Romans 8: Creation Groans

We have spent several posts looking at Gen 1-3 and at Paul’s understanding of Genesis and its role in his atonement theology in Romans 5. In the course of this discussion several different people have brought up Romans 8, especially verses 19-22 as another important passage to inform our thinking. Certainly Romans 8 provides another reflection on Gen 3 and the consequence of the Fall. In Gen 3 we read:

100_0175 dsThen to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And in Romans 8

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

This is a powerful, poetic, and dynamic passage. The whole earth is in bondage to decay on account of the sin of man and the curse of God. The whole earth is in anticipation, NT Wright says “on tiptoes with excitement” awaiting the coming renewal and the coming glory of the children of God.

This leads us to ponder : What is the curse of the ground and the bondage to decay that is set right by the inauguration of kingdom of God and how does it interface with our scientific knowledge of creation?

A broken relationship, not a change in fundamental physics: It seems clear that the curse is in the broken relationship between man and creation, between humans and the earth. The earth was subjected to futility by God, on account of the sin of adam. John Stott points out that the word used by Paul, translated futility above, is the same word used in the LXX to translate Ecclesiasties 1:2 Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

The basic idea is emptiness, whether of purpose or result. … For it expresses the existential absurdity of a life lived ‘under the sun’, imprisoned in time and space, with no ultimate reference point either to God or eternity. (p. 239, The Message of Romans (The Bible Speaks Today))

This pointlessness and curse is corrected by the work of Christ; for to restore the relationship between man and God is to restore the relationship of man with creation as well. FF Bruce notes:

Man was put in charge of the ‘lower’ creation and involved it with him when he fell; through the redemptive work of the ‘second man’ the entail of the fall is broken not only for man himself but for the creation which is dependent on him. (p. 160, Romans (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries))

N T Wright expands upon these ideas:

The answer, if the creator is to be true to the original purpose, is for humans to be redeemed, to take their place at last as God’s imagebearers, the wise steward they were always meant to be. Paul sees that this purpose has already been accomplished in principle in the resurrection of Jesus, and that it will be accomplished fully when all those in Christ are raised and together set in saving authority over the world (see 1 Cor 15:20-28). That is why, Paul says, creation is now waiting with eager longing. (p.596 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 10).

The restoration is not yet complete – although it is inaugurated through the atoning work of Christ.

A continuity and renewal: The interpretation of this passage impacts eschatology as well as origins. The image of birth-pangs in Romans 8 suggests a continuity between the current creation and the future new creation – we await revolution and renewal not abolition of the current order. Wright makes this abundantly clear in all of his work, including his recent book Surprised by Hope – the subject of a long series on Jesus Creed last year (first, last). But these are not new ideas, both Bruce and Stott agree. According to Bruce:

These words of Paul point not to the annihilation of the present material universe on the day of revelation, to be replaced by a universe entirely new, but to a transformation of the present universe so that it will fulfil the purpose for which God created it….But the transformation of the universe depends upon the completion of man’s transformation by the working of God’s grace. (p. 161)

And John Stott:

Although we must be careful not to impose modern scientific categories on Paul, we must hold to his combination of present suffering and future glory. Each verse expresses it. The creation’s subjection to frustration was in hope (20). The bondage to decay will give place to the freedom of glory (21). The pains of labour will be followed by the joys of birth (22). There is therefore going to be both continuity and discontinuity in the regeneration of the world, as in the resurrection of the body. The universe is not going to be destroyed, but rather liberated, transformed and suffused with the glory of God. (p. 241 Romans)

100-0155 textSome have suggested that the curse upon the earth completely changed the nature of the world, resulting in volcanoes among other things – the geysers at Yellowstone are in an ancient caldera. But this does not seem consistent with either the text we have or the world we see. The curse on the earth related to a broken relationship between man as image of God with dominion over God’s good creation and creation itself. The “fall” did not change the laws of physics. The curse did not result in earthquakes, tornadoes or volcanoes; carnivorous animals, parasites, or even sadistic cats. God’s creative universe was good – but Paul suggests that the goal is even better still. The liberation and renewal awaits the transformation and regeneration of man. And we are in a period of tension: already – but not yet. Yet this is not stasis – a time of stationary waiting. We have a mission as we follow God and rest in the assurance of his redeeming work.

So – what do you think is the nature of the curse upon creation? And what is the Christian mission in the present stage – as creation yet groans in anticipation of the coming glory?

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