The fire that melts – conclusions from 2 Peter 3

Posted: May 20, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

Two conclusions from this study:

1. Peter does not envisage the annihilation and replacement of the creation. He envisages its release and purification by the fires of judgement, similar to its cleansing by the waters of the flood. Peter, like Jesus and Paul, has no cosmic death wish. Wherever the Christian tradition got this from, it wasn’t from Peter.

2. In this passage, Peter aligns his eschatology consciously with that of Jesus and his apostles, esp. Paul, that of the prophets, and with the gospel story itself. At its heart, the gospel has a Saviour whose body is not abandoned to destruction but raised back to life. The tomb was empty! In the rest of the NT, as we’ve seen, an eschatology of restoration is clear.

In fact, Peter’s judgement imagery is very similar to that of other prophets and apostles:

John the Baptist warned that God would ‘gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Matt 3:11).

Jesus spoke in the same terms:

…they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,  42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire…  43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matt. 13).

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41).

Paul also pictures judgement as a testing or refining fire:

‘the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.’ (1 Cor 3)

John in Revelation sees the demonic hordes being destroyed in the same way: by fire (Rev. 20:9-10).

These are all images of fire bringing judgement. The dark powers are  simply destroyed,  and replaced with God’s kingdom. And on earth there is a division between what is approved and what is not – the same imagery Peter uses in our passage. For Peter, as for the others, judgement plays this discriminating role, revealing the true nature of things. This is possible because, while some things perish, others survive the fire and are even purified.

  1. Alan Wood says:

    Thanks for all this, Jonathan – especially the reading in context, which illuminated several obvious connections in the Greek that I just hadn’t seen whenever I scanned through in English.

    I think you might be over-claiming when you say, ‘Wherever the Christian tradition got this from, it wasn’t from Peter.’ Misreading of Peter is now very common – as you said yourself a few days ago. A misreading of Peter could equally be ‘where the Christian tradition got this from’, at least in a context where it was a tempting idea, accepted in paganism or Gnosticism, say. That might have been deliberate misreading to buttress the imported concept, an honest seeing-what-wasn’t-there in support of the concept, or a completely unconscious, ‘Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?’

    The tricky thing is that Hitchens was nearly right. He was only wrong because we were/are wrong. Clearing things up in this way comes across as reacting to his theological agenda. I’m concerned that there might be hidden potholes on that road.

    • Jonathan says:

      I guess, you’re right, Alan, the trouble could have started with a misreading of Peter. But I can’t help suspecting that these ideas were brought to the NT and then read out of 2 Peter. My feeling is the Christian tradition got them from a right reading of Plato. And then, as you say, it was ‘a tempting idea’ to find in the NT.

      I’m interested by your last comment:

      ‘Clearing things up in this way comes across as reacting to [Hitchens’s] theological agenda. I’m concerned that there might be hidden potholes on that road’.

      I wonder if you could explain this concern a little more? Not sure what you have in mind. I think you’re saying my posts are being driven by the desire to respond to Hitchens’ allegation. (In a way, they are. I certainly made use of Hitchens’s critique to raise the issue before we explored it). And that that approach could be problematic. How so? I’m truly interested.

  2. Dan W says:

    Thanks Jono. Good to keep challenging us on this one. I preached through this recently and found it very challenging. Lots of strange concepts like the stoicheia, and lots of different verb forms for ‘melting and burning’ and that sort of thing.

    If creation is following Jesus’ death and resurrection, to what extent must it die?

    One avid (and most astute) chiasm spotter loved by all told me about a neat chiasm in this chapter. Makes lots of sense I reckon. Centred around vs10c – that the earth and its works will be ‘found.’ Which prompts the wake up calls at the beginning and end. There’s many more details obviously, but not for a blog reply!

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for the comments, bro.

      If creation is following Jesus’ death and resurrection, to what extent must it die?

      Good question. Not so easy to answer precisely. What comes to mind is, ‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed’ (1 cor 15). Something certainly must be lost as well as gained, though. ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom’, etc.

      As for that chiasm, I’m intrigued. Could you post an outline of it for us? – we love that sort of thing here at The Grit!

  3. Alan Wood says:

    OK, two thoughts, one better thought-out, the other a bigger but much vaguer concern:
    First, it’s good that we correct wrong doctrine ‘inside the tent’ – it’s good because it helps us sniff out Plato where he doesn’t belong, clearing away the syncretic detritus of millenia, and polishes up the uniqueness of Christ and his kingdom. That’s a great project, with a good aim and some chance of real progress. But from ‘outside’, they can always point to some Christians who do think like this (until you’ve taken over the world, of course): so as a defence (aimed at outsiders) this argument will have a more limited usefulness. It comes across as sounding like the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy (though it isn’t).
    Second, I’m at the ‘pricking up the ears’ phase (you know, before you’ve done any reflection, any thinking, any reading, even finding if there are books or articles on the subject) of thinking about how Christianity relates to atheism. I’ve heard second-hand that the god Darwin stopped believing in wasn’t recognisably Christian anyway, that the cultured despisers Schleiermacher was wooing back were despising a withered form of Christianity. The hope is always that the outside critique makes us aware of some resources and emphases we’ve forgotten because of our theological trajectories and cultural blindspots (which I think/hope your work here is achieving). The fear is that we need to go very, very deep to know that we’re speaking out of core truth, not reacting in a way that leaves us on an unhelpful trajectory (as maybe we did in the 19th Century).
    Does that make sense? You can probably guard against the first by careful phrasing, but the second requires us to be like John the Evangelist and write about everything all the time.

    • Jonathan says:

      Alan, those are great comments. On your first, you’re totally right about what I’m doing being of little value as a defence aimed at outsiders. I see where you’re coming from there. I’m not attempting a defence of that kind, it just wouldn’t work at all. What I’m writing is really aimed at Christian readers.

      your second point is very interesting and needs a lot of thought. Reacting to the spirit of the age and ending up just reflecting it – that’s a real danger. There’s a fine line between commending/relating the gospel to the needs and concerns of our generation, and adapting the gospel to the preferences of our generation.

      As you say,

      we need to go very, very deep to know that we’re speaking out of core truth, not reacting…

      That’s the aim.

      I think, though, that I’m probably interacting with atheism less than it might appear on the surface. Apologetics is not really an interest of mine. Hitchens is really being employed as my spokesman, isn’t he. I didn’t give him much air time at all, I don’t really take the trouble to sus out what he’s thinking and feeling about stuff. It’s just a juicy quote. I’m really pursuing my own agenda in biblical studies and theology.

      Whether my agenda is any safer than Hitchens would be, I’ll leave it to readers to decide! 🙂

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