157. The Future of the Earth according to 2 Peter 3:10 heurethēsetai

The author of 2 Peter addresses the question of the delay of the Second Coming (3:1-9) and then discusses what “the day of the Lord” will be like, as well as its impact upon the current creation (3:10-13). The language employed in v. 10 suggests that the heavens and earth in that “day” will undergo a radical change, perhaps even destroyed. The heavens are said to “pass away/depart” (pareleusetai) with a “rushing sound/roar” (hroizēdon); as well “essential elements” (stoicheia) as they “burn” (kausoumena) “shall be destroyed” (luthēsetai); and “both earth and the ‘works/products’ in it shall ____(?)____.” What verb we should read in this last clause (v. 10d) and what meaning it has is widely disputed. And then in v. 12 he again mentions “the coming of the day of God through which heavens, as they are burnt with fire (puroumenoi), shall be destroyed (luthēsontai) and essential elements, as they are burnt (kausoumena), melt (tēketai).” This is followed by new heavens and new earth (v. 13, language also found in Greek Isaiah 65:17).

In the general context the writer is concerned about non-believers who discount the promises regarding Christ’s Second Coming and thus ignore the “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” which will accompany this event (3:7). God’s patience restrains his hand, giving opportunity for people to repent and thus no longer come under condemnation (3:9). But the day of the Lord will come and when it arrives life as humans know it, will cease because God’s judgment will result in its destruction — the heavens and the earth. This is what 3:10-13 then describes.

Let’s examine some of the terminology the writer uses in 3:10-13 to describe this destruction. While the Greek verb luō can mean “set free, loose,” the object affected usually is a person, animal, or a thing such as sandals or hair. When the object is a building, temple or some other kind of construction, this verb has the sense “destroyed” or “abolished, brought to an end.” Of course, other things can be abolished, such as laws, sabbath, works of Satan, or birth pangs. In the case of 2 Peter 3:10-13 the objects of this verb are “essential elements” (v. 10) and “heavens” (v. 12). The usual meaning of this language then would imply that these “essential elements” and “heavens” are abolished through some extraordinary act. They no longer have form or structure and cease to exist in their previous form.

The verb parerchomai can describe the motion of “passing by” some point of reference (usually an object occurs with this verb or some descriptor indicate how this movement occurred), but in 2 Peter 3:10 there is no object and in such instances the verb has the sense “pass away, disappear.” Flowers and generations “pass away,” i.e., die and disappear. Jesus says several times that “heaven and earth will pass away” (e.g., Matthew 5:18; 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 16:17; 21:33). The language used here by the writer of 2 Peter (perhaps mirroring that used by Jesus) indicates that “the heavens” will “disappear,” i.e., they no longer will exist.

And then there are the verbs that describe some process of burning. The writer uses kausoō twice, referring to the “essential elements” in verses 10 and 12. This verb means “be consumed by heat, burn up,” again suggesting a destructive process. However, this verb does not have much usage prior to 2 Peter 3:10. It does occur in first century AD authors and following, but primarily in medical texts (the cognate noun kausos describes a fever).

The other verb related to burning used by the writer is puroō which describes something on fire and so burning or something that is made very hot and so is glowing. It is true that this verb is used in contexts that describe a refining process, particularly in the Greek Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 11:7; 16:3; 17:21; 25:2; 65:10; cf. Job 22:25; Zechariah 13:9; Isaiah 1:25; Jeremiah 9:6; Daniel 11:35(Theodotion); 12:10(Theodotion)), but in these contexts other verbs in parallel stichs describe refining and testing processes or else relate this process to purification in some way. The exceptions are Psalm 104:17 and 118:140 (cf. Wisdom of Solomon 17:43) in which the writer says that God’s message is purified (cf. Proverbs 30:5) and purifies people. According to Proverbs 10:20 “the tongue of the righteous is purified silver.” However, in the context of 2 Peter 3:10-13 the verb is not coupled with ideas of refining metals or burning with a view to purification. As far as I can determine the metaphor of refining is not used by the writer of 2 Peter. However, he does use the idea of destruction by fire (see in addition 2 Peter 2:6 and 3:7). So if the idea of “judgment or assessment” with the intent of purification by refining is intended by the writer, then he does not express it very clearly.

And so we come to the question of what the author meant, if the variant heurethēsetai (v. 10d) is the original reading. The manuscript evidence for this text is quite mixed. There are six variants related to this reading:

  1. heurethēsetai  — witnessed by א B P 1175 1448 1739(txt) 1852 sy(ph mss txt), sy(hmg). (“will be found/discovered”) [The various sigla are those used in Nestle-Aland 28.]
  2. heurethēsetai luomena — P72. (“will be found destroyed”)
  3. aphanisthēsontai — C. (“will be destroyed”)
  4. katakaēsetai — A 048 33 81 307 436 442 642 1611 1739(v.l.) 2344 Byz  vg(cl) sy(ph mss v.l.) sy(h) Cyr. (“will be burned up/consumed”)
  5. katakaēsontai — 5 1243 1735 2492. (“will be burned up/consumed”)
  6. ouch heurethēsetai  — sy(ph mss) sa cv(vid). (“will not be found/discovered”). This reading is regarded by NA28 as the original reading and this is change from NA 27 which simply read heurethēsetai.

What is clear from this array of variants is that early scribes struggled to understand the text and various options emerged in the transmission of the text, all intended to clarify the text’s intent. The variants involving the verbs aphanizō and katakaiō interpret the text as describing the destruction of the earth and its products/works, as does the variant heurethēsetai luomena. What heurethēsetai luomena in papyrus 72 (3rd/4th century) does show is that heurethēsetai is involved in the earliest attested reading, even though it is interpreted by the adverbial participle as including destruction.  Readings involving the verb katakaiō have the best attestation next to heurethēsetai, but the textual witnesses supporting it tend to be later. aphanisthēsontai is only witnessed by one 5th century manuscript and so probably is not the original reading.

So we probably have to choose heurethēsetai as the original reading based on the quality of the witnesses and the fact that it is the more difficult reading. The negated verb form ouch heurethēsetai only occurs in some Syriac and Coptic manuscripts and as Bauckham (Jude, 2 Peter Word Biblical Commentary, 317) indicates is properly an emendation, using the negative ouch, which he suggests “yields such excellent sense that it must be considered the best solution unless the reading heurethēsetai can be given a satisfactory interpretation.”  The problem is that the simple verb heurethēsetai seems to make little sense in the context. Some suppose that the clause should be punctuated as a question, i.e., “Will the earth and the things in it be found/discovered?”. This is possible, but seems to be somewhat forced. And then many scholars have proposed diverse emendations as the original reading, but none have found much support among other commentators.

Given the general theme of judgment which frames 3:10-13, it is possible that the verb form heurethēsetai “will be found/discovered” may have a sense of exposure, i.e., the real nature or character of the subject will become clear. The verb form is passive and it is quite possible that the agent, which is implied, is God himself. Through the destruction process God will expose “earth and the products/works in it” for what they have become — fallen, sin-filled and under Satan’s influence. The destruction then in itself is an act of judgment which results in “earth and the products/works in it” finally “being found” wanting, i.e., not measuring up to God’s righteousness.

This verb occurs again in 3:14 in connection with people embracing the gospel so that they “make every effort to be found (heurethēnai) spotless, blameless and at peace with him” (see also 1 Peter 1:6-8). Having said this, however, I would hasten to emphasize that the language used by the author does not indicate a refining or purifying of “earth and the products/works in it,” but rather their destruction. As well, it is possible the “earth and the products/works in it” are to be viewed as God’s creation and thus owned by him. The writer reminds us that God in the past destroyed the world, i.e., his creation, by water. Now the writer affirms that it will happen again and God will use fire as the means. However, it seems that the destruction is much more complete, clearing the way for “new heaven and new earth” (3:13; see Revelation 21:1). So perhaps we should translate 3:10d in this way: “and earth and the products/works in it will be discovered, i.e., exposed by God in their true, sin-marred nature and so destined to be destroyed.”