Question: I had always thought that one day the world we live in will be destroyed by fire and we should look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). But I was recently told that the new earth is not another planet but our current one which God will make anew. For this reason we should take care of God’s original creation, especially in the light of its neglect and abuse leading to dire consequences like climate change. What do you think?
The church has a long history of looking forward to another world. Singing songs like “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through” has led to a disregard, even disdain for the present world. We think of it as a burning building about to be utterly destroyed by fire, so we should act to save ourselves rather than the building. But is that what the Bible teaches?
Firstly, when the world was created, God took pride in His creation and called it “very good” (Gen 1:31). When Adam was created, God put him in the Garden of Eden to “work it and take care of it.” (Gen 2:15). That responsibility, with the divine command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28), was given to man and as far as we know has never been rescinded.
Secondly, when God decided to destroy the world with a flood, He did not begin afresh with another world. He left Noah with the same world, and repeated the call to “be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” (Gen 9:7) Whether the “world” is understood as “people” or “planet”, nowhere are we taught in Scriptures that God has abandoned it for another—as a graffiti I once saw put it, “God is alive and well, and working on less ambitious project on other planets.”
On the contrary, the apostle Paul speaks of the “whole creation” groaning and longing to be renewed and restored, while the prophet Isaiah describes the new heavens and new earth with images of animals living at peace with one another, presumably on a planet like our present one (Rom 8:19-22; Isa 65:17-25).
The key passage of Scripture comes from 2 Peter 3:10-13 where we are told that “the elements will melt” and “the earth and everything in it will be burned up”. The traditional reading has given rise to the “burning building” analogy implying the earth’s total annihilation. But several words have challenged scholars over the interpretation of this passage.
Firstly, does the term “elements” mean the components of matter? If so, the earth would be totally obliterated. But the Greek word “stoicheia” could also be translated “elemental spiritual forces”(as in Col 2:8 NIV); if so, it would be these forces, not the physical world, that would be abolished.
Secondly, the word translated “burned up” (KJV) has an alternative rendering translated “laid bare” (NIV) as when farmers burn the remains of a harvest to prepare the land for the next crop. The fire consumes the old to make way for the new but the land remains the same. This interpretation appears to be supported by the word “new” used to describe the coming heaven and earth.
Theologian Anthony Hoekema makes a distinction between the two words used for “new” in Greek: “The word neos means new in time and origin, whereas the word kainos means new in nature or in quality.” Since Peter uses kainos here, what he teaches is “not the emergence of a cosmos totally other than the present one, but the creation of a universe which, though it has been gloriously renewed, stands in continuity with the present one.” (The Bible and the Future, Eerdmans, 1979, page 280)
Scholars are not unanimous on this line of interpretation though it serves well those advocating care for our planet. Perhaps, a better approach in arguing the case is to appeal to metallurgy where fire does not destroy as much as purify (as in Mal 3:2-3). As Peter speaks of a world cleansed by water (of the flood) from unrighteousness (2 Pet 3:6), so he speaks of it as purified by fire from ungodliness. In each case, God restores what he has created.
If God has not given up on our world or our planet, though both are suffering from the effects of sin, what should be our attitude towards this world? True, it is not our home for now and we are just passing through. But while we are here, we are called to assume responsibility for it which means everything from faithfully preaching the good news to all creation (Mk 16:15) to faithfully stewarding its resources for future generations.
If God has not given up on our world or our planet, though both are suffering from the effects of sin, what should be our attitude towards this world?
While the commission by our Lord Jesus to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:18-20) remains our primary mission, the commission by our Creator God to take care of His creation should not be set aside. Rather, an integral part of making and living as Jesus’ disciples involves loving our neighbours and caring for our global neighbourhood.
A pastor who loves people and nature, David W F Wong has witnessed natural beauty in more than 40 countries. He and his wife recently returned from Norwegian fjords, Mongolian steppes and the Zambezi river.
The above article first appeared in the 'Faith Seeks Understanding' column of our Feb-Mar 2020 publication. If you wish to read more of such articles, consider getting an eBook entitled 'Finding DIRECTIONS, Navigating LIFE'.
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