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An Eschatology of Fire

Men have seen the fiery judgment of God as a single eschatological event to end history rather than as an ongoing purification that purges creation of the evil of man. We miss so much of the meaning of history—particularly our own—when eschatology is limited to an “end-time” rather than “end points” where God continues the shaking of all things so that the unshakeable may remain.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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How does fire factor into the question of eschatology, the study of last things? Let’s see how far we’ve strayed from scripture in the name of conventional thinking on this. We begin with a review of Isaiah 33, which appeared in Arise & Build twice before.1

Shaking, Chaff, Dross, and Fire

You can find parallels to the ongoing universal shaking of Hebrews 12:26 elsewhere in Scripture: wind removing chaff from wheat in Matt. 3:11–12, and fire removing dross from silver in Mal. 3:2–3. Consider how John the Baptist puts forward his confidence in Christ’s mission:

His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matt. 3:12)

Jesus doesn’t stand there holding His fan motionless century after century. The winnowing has been ongoing and will fully purge the world of chaff. Daniel saw that the nations “became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them” (Dan. 2:35). 

Purging parallels burning in Isaiah 4:4 when the Lord “shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning.” Malachi says that the Messiah “is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” (Mal. 3:2b–3a). The dross He is removing corresponds to the shakable things, the purified silver to the unshakable things that remain. 

The Fire of Isaiah 33

We live in the midst of the fire of God that is purifying the world. George Adam Smith explains how deeply aware Isaiah was of this.

The justice of God, preached so long by Isaiah, had always seemed something abstract. Now they saw how concrete it was. It was not only a doctrine: it was a fact. It was a fact that was a fire. Isaiah had often called it a fire; they thought this was rhetoric. But now they saw the actual burning—“the peoples as the burning of lime, as thorns cut down that are burned in the fire.” And when they felt the fire so near, each sinner of them awoke to the fact that he had something burnable in himself, something which could as little stand the fire as the Assyrians could. There was no difference in this fire outside and inside the walls.2

What we need, then, is to see our world like Isaiah saw it—as it really is:

Isaiah … likens the holiness of God to a universal and constant fire. To Isaiah life was so penetrated by the active justice of God that he described it as bathed in fire, as blown through with fire. Righteousness was no mere doctrine to this prophet: it was the most real thing in history; it was the presence which pervaded and explained all phenomena.

Isaiah alone faced life with open vision, which filled up for him the interstices of experience and gave terrible explanation to fate. It was a vision that nearly scorched the eyes out of him. Life as he saw it was steeped in flame—the glowing righteousness of God. Jerusalem was full “of the spirit of justice, the spirit of burning. The light of Israel is for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame.” [Isa. 4:4 and 10:17]3

How do we survive in the middle of the fire that Isaiah sees penetrating all reality? Smith points to Isaiah’s own answer to these questions:

Isaiah replied that there is one thing which can survive universal flame, and that is character: “He that walketh righteously and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of fraud, that shaketh his hands from the holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from the hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from looking on evil, he shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks; his bread shall be given him; his water shall be sure.” [Isa. 33:15–16]4

Unlike Isaiah, Christians have become oblivious to the fire that all reality is being bathed in. 

Does 2 Peter 3:6-13 Teach Total Destruction?

The conventional views allocate the words in Peter’s text to secure a future fulfillment of the world’s destruction by fire. Peter confronts the scoffers by reminding them of parallels between Noah’s flood and their situation. 

As the text says, “the world of that time was deluged by water” (the term “deluged” being unique in the NT) and destroyed, not meaning, of course, that it was totally annihilated (our author, like any reader of Genesis, would know that not only the people and animals in the ark survive, but so do fish and at least some plants that are outside the ark, for a fresh-plucked olive leaf (Gen. 8:11) indicates that the waters have receded to the treetops), but that it was largely destroyed, sufficient for the purposes of the judgment.5

The heavens and the earth have been set aside for fire because that is the agency that will prepare and cleanse the world and progressively remove the dross from it.

What the Word has done, then, is “reserve” the present heavens and earth … for fire. The term “reserve” (or “keep” or “treasure up”) is somewhat unusual.6

We see that the earth is reserved for fire, but, when the fire comes, it is the elements that burn, not the earth, but then we do not learn of new heavens and new elements, but new heavens and a new earth.7

Gardner, in commenting on the phrase “reserved by fire,” notes the historic context:

But has God spoken of destruction by fire up to this point in history? Remember that back in verse 2 that Peter was drawing attention to words spoken in the past in the prophets and by Jesus himself that have come down to us through the apostles. As we look back through the prophets we find many references to judgment by fire. In some instances it seems limited to a refining type of judgment for the people of God, but in other places it is far more general and even universal in its application.8

Schreiner sees the issue too:

The reference to fire is surprising since nowhere else are we told that the world will be destroyed by fire. … We should note that the fiery judgments in the OT refer to the judgment of people, not the cosmos.9

Bauckham concurs, observing that “in OT texts the function of this fire is to consume the wicked, not to destroy the world…”10 Davids emphasizes the long-suffering of God, 

Our author asserts that delay is emphatically not what is happening. Instead of delay, what is happening is mercy.11

The Day of the Lord may indeed come, but the desire of God and of his people is that it finds no one whom God has to judge (even if there is little hope in Scripture that that will actually be the case).12

We disagree with Davids’s last point, for the darkness is in process of passing way (1 John 2:8) as the light broadens into the fullness of day. 

The heavens and the earth are “kept” …  for this Day of Judgment. Yet the judgment is not of the creation but of human beings, just as the flood was not about the creation but about human evil. … Our author is not against the creation since that is something that God made. He does believe that it needs to be purified, but this purification is principally a purification of the human evil that has polluted it. Presumably, as with the deluge, the extent of the destruction by fire will be limited by that needed to wipe out human evil.13

We’ll take a good hard look at this alleged “destruction” by fire to see how weak it really is, but even if it were correct, it isn’t a given that the world is to be destroyed, as Macleay points out:

The word translated ‘elements’ (3:10, 12) could refer to the physical materials which make up the earth. However, this term is used by Paul to denote the elemental forces of evil (see Gal. 4:39,9; Col. 2:8,20). It is clear that Peter knew of Paul’s letters and held them to be Scripture (see 3:15, 16). So, interpreting Scripture by Scripture points us towards seeing the word (‘stoicheia’) as referring to those evil forces.14

But there are textual issues with 2 Peter 3 that put pressure on the conventional view.

Fiery Destruction or Progressive Revealing?

The manuscripts we have of Peter’s epistle have variants. While we are content to use the received text, it is instructive to realize how scholars have handled the variations. Attempts to “repair the text” have been unduly influenced by a powerful bias among translators, a bias pointed out by Bauckham:

It will be observed that all the variant readings (which must be regarded as ancient emendations of heurethesetai) derive from the conviction that the context requires a word equivalent to “destroyed.” The same conviction informs most of the modern emendations.15

Only a small minority of those proposed modern emendations avoid this bias towards destruction, such as “will flow” (Hort), “will flow together” (Naber, per Metzger) and “will be healed” (Chase, per Mayor, cc).16 A pessimistic outlook has steered translators away from considering these options. You cannot get a greater contrast than between the world being destroyed and the world being healed

It may take some time for scholars to set aside eschatological prejudices and take the text as it stands written. If heurethesatai is Peter’s original term, the idea of exposing or uncovering the creation finds meaning in the way polluted metals are refined by heat with the dross being driven away (Mal. 3:1-3), which has direct application to our concerns here.

Finally, we are not talking about an event that engulfs everyone in the world, but one that affects the ungodly.17

Moreover, we encounter a rare term in Peter’s argument. Regarding “the day of God,” Davids notes that “this is an unusual expression, for normally it is ‘the day of Christ’”18 and Huther agrees that the term “occurs nowhere else.”19

Schreiner observes that “the day of God refers to the day of the Father, not the Son.”20 Warfield draws attention to the same difference between the kingdoms of the Son and of the Father when discussing 1 Cor. 15:23-28, so:

The New Testament … everywhere places Christ’s kingdom before and God’s after the second Advent. The contrast in Mt. xiii. 41 and 43 is not accidental.21

As we dig deeper, we can detect a shift away from themes of destruction:

The Jews … did realize that evil had so penetrated [the creation] that radical renewal was necessary, especially when it came to human beings. Romans picks up this need, stating in Rom 8:21 that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Salvation is for all of creation, according to Paul.22


Although this passage does not finally settle the dispute, whether an entire destruction, an annihilation, or only a transformation of the state of the world is to be looked for, … it gives more support to the second than the first idea, since, in spite of the strong expressions which the writer makes use of, it is not decidedly stated that the world will be dissolved into nothing.23

Dr. Morecraft also denies that annihilation is in view.24

Future Fire or Present Fire?

The correct renderings of Peter’s terminology acknowledge that the heavens are already on fire. As Huther notes, “the participle is present, not future”25 which means that pyroumenoi cannot mean “in that they will burn.”26 Peter is asserting that they were already on fire when he wrote his epistle. Scholars inflict damage on the text by altering it to suit eschatological expectations. 

The verb “melt” (tekatai) is in the present tense in Greek, but a future event is contemplated here.27

Despite admitting the word is in the present tense, Schreiner above insists that it “surely describes a future event.”28 Strachan concedes the same point.29

Lenski gives the present tenses their full weight. His translation of verses 10 and 12 run so: “Moreover, elements, being heated, shall be dissolved”30 and “on account of which heavens, set on fire, shall be dissolved, and elements, being heated, shall be melted.”31 He then even corrects “shall be melted” in his exposition to honor the present participle in contrasting verse 12 with verse 10:

The participle “being heated” is repeated with “elements,” but in place of “shall be dissolved” we have the synonym “shall be melted” or rather the preferred reading “are melted” (present tense), which, like the genitive absolute, disregards the point of time. These variations between v. 10 and v. 12 are important for showing us how v. 7 is to be understood: “the present heavens and the earth treasured up for fire.”32

In short, we are dealing with present realities, with a fire that has been burning for centuries and will continue to be poured out on the earth as Christ pursues His prophesied prerogatives in Malachi 3.

The heat is depicted by the term kausoumena, “a medical term, used of the heat of fever (kausos). This is the only known use of the word applied to inanimate objects.”33 This ongoing fever will one day break and the creation will be released from bondage.

Destruction or Liberation?

The supposed “dissolution” of the world is a dubious rendering for a word that would normally denote liberation. Alexander Nisbet’s 1658 commentary on the letters of Peter sets forth a more literal rendering:

The whole creation is now in a manner imprisoned, and in bondage, while they are abused, contrary to their inclination, to the service of men’s lusts, and dishonour of their Maker; from which slavery they shall be loosed at Christ’s coming, Rom. 8:21, for the word in the original here is used to signify the loosing of a captive, or prisoner, out of his bonds.34

As B. C. Caffin acknowledges, “the word rendered ‘melt’ means ‘shall be dissolved’ or ‘loosed’.”35 He further corrects the faulty of translation of 2 Peter 3:11 to “seeing that all these things are being dissolved” because “the participle is present,” arguing that the forces described “are even now at work.”36 The range of meaning of the verb includes more than dissolve or loosen, but also to release or liberate.

The vast majority of scriptural examples in Thayer’s Lexicon convey the meaning of a release from bondage, e.g., “to unbind, release from bonds, set free,” including from chains, from bandages, “discharge from prison,” even to free from the bondage of disease.37 But the three examples for dissolve/destroy are taken from consecutive verses in 2 Peter 3, verses 10, 11, and 12! The tail is wagging the dog!

Romans 8:21 predicts a release from the bondage of corruption. The connection of this with Peter’s doctrine is made explicit by Shedd, who lists Paul’s prediction in Romans 8:21 alongside Acts 3:21 and 2 Peter 3:10-13.38

We therefore agree with Schreiner’s argument that Peter uses the present tense, but would argue that the world isn’t being destroyed (present tense) but is being released from bondage (present tense) as the fire does its progressive work:

The Greek participle lumenon is actually present tense (“being destroyed”) instead of future (“will be destroyed”). Some commentators conclude from this that the world is in the process of dissolution even now, culminating in its final destruction [n.b., Kelly, Moo, etc.].39

Strachan observes that J. B. Mayor agrees that everything “is in process of dissolution”40: we’d agree it’s ongoing but affirm that liberation/unloosing of creation is the better sense. Douglas Moo’s insight on Romans 8:21 is equally relevant:

We might also note that the idea of creation “being set free” strongly suggests that the ultimate destiny of creation is not annihilation but transformation. God intends his “new creation” work to include creation itself, reminding us of the value God places on the nonhuman world and consequently, the need for us as God’s children to value that world as well.41

Moo acknowledges “the apparent tension between this claim and the teaching of 2 Peter 3”42 and directs the reader to his published response. Lenski contrasts Romans 8:21 with 2 Peter 3 as well:

It has been well said that not the cosmos itself will pass away but only the form of this present world (1 Cor. 7:31). The fire mentioned by Peter must be the fire of purification.43

Humanists have aped this divine promise of deliverance from decay for centuries. Note Thielman’s observation:

According to Roman propaganda preserved in an inscription from Priene in Roman Asia, Augustus had already set the world free from “decay.”44

In Romans, Paul contradicts45 the emperor’s fraudulent claim.

Roaring Crash or a Crackling Fire?

The bias towards seeing a sudden, loud, catastrophic event in the fire of 2 Peter 3 is evident in the improper translations given the word rhoizidan (a term appearing only here in the entire Bible). There are contextual reasons for questioning this misstep as well. The thief who makes a banging racket when he enters a house is certainly giving plenty of warning of his presence and incompetence. 

Shreiner says, “I argue that the roar designates a crackling fire, and so what v. 12 says coheres with v. 10”46 while Huther notes that Oecumenius “understands it of the crackling of the destroying fire.”47 R. H. Strachan is representative in laying out the proper definitions (below), but then surveys pagan authors to justify a much bigger noise to suit his prophetic bias.

rhoizedon expresses the sound produced by rapid motion through the air, e.g., flight of a bird, or an arrow. It is also used of a shepherd’s pipe.48

A force-fit to account for the greatest imaginable catastrophe has to set aside the usual meaning of the word to save the appearances for a cataclysm.

Christ’s Testimony in Luke 12:49  

Of keen interest are Christ’s Own words about His mission and the part that fire plays in it:

I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? (Luke 12:49 KJV)

Ellicott’s view emphasizes the purposes for the fire:

The fire which He came to send is the fire of judgment which shall burn up the chaff (cf. Matt. 3:12), the baptism of fire which shall purify and cleanse as well as destroy.49

Lange explains Luke 12:49 well, noting that “fire has on the one hand a warming and purifying, but on the other a dissolving and destroying, force.”50 He adds that “the salutary force of the fire also stands before His view, because He knows that only through these flames can all impurity be purged away from the earth.”51

Godet helps us better understand the proper sense of the disputed second clause:

That which appears to us the most natural: “What have I more to seek, since it is already kindled?” … Meantime this fire, which is already kindled, is far yet from bursting into a flame … Jesus sees Himself about to be plunged into a bath of flame, from which He shall come forth the torch which shall set the whole world on fire.52

Warfield summarizes the teaching of Luke 12:49, saying that Jesus “came to die that He might set the world on fire.”53

Some have asked where the element of surprise comes in – a surprise that, on their view, would only be experienced by the last generation. The answer appears two dozen verses earlier in Luke 12, when all unregenerate men and women shall hear the words, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.” The goods laid up for oneself are laid up for the righteous (cf. Prov. 13:22). 

An In-Your-Face Eschatology

Dr. Rushdoony explained how modern eschatology wears blinders when it comes to seeing how history continues to embody the eschatology taught in Scripture.

…we tend to place great emphasis on the end, the last things. This is a very healthy demand, to a degree, but it can, beyond a point, warp our perspective. Martin Selbrede has called attention, after B. B. Warfield, to the way we read the parables in terms of the final end too often, rather than present realities, and we thereby miss the meaning of much of Scripture. We cannot read the Bible too heavily in terms of the end of all things, for to do so is to depreciate or negate the meaning of history. … The reality of time is not negated by eternity, and the present is important because it is the matrix and the foundation of the last.

Moreover, the word eschatos, according to Link, in the Greek designated “the end-point of a continuously conceived succession of circumstances.” Link does not speak of the end-time but the end-point, a very important distinction. The end-point can come with the death of a man, or the judgment of a family, an institution, or a people. In this sense, history is continuously witnessing to end-points or eschatons.54

This tendency to deny the ongoing relevance of many eschatological texts extends (as we have seen) to distorting the translation of the scriptures. The moral implications inevitably follow, as Rushdoony notes:

When eschatology is limited to the end-time, and end-points in God’s plan are down-graded, the consequences are serious. First, people are morally disarmed, because the historical relevance of end-points, of blessings and curses, is diminished. Time loses much of its meaning … The historical process is thereby rendered irrelevant to man. Because of this moral default, the humanist … takes over the direction of societies and institutions.55

Mark Rushdoony’s helpful discussion of how to understand “the day of the Lord” in most contexts56 alerts us to the fact that such judgments are a staple of the inter-Advent era.57 Ergo, we must not be like the wicked man who is oblivious that God’s judgment “hath set him on fire round about, yet he knew not; and it burned him, yet he laid it not to heart.” (Isa. 42:25) 

Many will shake their heads and insist that Present Fire is ineffective but Future Fire is highly prized. This is the opposite of Isaiah’s view. We are confronted with the same fire as Isaiah was. Being sent by Christ Himself, this fire gets the job done. We don’t wait for the elements to begin melting at some future point: they have been melting. It is then the fashion of this world that is passing away. The fire of Rev. 20:9 is falling now, for we on earth are living in the little season of Revelation 20.58 Christ is thoroughly purging the threshing floor.

We end on a speculative note. Peter points out parallels between the Flood and the fire pouring out upon the earth. Most people assume the fire will destroy everything in a single day, the last day. But the Flood wasn’t a one-day event: it rained for forty days before it stopped. Perhaps if one day is like a thousand years to God, maybe there’ll be a thousand years of fire for every day of rain. Forty thousand years seems like a long time, but we were told in advance that God is faithful to a thousand generations—which is also forty thousand years.

1. https://chalcedon.edu/resources/articles/embracing-the-god-who-shakes-our-world; https://chalcedon.edu/resources/articles/consummation

2. George Adam Smith in The Expositor’s Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books House, [1903] 1982), vol. 3, p. 700.

3. ibid.

4. ibid.

5. Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), p. 271.

6. Ibid, p. 272.

7. Ibid, p. 283.

8. Paul Gardner, 1 & 2 Peter & Jude (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2013 [1998]), p. 271.

9. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 & 2 Peter and Jude (Brentwood, TN: Holman Reference, 2020), p. 452.

10. Richard Bauckham, Jude – 2 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 1983), p. 300.

11. Davids, p. 279.

12. Ibid, p. 282.

13. Ibid, p. 274.

14. Angus Macleay, Teaching 2 Peter & Jude (London: Proclamation Trust Resources, 2020), p. 114.

15. Bauckham, p. 317.

16. Ibid, p. 317-318.

17. Davids, p. 273.

18. Ibid, p. 290.

19. H. A. W. Meyer, Commentary on the New Testament (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, 1979 [T & T Clark 1883), vol. 9, p. 430.

20. Schreiner, p. 390.

21. Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1968) p. 487.

22. Davids, p. 292.

23. Meyer, p. 431, n. 1.

24. Joseph C. Morecraft, III, Authentic Christianity (Centreville, AL: Four Falls Press, 2019 [2009]), vol. 4, pp. 1986-1991. Dr. Morecraft does not treat the verbs as being in present tense.

25. Meyer, p. 430.

26. Meyer, p. 430. Huther asserts that Dietlein translates “falsely” by putting the fire in the future.

27. Schreiner, p. 468.

28. Schreiner, p. 391.

29. R. H. Strachan in The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1983), vol. 5, p. 146.

30. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), p. 346.

31. Ibid, p. 348.

32. Ibid, p. 349.

33. Strachan, ibid, p. 145.

34. Alexander Nisbet, An Exposition of 1 & 2 Peter (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2023 [1658]), p. 286.

35. H.D.M. Spence & Joseph S. Exell, ed., The Pulpit Commentary Vol. 22 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), sec. 2, p. 68.

36. Ibid.

37. J. H. Thayer, ed., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 384-385.

38. W.G.T. Shedd, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980 [1879]), p. 256.

39. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville, TN: BH Publishing, 2003), p. 389.

40. Strachan, ibid, p. 145.

41. Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018), p. 540.

42. Ibid, p. 540, n. 1100, adding that “believers can even now, then, in a preliminary way, begin to free creation from its bondage by their careful stewardship.”

43. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1945), p. 538.

44. Frank Thielman, Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018), p. 404.

45. Ibid.

46. Schreiner, p. 468.

47. Meyer, p. 428.

48. Strachan, p. 145.

49. Charles John Ellicott, Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), vol. 6, p. 304.

50. John Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Mark & Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), sec. 2, p. 207.

51. Ibid, p. 208.

52. Frederic Godet, A Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke (New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1887), pp. 352-353.

53. Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrines (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1929), p. 293.

54. R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology in Two Volumes (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), p. 785.

55. Ibid, p. 798.

56. https://chalcedon.edu/resources/articles/the-day-of-the-lord-and-the-certainty-of-justice 

57. https://chalcedon.edu/blog/the-day-of-the-lord 

58. William Milligan, The Revelation of St. John – the Baird Lecture, 1885 (London & New York: Macmillan, 1887), pp. 193-233. See also Warfield, Biblical Doctrines, pp. 643-664.


Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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