The Christian and Creation, Chapter 6: The Destruction of the Present World

In our study thus far, we have focused mainly on the continuance of the present world with the future, eternal world within the redemption of creation. That is, at the return of Jesus and the resurrection of dead, the present created order will share in the same redemption and transformation that the bodies of the saints will experience; one in which we put on immortality and imperishability (Rom. 8:18-23; Phil. 3:21).

Yet our insistence on the continuation of the present world doesn’t negate its passing away/destruction. In fact, without integrating the destruction of the present, perishable order into our “eschatological equation” we ignore key passages and thus weaken our position. Scripture presents both a continuation and a radical discontinuation. Our present, perishable bodies will be transformed at the resurrection into our future glorified bodies and the present cosmos will give rise to the future one. We see this transition within a variety of passages found in 2 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation.

The Rise of the New World

In 2 Peter 3, the apostle addresses the mentality of the scoffer who operates from a position of uniformitarianism (the world is a closed system, and things will always be as they have been):

“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” (v. 2-3).

Notice that the discussion focuses on the “creation” (i.e. the natural world and the kingdoms that rule there). This helps to frame the context as we move forward in the discussion. The scoffers, by their accusations, confirm what the “coming” of Jesus will entail: a radical change in the creative order. Yet the scoffers deny that any such change has—or will ever—occur. Peter critiques this arrogant assumption by presenting a undeniable, historical event: the Flood.

“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” (v. 5-6).

Their confident affirmation of the unchanging, undaunted, natural order is rejected in view of the Noahic Flood. Creation hadn’t always continued as it was; there had, in the past, been a radical act of divine judgment which dramatically altered the world itself. The scoffers are deliberately ignorant of this fact (they “suppress the truth in their unrighteousness” Rom. 1: 18). This isn’t surprising, seeing that the purpose of the flood was the destruction of the ungodly (v. 7). The rejection of a future judgment, and an unchanged natural order, is a comforting thought to the person living in rebellion to God’s will.

What’s important to note is that Peter says the old world “perished.” This past destruction of the pre-flood world gave rise to a new world:

“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.” (v. 7)

The concept of the world is defined for us in the context: it is creation and the earth. This pre-flood world was destroyed—but not annihilated. It perished in some ways but persisted in others. The earth was changed after the flood—weather conditions, animal life, and the world as was known being dramatically altered by the cataclysmic outpouring of God’s wrath. From this act of divine judgment came the present heavens and earth (“that now exist”) which await a similar destruction.

Contextually, the Noahic Flood should frame our understanding of what Peter means when he says “perished” and “destroyed.” The past heavens and earth were destroyed—but not annihilated—by a divine act of judgment, giving way to the present heavens and earth which will one day be destroyed—but not annihilated—producing the “new heavens and new earth” (v. 13). We might refer to this as a loss of “well-being” not of “being.” In fact, this is how Vine’s defines the word “destruction” in verse 7. We see this use in Matthew 10:28 when Jesus says that “both body and soul will be destroyed in hell.” Since we believe that hell is eternal, conscience torment of the individual, Jesus can’t mean that a person will be annihilated or cease to exist. Instead, Jesus teaches that the person will experience a radical undoing and destruction of their well-being in hell.

Peter goes on to describe this radical undoing of the present world in verses 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 heavenly bodies 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 heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

Just as The Flood was focused on the destruction of the ungodly, so too this future flood of fire focuses on God’s outpouring of wrath on the wicked in order to create a place “in which righteousness dwells.” This language of creation melting at the judging presence of God is a familiar one (Mic. 1:3-4; Nah. 1:4-5). While past acts of judgment were highly metaphorical, they all seemed to point to an event that was quite literal in the future; one in which the earth would be turned into a “lake of liquid fire” (Campbell, The Christian System) and be reconstituted into an eternal, unperishable, and glorified state. While there is a textual variant in verse 10 (destroyed in KJV or “exposed” in ESV) it matters little as to which you hold. God will expose the evil in the world and destroy the present creation in an act of cosmic, divine judgment—just as he did within the flood, giving rise to the new world in which the heavenly realm and the earthly realm are reunited once again.

Peter’s entire point is to move the reader to hope in a new cosmos in which only the righteous and godly well (2 Pet. 3:13); this, he says, is “according to his promise.” What promise is Peter referencing? The only one that makes sense contextually is the promise of God creating a new heaven and a new earth in Isaiah 65:17-25. While we won’t spend time in this ancient prophecy, we will note that it was fulfilled within the work of Jesus and will be culminated in his return. While some may attempt to limit this exclusively to the coming of the church, by the time Peter writes his epistle, the church was established for many years and yet still looked to the future for this hope. It would seem obvious that, while the church certainly begins the work of restoration, it isn’t yet fully realized (as noted here).

The Heavenly Country

The book of Hebrews primarily focuses on the discontinuity between this present age and the future one. This makes sense, as the writer is concerned with disciples returning to Judaism, or as he puts it, the “shadows” of the greater reality discovered in Jesus (Heb. 10:1). Thus, the author is interested in displaying the radical change that has occurred within the New Covenant of Christ in contrast to the Old. The promises of God—of redemption, justification, sanctification, and hope—aren’t realized in this perishable world, but in what Jesus is presently doing in heaven and will do when he returns.

This theme of discontinuance influences Hebrew’s perspective on the present world as well: it isn’t about what is, but about what will be. At the same time, the writers recognizes (as we will see) that we presently have entered the heavenly realm to an extent, waiting to enjoy the fullness of blessings at the return of Jesus.

We witness this first in Hebrews 1:10-12:

And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”

In our previous point we discussed how the meaning of perish or destruction, “is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of wellbeing” (Vines); thus, what Hebrews contends about the present world aligns with Peter’s. Interestingly, the text also argues that the “like a garment they will be changed.” The word “changed” according to Vines means,

“To make other than it is (from allos, “another”), ‘to transform, change,’ is used (a) of the effect of the gospel upon the precepts of the Law, Acts 6:14; (b) of the effect, on the body of a believer, of Christ’s return, 1 Cor. 15:51-52; (c) of the final renewal of the material creation, Heb. 1:12.”

Here we see the framework we have set forth affirmed: at the return of Jesus, God will pour out his wrath on the ungodly, destroying the present world and transforming it into a new habitation for the righteous. There will be a continuation (changed), and a discontinuation (perish), of the present world.

Reese, in his commentary on Hebrews writes, “The Bible teaches the renovation of the universe, not its annihilation. Clearly the final transformation of all things is in mind (Isa. 66:22; Rev. 6:14; 21:2). The universe that seems so solid and permanent will be rolled up, changed, and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth.”[1]

In chapter 11, while discussing past figures of faith, the writer informs us of their true focus/desire:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (13-16).

Again, we see Hebrews highlighting the discontinuity with this present life and the one to come. Yet, while this highlights how our hope is in heaven, it doesn’t reject an understanding of creation’s participation in the future world. As we discussed in a previous article, our hope isn’t in this present world, body, or life—our hope is in heaven (Col. 3:1-3). We are simply pilgrims and sojourners in this present world as we look for the one to come. If we place our hope in this world, filled with violence and sin, we are destined to pass away just like it (1 John 2:15-17). Yet, if we place our hope in God’s eternal city (the city, by the way, that is descending from heaven in Rev. 21: 1-2) we will inherit the new world.

Interestingly, this scripture is placed within the context of Abraham. I would argue that this should shape our understanding of what the text means when it says we are “sojourners” or “pilgrims.” Notice v. 8-10:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

Abraham was a sojourner—not because he believed God’s promise had nothing to do with inheriting the earth—but because he knew he wouldn’t inherit this present one. The idea behind Abraham’s pilgrimage was that he was temporarily wandering in the land that would one day be the inheritance of his progeny. His sojourning didn’t disconnect him from the world entirely, but rather forced him to trust in the God who would one day give it to him by his power, rather than Abraham taking it by his own efforts. This is a rich and beautiful concept within the Bible and one which I wish we had more time to develop but suffice to say that the concept of pilgrimage—in the Abrahamic sense—helps to further solidify, rather than diminish, the biblical teaching of a redeemed creation. We too, as Abraham was, are pilgrims in a world which we one day will inherit—one granted by God’s power and not our own.

Finally, in Hebrews 12:25-27 we read,

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.”

The main point in this verse is that “all things that have been made” will be “shaken” or “removed” in order that what “cannot be shaken may remain.” Before we offer a possible explanation for this text, notice that the writer defines the shakable things as “things that have been made” which are to be removed. Yet, if we take this in a strictly literal sense, then it would mean our annihilation as well. Since we are created/made beings, we too would be destroyed. Since that is the case, the Hebrews writer appears to mean something other than the complete annihilation of the created cosmos.

The best explanation of this text that I have discovered is offered by Robert Milligan in his commentary on Hebrews in the Gospel Advocate collection:

“The apostle now explains what is meant by the phrase, Yet once more. That is, since there is to be but one more shaking of all things, it is implied in this phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ that the shaking will continue until all things perishable shall be removed; so that nothing will remain but what is eternal and immutable. It will continue therefore until Judaism and all false systems of religion and philosophy are taken out of the way; until the kingdoms of the world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15); and until the heavens and earth which are shall be transformed into new heavens and a new earth, wherein nothing but righteousness will forever dwell. For Christ came not merely to remove the shadows of the Old Economy, and destroy the works of Satan (2:14), and to establish a kingdom which will endure forever (2 Pet. 1:11). And consequently, he must reign and shake the world until his mission shall be fully accomplished (1 Cor. 15:24-25).”[2]

A New Heavens, and a New Earth

 We now come to our final section, the last hope offered to the church as it lives within the tension between the world that is and the world to come. In the Revelation John offers the persecuted church hope, victory, and glory over the present powers that view it with contempt. While Revelation is filled with images and apocalyptic language, we must not lose sight of the fact that it offers a clear message meant to be understood and interpreted by the church. Because of this, there are moments of clarity—specifically in the worship scenes—where we grasp the full vision of what God is accomplishing in and for his people. Notice, for example, Revelation 5:9-10:

And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’

Within this song of redemption, we witness key elements of the narrative we have discussed so far: God has redeemed all nations, making them his present kingdom, in order that they might reign on earth. The story then comes full circle: what God intended in the beginning, that humanity would reign as his co-regents on earth as his image bearers, is set right once again through the work of Jesus. The meek will inherit the earth, and the restoration of all things will occur.

This language, and this imagery, is witnessed in the depiction of the new cosmos in Revelation 21:1-5:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also, he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

All of the elements we have discussed thus far culminate within this final picture of glory. The past cosmos perishes, giving rise to the new world; the city of God descends to be with his people in this new creation; heaven and earth are united, once again, and God’s presence brings healing and restoration. Interestingly, the Lord’s words sum everything up, “Behold, I am making all things new.” As I wrote in a previous article, “all things” is a reference to the entire created order (Col. 1:15-20). As Eldredge notes, God doesn’t say, “I will make all new things” but rather, “I will make all things new.”[3]

This is the promise our God has made—a promise that is trustworthy and true.

Conclusion

This marks the conclusion of my series on the Christian and creation. It is far from perfect, and I imagine that, as time passes, I will refine it to better articulate my position. I hope that is has been helpful to you. As I mentioned at the beginning of the series, my desire isn’t to divide or disrupt your faith, but simply to offer what I see as the best synthesis of the biblical data on this subject. I respect your dissenting opinions, realizing that you may still not understand or agree with my position; I pray it isn’t due to my inability in conveying it accurately.

In the end, our hope is in God: to be with him and with the redeemed of every age, ethnicity, and nation for eternity. While the place may play a part in our final inheritance, the Lord is our treasure. His presence and promises are what infuse us with hope as his people. We long for a new world; a place free from sin, suffering, and hardship. We hope for a better tomorrow—one that will one day be granted by the power of our Savior. I long for that day, and I hope you do as well. We may disagree on minor issues until we arrive, but I doubt we will care when we finally enter the glory of our God.

I leave you with this final thought: while I feel we have enough Biblical evidence to discuss this issue with a degree of certainty, we dare not assume that our knowledge of the future state is exhaustive or above critique. As I have written in another article we must at times be content to stand in awe of mystery. How is it that God can both destroy and redeem the present world? How is it that our bodies can perish, and yet subsequently be reconstituted and resurrected to glory? I’ll leave with you the words of our beloved brother Paul: “Behold! I tell you a mystery…” (1 Cor. 15:51).

 

 

[1] Gareth L. Reese, New Testament Epistles: Hebrews, Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books, 1992: 15.

[2] Robert Milligan, A Commentary on The Epistle to the Hebrews, Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1984: 474.

[3] John Eldredge, All Things New: Heaven, Earth, and the Restoration of Everything you Love, Nashville: Harper Collins, 2017.

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