restoration, renewal, and freshness, not total “otherness” or distinctness from what came previously. Additionally, the imagery of Revelation 21 and 22 is full of images from the physical creation – a city, streets, gates, walls, rivers, trees, leaves, fruit, etc.

The metaphor of fire, combined with the historical parallel of the purging Noahic flood, a sacramental worldview, and an understanding of John’s use of “new” and creation imagery in Revelation 21-22 points to this coming judgment of fire as a purging judgment, not an annihilating one. It’s purpose is to purge the physical world of the effects of the curse so that God can dwell with his people on it, not to obliterate it completely and start over.

So, God isn’t going to go all Death Star on the Universe. At least not in my opinion.

 

Beale’s Method

Picture from Amazon.com

I’m currently reading through G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology and it is phenomenal. I’ve always loved Beale’s work, particularly because he is one of the few scholars I know that can weave biblical studies and theology together almost seamlessly. He is, in my opinion, the epitome of a biblical theologian. It’s no surprise to me, then, that I love every page I read out of this book.

One thing, though, that I find the most commonality with in Beale’s work is his consistent method. In both The Temple and the Church’s Mission and We Are What We Worship, Beale demonstrates an ability to both see the big picture of the entire Bible and exegete particular texts in their original context. He thus can study the individual trees without losing sight of the forest. Just as importantly, he can look at the whole forest without forgetting it is made up of individual trees.

Beale articulates this method in the following way in his new book (p. 15):

. . . I categorize my biblical-theological approach to be canonical, genetic-progressive (or organically developmental, as a flower develops from a seed and bud), exegetical, and intertextual. This approach could be summarized as a ‘biblical-theological-oriented exegesis.’

What I’ve seen from Beale in previous works is still here (canonical, exegetical, and intertextual), but the genetic-progressive element, while not new to him, is most explicitly articulated and applied here. This to me is an especially helpful addition, both for constructive use in my own understanding and application of biblical theology and also negatively as a counter to the way “progressive revelation” is sometimes articulated. Often I hear proponents of “progressive revelation” arguing that we can only understand texts like Gen. 3:15 as Adam and Eve (or more properly Israel on the plains of Moab) or other original hearers would have heard them. For Gen. 3:15, then, we cannot teach or preach it with the fullness that we might preach Romans 1-5 in terms of the robustness of the gospel. But what Beale is arguing is that although Gen. 3:15 does not explicitly relate the entire gospel, it is like a seed of a flower that will eventually blossom into, and thus implicitly contains, the entire gospel.

Like the rest of the book, I find that particularly helpful.

Monday Mail: Porter and Westfall

I received a copy of Empire in the New Testament, edited by Stanley Porter and Cynthia Westfall, in the mail today for review. I’m excited about this for a number of reasons, among them being that I’m always challenged by Porter’s projects. But after perusing the table of contents, I’m even more ready to dive in to this volume.

The book is organized in a biblical-theological fashion. Each chapter discusses the theme of empire in a particular book or corpus in the New Testament, and these chapters are arranged in canonical order (with the exception of Luke and Acts being combined). There are also two preliminary chapters on empire in the OT, specifically in the life of David and in Isaiah, as well as two concluding ones on Jewish and early church interpretation, which I find very intriguing. This tells me that in a book titled Empire in the New Testament, the editors think it important to include OT and history of interpretation material. In my personal opinion, NT studies so often falters by not paying enough attention to the OT background of NT texts and themes, and so I am glad to see Porter and Westfall at least make the effort to include this vital aspect in their volume. (History of interpretation is pretty important, too.)

We’ll see how I like the rest of the book after I make it past the ToC. 🙂

Teaching the New Testament

One of the classes I’ll teach this fall at CBU is NT Survey. As I’m prepping for this class, it’s interesting to see how many NT Introductions and Theologies approach teaching through the NT in different ways. Specifically, there are a variety of approaches when it comes to ordering the material. You can find an NT Introduction or Theology organized in a way that mirrors the canonical order of the NT, while others might be organized based off some other criteria like date of the books or common authorship. For instance, NT Introductions are commonly organized in a  way that follows the NT canon’s order. Carson and Moo’s Introduction to the New Testament, Guthrie’s NT Introduction, and Elwell and Yarbrough’s Encountering the New Testament all follow the canonical order in their NT Introductions. The exception for Elwell and Yarbrough comes in combining Colossians and Philemon, a standard practice in commentaries, and this is seen also in Green, Achtemeier, and Thompson’s NT Intro. In addition, Green et al combine 2 Peter and Jude, which is again a fairly standard practice in the commentaries. This mirroring of the canonical order, with slight exceptions, is seen in most NT Intros.

That fairly uniform pattern changes with NT Theologies. Frank Thielman’s NT Theology discusses each book of the NT in separate chapters, but these chapters are arranged through consideration of date and common authorship. Tom Schreiner, on the other hand, organizes his NT Theology based on theological themes and then walks through parts or all of the NT canon when discussing those themes. Donald Guthrie follows a similar pattern in that he organizes around themes and then shows where and how those themes are discussed in the NT, but this latter part is ordered in the following manner – The Synoptic Gospels, The Johannine Literature, Acts, Paul, Hebrews, The Rest of the NT. There is some semblance of canonical order here, but the Johannine literature is thrown together and “The Rest of the New Testament” as a category seems to ignore the uniqueness of each of the Catholic Epistles. George Ladd’s NT Theology is one of the few that not only follows the NT order consistently but also uses it as his organizational scheme. Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, although a whole Bible theology and not just an NT theology, follows the canonical order as well.

Why do we find such a uniformed organization in NT Intros while there is almost no end to different approaches to NT theologies?

Perhaps more importantly, what difference does it make whether one organizes based on the canonical order or based on some other criteria (date, authorship, theological themes, etc.)?

I know how I’d answer these questions, but I’d like to hear your thoughts first. What do you think?