Does the Bible Say the Earth Will Be Burned Up?

Pastor Bob O'Bannon

This past Sunday I delivered a sermon on Rom. 8:18-25 titled “Heaven is a Place on Earth” in which we learned that the effects of the fall have extended further than just the souls and hearts of men and women, but even to the physical creation. As Gen. 3:17 and Is. 24:5-6 both declare, the earth has been cursed because of our sin.

The good news of the Gospel, however, is that Jesus has come to make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found,” as we sing every Christmas in “Joy to the World.” Or, as Rom. 8:21 puts it, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Jesus died and rose again not just to save souls, but to bring the blessings of redemption to the universe as well. The Christian Gospel is an earthy Gospel.

In other places, the Bible refers to this cosmic redemption as the “new heavens and the new earth” (Is. 65:172 Peter 3:13Rev. 21:1) — the future final eternal state in which God’s redeemed saints will live in glorified resurrected bodies on a perfected, sin-cleansed, evil-purged earth. (for more on this idea, see an earlier blog written back in 2014).

To some Christians, this idea comes as a surprise, in part because believers for years have been singing songs about shedding the “prison walls” of the body for some new disembodied state in the clouds (“I’ll Fly Away”), and about the things of earth “growing strangely dim” (“Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”); and also because popular Christian authors have written that “this world is not your home” (David Platt) and that “you’re just passing through, just visiting earth” (Rick Warren).

And to be truthful, we can see how such ideas have come to be popularly held, because sometimes the Bible seems to talk like the earth will one day be history. For instance, in 2 Peter 3:10, we read that the earth will be “burned up.” Pretty clear, isn’t it? If the earth will be burned up, then our ultimate final heavenly destination is apparently not the earth! And if it’s true that this earth is going to be tossed into the trashbin one day, then why should we bother trying to make a difference in this life? Why seek to excel as an accountant or basketball player or politician? Why serve on a school board or a neighborhood association? Isn’t it all a waste of time?

But there is a different way of looking at the 2 Peter passage. The King James Version and New American Standard Version translations both render this phrase at the end of 2 Peter 3:10 as “burned up,” but the New International Version (NIV) and the English Standard Version (ESV) translate it differently. The NIV says the earth will be “laid bare,” and the ESV says it will be “exposed.” So the idea seems to be not that the earth will be totally discarded on the day of Jesus’ coming, but that the “works that are done on it” will be revealed or exposed as the evil works they are, and therefore worthy of God’s judgment. As Michael Wittmer writes: “Peter’s vision of a coming conflagration seems to be a purging rather than annihilating fire.”

This point is made even clearer when the context of 2 Peter 3 is considered. In v. 6, Peter compares the future day of the Lord to Noah’s flood, suggesting that God’s judgment of the world in the past and His coming judgment of the world on the last day have something in common. Referring to the flood, Peter says the “world that then existed was deluged with water and perished” (ESV), or “destroyed” (NIV). But it can’t be the case that Peter means “destroyed” in the sense that the flood annihilated the earth, because obviously the earth continues to exist to this current day. It wasn’t eliminated. It survived. Therefore, by using the word “destroyed,” Peter means something more like “ethical cleansing rather than an ontological annihilation,” as Wittmer says.

It seems clear that not only is our future eternal state an earthly one, but that God plans to renew and glorify the current earth on which we live, not create a brand new earth from scratch. Perhaps the best support for this is simply the resurrection. When Jesus died and his body was placed in a tomb, the Father didn’t start over by giving Jesus a brand new body. In fact, after he was raised, Jesus made it a point to show Thomas the mark of the nails that he received when he was crucified (John 20:24-29), as a way of proving that the same body that went into the tomb came out of it. And Jesus’ resurrection is a pattern of the renewal of all things on the last day (Col. 1:18-20).

God is going to redeem this earth because redemption doesn’t destroy creation; it restores creation. God fixes what is broken. He doesn’t make junk and he doesn’t junk what he’s made. He doesn’t lose the battle to reclaim what he has created; instead, he rescues everything that belongs to him.

So, let’s work hard to make a difference in this world, knowing that the earth has always been our home, and always will be.