Monthly Archives: September 2013

Destructions by Water and Fire

The Hebrew language and hence the Hebrew mind is not quite like our English language.  Hebrew has a somewhat limited diction, which makes for a less precise language.  In order to extract a diversity of meaning from fewer words means that context and relation play a bigger role.  For example the hebrew ‘yahm’ which we would translate ‘sea’. Can mean any body of water from a cup to the golden basin in front of the temple to the Red Sea.  We might bristle at the lack of specificity, but they gloried in the connections.  The basin in front of the temple is related to the red sea, context would easily make clear what you were talking about.  And the related meaning carries a sense of poetry embeded in the language which our modern English can lack.  So their words were more like what and English professor might call ‘themes’.  It is a loaded or pregnant term.

One such theme is the idea of water as a baptizing, cleansing force which leads to new birth.  The creation account begins in Genesis 1:2 to introduce the idea of water in this way.  The image is almost a birth of all creation from God hovering over the face of the waters.    The theme is repeated in the flood account in Genesis 6-8.  The earth is cleansed of its wicked flesh by the flood.  But this is not only a destruction, it is a remaking of the world, it is a rebirth of the earth by water, a baptism even.  These are the connections Peter is making in II Peter 3:4-6.  People think the earth has always been this way, but they are wrong, there was a different earth before the flood.  Now after the flood God put his bow in the sky as a covenant with Noah and all his offspring that he would never again destroy, cleanse, the world by water.  We have the term rainbow indicating the rain which produces it. It did not always rain.  Creation scientist have fun attempting to determine just what the world was like before the flood.  At any rate we know it was different.

Filippo Palizzi, After The Flood

So, here we are, the world is still messed up.  Look around, evil is rampant.  Is this supposed to be the kingdom of God? God can’t use water to fix things this time.  Peter makes it clear next time it will be fire.  The theme of fire is meant to make connections just as the theme of water did.  We like to think of the fire as a series of explosions at the end of an action movie that destroy all the bad guys and their fancy cars, while the good guy escapes to the beach somewhere.  We think of this destruction as the end of earth, and we will happily float away to a cloud in heaven to play harps for eternity.  This is not the idea at all.  This has more to do with Platonic philosophy than anything we might find in scripture. In scripture fire is an insturment of cleansing just like water.  God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with “brimstone and fire from the Lord” Genesis 19:24.  But I think a more common theme connected with fire is that of refining or testing.  Proverbs 17:3 says “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests the hearts.”  It is a theme repeated in the prophets. Zechariah 13:9 says “And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” ”.  The idea in these passages is not an outright destruction, but a testing to reveal what is enduring and precious and what is garbage.  In fact the valley of Gehenna outside the City of David became the greek word translated ‘hell’ in our New Testament.  Hell is where the garbage is burned.

Albrecht Durer, Lot Fleeing with his Daughters from Sodom, c.1498

Paul expounds on this idea of testing, and what is tested? Our works.  I Corinthians 3:9-15 details this theme.  Paul tells us he was given the task of building the foundations, and we are to build on top of it with our work.  We might build with gold, silver or precious stones or wood, hay and straw. Only the fire at the end will make it clear what we built with.  If we build with wood, hay and straw our work will be consumed. We might be saved like the action movie but our work will not.  If we build with gold, silver and precious stones our work will endure.  Endure, this means that it will make it past the fire at the end.  It will make it past this earth and continue into the new heaven and new earth. Remember the fire is a remaking of the earth a cleansing like the waters of the flood.  We modern evangelicals almost run wholeheartedly to build with hay and straw or play with dirt as C. S. Lewis remarks.  We think this world is going to burn up so, who cares.  But this is not it at all.  Paul here and Peter in II Peter 3:10 is about works.  It is telling us to do the work that is real because we don’t want it all to burn up.    And he is not just talking about some narrow idea of evangelism.  II Peter 3:11 tells us in light of the coming fire to live lives of holiness and godliness.  These works will endure.  Romans 8:22 tells us that all of creation groans with labor pains.  The earth desires to be remade, not wiped out.  Jesus tells us a parable in Matthew 25:14-30 about a master who gives his servants some money while he is away.  The servants who make use of the money and produce an increase are blessed.  Their work is gold, they will be given a position in the kingdom.  The one who does not is thrown into the fire.  This earth is a testing ground for our place in the new earth.

John Martin, Sodom and Gomorrah, c. 1852

We get a further idea about the new earth by Christ’s death and resurrection.  He refers to his death and by association our deaths as a seed being planted in the ground.  We can see it with his body, which was planted in the ground for 3 days, it brought forth a new body which was like the old but glorified.  I think this is the idea of what will happened to the whole earth as it is refined by fire at the end.  C. S. Lewis taps into this idea with his creation account of Narnia.  Pieces from the old world are thrown into the ground and they sprout up to their full potential in Narnia.  This is the climax of II Peter 3, verse 13 ends with the picture of a sinless new heaven and new earth.  I think we will be surprised at how similar the new earth is to this one.  All the hours we wasted browsing the internt will not be there.  All the time we spent entertaining ourselves will not be there.  All our fame and fortune will not be there.  But, the character we developed here will be there.  The skills we learned will be there.  The justice we brought will be there.  The loving acts of kindness will be there.  The pieces of earth we redeemd for his glory will be there.  For we not only pray “for his will on earth as it is in heaven,” we are called to do it, right now.


My motivation for this topic is a little overdue but hopefully the ideas are timeless.  I don’t really think II Peter 3:8 and 9 are primarily directed to the issue of free will vs. predestination, more on that later, but it was brought up.  We were presented with the notion of two things which seem to contradict but in fact are both true.  The term used was antinomy, but I like the word paradox.  Antinomy has the idea of two lines of reasoning that contradict.  But I think paradox is a lot more fun and alive.  It has with it the notion that two things contradict in a logical sense, yet in a poetic sense they are both necessary.  In fact crashing them together can bring out meaning and truth which neither aspect has in and of itself.  The tension and the relationship between these two things is the way it was meant to be, it is the way God created it to be.


Paradox is the fabric of the Universe, it won’t unravel it, silly Doctor.

Paradox underlies much of creation.  When we encounter them in scripture we often freak out like the Doc. Or we lament the fact that we can’t take one extreme and make a rule that would be simple to follow.  Instead we are given this tension and we have to work it out. As sub-creators bearing the image of God we must be creative, in our resolutions to these tension. As an example of how fundamental these are, lets look at the creation account from Genesis 1.  Most false religions err on one side of a tension or the other.  They try to make the world many or one.  But the trinitarian God is both.  The entire creation account is one of divided unity coming back to relate to itself in a richer way.  ”God divided the light from the darkness” vs. 4  ”and divided the waters which were under the firmament from he waters above the firmament” vs. 6.  Even the creation of woman was a division of the man.  ”And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman.” Genesis 2:22.  And so in marriage they come back together to become one, it is a mystery. This is perhaps the best idea of a paradox.  Men and women are totally different, yet they are told to become one in marriage.  It doesn’t make much sense if you deconstruct it and mix in a little sin, and so the world concludes that homosexual is just as good or better. You don’t make it all male or make it all female you crash them together and they become one. The nature of the world is paradox, and marriage is such a beautiful picture of it.

M. C. Escher, Drawing Hands

The book of Proverbs is also full of paradox.  Lets say a pastor quoted Proverbs 26:4 “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” without quoting verse 5 “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. And then went on to talk about the importance of believing free will and predestination.  It might seem like he has created a paradox, really he is just a hypocrite.  Because, these are the same thing, he is holding one standard for himself and another for everyone else.  Sometimes contradiction is just contradiction. But, these seemingly contradictory proverbs are a paradox.  Those are two valid responses.  We can’t just make one of them into a command that we must abide by and let the other one float away.  We have to hold them both in our minds as we act.  Sometimes answering a fool will make you a fool, not necessarily a bad thing maybe you need a lesson.  On the other hand sometimes answering a fool will prevent him from becoming established in his folly.  This brings to mind the Jewish mind, so beautifully illustrated in The Fiddler on the Roof.  ”On the one hand. . . but on the other hand”.  This is the way of proverbs, because it is the way of the God’s world, this is paradox.

M. C. Escher, Relativity

Wisdom can get you a long way in your life, it can give you general principles that can inform your decision, but you still have to decide.  In the real world you must choose, and that decision will inform future decisions, success or failure. Wisdom is an applied science, it is a skill, not a mere theory.  With a paradox it is ok to have both, but situations  might call for one side being addressed at the expense of the other.  That is what is going on here with II Peter.  He is not interested in the doctrine of predestination et al.  He is explaining that God’s seeming slowness, is further love.  God is making more opportunities for people to be saved.  He loves us so much that he just waits for as many as he can get.  The freewill vs predestination debate often degrades into some sort of an argument about  whether God looked ahead and saw our decision, etc.  This is foolishness. Peter makes it clear in vs. 8, God is outside of time, he does not measure time as we do.  The ‘when’ does not matter.  This idea was discussed by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy.  Written in 524 and followed up by C. S. Lewis and others, yet is does not seem nearly prevalent enough.  It really cuts out a lot of the silliness.

I must end with an extended piece of Chesterton, Master of Paradox.  They flow so freely in his writing, he uses them as subject and as large and small scale literary device.

It [Christianity] separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both.  In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before.  In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures.  In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny– all that was to go.  We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field.  Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god.  The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it.  Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it.  Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage.  Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.  When one came to think of ONE’S SELF, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth.  There the realistic gentleman could let himself go–as long as he let himself go at himself.  There was an open playground for the happy pessimist.  Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools are not worth saving.  He must not say that a man, QUA man, can be valueless.  Here, again in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.  The Church was positive on both points.  One can hardly think too little of one’s self.  One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Further Reading: The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius;  Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton