In the summer of 2008, I wrote a series of lessons called “Surprised by Hope,” based on a book by N. T. Wright, and I taught these lessons to a Sunday school class. Now I’m teaching the same material to a new class — and with 18 more months to think about it, I’ve decided I was wrong on one point.
In the post “The Resurrection, Mission & Kingdom,” I concluded, based on 2 Peter 3:10-13 —
If I plant a garden, it’s hard to see the garden surviving the baring of the earth. Just so, if I paint the next Last Supper, I think it burns to a crisp. The only things that last are the saints.
But the point doesn’t greatly change. If I were to paint the next Last Supper to the honor of Jesus, and if this were to further his work, encourage the saints, and help convert the lost, my work will be rewarded. The souls I help find Jesus will be with me in heaven — indeed, they’ll be treasures in heaven.
Therefore, I disagreed with Wright’s argument that anything good I or the church accomplishes will survive into the new heavens and new earth. The only thing that would survive for sure, I thought, would be those we convert.
I was wrong. And I should know better than to argue with Wright, even when he does a poor job of building his case. He doesn’t explain how Peter’s statement that “the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” doesn’t mean that everything but the saved will burn.
However, he offers the vaguest of hints in his 800-page tome The Resurrection of the Son of God (not a book for the faint of heart), but it was enough to push me to take a fresh, much deeper look using my own resources.
(2 Pet 3:10-13) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. 11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
Words such as “disappear,” “destroyed,” “laid bare,” and “melt” certainly seem to argue for the annihilation of the present creation. But if that’s so, this passage would contradict passages in Revelation and Romans. And that can’t be.
To sort it all out, we have to take a couple of excursions to unexpected places. You see, a lot of scriptural ideas all converge at the new heavens and new earth.
Revelation 21:1-3 speak of new heavens and a new earth in different terms from our traditional reading of 2 Pet 3:10-13 —
(Rev 21:1-4) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The old creation has “passed away” — which can mean “departed” as well as “died.” And yet we also see the “new Jerusalem” leave heaven so that God will dwell with man. The image isn’t of people leaving earth to go to be with God, but of God coming to the new earth to be with his people.
Keep this in mind as we work through the scriptures.