December 2016 /January 2017 - Vol. 89

 dramatic clouds
Reply to the Skeptics Concerning the Return of the Lord
A Commentary on 2 Peter 3:1-7

by Dr. Daniel A. Keating
The following short commentary from the Second Letter of Peter, Chapter 3, verses 1-7 is lightly edited with permission of the author, Dr. Daniel Keating, from his book, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude, published by Baker Academic, 2011. While it was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – ed.

Reply to the Skeptics (2 Peter 3:1–7)
2 Peter 3: 1 This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you; through them by way of reminder I am trying to stir up your sincere disposition, 2 to recall the words previously spoken by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and savior through your apostles. 3 Know this first of all, that in the last days scoffers will come [to] scoff, living according to their own desires 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? From the time when our ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation.” 5 They deliberately ignore the fact that the heavens existed of old and earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God; 6 through these the world that then existed was destroyed, deluged with water. 7 The present heavens and earth have been reserved by the same word for fire, kept for the day of judgment and of destruction of the godless.

OT references: Gen 1:2, 9–10; Eccles 1:4–9
NT references: Mark 13:22, 24–25, 33–37; 2 Thess 1:8; Jude 1:6–7, 17–18; Rev 21:1

vs. 12: For the first time in this letter Peter addresses the audience as beloved, and he will return to this title three more times in this chapter alone (3:8, 14, 17). By repeating “beloved” he is expressing sincere affection for his readers and drawing them into his confidence. We also learn something new about the audience Peter is writing to when he says this is now the second letter I am writing to you. We can only suppose that the first letter is what we know as 1 Peter—if not, then we do not have any information about this first letter.

Why is Peter writing again? He says that by way of reminder I am trying to stir up your sincere disposition. This is simply a restatement of the reason he gave for writing in 1:13, “to stir you up by a reminder.” Here he adds that he wants to arouse their “sincere disposition” (NJB: “unclouded understanding”). He is appealing to their understanding—their spiritual discernment about the faith—in a way that will lead to action. The exact phrase, “sincere disposition,” appears in Plato,1 where it means something like “pure reason.” Here in 2 Peter the sense is more “true discernment” in the face of false claims regarding the faith.

What is he reminding them of? To recall the words previously spoken by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and savior through your apostles. This is just what Peter did back in 1:12–21, but now he wants to take advantage of their predictions by showing how they point specifically to the false teachers. The “holy prophets” could refer to New Testament prophets, but more likely Peter is speaking of the Old Testament prophets here. The reference to prophecy in 1:19–21 clearly refers to the Old Testament, and in 1 Pet 1:10–12 the “prophets” are those who lived before Christ.

The “commandment of the Lord and savior through your apostles” could apply broadly to the overall Christian way of life (see 2:21), but it may point more narrowly to Christ’s command to “watch” for his return and to live faithfully until he does (Mark 13:33–37). Notably, in this passage from Mark, Christ commands his followers not to listen to the false prophets that will arise to lead the faithful astray (Mark 13:22). “Your apostles” is best understood as referring to whichever apostles originally evangelized the audience to which Peter is now writing.

vs. 3–4: Peter now comes to the main point: Know this first of all, that in the last days scoffers will come [to] scoff, living according to their own desires. The term “scoffer” appears only here and in Jude 1:18 in the New Testament. The phrase, “scoffers will come to scoff” reflects a typically Hebrew repetition formula that is meant to emphasize the activity of scoffing. Who are the scoffers? Those who mock and show scorn for the promise that Christ will return and judge the world. Their irreverence for God’s Word is matched by their immoral way of life in which they follow their own desires. There is a touch of irony here: “The appearance of scoffers who mock the reliability of prophecy is itself a fulfillment of prophecy.”2

“In the last days” is a technical expression, drawn from the Old Testament, that points to the final days, when God will act through his Messiah to bring all things to completion (for example, Isa 2:2; Dan 2:28; Hosea 3:5; Mic 4:1). According to the New Testament we are living now in the last days between the first coming of the Lord and his second, final coming (Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2).

In verse 4 Peter allows the scoffers to speak in their own voice and to raise two objections to the promise of Christ’s return. He lets us encounter the full force of their perspective before answering them, which he will do in verses 5–10. “Where is the promise of his coming? From the time when our ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation.” If we were to paraphrase their objections, we could say: “Where is the fulfillment of this promise of Christ’s coming? Nothing like this has happened or will happen. Why should we expect anything to change?”

The term “promise” is important in 2 Peter. We are told at the start of the letter that we are the recipients of “precious and very great promises” (1:4). Peter will soon make clear that the Lord’s promise about his own second coming (v. 9) and about the new heavens and new earth (v. 13) are completely reliable.3 At stake in this debate with the scoffers is whether there is a God who makes promises and whether his promises are true.


The Identity of the Scoffers

The leading theory among scholars today about the identity of the “scoffers” in 2 Peter is that they reflect the principles and attitudes of the Epicurean school of philosophy. The Epicureans were known in the ancient world for denying God’s providential care of the world. They believed the world came to be by chance, and they rejected any form of prophecy or divination about things to come. Further, they denied that there was any judgment after death—the body simply returns to its origin in the dust. Popular forms of this philosophy were also present in Jewish circles in the first century. The Sadducees were described by the Jewish historian Josephus as adopting a form of Epicurean philosophy. While we cannot pin down the identity of the scoffers in 2 Peter with certainty, Peter’s description of them is quite consistent with Epicurean positions as found in the Jewish world of Peter’s day.a

Who are the “ancestors” (literally, “fathers”), and when did they “fall asleep”? One common interpretation concludes that they are the first generation of Christian disciples—the apostles—who have now fallen asleep in death. According to this view the scoffers are pointing out that the promise of Christ’s return did not happen while the first Christian leaders were alive, and they use this fact as evidence that there will be no return and final judgment. This is a possible interpretation, but it is more likely that the “fathers” are the Old Testament figures in Genesis, from Adam through the patriarchs (for this use of “fathers,” see John 6:31; Rom 9:5; Heb 1:1). According to this view, the point is that from the very beginning of the world as recorded in the Bible nothing has really changed—nothing is new “under the sun,” as the author of Ecclesiastes laments (Eccles 1:4–9).

vs. 57: Peter answers the two objections of the scoffers in reverse order. First (vv. 5–7) he addresses their claim that all things have stayed the same since the beginning, and then (vv. 8–10) he responds to the question, “Where is the promise of his coming?” The scoffers, Peter says, deliberately ignore the fact that the heavens existed of old and earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God. Peter is paraphrasing the opening verses of the book of Genesis, which speak of God creating the heavens and earth and of God forming a habitable earth from the primordial watery chaos (Gen 1:1–10). According to Genesis, the earth as we know it—the land—was formed from the waters and by means of the waters (Gen 1:2, 9–10).


Creation, the Flood, and Modern Science

The modern sciences—geology, archaeology, and the theory of biological evolution in particular—pose significant challenges for how we read the Bible, especially the stories found in Gen 1–11. Did God create the world in six twenty-four-hour days? Was there really a flood that covered the whole earth? Geological studies, for example, supply substantial evidence that life on earth developed over hundreds of millions of years and that the human species has been in existence far longer than the biblical texts would indicate. Even in the early Church Christians recognized that these founding stories had symbolic elements—they were not always interpreted as literal history. New Testament writers who refer to these early narratives are not primarily wishing to affirm the historicity of such events, but rather presuppose a common knowledge of this biblical history and wish to teach something for the present through this common understanding about the past.

Today many Christians tend to read Gen 1–11 in particular as symbolic stories grounded in history and †inspired by the Spirit to teach the truth about the relationship between God and the world. How accurately do these stories reflect actual history? It is difficult to know for sure. It may be that some have a close correlation to historical events, while others have less.

Why does Peter draw attention to this feature of the world being formed from and through the waters by the power of God’s word? Because it was through these the world that then existed was destroyed, deluged with water. “These” probably refers to the combination of water and God’s word: by the power of God’s word acting through the floodwaters the world was deluged. For Peter the flood serves as the prime biblical model for how God acts to judge, demonstrating his radical intervention in the world. The flood, then, is a type of the greater judgment to come (see Matt 24:37–39).4 In other words, the world has not always been as it is, as the scoffers claim. It was originally formed by God’s word through water, then deluged with water, and finally made new with the receding of the waters. Peter charges the false teachers with “deliberately” or “willfully” ignoring this—they don’t want to believe in God’s judgment, and so they overlook and ignore the clear biblical testimony.


Judgment by Fire

Where did Peter get the idea of the world finally being destroyed by fire? Many scholars point to parallels in Zoroastrianism, Platonism, or Stoicism, where a judgment by fire occurs. But these are unlikely to be direct sources for Peter’s statement here, since the details and overall context are quite different. The foundation for this idea is in fact supplied by the Old Testament. The archetype is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19, which the author has already cited as an example of the judgment to come (2 Pet 2:6). But there are many other instances where God’s judgment comes by fire (see, e.g., Isa 30:30; 66:15–16; Amos 7:4; Zeph 1:18; 3:8; Mal 3:19). The idea of a general conflagration also took root in the Judaism of Peter’s day. “The author of 2 Peter, who is really interested in the conflagration as judgment on the wicked, follows this Jewish tradition. If he was aware of the pagan parallels, he is unlikely to have been very concerned with them.”a In the New Testament we find the promise that the present heavens and earth will pass away and that a new heavens and earth will come to be (Mark 13:24–25; Rev 21:1). In two instances it says that the final judgment will come with fire (2 Thess 1:8; Jude 1:6–7). Still, the statement here in 2 Peter about a final judgment of the world by fire is more detailed than anything we find elsewhere in the New Testament, and should be seen as a development of a well-established tradition.

Now comes the clincher to Peter’s response: The present heavens and earth have been reserved by the same word for fire, kept for the day of judgment and of destruction of the godless. The earlier cataclysm came by water; the future judgment will come by fire. Just as God’s “word” brought about the great flood, so by that same word the world will be purified by fire. From beginning to end, God’s word is the agent of creation, judgment, and new creation. It is crucial to recognize, however, that Peter’s focus is not in fact on fire but on judgment—on God through his word bringing the entire cosmos to judgment, especially the lives of human beings. We do not know exactly how this judgment by fire will occur. By speaking of judgment by fire, Peter is employing figurative language common to his day. This figurative language tells us something real about the nature of what will take place at the end, but it does not give an exact description.

This, then, is Peter’s answer to the scoffers’ second objection. The world has not always remained the same! To the contrary, by the powerful word of God the world was brought into existence, and by that same word it was destroyed in the flood. The flood is a type of the greater judgment that will come by fire, when God will judge all people and bring destruction upon those who persist in ungodliness.

Reflection and application  (3:1–7)

We too have our share of scoffers today. They are not likely to be card-carrying Epicureans, but nonetheless they deny a God who intervenes in human history and discount any claim to a final judgment or afterlife. The reigning scientific theory of the origin of the universe—the Big Bang theory—actually supports the idea that the world had a beginning in one single instant, and some scientific theories of the eventual end of our solar system have the world ending in a great conflagration. Still, many people today—scientists and nonscientists alike—believe that all this happened and will happen through blind necessity and random chance, and they choose to live as if there is no God, no judgment, and no final consequences for how we live.

We know that it is possible to discern design and purpose in the natural world, and that human beings can come to know through reason both the existence of God and certain of his attributes (see Rom 1:20). It may be that many of today’s scoffers are “deliberately” ignoring these signs that point to God in the created order. Yet what they most need is an encounter with the living Word of God; this is what can change hearts and minds and open them to the full promise of what God has in store. In the words of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn: “We gladly affirm the Christian understanding … that unaided reason can attain basic knowledge of the purposes built into nature and the intelligence behind it. But it is only through God’s self-revelation in Christ, and our response of faith, that we can begin to glimpse the ultimate purpose of the cosmos and to trust in God’s provident care of all cosmic details.”5



1 Phaedo 66A..

2 Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, The Second Letter of Peter, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008), 50.

3 The two terms in the letter for “promise,” epangelma (1:4; 3:13) and epangelia (3:4, 9), function as synonyms with no obvious difference in meaning.

a See Jerome H. Neyrey, 2 Peter, Jude, AB (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 122–28, for a full elaboration of this theory.

4 For the flood as a pattern for God’s judgment in the world, see also Ezek 38:22; Wis 10:4.

a Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, WBC (Waco: Word, 1983), 301.

5 “Reasonable Science, Reasonable Faith,” First Things, April 2007.

Dr. Daniel A. Keating (Doctor of Philosophy, University of Oxford) is associate professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA and an elder of The Servants of the Word, a lay missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.

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