Firstly, where do we get the idea that the earth is going to burn up?
Here are some verses in the Bible that we might have in mind:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelations 21:1)
5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly…. 10 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. 11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 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! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:5-7, 10-13)
Taking a closer look at 2 Peter 3…
It seems to suggest that the earth we live in will be destroyed (v. 7, 10, 12) and replaced with a new one (v. 13). However, in v. 5-6, Peter brings up the fact that the Earth was once ‘deluged with water and perished’. This would lead us to recall the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis. Even though he describes the Earth as having perished, we know that the world was not annihilated, but cleansed of evil (and of evil people), and the earth survived intact and renewed.
In the Bible, the metaphor of fire is frequently used to describe something that purifies rather than destroy (Mal 3:2, 1 Pet 1:7). Hence, likewise, the heavens and the earth being stored up for fire and passing away could refer to God’s intention to judge and annihilate the sinful elements in this world without completely destroying it.
“As with the rest of the New Testament, Peter is not saying that the present world of space, time and matter is going to be burnt up and destroyed. That is more like the view of ancient Stoicism – and of some modern ideas, too. What will happen, as many early Christian teachers said, is that some sort of ‘fire’, literal or metaphorical, will come upon the whole earth, not to destroy, but to test everything out, and to purify it by burning up everything that doesn’t meet the test.” N.T. Wright, The Early Christian Letters for Everyone
Where do we observe that the earth will be renewed rather than destroyed?
Here are some verses in the Bible that we might have in mind:
…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:20)
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25)
Taking a closer look at Romans 8…
Paul brings creation into the picture to illustrate his point about Christians’ suffering and hope (v. 18). Creation, which was subjected to futility (v. 20), is in bondage to corruption (v. 21), and is groaning (v. 22), will one day be set free from this to obtain freedom.
Likewise, believers who are suffering at present are waiting eagerly to be set free from decay as we await our adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. As Christians, we wait patiently in our midst of suffering because we see that is the experience of the wider creation too. When believers are glorified in the future when Christ comes again, the created world, instead of being destroyed, will be set free from bondage to corruption.
This vision of creation presented for creation does not appear to suggest that creation will be burned up and replaced. Instead, it will be ‘reconciled’, and ‘set free’.
“this text makes clear that the created world has a secure place in the scope of New Testament fulfillment. The [NT] has not replaced a material focus in the [OT] with a “spiritual” one. As in the [OT], the [NT] reveals that God’s redemptive plan encompasses the whole of reality—physical as well as spiritual. Humans, nature, the spiritual realm, the universe itself—nothing will be left out of God’s final redemptive work. As we contemplate the terrible strain that creation is under in our time, we badly need to recapture this grand vision of God’s redemptive plan.” Douglas Moo, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World
We began with this question: “The Earth is going to burn up anyway, why should I bother with Creation Care?” To address that, I think that the New Testament presents a view of creation being purified and refined through fire, reconciled, and liberated when Christ comes again in the future, instead of being burned up and replaced entirely with a brand new earth. The understanding that the earth has a future in the new creation should impact our care for creation presently.
We looked at verses with some tensions, from 2 Peter 3 and Romans 8, where there may be seeming differences in how they describe the future of creation. As we read, we do try our best to be faithful to what the Bible intends to communicate through our readings, but also acknowledge that our starting points in reading scripture can affect the outcome.
Nonetheless, regardless of either view that we hold to, our call to be stewards of creation (Gen 1:28) is not negated. An analogy might be made to the human condition: just because we are all going to eventually die does not mean we should not take care good care of our health! Even if we think that the earth is going to burn up eventually, God has given us the mandate and responsibility to steward and care for this world.
This was originally posted on our Instagram as part of an FAQ series. Read more at:
Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World by Douglas J. Moo and Jonathan A. Moo (Chapter 9)
Is God going to incinerate the Earth? And does it matter? by Jonathan Merritt