“The elements will be dissolved with fire”


2 Peter 3

File:Castle Romeo.jpg

Nuclear weapon test on Bikini Atoll. United States Department of Energy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

I remember the “duck and cover” nuclear attack drills in third grade. After hiding under our desks from the flying glass of the initial blast, we lined up outside and walked home before the fallout rained down. At least, that was the theory. My brother had a nightmare one night from which my mother couldn’t wake him – she resorted to Cheerios, how did we raise our children without them? He came screaming from the bedroom; there was a nuclear bomb under our bunk bed – and I, his little brother, was still in there sleeping! (But he was too frightened to let Mom go in to show him I was okay.)

We had a small cellar in the house to which we moved in 5th grade. Mother stocked it with canned food and a camping toilet and we rehearsed what each of us was to bring in the case of a nuclear attack. I was to bring my flute and a Bible. I remember the painful and puzzling conversation about why we couldn’t bring any of our pets in with us.

So it was no wonder that, when I encountered these words from 2 Peter in High School – all of us recognized immediately that the world would end in nuclear war: “the elements will be dissolved with fire.”

I even remember the twisted logic that God promised he wouldn’t destroy the world again with a flood, but he didn’t say anything about fire.

I heard the word ‘elements’ and thought of the periodic table. Dissolving with fire, must mean fission, matter turned to unimaginable energy. But Peter’s readers didn’t think the world was composed of elemental atoms; for them the world was rooted in (and driven by) elemental spirits.

And suddenly these words of terror – nuclear holocaust as a divine instrument and inevitable future – become words of grace: the primal forces that war within and amongst us will perish. Racism, sexism, fear, bigotry, deceit, greed, war, violence, abuse – all these primal impulses and realities that we cannot extirpate from the human soul or human society – they will all disappear. They will be purged like dross from the silver.

The world is not being annihilated; it is being redeemed.

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Now, if you need more convincing, note that the fire discloses not destroys:

“the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

And the Greek word ‘elements’ is used in Galatians 4:3

So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.

and 4:9

Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?

(The English word ‘spirits’ in both these quotes is not present in the Greek, but added to give the meaning of this Greek word ‘elements’.)

If you need more, go to Colossians 2:8 and 2:20.

The new heavens and earth for which we wait is this one made new, a world “where righteousness is at home.”

The point 2 Peter wants to make is not how the world will end, but where it will end (in God) and therefore, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way,” since our fearful cruelties will be ‘dissolved’, “what sort of persons ought you to be?” We should be citizens of the age to come, “leading lives of holiness and godliness.”

14Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”


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