Will Earth “Be Burned Up” or “Abide Forever”?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
According to certain Bible critics, 2 Peter 3:10 contradicts Ecclesiastes 1:4. Whereas Peter wrote, “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (emp. added), Solomon declared in the book of Ecclesiastes, “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever” (emp. added). Is one of these two declarations an “erroneous statement” as skeptic David Miles contends (2007), or is there a logical explanation regarding why the “burned up” Earth is said to “abide forever”?
The answer to this question actually is very simple: the Bible frequently uses the term “forever” (Hebrew olam) in a more limited sense, to mean “a long duration,” and not necessarily a literal eternal existence (see Olam, 1999). Consider a few examples:
Prior to the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, Moses instituted the Passover. He then added: “And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever” (Exodus 12:24, emp. added).
Under the Law of Moses, when a servant pledged allegiance to his master, the master would “take an awl and thrust it through” the servant’s ear to the door (Deuteronomy 15:17). This was a sign that the servant would work for his master “forever” (15:17).
After the Israelites visited King Rehoboam and petitioned him to lighten their burdens (2 Chronicles 10:3-4), the elders advised the king to be kind to the people and they would be his servants “forever” (10:7).
Like so many words throughout Scripture that have more than one meaning, the term “forever” must be understood in light of the context in which it is found. The above-mentioned passages clearly use “forever” in a limited sense, referring to a “long duration” and not literal unendingness. What’s more, considering how many words (e.g., “forever”) have more than one meaning, skeptics cannot justifiably label passages like Ecclesiastes 1:4 and 2 Peter 3:10 contradictory unless they can prove both passages are using the word in the exact same sense. The proper understanding of these passages is that though the Earth has outlasted countless generations (lasting “forever” in limited sense), one day the Earth “will be burned up.”
Finally, we frequently use the word “forever” in a limited sense in the 21st century (e.g., “that lecture lasted forever”). One wonders why skeptics disallow the Bible writers the same freedom in their use of words such as “forever.”
Miles, David (2007), “Letters,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 10, [On-line], URL: http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071113/ OPINION02/711130304/1014/OPINION.
Olam (1999), Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Logos Research Systems: Bellingham, WA).