Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the world XI

The end of the world: replacement or renewal?
At the start of this series, I was asked about 2 Peter 3 (and 1 Corinthians 15.35ff., which I think I've now said something about, even if discussion continues). Here is Peter's wonderful vision of the end:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. - 2 Peter 3.10-13.
Two initial things to note: first, how positive the final image is - a world in which righteousness dwells, in which justice belongs. Our experiences of justice now remain partial, provisional and imperfectible, but this is a world set to rights. Second, Peter speaks of a new heavens and a new earth, that is, of a whole new created order, not simply of 'heaven'.

However, doesn't Peter’s vision differ from my earlier claims? If 'the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire' (v.7) and 'the heavens will pass away' and 'the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved' and 'the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn' and 'we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth,' doesn't this mean the end of the world in a 'goodbye earth' kind of way? If the universe gets thrown in the garbage bin, how can we still speak of renewal or liberation? Isn't this replacement?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Peter's language, like that of Revelation, is apocalyptic in tone. While this term is sometimes used as a synonym for 'catastrophic', it can refer technically to a genre in which major world events are invested with their full theological meaning through using 'earthshattering' language. These dramatic metaphors and pictures emphasise the significance of the events being spoken of, rather than necessarily giving a literal prediction. The second half of Daniel, most of Revelation, and numerous extra-canonical books from around the time of the New Testament give us plenty of examples.

Even if we take these images more straightforwardly, notice that the passage still doesn’t quite claim that the universe will be destroyed. Some translations do say that the earth will be 'burned up' in verse 10, but there is some confusion over this verb* and it is probably better rendered 'exposed' (as above) or 'laid bare'. It is an image of judgement, rather than destruction; there will be nowhere to hide. The eradication of the heavens is not a prediction that outer space or the earth's atmosphere will kick the bucket while the planet itself survives, but is part of the image of exposure. The 'curtain' of the heavens is ripped back so that the earth and all the works done on it are utterly disclosed to divine judgement. You can run but you can't hide.
*See discussion in comments.

Third, immediately prior to this passage in 2 Peter 3.5-7, Peter uses the deluge (Genesis 6-9) as an pattern of what to expect. Back then, he says, the world 'perished' in the flood (v.6). However we read the flood account, the world was not literally annihilated; it 'perished' in that the old order of things passed away and a new beginning was made.

Thus, I take it that while Peter certainly emphasises the remarkable discontinuity between now and then (in order to highlight the importance of the future divine judgement and its implications for our present behaviour - a topic for a future series), the decisive event is nonetheless a renewal and transformation of this world, not simply its destruction and replacement. Our paradigm: Jesus' own resurrection.
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI.
Thanks to Erro for many of the thoughts and references for this post. I'll be very impressed if anyone can pick artist, title or location of this painting. Ten points each.


Steven Carr said...

It is surprising that the author of 2 Peter does not correct those people who scoffed that nothing had changed.

I thought the death of Jesus had marked the beginning of a new age?

Here is the meaning of katakaio from verse 10

1) to burn up, consume by fire

As in Matthew 13:40 'As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire ; so shall it be in the end of this world'

Steven Carr said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
byron said...

Here is the meaning of katakaio from verse 10
1) to burn up, consume by fire

Yes, that is indeed what katakaio means. But katakaio only appears in inferior manuscripts (this is one of the many points at which the KJV lets us down). There are numerous alternative readings, of which heurethesetai ('will be found, discovered, revealed, exposed') is attested by the oldest manuscripts (including Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) and makes best sense of the passage, as well as best explaining the other readings.

It is surprising that the author of 2 Peter does not correct those people who scoffed that nothing had changed. I thought the death of Jesus had marked the beginning of a new age?
A new age had begun, but the surprise was that the old age continued. The new age is hidden (Col 3.1), awaiting its vindication and completion. The resurrection of the dead has begun, but only as a first fruits (1 Cor 15.20), only in Christ. Presently, it is only 'in Christ' that the new age is known and experienced.

byron said...

It is surprising that the author of 2 Peter does not correct those people who scoffed that nothing had changed.
He doesn't correct them; he warns them that it is possible for judgement to be imminent without most people being aware of it, just like it was in the days of Noah.

Rory Shiner said...

Acts 2:16ff is a neat little example of NT use of apocalyptic langauge. Peter can quote Joel 2 (complete with "blood and fire and billows of smoke" and say "this is that", i.e., Pentecost.

Rachel said...

ooooh I so want to know the comments of the deleted post! (or was it just a spam?)

Rob said...

Good job on this difficult text. Wright also favors your "will be revealed" reading. I think your strongest point, one which I had missed, is Peter's comparison with the flood. I think these Scriptural comparisons often help us clarify where things would mislead us. A good example is in Matthew 25 when Jesus says "one will be taken and one will be left." This is taken as "rapture passage", but if you back up a verse you see that Jesus said that the flood waters also "took" the people. I doubt God locked up Noah in a boat with animals so he could rapture the rest of humanity for being violent.

Context is a beautiful thing, eh? Do you share Wright's interpretation of Mark 13 and it's parallels as offered in Jesus and the Victory of God?

Keep up this great series!

byron said...

Rachel: I didn't delete it. The author did (double post by Steven).

Steven: by the way, I've been enjoying our little exchange over the last few days. It's helped me rethink a few things where I think my reasoning was taking some shortcuts. I hope the exchange has been useful for you. Let me know if you think I've been unfair.

byron said...

Rob: It was Erro (AndrewE, who occasionally comments) who pointed this out back here. He also kindly sent me a short study he'd written on Rom 8 and 2 Peter 3.

As for Mark 13, I think I lean towards AD 70 as primary referent, but recognise elements of the discourse which resist this. I wonder whether there mightn't be multiple referents. One of my lecturers advocates a reading of Mark in which this discourse is primarily (even exclusively) about the immediately coming 'testing' of 'Israel' (i.e. Jesus' own passion and crucifixion). The strongest point of his reading is pointing out the time references in Mark 13.35 then structure the next few chapters.

PS Thanks for the encouragement!

byron said...

Rory - good example. When we are too wooden in our reading of this genre, we can miss the whole point. We're still waiting round for some random astrophysical phenomena instead of paying attention the cruciality of the events unfolding in front of us. The Spirit being poured out on all flesh at Pentecost is as striking and important as if the moon had turned red!

andrewE said...

Thanks for the raps Byron, although no need. You've put it all together really helpfully. I'm looking forward to the series climactic fulfillment.

byron said...

Andrew, so am I... hope I've still got something left to say.

Hmmm, this post seems to be having problems with its page. Does anyone else have problems trying to load it on its own? For me, it just loads the picture and the first few words and then stops. I've tried re-posting it, but doesn't seem to have fixed it. Any suggestions?

byron said...

Now it seems to have fixed itself. Oh well - another mystery of Blogger...

Annette said...

hey, i saw this pic just a couple of days ago! and i listened to the audio guide about it, which emphasised very well the formal qualities esp. the vertical lines of the trees hence making the diagonal of the man more striking. I think it said the artist was actually more a sculptor and after sculpting this man, continued to paint many versions of it over and over again for the rest of his life. His name i don't know. But i found the representations of work in that room of the museum (the musée d'Orsay) v. interesting.
Altho i am shocked to find that u took pics in the art galleries. Tut tut. I was so horrified by the behaviour of tourists at the Louvre that i didn't want to take any pics (tho i did end up taking a couple). Even at the Orsay i couldn't believe it... ppl would run up to a van gogh, barely glance at it, get a photo in front, and move on.

byron said...

Annette: ten points. It was indeed located in the musée d'Orsay in Paris. You're up to twenty-five. I did occasionally do some naughty tourist pics, though generally where I thought the only reason for no pics was in order to sell you postcards. And I always obeyed 'no flash' signs. I could have been blind, but my memory is that there were no prohibitions on flashless photos in the musée d'Orsay. In the Louvre, for example, only some areas have photo restrictions. As for snap-and-run tourists, I was more shocked by those who wanted to be photographed with the art, particularly when they would often stand right in front!

byron said...

Oh, and other art gallery pics on this blog were all taken in the absence of restrictions (or just flash restrictions).

peter j said...

If I'm not much mistaken, the picture is 'Der Holzfaeller' painted by Ferdinand Hodler.

andrew said...

Bah Pete! You're cropping up wherever there are unclaimed points!

byron said...

Pete - title and artist correct! Well done. Another twenty points. Your lead is becoming unbeatable!