What is going to happen to the creation once the Lord Jesus returns?
For many the answer to the question would seem simple: it will be completely destroyed! The creation is reserved for fire and will entirely burn up; such is what it would say in 2 Peter 3:7-13.
This viewpoint is understandable. It seems to be a natural conclusion to expect the creation to be thoroughly destroyed on the basis of 2 Peter 3:7-13. John also expected the heavens and the earth to pass away, and the sea to be no more, in Revelation 21:1. From these passages it would appear that the creation is destined for complete and thorough destruction and devastation, and will be no more.
Yet the witness of the apostle Paul complicates this story. Paul encouraged the Roman Christians by affirming how they would receive unimaginable glory in our inheritance in Christ provided we suffer with Jesus in Romans 8:17-18. He then spoke of the present situation and what would come in Romans 8:19-23: the creation awaits the revealing of the sons of God, for it was subjected to vanity in hope that it would be delivered from corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. The creation groans for that liberation, and not just the creation, but those who have the first-fruits of the Spirit groan internally, waiting for the adoption of the redemption of the body. This is the hope in which Christians are saved, and it has not yet been seen, for one does not hope for what one can see; thus we wait patiently for it to come to pass (Romans 8:23-24).
Many would suggest Romans 8:17-25 is a difficult passage, more difficult than 2 Peter 3:7-13, and thus believe we must understand Romans 8:17-25 in light of 2 Peter 3:7-13. Some focus on the meaning of “creation,” Greek ktisis, suggesting it does not necessarily refer to the entire creation but a portion thereof, specifically, those redeemed in Jesus.
While there are times when “creation” is used to describe only a portion thereof, there is no ground on which to argue from Paul’s use in Romans 8:17-25 that he has such a limited perspective in mind. The way Paul wrote Romans 8:23 militates against any attempt to limit “the creation” to the righteous in Christ: in Romans 8:22 he spoke of the “whole creation,” and then said in Romans 8:23 how “not only so,” but “ourselves also,” those who are the saved in Christ, groan within themselves, clearly delineating between “the creation” and those in Christ.
While we today might wish that Paul had been clearer in his exposition, Romans 8:17-25 can be understood in light of what Paul has been teaching the Roman Christians. He has already spoken of the introduction of sin and death into the world in Romans 5:12-21; such is the natural explanation for the vanity and corruption to which the creation was enslaved. Paul has testified consistently how Christians presently maintain a saved condition in communion with God in Christ in Romans 6:1-23, 8:1-17; in Romans 8:12-17 he specifically considered Christians as having already been adopted as children of God. For Paul to say that Christians await adoption, the redemption of the body, and that such a hope has not yet materialized demands that Paul speaks of the hope of the resurrection of the body, thus identifying the resurrection as the redemption of the body (Romans 8:23-25).
Whatever we think about the end of the creation must keep the resurrection in mind. Resurrection, by virtue of the very concept and use of the term in Second Temple Judaism, demands the reanimation of what has died. Paul made much in Romans 6:8-11 of how Jesus died to sin once, and now He will die no more in the resurrection, for He lives to God: since we confess that Jesus’ soul and divinity never died, we understand Paul is talking about the physical body of Jesus raised from the dead and transformed for immortality. It remains true that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom according to 1 Corinthians 15:50, but such does not mean the physical body is eliminated: Paul’s metaphors in 1 Corinthians 15:50-56 all point to enhancement in transformation, not elimination. The physical may not remain exactly as it was, but its origin as part of this creation remains. And if we uphold the resurrection of the body, by necessity, we must see that something of this present creation will continue to endure, redeemed in the adoption of the body. Paul extended this hope not merely to the saints but to the whole creation in Romans 8:17-25, consistent with Jewish witness regarding the value of the creation. Paul made it clear that the creation itself was not the problem: otherwise how could God call it very good in Genesis 1:31? It was the introduction of sin and death into the creation that was the problem according to Romans 5:12-21. In Romans 8:17-25 the problem is that the creation has been subjected to vanity and is in bondage to corruption. The solution to sin and death was redemption in Jesus according to Romans 5:12-21; the hope of the creation is to be released from bondage and vanity and to receive something of that glory to be given to God’s children in Romans 8:20-22.
Thus we can make good sense of Romans 8:17-25 in terms of what God has already accomplished and revealed in Jesus. But what of 2 Peter 3:7-13? Is it not clear how the creation is going to be eliminated by fire?
Peter certainly envisions how the present creation is stored up for fire. But does that fire demand the elimination of the creation? Most versions speak of the works of the earth will be “burned up” (Greek katakaesetai); and yet the best manuscript evidence reads instead that the works of the earth “will not be found” as meaning “will be exposed” (Greek heurethesetai). Furthermore, Peter did not just start talking about a destruction by fire without any context: he spoke of how the heavens and earth existed long ago out of water and by means of water, and how the world existing then perished by the Flood in 2 Peter 3:5-6. He then said the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire in 2 Peter 3:7. We understand that the Flood was quite the cataclysm, but we do not see evidence that the creation was entirely eliminated: quite the contrary, for Noah and his family and the animals in the ark were preserved! If Peter can speak of a “former” creation perishing in the Flood and yet without being eliminated, then contextually we cannot demand that he expects the “present” creation to perish by fire and thus be eliminated.
We can thus find harmony between Romans 8:17-25 and 2 Peter 3:1-13. On the judgment day there will be a purgation of the present creation by fire. This fire purges unto redemption; it need not demand the elimination of the present creation. The creation is not the problem, sin and death are the problem, and God will purge the creation from the effects of sin and death by fire. The creation will then obtain the glory of the children of God and share in redemption.
It might well be that the purgation by fire is so thorough that not much of the original creation is left: we have full assurance that the creation will remain at least in our transformed resurrection bodies. However much remains, when the purgation by fire has been completed, we will then dwell in that “new heavens” and “new earth,” where righteousness will dwell, and we will remain in the presence of God without any veil or hindrance (cf. 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1-22:6).
God has not given up on His creation; the Scriptures bear witness that God does not intend on giving up on His creation. There is a future for God’s creation in our resurrected bodies and in the “new heavens and the new earth.” May we persevere in faith in Christ and obtain the redemption of our bodies on the day of resurrection!
Ethan R. Longhenry