I had the privilege of attending the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Boston over the last 5 days. What a phenomenal opportunity; but what an intimidating set of choices and company! There were at least 120 seminars each day, a book display with a gazillion books, and more geeks per square inch than any other place on earth. In other words- wonderful. (My only regret is that the SBL no longer regularly meets with the American Academy of Religion or AAR. Grrr!!!! EVERYONE there hated that decision. Everyone. If I had any notion at all that the leadership of SBL or AAR actually read blogs- or condescended to read this one- I'd go on and on about how EVERYONE there hated the separation. But they don't, so I won't.)
Among the seminars that I attended was one on Apocalyptic literature, with Barbara Rossing as one of the presenters. Barbara Rossing is the author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. (In fact, you'd be much better off reading her book than my blog, but I refuse to say that aloud). Rossing is a fascinating reader of texts, both biblical and social. What I means is that she can speak well on the book of Revelation as well as on end time views of Jerry Falwell. So, today, I want to bring one piece of wisdom from Barbara Rossing to you, as long as you recognize that I am filtering her thought through my own poor comprehension, so please don't hold her accountable!
Here's the most memorable thing Rossing said: II Peter 3 is an anomaly.
The context: The seminar was focused on environmentalism and apocalyptic ("revelatory") texts. II Peter 3 is often cited as the rationale for not being concerned about the environment. You may recall how James Watt, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Reagan, once famously said that people who read the Bible do not need to get concerned about environmental catastrophes because we are going to be raptured and God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth. Or, more recently, Ann Coulter has said that the earth is our to use, abuse, and rape all we want- suggesting that the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation invests no special meaning or significance to the earth other than as a set of resources for our pleasure and will.
II Peter 3 is the most often-cited justification for a biblical argument against preserving the earth. And here are, specifically, the verses most often cited:
5They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, 6through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. 7But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.
8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Phew! I think this writer has some serious anger issues! And, since I do not know the specific situation that he was facing, they might be warranted. The issue that the writer is addressing is the familiar 1st century church issue: the delay of the Parousia (the 2nd Coming). Apparently, some folks were using that delay as an opportunity to cast doubt on the promise of the 2nd coming at all. And, they were using that doubt to undo all of the hard-earned work that had been done in the name of the gospel. Those doubters are the "They" that the writer is addressing in v.5.
But, more importantly for now, the cosmology (view of the world) of the writer is disclosed with his use of the word "fact." The doubters "deliberately ignore this fact" that the earth was created and then destroyed by the flood "by the word of God." And that same word of God is awaiting a total destruction of the earth and heaven (and the godless) by fire. The writer then implores the audience not to ignore this fact: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years (that's the reason why the delay of the parousia is not evidence that God's word is untrue) and ... this world as we know it is toast. THAT'S the cosmology of the writer of II Peter.
No wonder folks like Ann Coulter and James Watt invest no interest in preserving the world or stemming our ongoing acts of violation against the earth. Their reading of II Peter is that the earth has no intrinsic value and is ultimately doomed anyway.
Here are two possible reactions:
1. The very last phrase that I cited from II Peter, "and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed" may indicate that what is envisioned here is not a total annihilation, but a total disclosure, a judgment that strips away everything of appearance in order to disclose truth. So, if you're living under the thumb of a Roman empire; and everywhere you look Roman authority seems to be ruling the earth; and the topography has been restructured so that all roads go to Rome; and vast buildings are built or destroyed insofar as it serves Rome; and Roman dieties are displayed everywhere so that the heavens themselves seem to be in cahoots with the empire; and "all the earth"- rivers and trees and hills and valleys- seem to witness to the incomparable power of Rome... then a total disruption of the present order of things would be necessary to disclose the arrogant lie that is the Roman Empire.
In other words, in this reading, a "total annihilation" may be symbolic of the totality of Rome's influence- all of which has to be torn away to disclose the truth that by God's word the earth and everything in it was made. We get an indication that this might be a valid interpretation by the writer's reference to Noah's flood. He speaks of "the world at that time" and distinguishes it from "the present heavens and earth." If he were speaking literally, wouldn't there need to be a completely new creation story somewhere in between Genesis 5-10 and II Peter 3?
In this first option, one could say that the writer of II Peter may have a literal catastrophe in mind- like the flood, so the fire- but its overall effect is to cleanse the world of its present arrangement in order to renew it.
2. Second option: The writer of II Peter thinks the world as we know it is literally going down.
This second option seems to be the way Ann Coulter and James Watt read the Bible. It leads them to give the earth no value in itself, but only utilitarian value- the earth has value only insofar as it serves our purposes. Other than that, have at it. And if the earth suffers for our sake, so be it.
What Barbara Rossing said was that she, too, thinks II Peter is anticipating a total and literal meltdown of the entire earth (and heavens!). BUT, what Rossing said is that if that is what II Peter truly says, then it is an anomaly in the New Testament and it ought to be treated as such. No where else does the New Testament say that the entire world will be destroyed. The language everywhere else is the language of the prophets: When it speaks of a "new heaven and new earth", it is using renewal language more than 'destroy and start over' language.
That's what I heard Rossing say. I admired that she was honest enough to say that option 2 above seemed to be what II Peter intends. (I'm not so sure that I agree with her on this point, but I do think that too many people quickly jump into option 1 and assume that the writer of II Peter is speaking non-literally, because they themselves do not want to read this text non-literally.) And yet, Rossing was also honest enough to say that II Peter is alone in this absolute scorched earth view and no other New Testament writer holds this view.
More about that next time...