The Elements Shall Melt
The vivid passage in 2 Peter 3 comparing the watery end of the world that existed before the Flood with the fiery climax to this Age which ushers in the Millennium has often led to the assertion that since it was literal water which ended that world it must be equally literal fire which ends this. The apparent logic of this argument has given rise to an insistence by some that the Second Advent of our Lord at the end of this Age is to be accompanied by the total destruction of this planet and everything on it in a holocaust of fire. The fact that nuclear warfare could very easily produce just that effect has given a kind of boost to this belief in modern times and forms the subject of many a sermon and tract in the endeavour to persuade the unregenerate to flee from the wrath to come. It is usually pointed out that Christians will escape all this, having been taken to Heaven before it happens, which is comforting to the Christians but not to anybody else.
Nevertheless, the passage in Peter stands, and what he really does say needs to be critically examined. It must be remembered that this is the same Peter who thirty years or so previously had spoken of the Age ending by the coming of Christ to inaugurate the Times of Restoration of all things, those times spoken of by all the holy prophets of the past, those times which are generally known as the Millennium, during which Christ will reign over the nations upon earth for the elimination of sin and their eternal blessing. From the practical point of view, if the earth is going to be reduced to a radio-active cinder, destitute of all life, it is going to be many thousands of years before the Lord can commence His Millennial reign. The glowing prophecies of Israel's restoration and deliverance from all enemies, their acceptance of their Divine King and commission to be ambassadors to the nations, will have no meaning in a world destitute of life. For this reason if for no other, it is necessary to look at Peter's words more closely than is usually done.
Let us look at what Peter says in 2 Peter 3.5‑13. Firstly, notice that in vv 5‑6 when talking about the first world and its ending at the Flood, Peter is quoting history. In vv 7-13 when talking about the end of the second world and the coming in of the third, he is quoting prophecy. These are two different things. The second thing to do is try to look at the matter through Peter's eyes while he was writing the words. He did not have the benefit of our modern knowledge of the earth and the universe; his theological knowledge was inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit but his scientific knowledge was necessarily limited to that of his own day, as indeed is ours at this present time. In our own time many older astronomical beliefs have been overturned. So Peter's background is that of the best scientists of his own day. It was believed then, as it had been for centuries, that the earth was a land mass surrounded: by ocean, the whole forming a sphere floating in water completely enclosed by a solid transparent shell, the heavens. On the surface was the abode of the gods, or of God, according to pagan or Jewish theology respectively. In the centre of the earth, below Hades ‑ the grave, there existed a region of fire which the Greeks called Tartarus. Here were imprisoned the sinners who had rebelled against God in former times. This became the source of the fiery Hell of early Christian theology. Peter, like others of his generation, must have accepted this as the general thought of his day and in fact in this same epistle, (2.4) he tells us that the rebellious angels of Noah's day are confined in Tartarus (Hell in the A.V.) to await judgment. His reference to the earth standing out of the water and in the water is therefore an allusion to this belief. In fact Psa.24.2 and 136.6 both allude to the same idea.
But Peter does not say that the earth was destroyed. What he does say is that the order of things upon it, the kosmos, the world that then existed, was overflowed with water and perished. What we would call the world of man was swept away by the Flood. All the works of man, all they had done and built up during the antediluvian era, all their attainments and achievements, their entire system and social order, founded as it was upon evil and lawlessness, was blotted out by the Flood. That world came to an end and after it was all over God made a fresh start with what was then a "new heavens and a new earth" and is now "the heavens and earth which now are" (v.7) doomed to a similar destruction and for the same reason. But the planet itself was not destroyed nor even unduly damaged. When Noah and his sons came out of the Ark after it was all over, they were able to pick up the threads of life and start planting and building. The earth itself remained intact; it was the world of man which passed away and was superseded by a better.
Now Peter turns his attention to prophecy. Just as truly as the old world order was brought to an end by the Flood in history, he says, so will the present world order be brought to an end by the fires of the Day of the Lord and so make way for the new world order of the Millennium. Peter does not say that the earth itself is going to be destroyed by fire; what he does say is that the heavens and the earth, which are now, the existing social order elsewhere called "this present evil world", have been kept in store, reserved for the fires of the Day of the Lord. The "new heavens and earth, wherein dwells righteousness" constitute the new social order of the next Age, but still on this literal planet earth. To claim that this destroying fire is literal involves an equivalent claim that the Devil and all not found written in the Book of Life are cast into literal fire (Rev.20.10,15)
This leads to the implication of vv.10 & 12. The "elements shall melt with fervent heat" and "the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up". The word "elements" (stoicheia) signifies the elements of knowledge, first beginnings, principles, rudiments. In the science of physics it meant to the Greeks the primary constituents of matter and they claimed that the whole of creation was built up from four primary elements ‑ earth, air, fire and water. Of these everything consisted. Now if Peter intended this very literal meaning to his words, he would have been saying that not only the earth, but the sun and moon, planets and stars and heaven itself, the abode of God and the angels, would be dissolved together. In Peter's day it was believed that heaven was a solid shell enclosing the earth with the heavenly bodies including the stars circling between the two. Peter obviously did not mean this; clearly his use of "heavens" and "earth" in this verse corresponds with that in vv.7,10 & 13, in which the heavens denote the higher celestial ruling powers and the earth the terrestrial order of things. In the case of "this present evil world" those higher powers, the heavens, are Satan and his hosts, the "god of this world" of 2 Cor. 4.4, and this gives a clue to Peter's use of the fiery metaphor.
Tartarus, the fiery region below the earth, was the place where all evil and evil-doers were finally to be destroyed. The fires would burn until there was nothing left to burn. So it is with the end of this world-age. The world of man enters into judgment with God, not for their irrevocable doom without opportunity to repent, but for the destruction of the evil of this world so that they do have an opportunity to repent. So Peter pictures the swallowing up of every element of evil in this present world in 'Tartarus', the coming of a new heavens and earth, the celestial sovereignty of Christ, with his Church and a terrestrial kingdom of righteousness. The earth itself will become fertile like Eden and mankind learn of the ways of God, with no longer the Devil to deceive and ensnare.
An allusion to this ancient belief in Tartarus is found in Deut. 32.22. where the Lord says, in connection with His coming judgments upon Israel's apostasy "a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell (the later Greek Tartarus) and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains". The Lord did not mean that He was going to burn up the literal earth at that time, and neither did Peter later on.
The final clause in v.10 "the earth and the works therein shall be burned up" is the subject of a textual corruption which was unknown to the translators of the AV. Earlier manuscripts not available to them show that the word they rendered "burned up" is one meaning to "lay bare, to discover or uncover, to reveal". Hence most modern translators have one of these words in their renderings. The meaning is clearly that the fires of the end of the Age will reveal the evils of this world and all the works of man. The "hidden works of darkness" will be laid open for all men to see. The Devil will be bound, that he may deceive the nations no more (Rev. 20.3) and the wreckage of this "present evil world" exposed and cleared away ready for the rebuilding and renovating processes which are to follow.
Thus the inspired Apostle clothed his description of the coming end of this Age in the imagery of the Old Testament, picturing the fires of God's judgments bringing to an end the edifice of evil men have erected during the thousands of years past, and clearing the ground for commencement of Messiah's reign, the Millennial administration of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The fires of 2 Peter 3 are metaphorical not literal, and when they have done their work and are over, the earth will still be here with multitudes waiting to welcome their King. "It shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God. We have waited for him, and He will save us"