Another good question came to me via email:
Thanks for all you do and the ministry you provide for the Body of Christ. My question is concerning 2 Peter 2. From what I gather, the end the false prophet endures is Hell. Peter says that they will experience “the gloom of darkness is reserved forever” (2 Pet 2:17). It seems without a doubt that would be a reference to Hell. Later in the chapter it says these have “forsaken the right way and gone astray” (v 15) and that their end would have been better if they never believed (vv 20-21).
The only conclusion I could draw from the text is these false prophets had the truth but have gone astray and are now doomed for darkness forever. That it would have been better for them if they never had the truth than to have had it and turned back. I also draw from chapter 2 these appear to be believers. Which makes it even more perplexing. I know I’m missing something but I just can’t tell what. Can you help?
I wrote an article on 2 Peter 2:18-22 thirty years ago (I think I was five at the time). If you want to see the old article, click here.
The questioner slightly misstates verses 20-21 and that is why he is perplexed. Verses 20-21 are not talking about the false prophets and are not saying that it would be better for those being discussed if they had never believed.
As we walk through these five verses, the point being made will emerge.
The key to understanding 2 Pet 2:18-22 is to follow the third person plural references: they, them, the ones, and those. A careful reading shows that the false teachers and the believers they will mislead, are both in view.
The false teachers are seen in the words “they speak,” “they allure,” and “those who live in error” in verse 18, and “they promise” and “they themselves are slaves” in verse 19. There is no further mention of the false teachers after verse 19.
The believers who will be misled are discussed in the words “the ones who have actually escaped” in verse 18, “they [false teachers] promise them [believers] liberty” in verse 19, “they have escaped,” “they are again entangled,” and “worse for them” in verse 20, “better for them” and “delivered to them” in verse 21, and “it has happened to them” in verse 22.
Verses 17 and preceding refer to coming false teachers. However, verses 18 and 19 refer both to the false teachers and to believers who will be duped by the false teachers. Verses 20-22 refer to believers who are duped.
Verses 18 and 20 indicate that the people being drawn into sin by the false teachers are those “who have actually escaped from those who live in error” and who “have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Only mature believers “have escaped” from the pollutions of the world.
Peter is concerned that his readers, believers, might fall into a sinful lifestyle as a result of the wiles of the false teachers whom he knows via prophecy are coming soon. Peter urges his believing readers to be diligent so as to keep from stumbling and falling (1:5, 10; 2:18-22; 3:14, 17). We err if we read into 2 Peter the idea that anyone who fell away would prove to be a false professor or would lose everlasting life (which is impossible, 1 Pet 1:23-25). Peter never questions the eternal destiny of his readers. Rather, he acknowledges it (1 Pet 1:23-25; 2 Pet 3:8-17). What he is concerned about is that they remain on the path of righteousness.
What does Peter warn his readers will happen if they fall? A careful reading of 2 Pet 2:20-22 suggests that temporal judgment, not the lake of fire, is in view. Peter spoke of the blackness of darkness forever in verse 17, when talking about the destiny of the false teachers. He says nothing like that about the believers who would be misled. He makes no reference to hell, the lake of fire, unending suffering, darkness, or any similar term or phrase. He instead says that it would be better for a believer never to know the way of righteousness than to have known it and then turn away in a licentious lifestyle.
The way of righteousness is not the saving message. It is the path of righteousness, that is, that path leading to righteous living.
Peter is saying that if a believer turns back to a life in the far country, after having started to climb the path of righteousness, his life here and now will be worse than if he had never started in discipleship.
People in rescue mission work will tell you stories of doctors and lawyers and engineers and architects who end up drug addicted and homeless and eventually coming to their mission. In some cases these are believers who had been following Christ for years and who then had a terrible fall. Their experience on the streets was far worse than what their experience had been before they began on the path of discipleship.
Imagine a road winding up a mountain. The higher you go on the road of righteousness, the godlier you become and the worse your fall will be if you leave the road. The road is narrow and has a small shoulder. If you stray from the path too much, you will go over the edge and fall all the way you have come up that mountain. Peter says that for a believer to progress in discipleship and then to fall is worse than if the believer had never started on the path at all. That is one of the costs of discipleship and it is one of the things we should consider before entering into discipleship (Luke 14:26-33).
In his commentary on 2 Peter, Zane Hodges says concerning verse 20,
Although Biblical grace theology always affirms that salvation is absolutely free and can never be lost, it never treats a Christian’s defection from God’s path as a matter of indifference. Quite the opposite. To be a saved person and to abandon the righteous standards of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is to court God’s righteous wrath and to invite tragic personal disaster. It is a fool’s pathway…
There is no merit in denying the dangers that confront successful Christian living, and there is no virtue in ignoring the personal catastrophe to which they can lead (p. 84).
Dogs and pigs are used as closing illustrations in verse 22. Notice that the dogs and pigs in question are said to have been free from their filth and then return to it. Only believers who follow Christ are free of slavery to sin in their experience (Rom 6:6, 12-13, 16, 19). Surely the reader of 2 Peter would harken back to 1:9 where Peter refers to his readers as being purged from their old sins. Peter was not referring to forgiveness there. He was referring to our new natures. Believers have a nature which is free from the sins which used to enslave us (Rom 6:18). Whenever a believer walks in the darkness, he has forgotten who he is (2 Peter 1:9) and has allowed the flesh to rear its ugly head.
The false teachers promised their potential dupes liberty (2:19). But they actually delivered bondage and temporal judgment (2:20-22). We should all heed the warning. Discipleship blesses the believer who stays on the path. But there are risks. Falling off the path is possible and leads to terrible consequences.