2 Peter 3:12 reads “as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.” (NIV) The question is what are “the elements” (Greek = stoicheia) The passage is discussed in J. Richard Middleton’s new book A New Heaven and a New Earth. Three major interpretations have been offered:
1) The term refers to the physical universe. “While modern readers following this line of thought might interpret ‘elements’ by reference to the periodic/atomic table, this is obviously anachronistic.” He does point out that the term “was used in the ancient world for the four constituent elements of earth, air, fire, and water.” (p. 191)
2) It refers to heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars). See ESV and NET.
3) It refers to angelic powers in the heavens.
Later in the book Middleton notes a recent fourth interpretation set forth by Clifford T. Winters (“A Strange Death: Cosmic Conflagration as Conceptual Metaphor in 2 Peter 3:6-13”, a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Easter Great Lakes Biblical Society , Erie, PA, April 4, 2013).
Stoicheia is also used in the New Testament to refer to “elemental teachings” (Heb. 5:12). In Col. 2:8 it is used specifically for false teaching. Col. 2:20 “affirms that those in Christ have died to the stoicheia of the world, which are then listed as a series of rules from which Christians have been set free (2:21).” (p. 198) The passage also associates false teaching with the demonic. Since 2 Peter is specifically concerned with false teaching this becomes a natural fit for stoicheia meaning false teaching. “Richards thus suggests it is these very teachings (stoicheia), along with the false teachers who propound them, that will be destroyed at Christ’s return. And the destruction of false teachings, he declares, is not the same as the destruction of the cosmos. . . . his argument, when added to our previous analysis, suggests that the dissolution and melting of the stoicheia in 2 Peter 3 makes sense on multiple levels, including judgment on demonic powers (thus purging the heavens of evil), the parting of the sky so the earth is exposed to God’s judgment, and the destruction of false teaching (which may have its origin in the demonic). In no case, however, does the text mean to describe the annihilation of the cosmos.” (p. 199)
“From Peter’s point of view, the idea that the cosmos will be annihilated is thus a false teaching. And might we even infer that this very teaching will be destroyed when Christ returns? Or, we might say, ‘Left Behind’ theology will finally be left behind!” (p. 200)