I bet you've heard this topic come up in conversation with your friends. You know, it goes something like this. 'Labor got elected, the end of the world is nigh. Don't worry about your 5-year gaol sentence, for contending that men can't have babies, because Jesus will come back to rescue us. And we'll be shuttled off to heaven, while Earth is left to smoulder'.
Where does this idea of a cosmic meltdown come from?
I think we can safely say that 2 Peter Chapter 3 is culpable. Hmm..... let me rephrase that, I think we could say that our crass interpretation of 2 Peter Chapter 3 is responsible, for the popularity of this ashen outcome. Let's look at it for a moment.....
5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed (apwllumi)
7 By the same word the heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction (apwleia)of the ungodly. ....
10 But the day of the Lord (Old Testament term) will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear (pass by, or pass away, para erxomai) with a roar; the elements will be destroyed (luw, untied or loosed)by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. (euriskw -found) ..........................
The day of the Lord (Yahweh)
Note that Peter uses the terms 'Day of the Lord' (verse 10) interchangeably with 'Second Coming of Jesus' (verse 4) officially known as the 'Parousia'. Peter is telling us that all those OT passages and images referring to the "Day of the Lord" will be fulfilled at the Parousia.
So, if we're to understand what will happen to the Heavens and Earth at the Second Coming, then we need a right understanding of the Old Testament concept of the 'Day of the Lord'.
There are way too many passages in the OT on 'The Day of the Lord' to look at in this article. So, let's pick one, and consider it as a representative example of the others. Isaiah Chapter 34 verse 4 will do the trick:
All the stars in the sky will be dissolved
and the heavens rolled up like a scroll;
all the starry host will fall
like withered leaves from the vine,
like shrivelled figs from the fig tree.
Well, there you have it, if you're a literalist then the stars will melt, the constellations disappear and the heaven rolled up like a scroll, at the time God judges the nation of Edom. Well Edom was punished, but last time I looked at the sky, the stars etc were in their correct places.
So, what's going on?
Before I answer that question, we've a similar non-literal fulfilment in 2 Peter Chapter 3 verse 6 .... By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed (apwllumi)
But again, when the flood hit the ancient world, the planet wasn't destroyed
(apwllumi – Greek word for destroyed) in fact from where I sit, the horses on our small farm appear to be enjoying verdant pastures.
So, if Peter doesn't mean literally destroyed, what does he mean? Quite simply that a wicked human race at that time bore the brunt of God's fury against their rebellion. Put even more simply the humans were destroyed by the flood. But not the Earth, Noah and his family, they were saved.
Now it follows that if the world wasn't literally destroyed by the flood waters, but mankind judged, nor will the heavens and the earth be literally burnt to ash at the Parousia. However, the peoples of the earth and the forces of darkness which inhabit the heavens and the elements, they will be severely punished for their rebellion.
Corroborating this claim, I cite Peter's choice of words. In verse 6 he uses apwllumi the most popularly used word for destroyed in the NT, but in verse 10 the heavens and the elements are loosed (luw), (not destroyed apwllumi). While the earth and its works are found (euriskw). (Yeah, I know the KJV has destroyed but hey! Some monk constrained by Platonist concepts thought he'd help us and destroy the planet. The earliest manuscripts have euriskw (found) .
Where the devil is the devil?
To understand the Heavens melting gig, we need to know a little Hebrew cosmology. For them the Heavens were both material (made of matter), and at the same time, somehow the haunt of evil powers and the home of Satanic minions.
Look at what Paul says; Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with Rulers, Authorities, World-rulers of this darkness, Spiritual forces of Evil in the Heavens. Ephesians Chapter 6, verse 12.
Here's the thing for first century Jews: the spiritual forces of Evil are located in the Heavens.
The cosmic meltdown imagery of the elements and the Heavens is alluding to God's judgement on Satan and his forces that have vexed humanity for millennia. The purpose of the non-literal conflagration ie the extreme heat thing is to purge the universe of evil once and for all. Now, where have I heard that before .... Revelation maybe? To bring about the final destruction of these evil forces God doesn't need to literally destroy the universe.
Remember what God said when he stood back, in order to survey all that he made (the Heavens, the Earth and Us) .... And behold it was Very Good. So why are we so keen to have it destroyed by fire, when God intends to renew it at the Parousia?