Is Richard Carrier Wrong about the End of the World? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discussed whether Richard Carrier was wrong about his understanding of Romans 8:18-23, where Paul compares the redemption of Christian bodies with the redemption of creation itself ("the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God"). Rather than forfeit the point that the universe and the bodies of believers will be renewed at the resurrection, Dr. Carrier argues that Paul does not believe in the renewal of creation but rather in its complete destruction. The old world will be completely replaced by the new with no element of continuity.

A chief flaw in Dr. Carrier's argument, explored in Part 1, is his reliance on what he thinks other, later Christian writers meant when writing about the end of the world.
So there can be no doubt that the earliest Christians believed the present world would be annihilated and replaced with a new one, just as graphically described in 2 Peter 3:3-13, and clearly assumed in 1 John 2:15-17 and Heb. 12:26-39, 13:14. Paul must have shared this belief (why would he differ so radically from his peers), as he appears to have done.....

Carrier, The Empty Tomb, page 211 n. 160.

I also discussed how Dr. Carrier was wrong about the text of Paul in Romans 8 and that other early Christian authors clearly believed in continuity between the old and the new, although with radical transformation.

In this post, I take a closer look at the other, later Christian authors Dr. Carrier relies on for his argument. Thus, I will look at the three New Testament examples he offers to prove that other early Christian writers believed that there was no continuity between this world and the one to come after the return of Christ.

2 Peter 3:5-13:
For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord 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. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

This is by far the most interesting of Dr. Carrier’s examples and others have relied on it for the same proposition. For this reason, it is a useful example for examining how a renewed universe might be actualized and the use of apocalyptic language to describe that process. A common failing of commentators like Dr. Carrier who dismiss the “renewed universe” model is that they focus on the “continuity” and ignore the transformative nature of the renewal. It is not as if the universe simply receives a new coat of paint. The transformation is fundamental, not cosmetic. It is comparable to the radical transformation of the human body upon resurrection. There is some element of continuity, but the body is radically changed into a very different -- and superior -- form.

The passage from 2 Peter clearly envisions a destructive and cataclysmic event. But does it foreclose continuity? That is the real question here; otherwise we simply have radical transformation and renewal that is perfectly consistent with the plain meaning of Paul in Romans 8.

Too much can be made of terms like “destroyed." In the above passage, for example, Peter states that the “world” was “destroyed” by water during the Great Flood. Does this mean that the world was reduced to nothing and a completely different, unrelated world was created? Not at all. Rather, it means God destroyed the existing world system which was rotted with unrighteousness and ungodliness. There obviously was continuity, however, with not just Noah and his family and the animals with him, but in the rest of the material world. The material world was renewed through this destructive process, not ended.

So when Peter later in the passage describes the destruction of the earth by fire, we should keep in mind that for him this does not foreclose continuity. The discussion of melting and purifying is not meant to imply that nothing in the old universe has anything to do with the new one. Rather, it is a description of the process by which the old universe is transformed into the new one. Yes, there will be a “new earth,” but it is accomplished by a destructive and purifying process. It is no accident that the imagery calls to mind that of a blacksmith, burning and destroying metal ore to purify it, improve it, and craft it into something better and stronger.

In his Discourse on the Resurrection, Bishop Methodius (d. 311 A.D.), explained the relationship between the "end of the world" and the continuity of God's creation:

It is not satisfactory to say that the universe will be utterly destroyed and that the sea, earth, and sky will no longer exist. For the whole world will be deluged with fire from heaven and burned for the purpose of purification and renewal. However, it will not come to complete ruin and corruption. . . . [T]he earth and the heaven must exist again after the burning and shaking of all things . . . . There is no contradiction nor absurdity in Holy Scripture. For it is not ‘the world’ that passes away, but the 'fashion of this world.' . . . So we can look for creation to pass away, as if it were to perish in the burning, in order for it to be renewed. In that manner, we who are renewed may dwell in a renewed world without taste of sorrow. However, it will not be destroyed. . . . Now, since the earth is to exist after the present age, there must also be inhabitants for it.

From the Discourse on the Resurrection, Part 1, VIII.

Methodius had it right in his understanding of Paul and passages like 2 Peter 3. As Peter's use of "destruction" to refer to the flood illustrates, such terms do not foreclose some form of continuity. "The idea of the destruction of the antediluvian world need not be taken to mean total annihilation. Rather, just as it was created by being brought out of the primeval ocean, so it was destroyed when it was once again submerged in the primeval ocean. The ordered world reverted to chaos." Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (WBC), page 299. Moreover, the reference to the earth being "burned up" is better translated, "and be laid bare," as it is in the NIV. Bauckham, op. cit., pages 297-99. The focus is not on the mechanics of the process of the apocalypse on the material world, but rather on the judgment of the wicked.

Although 2 Peter 3 no doubt envisions a cataclysmic fate for the present universe, it does not foreclose some aspect of continuity. The transformation is radical, but reversion to primal origins is how God destroyed and restored the earth during the Great Flood and is how he will do it again, though by fire instead of by water. There was continuity then and there is continuity to come. It is not at all clear that this conflicts with Paul's vision of renewal. Remember that 2 Peter is focused on the fate of he wicked -- being judged and exposed -- whereas Paul's focus was on the fate of the Christian -- being transformed and resurrected. One is stressing judgment and hence destruction whereas the other is stressing salvation and hence transformation. Accordingly, 2 Peter should not be used as an example of Christian belief in the utter end of the universe with no continuity with the world to come.

1 John 2:15-17:
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

This passage adds little to Dr. Carrier's case. He simply misapprehends how the term "world" is being used in this passage. “The word kosmos here, as elsewhere in Johannine literature, refers to human beings, and often enough it refers to humanity organized against God, or in this case attitudes and things that are part and parcel of fallen humanity.” Ben Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Vol. 1, page 478. This can be seen not only from passage such as "For God so loved the World" in the Gospel of John, but also in the Johannine letters. Just a few verses earlier in 1 John 2, John refers to the "sins of the whole world." (2.2). Later in the letter, John writes, "The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him." (3:1). He also admonishes his readers not to be surprised "if the world hates you." (3:13). There are many other examples. (See, e.g., 4:5; 4:14; 5:4; 5:5).

So the world "passing away" is not a reference to what will happen to the physical world during the end times. Rather, as Witherington notes, "the concern is to avoid the adoption of worldly attitudes and ways.” Witherington, op. cit., page 478. As the Gospel spreads, the world and its ways will recede. The "passing away" is an ongoing process that has already started and is moving forward. It is not a reference to a sudden, cataclysmic destruction of everything. Accordingly, this passage does not support Dr. Carrier's conclusion that this letter represents a Christian belief in the complete annihilation of the universe with no continuity with the one to come.

Heb. 12:26-29:
And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, "Yet Once More I Will Shake Not Only the Earth, But Also The Heaven." This expression, "Yet once more," denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

Many commentators have noted that the author of Hebrews shows aspects of Platonic influence not found in Paul's letters and other New Testament writings. This influence, however, does not supplant the letter's Jewish foundation. Rather, Platonic themes are subordinated to Jewish thought. Nevertheless, Paul has no comparable Platonic presence in his writing. For this reason alone, retro-interpreting Paul's views on the material's world's fate through the lens of Hebrews may not be as productive as Dr. Carrier thinks.

In any event, the passage does not foreclose material continuity between the age that is and the age that is to come. The thought either way may not have occurred to the author.

This phrase helps us understand how he Platonic worldview of Hebrews is placed within the frame of biblical symbolism. For Platonic cosmology, that which is material and of the body is transitory and corrupt, always coming into being and always going out of being, while that which is not material, the soul, remains steady, for it is eternal. We find the same contrast between the transitory and the permanent in Hebrews. But for our author, the distinction is not between matter and spirit as such, but between that which is created and that which participates in God. What “remains” (meine) therefore is not mental as opposed to the physical, but what ‘receives a share of God’s holiness’ (12:10), as opposed to things that do not enter into the ‘city of the living God.’ These are ‘not shaken’ (me saleuomena).

Luke T. Johnson, Hebrews, A Commentary, pages 335-36.

The author of Hebrews is less concerned with the material vs. spiritual dichotomy of other Platonic thinkers. For him the dividing line is not whether something is physical, but whether it is of God. "Hebrews exalts rather than denigrates the physical. Only because Jesus was and had a body could he be a priest." Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, page 422.

Nothing in the passage from Hebrews suggests that there will be no continuity between the material world that is and the new one that is to come. The referenced shaking is meant to call to mind to God's shaking by his presence and the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. The shaking was not to separate the physical from the spiritual, but to separate what is of God from that which is not. Indeed, the passage at issue is not really even on topic for it does not purport to describe the process by which the new earth and the new heavens will arrive.

All told, the passages from 1 John and Hebrews provide no support for Dr. Carrier's two-body resurrection theory. The passage from 2 Peter is more suggestive, but ultimately fails as an example of Christian belief that foreclosed any continuity between the present world from that which is to come.


Leslie said…
Great read, Layman! It's unfortunate that many Christians have a similar view to Carrier - that the world will be totally destroyed and we don't need to worry about it. I actually heard a guy talking once about our political stances and how we vote, and he used this faulty understanding of the events surrounding the parousia to suggest that how a person thinks of the environment does not matter at all (since it is all going to be totally destroyed anyway). I just about threw a temper tantrum right there.

Incidentally, how do you think this notion of destruction would bear on passages like 2 Thess. 1:9? I noticed that the Greek for "destruction" in both places is different (apolia = 2 Peter, olethros = 2 Thess.). Obviously in 2 Thess, Paul adds the everlasting part (aionion). In other words, I just wonder if this understanding of the destruction of the earth et al. tells us anything about the destruction of those who are not in Christ, particularly if it sheds anything on our understanding of hell. I don't really know much about the Greek, aside from a few words here and there, so I don't know the difference between the usages here and if that would have any bearing on it.
That attitude that the end times pre mil thinking entourages right wing voting behavior and politics may have some basis in fact. Or is it that political ideas lead to eschatology?

A really good, but old book, (70s) is by Gary Clabough Thunder on the Right. He argues that the pre mil thing was a reaction to WWI and the disillusionment engendered by that war. He also shows that the right wing forces had been gather since the civil war.

Prior to the Civil war the Abolition movement was led by Christians. Christians such as Charles Finney were progressive and liberationists. They correlated this with their eschatology because they were post mil in outlook. That is they believed Christ would come back to find a Christian world in which the church had solved social ills.

On that score the social Gospelers set about trying to free the slaves, end alcholoism, give women the vote, and create public education, and even supported labor unions. With the end of the civil war this movement collapsed in disillusionment (also because some of their goals were met).

At this point forces Calvinism, disillusionment, xenophobia and reprisal for the civil war began promoting red scares (the move to block immigration was tied to fear of socialism) and so on. This movement latter culminated after WWI when the heirs to the progressive Post mil movement had given up due to the war, and the right wing began to rise and culminated in the KKK upsurge of the 20s..

Of course most Christians fall in the middle. They are slightly on the conservative side of the middle, abhorring both racism and socialism. I am not identifying these KKK movements with evangelicals in any way. I would hope Carrier is not either.
Layman said…

I dunno, I am pretty conservative politically myself yet am not into "end times pre mil thinking."
I don't think you are the kind of conservative I'm talking about. I agree with you that there is no 1x1 correlation between eschatology and politics.

I'm talking about the real extremists like KKK and John Birtch and abortion clinic bombers.
steve said…
Thanks for the post, Layman. Andrew Lincoln's analysis of the eschatology of Hebrews would reinforce your interpretation. Cf. Hebrews: A Guide (T&T Clark 2006), 92-100.

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