2 Peter 3:7,10 – But the present heavens and earth by His word are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men… the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
2 Peter 3:12 – …looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!
What are the elements, that were to be destroyed?
The ‘elements’ are not the building blocks of matter, the term never having been used in the Scriptures in this way. The word ‘stoicheion’ (pl: stoichia) means rudiment, element, basic principle. The question is, ‘Of what?’
The word is only used seven times in the New Testament. In the other five cases, the term is translated in the NASB as the ‘elementary principles’.
Hebrews 5:12 – …you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God …
The other passages refer to the elementary principles of the world, that is, the traditions of the world.
Colossians 2:8 – See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
Colossians 2:20 – If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world…
Whether these traditions are Jewish, or pagan, is open to discussion. In Galatians, however, they are more clearly Jewish traditions and laws: Here, world (kosmos) refers not to the globe, but to earthly aspects of the Law.
Galatians 4:3 – So also we [Jews, not pagans!], while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things (stoicheia) of the world. (4) But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, (5) so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons?(9) But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? (10) You observe days and months and seasons and years.
These were not pagan observances, but according to Jewish law. ‘We’ were enslaved by the Law, held in bondage. Now ‘we’ are redeemed, so why turn back? To be redeemed from being under the Law, you were first in bondage under the Law.
Bondage under the Law = bondage under the elemental things of the world.
Turning back to the weak and worthless elemental things = returning to the traditional observances.
Therefore, Peter is clearly saying what the writer to the Hebrews also said (Heb 8:13). To inaugurate the New Covenant, the Old – weak and worthless as it had become – had to disappear.
The heavens and earth
2 Peter is the only place in the New Testament where the destruction of the elements is mentioned. However, the fate of the heavens and earth is outlined in several places.
First of all, remember that the Jews had no notion of a globe, no matter how God might have implied its existence in the Scriptures. Whenever the word ‘Earth’ or ‘world’ was used, it meant anything from the Roman world, the known inhabited world, the Jewish world, the pagan world, or even the dirt in contrast with the air (heavens). Its actual meaning (and there are several words translated to ‘earth’ or ‘world’) is gathered from the context.
Here, it is significant that the heavens and earth that are to be destroyed by fire are compared with the heavens and earth that were formed by God. This does not mean that the extent of each have to be the same. The destruction and judgement are compared with the Flood, Sodom, and the Egyptians at the Red Sea, but their extent covers the world, a few cities, and a few thousand chariots respectively. In the same way, the destruction of the heavens and the earth are consistent when interpreted as the Jewish world, that is, the Old Covenant and its physical centre (Jerusalem and the temple). As in Hebrews:
Hebrews 8:13 – When He (quoting Jeremiah 31ff) said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
Out with the old covenant, in with the new.
Out with the old heavens and earth, in with the new (Revelation 21:1).
Out with the old form of worship, in with the new (John 4:21-24).
Does the Bible ever use terms like ‘heavens and earth’ to refer to non-global localities?
Colossians 1:23 – …the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven…
Jeremiah 23: 23, 27-28ff – (Describing Judah’s impending invasion) I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light … The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I shall not execute a complete destruction. For this the earth shall mourn and the heavens above be dark…
Deuteronomy 32:22 – (About Israel) For a fire is kindled in My anger, and burns to the lowest part of Sheol, and consumes the earth with its yield, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
Haggai 2:6, 21-22 – For thus says the Lord of hosts, “Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land…
Isaiah 51:16 – (On Israel’s return from exile) “I have put My words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are My people.'”
Isaiah 65:17 – (Describing the new covenant: compare with Jeremiah 31) “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind (that is, the old heavens and earth will be destroyed).”
Isaiah 66:22 – “For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me,” declares the Lord, so your offspring and your name will endure.”
Notice in Isaiah 66:24, members of the new heavens and earth will look down on the corpses of those who have transgressed against God, in the place where “their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched.” This is an earthly place, not ‘hell’, unless those in the new heavens and earth can see people suffering in hell!
The changeover from old covenant to new covenant is so significant, it forms the crux of the entire gospel message. There is no need for a global destruction – it has nothing to do with redemption in the spiritual sense. Only destruction of the old covenant has any real meaning for Christians. For the Jews (Israel after the flesh), their entire world, their ‘heavens and earth’, would be judged and destroyed. For the Christians (Israel after the spirit, the true Israel), a new ‘heavens and earth’ were to be created.
Physically speaking, the Jews of that generation were to take the punishment on behalf of all mankind (Matthew 23:34-36). Physically speaking, the temple as the centre of worship and Jerusalem as the focus of the covenant were to be destroyed, left desolate (Matthew 23:37-39). But spiritually speaking, the way was paved for all mankind for a new creation, a new heavens and earth.
2 Corinthians 5:17 – If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.