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their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since
the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the
beginning of the creation. For this they willingly are ignorant of, that
by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of
the water and in the water; whereby the world that then was, being
overflowed with water, perished. But the heavens and the earth, which are
now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire, against the
day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not
ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand
years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning
his promise, as some men count slackness, but is long suffering to
us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to
repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in
the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements
shall melt with fervent heat; the earth, also, and the works that are
therein, shall be burned up. Seeing, then, that all these things shall be
dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation
and godliness? Looking for, and hasting unto the coming of the day of God,
wherein the heavens, being on fire, shall be dissolved, and the elements
shall melt with fervent heat. Nevertheless, we, according to his promise,
look for new heavens, and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness._

It would require too much time, and, moreover, is not necessary to the
object I have in view, to enter into minute verbal criticism upon this
passage. I will only remark that the phrase translated _the earth and the
works that are therein_, might with equal propriety be rendered "the earth
and the works that are _thereon_;" and yet the difference of meaning
between the two modes of expression is of no great importance. Again, by
the term _heavens_, in this passage, we are evidently to understand the
atmosphere, or region immediately surrounding the earth; as in the first
chapter of Genesis, where it is said that _God called the firmament
heavens_; the plural form being used in the Hebrew, though not in the
English translation.

What, now, by a fair exegesis, is taught in this passage concerning the
destruction and renovation of the world? The following train of remark may
conduct us to the true answer to this inquiry: -

In the first place, this passage is to be understood literally. It would
seem as if it could hardly be necessary to present any formal proof of
this position to any person of common sense, who had read the passage. But
the fact is, that men of no mean reputation as commentators have
maintained that the whole of it is only a vivid figurative prophecy of the
destruction of Jerusalem. Others suppose the new heavens and new earth
here described to exist before the conflagration of the world. But these
new heavens and earth are represented as the residence of the righteous,
after the burning and melting of the earth, which, according to other
parts of Scripture, is to take place at the end of the world, or at the
general judgment. How strange that, in order to sustain a favorite theory,
able men should thus invert the obvious order of these great events, so
clearly described in the Bible! Still more absurd is it to attempt to
fasten a figurative character upon this most simple statement of
inspiration. It is, indeed, true, that the prophets have sometimes set
forth great political and moral changes, the downfall of empires, or of
distinguished men, by the destruction of the heavens and the earth, and
the growing pale and darkening of the sun and moon. But in all these cases
the figurative character of the description is most obvious; while in the
passage from Peter its literal character is equally obvious. Take, for
example, this statement - _By the word of God the heavens were of old, and
the earth, standing out of the water and in the water; whereby the world
that then was, being overflowed with water, perished. But the heavens and
the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved
unto fire, against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men._

I believe no one has ever doubted that the destruction of the world by
water, here described, refers to Noah's deluge. Now, how absurd to admit
that this is a literal description of that event, and then to maintain the
remainder of the sentence, which declares the future destruction of that
same world by fire, to be figurative in the highest degree! For if this
destruction mean only the destruction of Jerusalem, or any other great
political or moral revolution, the language is one of the boldest figures
which can be framed. Who, that knows any thing of the laws of language,
does not see the supreme absurdity of thus coupling in the same sentence
the most simple and certain literality with the strongest of all figures?
What mark is given us, by which we may know where the boundary is between
the literal and the metaphorical sense? From what part of the Bible, or
from what uninspired author, can a parallel example be adduced? What but
the strongest necessity, the most decided _exigentia loci_, would justify
such an anomalous interpretation of any author? Nay, I do not believe any
necessity could justify it. It would be more reasonable to infer that the
passage had no meaning, or an absurd one. But surely no such necessity
exists in the present case. Understood literally, the passage teaches only
what is often expressed, though less fully, in many other parts of
Scripture; and even though some of these other passages should be involved
in a degree of obscurity, - and I am not disposed to deny that some
obscurity rests upon one or two of them, - it would be no good reason for
transforming so plain a description into a highly-wrought figurative
representation; especially when by no ingenuity can we thus alter more
than one part of the sentence. I conclude, therefore, that, if any part of
the Bible is literal, we are thus to consider this chapter of Peter.

In the second place, this passage does not teach that the earth will be
annihilated.

The prevailing opinion in this country, probably, has been, and still is,
that the destruction of the world described by Peter will amount to
annihilation - that the matter of the globe will cease to be. But in all
ages there have been many who believe that the destruction will be only
the ruin of the present economy of the world, but not its utter
extinction. And surely Peter's description does not imply annihilation of
the matter of the globe. He makes fire the agent of the destruction, and,
in order to ascertain the extent of the ruin that will follow, we have
only to inquire what effect combustion will have upon matter. The common
opinion is, that intense combustion actually destroys or annihilates
matter, because it is thereby dissipated. But the chemist knows that not
one particle of matter has ever been thus deprived of existence; that fire
only changes the form of matter, but never annihilates it. When solid
matter is changed into gas, as in most cases of combustion, it seems to be
annihilated, because it disappears; but it has only assumed a new form,
and exists as really as before. Since, therefore, biblical and scientific
truth must agree, we may be sure that the apostle never meant to teach
that the matter of the globe would cease to be, through the action of fire
upon it; nor is there any thing in his language that implies such a
result, but most obviously the reverse.

If these things be so, then, in the third place, we may infer that Peter
did not mean to teach that the matter of the globe would be in the least
diminished by the final conflagration. I doubt not the sufficiency of
divine power partially or wholly to annihilate the material universe. But
heat, however intense, has no tendency to do this; it only gives matter a
new form. And heat is the only agency which the apostle represents as
employed. In short, we have no evidence, either from science or
revelation, that the minutest atom of matter has ever been destroyed since
the original creation; nor have we any more evidence that any of it ever
will be reduced to the nothingness from which it sprang. The prevalent
ideas upon this subject all result from erroneous notions of the effect of
intense heat.

In the fourth place, the passage under consideration teaches us that
whatever upon or within the earth is capable of combustion will undergo
that change, and that the entire globe will be melted.

The language of Peter has always seemed to me extremely interesting. He
says that _the heavens_ [or atmosphere] _will pass away with a great
noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat; the earth, also, and
the works that are therein, shall be burned up; looking for, and hasting
unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens, being on fire,
shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat_.

This language approaches nearer to an anticipation of the scientific
discoveries of modern times than any other part of Scripture. And yet, at
the time it was written, it would not have enabled any one to understand
the chemistry of the great changes which it describes. But, now that their
chemistry is understood, we perceive that the language is adapted to it,
in a manner which no uninspired writer would have done. The atmosphere is
represented as passing away with a great noise - an effect which the
chemist would predict by the union of its oxygen with the hydrogen and
other gases liberated by the intense heat. Yet what uninspired writer of
the first century would have imagined such a result?

Again, when we consider the notions which then prevailed, and which are
still widely diffused, why should the apostle add to the simple statement
that the earth would be burnt up, the declaration that its elements would
be melted? For the impression was, that the combustion would entirely
destroy the matter of the globe. But the chemist finds that the greater
part of the earth has already been oxidized, or burnt, and on this matter
the only effect of the heat, unless intense enough to dissipate it, would
be to melt it. If, therefore, the apostle had said only that the world
would be burnt up, the sceptical chemist would have inferred that he had
made a mistake through ignorance of chemistry. But he cannot now draw such
an inference; for the apostle's language clearly implies that only the
combustible matter of the globe will be burnt, while the elements, or
first principles of things, will be melted; so that the final result will
be an entire liquid, fiery globe. Such a wonderful adaptation of his
description to modern science could not surely have resulted from human
sagacity, but must be the fruit of divine inspiration.

And this adaptation is the more wonderful when we find it running through
the whole Bible wherever the sacred writers come in contact with
scientific subjects. In this respect, the Bible differs from every other
system of religion professedly from heaven.

Whenever other systems have treated of the works of nature, they have
sanctioned some error, and thus put into the hands of modern science the
means of detecting the imposture. The Vedas of India adopt the absurd
notions of an ignorant and polytheistic age respecting astronomy, and the
Koran adopts as infallible truth the absurdities of the Ptolemaic system.
But hitherto the Bible has never been proved to come into collision with
any scientific discovery, although many of its books were written in the
rudest and most ignorant ages. It does not, indeed, anticipate scientific
discovery. But the remarkable adaptation of its language to such
discoveries, when they are made, seems to me a more striking mark of its
divine origin than if it had contained a revelation of the whole system of
modern science.

In the fifth place, the passage under consideration teaches that this
earth will be renovated by the final conflagration, and become the abode
of the righteous. After describing the day of God, _wherein the heavens,
being on fire, shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with
fervent heat_, Peter adds, _Nevertheless, we, according to his promise,
look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness._
Now, the apostle does not here, in so many words, declare that the new
heavens and earth will be the present world and its atmosphere, purified
and renovated by fire. But it is certainly a natural inference that such
was his meaning. For if he intended some other remote and quite different
place, why should he call it _earth_, and, especially, why should he
surround it with an atmosphere? The natural and most obvious meaning of
the passage surely is, that the future residence of the righteous will be
this present terraqueous globe, after its entire organic and combustible
matter shall have been destroyed, and its whole mass reduced by heat to a
liquid state, and then a new economy reared up on its surface, not adapted
to sinful, but to sinless beings, and, therefore, quite different from
its present condition - probably more perfect, but still the same earth and
surrounding heavens.

There are, indeed, some difficulties in the way of such a meaning to this
passage, and objections to a material heaven; and these I shall notice in
the proper place. But I have given what seems to me the natural and
obvious meaning of the passage.

Such, as I conceive, are the fair inferences from the apostle's
description of the end of the world. Let us now inquire whether any other
passages of Scripture require us to modify this meaning.

The idea of a future destruction of the world by fire is recognized in
various places, both in the Old and New Testaments. Christ speaks more
than once of heaven and earth as passing away. Paul speaks of Christ as
descending, at the end of the world, in flaming fire. And the Psalmist
describes the destruction of the heavens and the earth as a renovation.
_They shall perish,_ says he, _but thou_ [God] _shalt endure; yea, all of
them shall wax old like a garment, and as a vesture shalt thou change
them, and they shall be changed._ In Revelation, after the apostle had
given a vivid description of the final judgment and its retributions, he
says, _And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and
the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea._ He then
proceeds to give a minute and glowing description of what he calls the New
Jerusalem, coming down from God, out of heaven. It is scarcely possible to
understand the whole of this description as literally true. We must rather
regard it as a figurative representation of the heavenly state. And hence
the first verse, which speaks of the new heavens and the new earth, in
almost the same language which Peter uses, may be also figurative,
indicating merely a more exalted condition than the present world. Hence,
I would not use this passage to sustain the interpretation given of the
literal description by Peter. And yet it is by no means improbable that
the figurative language of John may have for its basis the same truths
which are taught by Peter. Nor ought we to infer, because a figure is
built upon that basis in the apocalyptic vision, that the simple
statements of Peter are metaphorical.

In the passage quoted from Peter, it is said, _Nevertheless, we, according
to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth
righteousness._ Most writers have supposed the apostle to refer either to
the promise made to Abraham, that his seed should inherit the land, or to
a prophecy in Isaiah, which says, _Behold, I create new heavens, and a new
earth, and the former shall not be remembered, or come into mind. But be
you glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create
Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in
Jerusalem, and joy in my people; and the voice of weeping shall be no more
heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shall be no more thence an
infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days; for the
child shall die a hundred years old; but the sinner, being a hundred years
old, shall be accursed. And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and
they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not
build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat; for as
the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long
enjoy the works of their hands. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock; and dust shall be the
serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,
saith the Lord._

Now, it seems highly probable that the new heavens and earth, here
described, represent a state of things on the present earth before the day
of judgment, and not a heavenly and immortal state; for sin and death are
spoken of as existing in it; both which, we are assured, will be excluded
from heaven. Hence able biblical writers refer this prophecy to the
millennial state, or the period when there will be a general prevalence of
Christianity. In this they are probably correct. But some of these
writers, as Low and Whitby, proceed a step farther, and infer that Peter's
description of the new heavens and new earth belong also to the millennial
period; first, because they presume that the apostle referred to this
promise in Isaiah; and secondly, because he uses the same terms, namely,
"new heavens and new earth." But are these grounds sufficient to justify
so important a conclusion? How common it is to find the same words and
phrases in the Bible applied by different writers to different subjects,
especially by the prophets! Even if we can suppose Peter to place the new
heavens and the new earth before the judgment, in despite of his plain
declaration to the contrary, yet there are few who will doubt that the new
heavens and earth described in revelation are subsequent to the judgment
day, so vividly described in the verses immediately preceding.

And as to the promise referred to by Peter, if he really describes the
heavenly state, surely it may be found in a multitude of places; wherever,
indeed, immortal life and blessedness are offered to faith and obedience.
Isaiah, therefore, may be giving a figurative description of a glorious
state of the church in this world, under the terms "new heavens and new
earth," emblematical of those real new heavens and new earth beyond the
grave, described by Peter. And hence, it seems to me, the language of the
prophet should not be allowed to set aside, or modify, the plain meaning
of the apostle.

I shall quote only one other passage of the Bible on this subject. I refer
to that difficult text in Romans, which represents the whole creation as
groaning and travailing together in pain until now; and that it will be
delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the
children of God.

I have stated in a former lecture, that Tholuck, the distinguished German
theologian, considers this a description of the present bound and fettered
condition of all nature, and that the deliverance refers to the future
renovation of the earth. Such an exposition chimes in perfectly with the
views on this subject which have long and extensively prevailed in
Germany. And it certainly does give a consistent meaning to a passage
which has been to commentators a perfect labyrinth of difficulties. If
this be not its meaning, then I may safely say that its meaning has not
yet been found out.

In view, then, of all the important passages of Scripture concerning the
future destruction and renovation of the earth, I think we may fairly
conclude that none of them require us to modify the natural and obvious
meaning of Peter which has been given. In general, they all coincide with
the views presented by that apostle; or if, in any case, there is a slight
apparent difference, the figurative character of all other statements
besides his require us to receive his views as the true standard, and to
modify the meaning of the others. We may, therefore, conclude that the
Bible does plainly and distinctly teach us that this earth will hereafter
be burned up; in other words, that all upon or within it, capable of
combustion, will be consumed, and the entire mass, the elements, without
the loss of one particle of the matter now existing, will be melted; and
then, that the world, thus purified from the contamination of sin, and
surrounded by a new atmosphere, or heavens, and adapted in all respects
to the nature and wants of spiritual and sinless beings, will become the
residence of the righteous. Of the precise nature of that new
dispensation, and of the mode of existence there, the Scriptures are
indeed silent. But that, like the present world, it will be
material, - that there will be a solid globe, and a transparent expanse
around it, - seems most clearly indicated in the sacred record.

The wide-spread opinion that heaven will be a sort of airy Elysium, where
the present laws of nature will be unknown, and where matter, if it exist,
can exist only in its most attenuated form, is a notion to which the Bible
is a stranger.

The resurrection of the body, as well as the language of Peter, most
clearly show us that the future world will be a solid, material world,
purified indeed, and beautified, but retaining its materialism.

Let us now see whether, in coming to these conclusions from Scripture
language, we are influenced by scientific considerations, or whether many
discerning minds have not, in all ages, attached a similar meaning to the
inspired record.

Among all nations, the history of whose opinions have come down to us, and
especially among the Greeks, the belief has prevailed that a catastrophe
by fire awaited the earth, corresponding to, or rather the counterpart of,
a previous destruction by water. These catastrophes they denominated the
_cataclysm_, or destruction by water, and the _ecpyrosis_, or destruction
by fire. The ruin was supposed to be followed, in each case, by the
regeneration of the earth in an improved form, which gradually
deteriorated; the first age after the catastrophe, constituting the golden
age; the next, the silver age; and so on to the iron age, which preceded
another cataclysm, or ecpyrosis. The intervals between these convulsions
were regarded as of various lengths, but all of them of great duration.

These opinions the Greeks derived from the Egyptians.

The belief in the future conflagration of the world also prevailed among
the ancient Jews. Philo says that "the earth, after this purification,
shall appear new again, even as it was after its first creation." - _De
Vita Mosis_, tom. ii. - Among the Jews, these ideas may have been, in part,
derived from the Old Testament; though its language, as we have seen, is
far less explicit on this subject than the New Testament. That
distinguished Christian writers, in all ages since the advent of Christ,
have understood the language of Peter as we have explained it, would be
easy to show. I have room, however, to quote only the opinions of a few
distinguished modern writers.

Dr. Knapp, one of the most scientific and judicious of theologians, thus
remarks upon the passage of Peter already examined: "It cannot be thought
that what is here said respecting the burning of the world is to be
understood figuratively, as Wettstein supposes; because the fire is here
too directly opposed to the literal water of the flood to be so
understood. It is the object of Peter to refute the boast of scoffers,
that all things had remained unchanged from the beginning, and that,
therefore, no day of judgment and no end of the world could be expected.
And so he says that originally, at the time of the creation, the whole
earth was covered and overflowed with water, (Gen. i.,) and that from
hence the dry land appeared; and the same was true at the time of Noah's
flood. But there is yet to come a great fire revolution. The heavens and
the earth (the earth with its atmosphere) are reserved, or kept in store,
for the fire, until the day of judgment, (v. 10.) At that time the heavens
will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will be dissolved by
fervent heat, and every thing upon the earth will be burnt up. The same
thing is taught in verse 12. But in verse 13 Peter gives the design of
this revolution. It will not be annihilation, but we expect a new heavens
and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, _i. e._, an entirely new,



Online LibraryEdward HitchcockThe religion of geology and its connected sciences → online text (page 29 of 39)