Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 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.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.2 Peter 3:8-15a – NRSV
This is not a passage that is designed to describe in scientific detail the way in which the present heavens and present earth will be transformed into “new heavens and a new earth” – the ‘how’. Nor is it designed to suggest the timing of this transformation – the ‘when’. The focus is on ethics. How are we to live. Namely, “holiness, and godliness”, “righteousness”, “at peace, without spot or blemish”.
It seems that how-questions and when-questions always have a capacity to distract us.
It seems that some were imagining a slow, gradual coming of the Lord’s Day, and expecting it to be very soon. This is a framework that is somewhat disempowering for the development of our ethical lives. Instead, one focuses on world events, ‘wars and rumors of wars’, natural disasters, disease, political unrest, etc.. Instead of working for the advancement of the kingdom in their own lives and in the world, they worry and wonder about God’s timing. The advice given seems to suggest that we should interpret each day as a gift of time, to continue, advance and develop our ethical living.
The other imagination that some may have had was that the coming of the Lord would mean the going of creation. If we imagine the earth as we would kindling or newspaper, then yes the fire would burn ‘away’ the earth. But the passage instead suggests that the purpose of the fire is not to do ‘away’ with the earth, but to burn away the evil that corrupts the present creation. Indeed after the fire, the melting, the burning, and the dissolving, “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed (found, discovered).” Instead of newspaper that is burned with nothing left to show, it is more like a refining of something more solid and of much more lasting value.
Again, both descriptions of the new, purified creation mix in the ethical language. It is not only the “earth” that is disclosed, but also “everything that is done on it”. LIkewise, the new heavens and new earth are “where righteousness is at home”.
God is not out to destroy us. God wants to purify us. That is a much more empowering framework for working on my ethical life.