“It Is Figurative” and 2 Pet 3:8

Moses went up into Mt Sinai and was gone so long that people gave up on him.  In the same way, Jesus has ascended up into heaven, and has been gone so long, that people have given up on Him.  God warned us against giving up on Christ’s return by reminding us in 2 Pet 3:8 that God perceives a thousand years as a day.  Obviously, from God’s perspective, Jesus has only been gone two days, and we should not be too worried about that short amount of time.  Of course, some people believe it is preposterous that God would actually view a literal thousand years as if it was a day.  I like to point out that the first century Christian, Barnabas, used the exact same perspective that that Peter used, and argued that the earth would last only six days, that is, 6000 years.  Some object that 1000 years is not 1 day that Peter was using a simile, a figure of speech, and because God used a figure involving time, it meant that time was irrelevant to God.  In their view it is an error to use the 1000 year equals one day relationship, because it was purely a figure denoting God’s transcendence and it never actually meant that 1000 years was as a day to God.  However, that position directly contradicts Peter who says, “With the Lord…a thousand years [is] as one day”.  The fact that the “it is figurative” hermeneutic is used to make a scripture mean directly opposite of what it actually says sets the context for this present article.

Since God created the heavens and the earth and created time with a beginning (Gen 1:1), I agree that God transcends time, but I don’t think that is the point of 2 Pet 3:8.  His point there is rather a reminder of how God perceives time with respect to the time involved in man’s history.  The point of II Pet 3:8 certainly is not, as some conclude, that time is irrelevant to God.  If time was irrelevant, God would not use time references, but the Bible is full of them starting with the very first verse.  Some believe that a generalization can be drawn from 2 Pet 3:8, and with that I agree, but my generalization significantly differs from theirs.  The generalization that can be drawn from II Pet 3:8 is that with God His perspective on time is relative to a given process and the scale upon which it operates.  They believe that the two parts of Peter’s statement are contradictory if taken at face value.  I do not.

God works in different spheres of processes all at the same time.  The universe goes from atoms to solar systems to galaxies to the universe, and different processes operate at different scales.  Because God is active in His creation (Col 1:17, Heb 1:3), He simultaneously deals with different processes at different scales of time.  God works in processes within processes all over the place within His creation, as is symbolized even by His throne.  Ezekiel 1 describes a vision of God’s throne (Ezek 1:26), and his throne has wheels within wheels (Ezek 1:16).  Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne is the way God’s creation works.  There are processes within processes within processes, and these processes operate on different time scales from very fast to very slow.  On the atomic scale, processes operate very fast.  Photosynthesis, for example, operates in femtoseconds.  That is far faster than a human is even able to perceive, but with God’s perception as it operates in the day is as a thousand years frame of reference, it is as if He had .03 of a second to monitor a single photosynthesis event.  These incredibly fast processes are going on at the same time as very slow processes like the historical course of the earth.  God is able to simultaneously handle all scales of processes in His creation and deal with them as easily as men deal with the process of building a house.  The idea of definite numbers in the relationships (1000 yrs = 1 day, 1 day = 1000 yrs) perhaps implies a discreet number of perspectives that God employs, like quanta.  In our discussion and Peter’s remarks in II Pet 3, we are not focused on God’s perspective on the atomic particles.  We are interested in God’s perspective of the slower process of the historical course of the earth.  In that process, Peter informs us, God views earth history as if a thousand years was equal to a single man-day.

The underlying basis for the different views on II Pet 3:8, as I see it, is the understanding and handling of figures.  The “it is figurative” approach is that if a statement is a symbol, we are free to interpret that figure as we wish in the context of the Bible teaching.  Figures, however, follow specific rules.  A simile is a specific kind of figure from the generic domain of all figures, and there are specific rules for similes.  A simile compares two things that have one or more features in common.  The simile figure cannot legitimately be taken any further than that.  There are other types of figures such as parables, types, symbols, etc. that must be treated differently from similes to get their intended meaning.  What I perceive as the “it is figurative” approach to handling figures, is the following process.  The figurists identify the figure as a simile and note that it is a figure.  The meaning of the simile figure does not appear to make any literal sense.  Because the meaning of the simile doesn’t make any sense when treated as a simile, then the simile itself is actually a symbol, so they have a figure within a figure.  Because the simile is a symbol, then they feel free to attach some other meaning to it other than what can be derived from the simile itself.  Because they have decided the text is a symbol, they then find meaning from somewhere in the domain of religion, such that if that meaning is attached to the phrase, then it makes sense.  The piece that is missing in this logic is that nothing requires the link between the text and the meaning selected except the mind of the expositor.  God does not say it is so, there is no logical reason that the link is true, but it merely seems good to the expositor.  The linking process is hidden from view, it is hard to detect.

While we could explain that there are also specific rules regarding the interpretation of symbols, and those rules do not permit expositors to attach arbitrary meaning to symbols, there is another error in the logic such that it is not necessary to discuss the rules for symbols.  The logic error is in identifying the simile as a symbol and making Peter’s statement into a figure within a figure.  Figurists note that my position might have merit if both parts of Peter’s statement made any sense.  Their perception that both parts of Peter’s statement could not simultaneously be literally true leads to their misidentification of Peter’s statement as a symbol.  While from man’s perspective a day certainly does not equal to 1000 years and vice versa, Peter is careful to identify his domain of discussion as the mind of God.  He is not talking about how men view time.  Peter’s statement is a simile, a thousand years is AS a day.  A simile compares two objects that have at least one characteristic in common that is equal.  Not every characteristic of the two objects has to be the same, but there has to be at least one characteristic in common between the two compared objects that is equal in order for the simile to be valid.  In I Pet 1:24 the characteristic that is equal between grass and flesh is their perishability.  What is the characteristic that is in common between a thousand years and a day?  These objects are one dimensional.  Their only characteristic is they have duration, but by definition a year and a day are not equal, so how does one get a simile out of two objects whose only characteristic is unequal?  Peter solves the dilemma by setting the context in the mind of God.  God’s mind simultaneously perceives time in various processes as if they were on different scales.  In God’s mind His perception of time in the process of carrying out His plan for earth’s history is a 1000 years = 1 man-day.  At the same time God’s mind perceives other processes where 1 man-day = 1000 years in terms of that process.  These perceptions happen simultaneously in the mind of God, so Peter’s statement is true, the simile is valid, and we cannot conclude that Peter’s statement is a symbol.  Because the simile is true, it IS valid to say that from God’s perspective 1000 man-years = 1 day, which is what I used and what Barnabas used and what Peter used in encouraging believers about the return of Christ.  From God’s perspective, it has only been two days, so that’s not long, and let’s not give up hope.

About James Johnson

Bible student for 60 years. Preacher of the gospel for over 40 years. Author of commentary on Revelation, All Power to the Lamb. Married with children. Worked in aerospace and computer engineering for over 40 years.
This entry was posted in Hermeneutics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *