God Is Not Willing That Any Should Perish


     3First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." 5But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
     8But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
     10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (II Peter 3:3-10, NIV)

II Peter 3:9b is a common proof text for the view that God doesn't intend for anyone at all to end up in hell. At first glance, separated from it's context, it appears to affirm that. But what does the whole passage say, and what light does it shed on verse 9b? What is Peter's subject, and what role does this phrase play in helping him develop it?

Looking back to chapter two, we find that he's warning believers about the dangers of false prophets. Here in chapter three, he's specifically addressing the problem of last-day scoffers who laugh at the idea that Christ will return in final judgment some day. Following that on down to the text in question, we find that the function of saying that God does not want anyone to perish is to explain why the Day of the Lord hadn't come yet. His line of reasoning goes like this: Christ hasn't returned in final judgment yet because he doesn't want anyone to perish; He wants all to come to repentance. That's why He's being patient with you. To put it as succinctly as possible:

The waiting mitigates the perishing.

The question is, who's perishing does it serve to prevent?

First, consider that there are people being born all the time, and dying all the time. Most of them never hear the glorious gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And most people who do hear it reject it. They all perish in their sins. With every day that passes, more and more people die unrepentant and perish. The longer the period of time that passes before Christ returns in final judgment, the greater the number of people who will perish. The numbers are accumulating in a horrifying rush. It's an agonizing thing to contemplate.

If God wishes to avoid more people perishing, why wait? It's been over 1900 years now! If His desire were that no one at all should perish, and if delay means that an ever increasing number of people are perishing, then the worst possible plan of action would be to delay. Yet that's what Peter said God was doing, and that's what He is still doing now—waiting. A reasonable strategy to that end would have been for Him to return in judgment immediately, cutting short the number of those who perish. Of course, it still wouldn't accomplish God's stated desire that no one perish, but it would at least halt the deteriorating situation before it got any worse. Call it a stopgap measure. The problem is, that's not what Peter said God was doing, and it's not what God did. He didn't come. He delayed. And the number of people who perish continues to escalate daily. The plan motivated by God's desire for no one to perish fails to accomplish its purpose, if its purpose is to prevent anyone on earth from perishing. In fact, it only makes things continually worse and worse. So, why hasn't He come back yet?

Someone might object that the text doesn't say God was attempting to create a situation where no one at all would perish, it only says that He doesn't want anyone to perish. It's a statement of desire, not necessarily of intent. That's perhaps true, but that argument would miss the point. It fails to take into account that Peter ascribes that desire as the reason He is being patient, and hasn't returned in final judgment yet.

Why on earth would Peter explain the delay of Judgment Day this way? Was he senile? It doesn't make a lick of sense. The train of thought goes off the tracks long before it makes it back to the station. Clearly, this interpretation does not work. The waiting does not mitigate the perishing of everyone in the world, but just the opposite.

OK. What if Peter didn't mean everyone in the world? What if anyone and everyone in verse 9 refer to any and all of a certain set of people? This is not as far out as it might sound at first. Imagine that I walk into my Bible Study class at church and say, "I'd like to make sure everyone makes it over to my house for lunch; I don't want anyone to miss out." No one in his right mind would think of taking me to mean that I'm inviting everyone in the whole world—I'm clearly inviting only everyone in the group I'm addressing, right? I have chosen to feed only a limited set of people of my choosing, yet I may still use the words anyone and everyone without fear of being misunderstood because the context makes it clear.

Come to think of it, Peter did just say that God is being patient with you. He's not writing to the whole world, of course. His letter is addressed to the Church (see the opening lines of the letter). So, when he says God is being patient with you in 3:9, there can be no doubt that he means God is being patient with the Church. Could it be, then, that he also means anyone of you and everyone of you when he speaks of God's desire that we all repent and not perish? Let's test that possibility: "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." Read that a couple more times. Sounds like it's at least possible that Peter means everyone in his audience, as distinguished from everyone in the whole world. That is, the text at least leaves open the possibility that he is speaking only of the elect, not of all humanity.

Hmmm. Sound doubtful? Well, we've already seen that interpreting anyone and everyone absolutely universally wrecks Peter's line of thought, turning it against itself--turning it, in fact, into nonsense--and thus cannot be a valid interpretation. Is the "elect only" interpretation at least logically valid? Let's apply the same test to it that we applied to the "absolutely universal" one, and find out: If God's desire is that all of the elect come to repentance, and, at any given time so far, there are some elect persons in the world who have not yet repented, what should He do? Come back anyway? Or delay his return until all of the elect have repented? Obvious, isn't it? In fact, it's hard to imagine any viable alternatives to that plan. This way, the waiting mitigates the perishing.

Alright, the reasoning works out just splendidly; so, let's examine the facts of the case: God is, in fact, patiently waiting. Meanwhile, His elect are coming to repentance. Looks like it all fits—God's plan is achieving the desire that motivated it. The train of thought makes it back to the station without a scratch. Hooray!

If Peter meant that God doesn't want anyone in the whole world to perish, not only was his line of reasoning badly confused, but worse yet, he inadvertently made God out to be a bumbling fool. God would be presented as wanting to save everyone, but, doggonnit, He's just not a bright enough feller to pull it off. He keeps on doing exactly the opposite of what would accomplish His desire. At best, He's a partial failure, since no orthodox Christian would claim that no one in the world will perish and that everyone in the world will come to repentance. That kind of God doesn't even faintly resemble the God I remember from the rest of Scripture--you know, the One who is mighty to save, who is able to do all His will, to accomplish His good purpose exactly as He desires...

But if Peter only meant that God doesn't want any of the elect to perish, then his explanation makes perfect sense. Additionally, it presents a picture of God that is consistent with the rest of Scripture: One who is able to form a sound strategy, and who by enacting that plan is accomplishing His will.

Eventually, all of the elect will have repented. That day is sneaking up on us like a thief. It will soon break and enter our fragile world, ending it in a blaze of glory. Maybe today. Or not. But when it does, we will find that not one of our Lord's chosen ones has perished. He's not willing to let that happen. Loved by God and safe in His hand—now, that's good news.

David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL