the environment — isn’t it all going to burn?

Lately I’ve been thinking about how Christians should respond to climate change as I prepare my Issues in Theology presentation. But almost every time someone at College hears about my topic, the conversation turns towards one looming difficulty that threatens to turn the idea of a Christian response to climate change into a non-starter. Time and again people ask me — or proclaim as an immutable article of faith — ‘But it’s all going to burn, isn’t it?’


Yep, 2 Peter 3. It seems to present an insurmountable obstacle to developing any response to climate change — let alone a Christian one!

But I’ve discovered some stimulating stuff in Richard Bauckham’s commentary on 2 Peter (which Don Carson warmly recommends, in case you’re doubting its ‘evangelical cred’):

The author clearly uses cosmological ideas current in his time which must be regarded as mythological: creation as the emergence of the world out of a primeval ocean, the Deluge as a universal cosmic catastrophe, the idea that the world is to be subject to two universal destructions, one by water (the Flood) and the other by fire (in the future). But the religious belief which is conveyed in these mythological forms remains valid, though it is not a belief which can be detached, in a purely existential way, from any reference to the physical world. (p 302)

I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this, but I think I can see his point: What 2 Peter 3 driving at, as it works to pull the rug out from under the feet of the ‘scoffers’ who doubt the future intervention of God, is the inevitability of His arrival as Judge.

Bauckham goes on to argue that the imagery of fire consuming the elements (stoichia) is about the heavens and heavenly powers being stripped back so that the earth and everything done on it is exposed to God’s judicial scrutiny. What’s more, as the passage crescendos it’s actually the renewal of the creation — such that it becomes a place where righteousness is at home — that’s revealed as the goal of God’s dramatic arrival.

The images of fiery discontinuity between the present and the future actually serve an emphasis on continuity, in fulfilment of OT hopes. It’s in the fires of judgement that God will forge a redeemed, perfected and transfigured world that answers to His original intention…


  1. Does that just shift the question from ‘it’s all going to burn, isn’t it?’ to ‘the Flood (Gen 6-9) actually happened, right?’?

  2. Yes, 2 Peter 3 isn’t the only thing the bible has to say about (new) creation.

    The problem I’ve encountered is that when people see the word element, they automatically think of the periodic table rather than demonic powers and authorities.

    1. Thanks Matt. I’m totally with you.

      The most recent question that’s been posed to me though is, ‘Even if what we’re talking about is a new/renewed creation, is this the reason we should care about the environment — or anything — according to the NT?’

      For example, what part does the continuity that I think the Scriptures insist on — as much as (if not more than) the discontinuity — have to play in the logic of NT commands about how we use our bodies and sexuality? I’m not sure I know how to answer that question yet (or how much bearing the answer will legitimately have on the issue of our care, under God, for the non-human creation). Any thoughts?

  3. Mmm, good question to ask. Let me think about and I’ll get back to you.

    I think though, that care for the non-human creation has always been a defining mark of evangelicals (it’s not just the latest craze we’ve picked up because Al Gore has a large megaphone). The same Evangelical Christians who founded CMS, fought against the slave trade, urged for the spiritual reformation of England also founded the RSPCA.

  4. I’d say it something to do with the gospel – Jesus is Lord. We are commanded not muck around with our bodies and sex because Jesus is Lord – even of our bodies and the way we use sex should represent that.

    Just as his death not only redeems humans, but the whole creation; so to his lordship is not just about me and now, but extends over the whole creation. We care about the creation now, because it’s God’s creation and Jesus is in charge of it. So the way we use creation should reflect Jesus’ good lordship over it.

    Creation matters because in the garden God said it was good – and despite the best attempts of evil to effectively destroy creation (maybe that is one way to describe evil, as being anti-creation), God will redeem it from the bondage of sin, death and evil. And has already started, by raising a very physical Jesus from the dead (firstborn of creation) and making him King.

    1. the way we use creation should reflect Jesus’ good lordship over it. Right on! That’s really helpful.

      There’s a much tighter connection than we often recognise between the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus, which inaugurates God’s ultimate redemption and reclamation of the world he’s made and loves, and the whole reality of life in this world. Something like this has to lie behind the NT’s robust and full-blooded concern with how we live and behaviour here and now — which springs from and adorns the gospel — doesn’t it?

  5. Chris, Matt: I much prefer the turn this conversation has taken, to the terms in which it was originally posed.

    The argument about the relative emphasis on continuity and discontinuity is Scripture is obviously relevant, and it’s been carried elsewhere by Michael J, with more competence and patience than I could muster. But the idea that Christian concern for the environment should turn on this, and this alone, is a trap.

    You say that people challenge you “time and time again” with statements like: “‘But it’s all going to burn, isn’t it?’”. If you are uncomfortable with straightforwardly reviling these people as Philistines — and I know that you are by nature a conciliatory sort of guy — why not issue a counter-challenge, as to what they make of the ideal of stewardship?

    Because if it really is the case that theologically educated people, on the street, are happy to toss around this sort of rhetoric without regard for such a good Old Testament value, then something is very badly wrong; and the exegetical argument about (dis)continuity is secondary.

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