It’s sixty years ago now that William Laurence wrote, “Observers in the tail of our ship saw a giant ball of fire rise as though from the bowels of the earth, belching forth enormous white smoke rings.” This is just a small part of the description of what must have been one of the most apocalyptic sights ever viewed by humans — the destruction of Nagasaki, Japan, by a single atomic bomb on August 9, 1945. Few people are still alive who actually witnessed that sight on that day. A more terrifying sight can hardly be imagined. Churchill wondered that day if the future would hold “measureless havoc upon the entire globe.” It hasn’t yet.
But Peter has described an even more awe-inspiring sight. Instead of the localized destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Peter prophesied of “the day of the Lord” that “will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). He warned, “the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!” (v. 12).
Some of the skeptics in Peter’s day may have thought that God couldn’t do this. In the ancient world, many people had an idea of there being many gods, none of whom was the creator of the world. None of these ancient ideas presented God as being all-powerful. But Peter was ready with replies to these scoffers. He reminds them in 3:5 that “by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water.” If God made the world, He is certainly able to unmake it as well.
Others may have thought, “Well perhaps God is able to do it, but He wouldn’t, would He?” I think a lot of people feel that way today too. God is “the old man upstairs” or “the heavenly grandfather.” Surely He wouldn’t condemn those very creatures that He created in His image, would He?
I remember being in a class some years ago in which one student spoke for several minutes about what he “liked to think of God as being like.” “I like to think of God like …,” he said. That’s what too many do today. We try to make God a reflection of ourselves!
But Peter clearly told these early Christians that God would judge the world. There is precedent. Peter mentions in 3:6 that God had judged the earth before, in the flood. Now, he says, this same word of God has reserved the heavens and the earth for judgment not by water, but by fire (see 3:7).
More objectionable than the other two arguments is the fact that days go by, one after the other. We tend to think, like some of these false teachers in the first century, that because this hasn’t happened yet, it never will. Day after day the sun rises and sets. And we are lulled into the tacit assumption that the end will never come.
But if we are tempted to fall into such indifference, Peter reminds us that God hasn’t forgotten His promises. He is not forgetful; rather, He is eternal. “The Lord is not slow about his promises, as some count slowness” (2 Peter 3:9). So God is not even slow. He is, says Peter, patient. And, in fact, when judgment does finally come, it will come suddenly. Therefore it’s not surprising that we don’t see it now. Thus we should live life in view of this coming judgment. That’s how Peter concludes his second letter. Check the map, Peter is saying. Make sure that you’re on the right path.
I remember as a teenager looking at my hand and considering that it will someday be a skeleton. That was my personal way of considering that the end is surely coming. At any time, my next appointment may well be with God, before the throne of God.
But as a Christian I can be confident of the reception I will find there. The ultimate realities of being in God’s presence outshine all the other triumphs and trials of this life. They challenge and encourage us as Christians to persevere and endure.
One of my favorite passages in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is when the characters at the end of the second half are crossing over the river. They’re dying. And as each one goes to the Celestial City, they say a few words. Mr. Standfast’s are lodged in my mind: “The thoughts of what I am going to, and of the conduct that waits for me on the other side, doth lie as a glowing coal at my heart. I see myself now at the end of my journey; my toilsome days are ended. I am going now to see that head that was crowned with thorns, and that face which was spit upon for me. I have formerly lived by hearsay and faith: but now I go where I shall live by sight, and shall be with Him in whose company I delight myself.”
The awesome apocalypse of God’s judgment can only be faced with a clear knowledge of God’s goodness to us in Christ. If He is our hope, then we have nothing else to fear, not even the destruction of worlds.