Once upon a time, God destroyed the face of the earth by the waters of a worldwide flood. Some day in the future, God will destroy the face of the earth by raging fires. I know that many Reformed people believe that II Peter 3 compares the literal Flood to a figurative burning that ushers in the new heavens and the new earth. I don’t exactly see why it can’t refer to a literal fire…but it really isn’t that important whether it is literal fire or figurative fire. With that in mind, here are just a few thoughts (and questions) on the matter….
Is it any more difficult to believe that the God who once judged and cleansed the earth by destroying it with water will not once again judge and cleanse the earth–but this time by destroying it with fire? God most certainly shall not discard his creation at the last day because the creation itself has also been redeemed by Christ. Yet, until the end, it remains defiled and under “the bondage of decay” (Romans 8:19-22).
Surely God will purify this earth to the extent that it shall be called “new”–for we are told that a new heavens and a new earth is the inheritance of the saints. The example of God’s dealing with his elect is that when God makes something new, he changes it. My questioning little mind wonders why should we not expect the same thing–change–about the literal earth. (For it is clear that the resurrected saints shall have corporal bodies and dwell in a physical location, i.e. in the redeemed earth.) Of course, change can happen without fire…yes, and God could have executed judgment on the world before the Flood without using water, too…
The earth has already been redeemed by blood, just like the saints, but it remains defiled and under bondage until the end, unlike the saints. We know that nothing unclean can dwell in the presence of God, because he is “a consuming fire”–figurative language for his holiness (Hebrews 12:29). Also, fire, like the water that purged the earth in Noah’s day, can have the connotation of purifying or cleansing, burning away unholy things.
When the wicked are gathered and the dead are raised, why should we not expect this vast graveyard that is the earth to be purified by fire? Peter is clearly comparing the Flood to something greater that shall happen in the future in order to urge us on to obedience–because the future is why today matters.
Anyways, whether we expect a literal or a figurative burning up of the world and the things in it to prepare it for eternity, this remains true: “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Peter 3:13).
God can change and make the earth new. And he will do just that, because he is faithful and will complete the redemption of the earth, freeing it forever from the bondage to which it was subjected due to the iniquity of mankind.