Christians have been awaiting the return of Jesus Christ since the very beginning of the church. In fact, as early as Amos (almost 800 years before Christ), people were looking forward to the Day of the Lord. And beginning with Amos, the prophets and apostles have warned us it won’t be a pleasant time.
The coming wrath of God is not a pleasant thought. Many Christians recoil because they can’t reconcile it with his love. But we must remember that every syllable of the Bible perfectly describes God’s love. Even the parts we don’t like. With that in mind, let’s take a careful look at 2 Peter 3.
Expecting or not expecting the return of Christ
First of all, Peter wants us to know that in the last days, mockers will come. We certainly have mockers today. We also have plenty of fruitless arguments over when some events will happen in relation to some other events. Jesus will return on God’s schedule regardless of what anyone thinks about it.
Are we in the last days?
The book of Hebrews opens, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in may portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in his Son . . .” The last days, in other words, are not off in some indefinite future. The last days began with Jesus’ earthly ministry. They will culminate with the second coming of Christ.
2 Peter does not contain the word “return,” but the return of the Lord is at least implicit in any New Testament description of the last days.
The mockers say, as they said in Peter’s day, that the world continues on the same way it has since the beginning of creation. In fact, according to today’s prevailing ideology, the universe started with a random bang and not a creative act at all.
But Scripture clearly teaches that God created all things. On one day of creation, he divided water from water and caused dry land to emerge from the water below. And in Noah’s time, he destroyed the world with water.
God promised Noah that he would never again destroy every living thing (Genesis 8:21) and that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood (Genesis 9:11).
Peter, in 2 Peter 3:7, declares that the present heavens and earth await a fiery end. The fire will not destroy every living thing, only ungodly humans. The fire that awaits us, then, does not cancel either promise to Noah.
Some thoughts on time
Some people teach that there is no time in eternity. That seems at best an oversimplification. Revelation reveals a sequence of seven seals, followed by seven trumpets, followed by seven bowls. It describes the return of Jesus three chapters after the last bowl.
Sequence requires time. At one point, Revelation says that there is silence in heaven for half an hour. Duration requires time.
But as Peter says (referring to Psalm 90:4), a thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years. Time in heaven has no relation to time on earth. All those judgments, then, might occupy a single sequence in heaven over a short duration. But on earth, they occur over a long duration. They may occur simultaneously or in a different sequence. Or for that matter, more than once.
The entire sequence of judgments in Revelation perfectly coincides with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Yet the final manifestation, the return of Jesus Christ, is still in our future.
The last days have so far lasted about two thousand years in earth time. That doesn’t mean we can assume that they have lasted two days in heaven, though. We must at least try to discern when the Bible uses language literally and when it uses it symbolically. And then avoid confusing one with the other.
Some thoughts on literalism and symbolism
Peter says that God will visit the present heavens and earth with fire. How literally should we take it? For centuries, most commentators tended to interpret last days imagery as symbolic. Nowadays, we have some reasons they didn’t have for thinking more literally. Consider:
- Earlier generations knew nothing of atomic bombs. We have lived under the specter of nuclear war for the better part of a century now.
- Humans have been polluting the earth for much longer than that. But now, with greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere so rapidly, we are experiencing a rapidly warming climate. As a consequence, wildfires are becoming more numerous and more destructive. Who would have thought the Amazon rain forest or Arctic tundra would burn?
- Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can reach beyond Earth’s orbit. If the Earth happens to be in the way of one or the other, it can be very destructive. All the more so given all the electronic equipment we have come to depend on. Just imagine how big a fire exploding electronics could start.
- Some super volcanos have not erupted for a very long time. There are signs one or more may come to life again with very destructive and fiery results.
Whether literal or symbolic fire, God’s perfect justice demands the final destruction of all evil and wickedness. God’s perfect mercy will put it off until all who are willing have come to repentance.
But sooner or later, Jesus will return, not as the weak, vulnerable man who died on the cross but as a conqueror who will destroy all opposition. Earth as we know it will not survive the second coming of Christ. God promises to make a new earth in its place and dwell on it with his people.
What difference should the return of Jesus mean to believers?
God doesn’t want us to live in a state of anxiety or panic but eager anticipation for the return of Jesus.
Peter admonishes us to live godly and holy lives as we wait for what will be our redemption. And part of that means exercising better environmental stewardship. God made humans to take care of the world he made, and we have done a disgracefully poor job of it.
Of course, living in godliness and holiness means much more than that. It also includes setting such a good example that people will seek Jesus in order to live the same way.
But here’s what seems jarring: Peter tells us to look for and hasten the coming day of the Lord. Does that mean that something humans can do will affect the timing of the return of Jesus? That hardly seems possible. God is God. He operates according to his own time and his own plans. But if he chooses to use human actions to influence his time and his plans, who can say he can’t do it?
Prayer is both prerequisite to and consequence of holy living and godliness. The final prayer of the Bible asks Jesus to return quickly. We need to keep praying it and look forward to the answer—including all the destruction he’ll bring with him.