God’s purpose being to establish His Kingdom here on
earth, it is inconceivable that He would destroy this planet, and
Bible Basics Study 3.3 has demonstrated that He has
consistently promised not to do such a thing. The above references to the
destruction of the heavens and earth must therefore be taken figuratively.
The passage from Peter is showing the similarities between the judgements on the earth at Noah’s time and what will happen at “the day of the Lord” in future. “The world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens and the earth, which are now... are reserved unto fire against the day of judgment” (2 Pet. 3:6,7).
Peter is pointing a contrast between water being the agent of destruction at Noah’s time, and fire which will be used at the second coming. “The heavens and the earth” of Noah’s time were not literally destroyed - “all flesh” which was sinful was destroyed (Gen. 7:21 cf. 6:5,12). ‘Heavens and earth’ therefore refers to a system of things or of human organisation. It has been commented: ““Heaven and earth” is a Hebrew expression for “world”- there was no single Hebrew noun for ‘world’ until a relatively late period” (Raymond Brown, New Testament Essays (New York: Image Books, 1968 p. 300)). Those who misunderstand this passage tend to overlook the destruction of the ‘heavens’ which is spoken about. This cannot be taken literally - they are God’s dwelling place (Ps. 123:1), where there is no sinfulness (Hab. 1:13; Ps. 65:4,5), and which declares God’s glory (Ps. 19:1). If they refer to something figurative, so must the ‘earth’.
The following passages demonstrate how ‘heavens and earth’ in other parts of the Bible are not to be taken literally, but refer rather to a system of things on the earth:
? “I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void, and the heavens, and they had no light...For thus has the Lord said, The whole land (of Israel) shall be desolate...For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black” (Jer. 4:23-28). This is a prophecy of the judgements to come upon the ‘heavens and earth’ of the land and people of Israel, for which they (not the literal heaven and earth) would mourn.
? Moses had earlier addressed all Israel: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth” (Dt. 32:1). It is emphasised that there were two categories of people to whom he spoke: 1) “The elders of your tribes” and 2) “all the congregation of Israel” (Dt. 31:28,30). The elders would then equate with the ‘heavens’ and the ordinary people with the ‘earth’.
? Isaiah opened his prophecy in similar style: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth... Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers...give ear unto the law of our God, you people” (Is. 1:2,10). Again there is a parallel between the heavens and the rulers; and between the earth and the people.
? “He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge His people” of Israel (Ps. 50:4). This speaks for itself.
? “I will shake all nations...I will shake the heavens and the earth” (Hag. 2:7,21) likewise.
? “For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea...The sword of the Lord is filled with blood...for the Lord has ...a great slaughter in the land of Idumea” (Is. 34:5,6). ‘Heaven’ is here equated with Idumea; the previous prophecy that “all the host of heaven shall be dissolved” (Is. 34:4) therefore refers to the dissolution of Idumea.
? The heavens and earth mentioned as dissolving in Is. 13 refer to the people of Babylon. In a series of statements about Babylon we read that God “will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place...it shall be as the chased roe...they shall every man turn to his own people, and flee every one into his own land” (Is. 13:13,14). The fleeing away of the heavens and earth is thus paralleled with that of the people. Heb. 9:26 speaks of the “end of the world” as occurring in the first century A.D. - in the sense that the Jewish world was ending then.
With all this held firmly in mind, it is to be expected that New Testament references to a new heaven and earth at the return of Christ will refer to the new system of things which will be seen when the Kingdom of God is established.
Closer examination of 2 Pet. 3 confirms this. Having described how the present ‘heavens and earth’ will be ended, v. 13 continues: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwells righteousness”. This is quoting His (God’s) promise of Is. 65:17: “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth”. The rest of Is. 65 goes on to describe this new system of things as being a perfect situation here on this earth:
“Behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing...They shall not build and another inhabit...the child shall die an hundred years old (i.e. life-spans will be increased)...the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (Is. 65:18-25).
These blessings are clearly relevant to God’s coming Kingdom on earth - the new ‘heavens and earth’ which will replace the present miserable set up.