The End of the World: A Physics of Destruction by Fire (2 Peter 3:1–13)
by J. Albert Harrill
The total combustion of the heavens and the earth in 2 Peter is unlike any other scenario of world destruction in the Bible. It envisions a future cataclysm––the end of everything––with a loud bang that dissolves the physical properties of the universe into an elemental mass of fire. The author thus reformulates early Christian beliefs about God’s final judgment into a rational framework of the cosmos that shares the thinking and terminology of ancient physics.
Is the cosmos destructible?
Physics in classical culture advanced vastly different theories about the lifespan of the cosmos. Aristotle and his followers taught that our world was eternal, without beginning or end. Plato and his academy recounted a story about a Craftsman God and a team of subordinate deities who produced from material an everlasting cosmos, created but not destructible. Epicurus and his disciples explained all cosmic structure by positing the existence of tiny particles, which undergo a perpetual cycle of dissolution and regeneration. To rival those powerful alternatives, the Stoics developed their own physics of the cosmos ending by fire.
The Stoic theory followed a long tradition, stretching back into archaic Greek and Near Eastern mythology. That mythology told of the periodic destruction of the world either by fire (the myth of Phaethon and his solar chariot) or by water (the myth of Deucalion and his ark). The myths and their legendary pattern appear also in Mesopotamian flood stories (the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics) and in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 5:28-9:29). But the Stoics turned the long tradition into a rather precise physical doctrine in which the death of the cosmos was caused by its essential bonds bursting into fire, a universal conflagration (Greek ekpyrosis).
The classic theories of ancient physics, especially by the Stoics, informed popular teachings in Greco-Roman ethics about wise people having greater psychological and bodily stability than foolish people. Because the wise were more stable than the foolish, the wise were believed by some Stoic authors to survive until the total conflagration. Themes in 2 Peter share the content of this logic. The opponents are described not merely as vicious; they are “the ignorant and unstable” (2Pet 3:16). Believers, in contrast, will survive until and even beyond the fiery destruction of everything by virtue of their proper “knowledge” and “stability.”
J. Albert Harrill is Professor of History and Classics at The Ohio State University. He is author of Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and of “Stoic Physics, the Universal Conflagration, and the Eschatological Destruction of the ‘Ignorant and Unstable’ in 2 Peter,” in Stoicism in Early Christianity (Baker Academic, 2012).
fourth century BCE Greek philosopher
An ancient Mesopotamian text which includes stories of creation and flood that parallel Biblical accounts.
Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.
A Mesopotamian king from ~2500 B.C.E.; he became the hero of a major epic poem and was addressed as a deity in later religious texts.
Relating to the cultures of Greece or Rome.
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
of lower social class or status
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