Will the earth be “destroyed by fire” or “found”?

Q. I recently heard someone say, in order to support the idea that we need to care for creation, that the statement in 2 Peter often translated as “the earth and everything in it will be burned up” would be much better translated “the earth will be found.” Do you agree with that? I was always under the impression that the Biblical teaching was that the earth would ultimately be destroyed, which seems consistent with Revelation 21 when it talks about a new heaven and a new earth “coming down” to replace (?) the first heaven and the first earth after they have passed away.

Is this the fate the Bible predicts for the earth?

The issue in the 2 Peter passage is not actually one of translation, but of textual criticism. This is one of the many places where the ancient manuscripts we have of the Bible differ in what they say, and so we need to try to figure out what the original reading was.

One principle of textual criticism is that the reading that best explains the origins of the others is most likely to be the original. And while there is actual a much wider variety of readings than usual in this case, there is one reading that does seem to account for all the others. But this is only because that reading seems to make so little sense in the context that it appears to have generated a variety of attempts to account for it.

Many ancient manuscripts do indeed read, “The earth will be found.” This would mean, on the face of it, that if you look for it, it will still be there. But this seems to contradict the other things Peter says will happen on the “day of the Lord”: “the heavens will disappear with a roar, and the elements will melt and disintegrate.” So we would actually expect Peter to say just the opposite, that the earth will no longer be found. He seems to be offering a Hebrew-style poetic parallelism, with the three-fold repetition that was used for finality and emphasis. Creation is being depicted in three parts, and so we would indeed expect something like, “The heavens will disappear, the elements will melt, and the earth will be gone.”

As Bruce Metzger helpfully documents in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament, ancient copyists dealt with this apparent problem in a variety of ways. Some added a negative: “The earth will not be found.” Others added an extra term to create readings such as, “The earth will be found dissolved.” And still others changed the verb: “The earth will disappear,” or, “The earth will be burned up.”

Modern scholars, Metzger continues, have made their own proposals. One has suggested that arga, “useless,” dropped out after erga, “works,” because of the similarity between the two words, and that the original reading was, “The earth and the things in it will be found useless.” Other scholars have proposed Greek terms that are similar in sound and spelling to “will be found” and that seem to accord better with the context: “will flow,” “will flow together,” “will burn to ashes,” “will be taken away,” etc. (If I had to choose one of these, I’d choose arthesetai, “taken away,” because it’s the most similar to eurethesetai, “found.”)

Finally, I would add, Bible translations, if they don’t choose one of the alternatives (“burned up” is most common), offer their own interpretations of what “will be found” might mean. But these are uniformly negative, in keeping with the general sense of the passage, rather than positive in the sense of the earth being preserved: “the earth and the works on it will be disclosed” or “exposed” or “seen for what they are” or “laid bare” or “exposed to the scrutiny of judgment.” So there really isn’t a mandate for creation care in those translations.

I personally think that if “found” is the original reading, it most likely has a sense of “laid bare” or “exposed,” that is, of everything being stripped away. But even if this is a description of the destruction of the physical creation, and even if the passage you cite from Revelation does depict the present heavens and earth ultimately being replaced, I still think there is a mandate for us to take good care of the creation while it’s here and while we are living on it.

As I say in another recent post on this blog, “We express our faith in what we believe Jesus will do when he returns by the way we live as we are expecting him. Under the reign of Jesus, the physical creation [whether new or renewed] will be healthy and beautiful. And because we believe that, we should do everything we can to help it be as healthy and beautiful as possible even now. Otherwise, Jesus would have every right to ask us, ‘If you knew that this was what I was going to do when I came back, why didn’t you get started on it while you were waiting for me?'”

So I think it’s actually helpful to point out that there likely isn’t a direct statement in 2 Peter to the effect that “the earth and everything in it will be burned up.” I think it’s helpful to observe that this statement rather says, more cryptically, that the earth will be “found.” As we’re trying to puzzle out what that means, we might end up thinking a little more carefully about how we can take good care of this earth while we still have it. And I believe that would be a good thing.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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