Romans 8: Creation Groans (RJS)

Romans 8: Creation Groans (RJS) March 10, 2009

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:

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Then 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 this blog 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)

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Some 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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  • Thanks for making this point and doing so in such a clear way. I’ve often encountered individuals who believe that the pre-Fall world was free from carnivores and death, and yet the most obvious meaning of Genesis 2-3 is that the tree of life was an “antidote” to death, not that death did not exist. If there was no death, there was no need for a tree that counteracted it!
    Once one has God making carnivores and flesh-eating viruses after the Fall, it also raises serious issues about the goodness of God. Whether it is the pain of literal childbirth or the pain of bringing a new and better world into existence, such things become trauma and travail not because of physical sensations of pain, but because of our broken relationships and the fear of death and failure that agonizes us at times.

  • James makes a good point about pain that must surely influence the definition of evil. Pain itself cannot be seen as necessarily evil. After all, the lines between pain and simply strong sensation are often blurred. Even some of the things we consider pleasure (i.e. carbonated drinks on the tounge) stimulate the “pain” parts of our brains.

  • angusj

    It seems to me that evangelicalism, that generally accepts some flavor of evolution (as opposed to Christian Fundamentalism which doesn’t), still hasn’t developed an intellectually rigorous hermeneutic for ‘the fall’. Nor do I think that this problem is confined to where I live (Sydney, Australia).
    It seems to me that many evangelical preachers on the one hand acknowledge that the first 11 chapters of Genesis were written in a non-literal (allegorical, mythic) genre. On the other hand, however, they still believe that ‘the garden’ and ‘the fall’ were real places and events, and that natural disasters (earth quakes, tsunamis etc) are a direct consequence of human rebellion. This sort of confused thinking I would suggest is contributing to the declining numbers of those who profess our faith (at least in developed countries).
    Now it seems almost certain that Paul in Romans understood ‘the garden’ and ‘the fall’ to be historical. However, accepting that this is not correct, this weakens neither Paul’s credibility nor the points he’s making. Likewise, Paul’s misunderstanding on this point undermines neither our belief in the inspiration of Scripture, nor its authority as some might fear – it simply reflects the very human medium though which God has chosen to reveal himself. Evidently, God’s purpose was not to reveal (and most probably confuse us with) the mechanics of creation, but to reveal his own character, how we are to respond to him and each other, our proper role within creation, and to reveal his promise to us of restoration and renewal.
    I accept it’s reasonable to understand that at some point humankind evolved to the moment we became morally responsible before God. At some point (presumably soon after), a person (let’s call him Adam) exercised the freedom God gave to choose to deny God (as he was revealed). However, can we understand ‘the fall’ as primarily an allegory for our corporate and individual rebellion – the desire we all have to ‘do our own thing’ – and that any desires to love (without God) are overwhelmed by our own self interests? Can we also understand that the world is not ‘groaning’ as the result of rebellion, but is ‘groaning’ to remind us of our precarious state with our creator, and that this isn’t our real and final home since God has promised restoration and renewal of the world/cosmos too?

  • I’ll be in a meeting all day so I may not be back to this conversation until tonight. Great post! I had a couple of thoughts.
    The physics of creation may not have changed at the fall but will the physics change at the new creation? How about the physics of being human? We will have new bodies with eternal lives instead of bodies that decay. In his resurrected body, Jesus literally walked through doors. Will something change about created order?
    You know me and my endless rant against the idea that dominion is merely about being preservationists or forest rangers. The biblical story begins in a garden and ends in a garden city. Cities are code for human achievement. Human contributions are part of the created order God achieves through human hands.
    Creation was good but we are here to make it better, bring it to fulfillment, in co-creative stewardship. As fallen humans we have been at work toward this end but in distorted and sometimes counter-productive ways. Creation, including the human contribution to it, has suffered and waits to be delivered from the impact of God’s fallen image bearers.

  • RJS,
    First off, thanks for continuing these series. On a bit of a sidenote (I’d email you directly but don’t have an email address), I’m wondering if you got a chance to see the video of Phyllip Clayton explaining what he terms “emergence science”? It sounds like really interesting and consequential stuff. But I’m curious how it sounds to someone trained in the sciences such as yourself. I’d be really curious to hear your take. The video was on Tony Jones’ blog and has been making the rounds in emergent circles. Here’s the link:

  • RJS

    I took a look at the videos on Tony’s site a few days ago. The topic is interesting and worth some discussion, but I have to figure out how to structure it.

  • RJS

    Interesting, this is a topic worth some discussion. How literally should we take the curse of Gen 3 that is alluded to by Paul in Romans 8?
    I think that the curse is primarily one of relationship – the relationship between mankind and the earth. But the metaphorical groaning here is a result of rebellion, not simply a reminder, rebellion that severed relationships.
    I am interested to know however, how others view this “groaning.”

  • Eric

    Great post RJS, thanks.
    I also think Michael (#4) is correct — the NT implies that new creation will be improved over even the initial “good” creation. And, as Michael points out, it would seem that physics will need to change at new creation — that is something interesting to think about. Polkinghorne has an interesting chapter, which he admits is speculation, but suggests (if I recall correctly) that one possibility is that in new creation we will make greater use of the various (already existing) additional dimensions suggested in M-theory — maybe that is perhaps how Christ walked through doors (again, this is from memory of what he suggests).
    Again speculation (mine, not Polkinghorne’s), but perhaps God would alter the second law of thermodynamics, which seems to bake decay into the universe. That law also suggests a particular arrow of time (the future is the direction in which randomness and decay increase; the past is the opposite) — so maybe God could do away with the implications of the second law by allowing freedom of movement in either direction of time. I.e., we could turn to the past or present, just as much as we can turn East or West. (The fact that God chose to structure time to move in only one direction is very interesting, and has all sorts of theological implications on its own).
    Ok, so all of this is 100% speculation, and I’m sure God’s plans far exceed anything we could speculate about, but it is interesting to consider the possibilities.

  • I think its worth noting that God revokes the Genesis 3 curse in Genesis 8 (verse 21) following Noah’s sacrifice.

  • RJS, Scott, As an aside – I’m also keen to push a little deeper into “emergence” in terms of biology/chemistry and its other disciplinary inplications (theology/anthropology). It’s be interesting to hear from you both on this . .

  • RJS

    I don’t think Gen 8:21-22 removes the curse of Gen 3 – after all the earth still produces thorns and thistles and sweat of the brow is required for enough food – many don’t have enough.

  • angusj

    RJS, firstly thank you for your very thoughtful blogs and posts (and not just on this topic). I find it a pleasure visiting this blog because of the gracious tone and intellectual rigor of the discussion here.
    Why I find it impossible to accept that the earth is ‘groaning’ as a consequence of mankind’s sin is because the earth has been groaning with earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami, cyclones and whatever for billions of years prior to our arrival as a species.

  • angusj

    As a follow up to my last post, I think it’s logical to assume that God anticipated our rebellion and knew that a perfect world wouldn’t be a conducive environment for us to experience moral autonomy and rebellion and still turn from that rebellion to worship him as creator.

  • ken

    Why hasn’t anyone made mention of 2 Peter 3:3-11? Doesn’t this kind of throw a theological monkey wrench into the discussion thus far?

  • angusj

    Ken, I’m not sure I see the problem you allude to with 2 Peter 3. Isn’t it reasonable to accept that the author of 2 Peter was wrong in his understanding about ‘how’ the world was created (eg 2 Pet 3:5) while still accepting Biblical inspiration and appreciating the theological merit of this letter?

  • Ken #14
    I don’t know that is so much a monkey wrench as it might first seem. It seems likely to me that there is some metaphoric hyperbole being expressed. The aim seems to be to indicate a radical discontinuity between this creation world and the world of the new creation. There is imagery of metal going through the refiners fire so that all the impurities consumed and only the pure (the righteous?) remain. Everything will be “laid bare” (v.10) be seen for what it is. In 3-7, Noah is referenced where the scoffers and the world they created is obliterated. But a remnant of humanity and creation perseveres through the cataclysm and carries over into the “New Creation.”
    Michael Wittmer writes in Heaven is a place on earth:
    “During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the best available Greek manuscripts of 2 Peter 3:10 read that “the earth and all of its works will be burned up.” This is how every translation of that period, including the King James Version, rendered the verse. It is easy to see how whole generations of Christians learned from their Bibles to expect a future fire that would annihilate the entire world.
    However, scholars have since discovered older, more reliable Greek manuscripts, and these texts say that rather than burning up, “the earth and all of its works will be found.” Instead of being destroyed, this term “found” implies that the quality of our works will be “laid bare,” discovered for all to see. Much like gold passing through a smelting furnace, the good that we do will be purified while our less noble efforts will slough off. Read this way, Peter’s vision of a coming conflagration seems to be purging rather than annihilating fire.
    Perhaps this is why Peter compares the coming “destruction” by fire with the world’s previous “destruction” by water (2 Peter 3:6-7). Justas the Great Flood did not annihilate the world but primarily cleansed it of its numerous sinners, so the impending fire seems to perform an ethical cleansing rather than an ontological annihilation. In short, if the “destruction” of the flood did not annihilate the world, why should we think that the future “destruction” by fire will do so?
    Peter’s point is that since the coming conflagration will purge the earth of its impurities, strive to live such good lives that when you and the works of your hands pass through the refining fire, both you and your cultural contributions will survive. Thus, rather than give cause for despair, Peter’s admonition inspires hope that our highest cultural achievements, such as the Mona Lisa, Westminster Abbey, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, will make it through to the new heaven and new earth.”

  • angusj

    Great post Micheal. Thanks.

  • ken

    Just thinking ‘context’ here. I believe the context from which Peter was speaking was that mankind (esp. scoffers), believe that everything (organic systems) is pretty much the same as it was since the beginning of creation. Could Peter be alluding to the fact that organic systems experienced a dramatic change after the flood (e.g. Gen. 9 – man was now allowed to eat flesh – and animals would now fear man, etc.)? It could also be construed that prior to the flood, there was no rainfall. If so, the organic system of ‘watering’ plants must have been different. It is then possible that Peter is using this context to say that just as the flood (water) completely changed the organic systems of the world, there will come another such catastrophe by fire, which will finally change (restore?) all organic systems to God’s original design and purposes – which takes us to Romans 8. I don’t think we really have even imagined what that restoration will look like – but I am sure it will be nothing like the chaotic organic system in which we currently dwell.

  • Brandon Rhodes

    Kruse # 16,
    In addition to the Mona Lisa, Westminster Abbey, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, let’s not also add to our cultural achievements the hallowed artistic wonder that is a well-poured ale.
    Thanks for your clear explanation of the Peter passage… I’ve stumbled vaguely into various bits of that, but never really heard it so clear. Way to be. 🙂

  • irene

    From the Creation and the Fall of Man until Jesus Death and Resurrect-
    ion,man was set free.The Bible says in John3:16″For God so loved
    the World that He gave His only begotten Son,that whosoever believes in Him,shall not perish,but have everlasting life”.Everlasting life
    i believe refers to “eternity’the original plan of God for men,can only happen to those who receive the “WORD”,for our physical body,will decompose but we will be transformed into a new spiritual
    body that will not decay,like Jesus’body after His Resurrection,He ascended to heaven with that new body.Annihalation issues of the world
    is impossible!It may pass away but no one knows how?John3:16 again,For
    God so love the world…so God is in control!

  • JScheidel

    On the matter of Mr Kruse’s thought, making me think as it did :
    Oiling my rusty Greek and delving into its lexica, I’ve come to see 2Peter3:10 more precisely as: ‘But the day of the lord will have come like a thief, in which the heavens, with a (great) rushing sound, will come undone and, by way of intense heat, the elements will be freed of their bonds (molecular & otherwise?) and the earth and the works therein will be found out.’
    ‘Will have come’ has a future perfect sense implying that it’ll come so fast that none will notice til it’s already come, …too late.
    As stewards of the earth, we have worked not for the communal integrity of our stewardship, but against it, and concomitantly not for the earth but against this as well, which is to say, not for the health of it, for sure. Historical context places Peter as a believer in the 4 elements. I wonder if he considered the fifth.
    The Greek word for work, transliterated as ‘ergon’ denotes
    business, employment, that in which any one is occupied (=occupation); that which one undertakes to do, enterprise, undertaking; any product whatever, anything accomplished by hand, art, industry, or mind; an act, deed, thing done: the idea of working is emphasized as opp. to that which is less than work.
    It thus connotes the work of humankind, whatever it be, be it kind or not. Thus ‘the earth and the works therein’ means ‘the earth and the human works therein’. That they ‘will be found out’ signifies that they will have been revealed, with an absent dative implicitly universal. To whom shall it be revealed anyway? Will all have been reduced to plasma? If so, then who will be left for the ‘revelation’ to matter? Maybe it is to the saints and surely to Him, despite our insistence on His masculinity, that in the end of the present age all shall be revealed.
    Of course, since ‘world’ the word derives from the Anglo-Saxon
    wera-ieldu, ‘age of man’, I tend to think of the end of the world
    as the end of the present age, and not necessarily of the earth.
    I would hate to think that the Lord would allow His creation to be completely undone because of our spiritual inanity.
    Re Mr Ken’s thought : Its empiric illogic notwithstanding, Ken’s deduction that there likely was no rain before the purgative flood may be extended to include all the variations thereof : no ice, no snow, no clouds, not even enough moisture in the heavens to effect the appearance of a rainbow. Within a hair’s breadth of torrid aridity, the humidity might have been pleasant. And the flora were in need no water, or at least in no need of a heavenly sprinkle or two. The water table may have such that they thrived. Yet I wonder, does speculative knowledge such as this render us more salvageable from ignorance, more worthy therefore of salvation?

  • Chaplain W Garrett

    Why do I get the impression that this smacks of “Liberation Theology?”
    The earth certainly underwent changes such as thorns and thistles as mentioned in Genesis! There is ample eviddence that most-if not all-dinosaurs were vegetarians, so the earth WAS changed. The return of Christ is NOT dependent on man’s actions.Christ had a discernible and tangible body when he ascended and He has that body for all time. We don’t know what type of body we’ll have if we die before His return but our physical body will be reunited with whatever body we have been given in the interim. In the meantime we are to occupy until His return or our death. We can be politically active but not at the expense of truth. Being Christians does not exempt us from being responsible US Citizens and that involvevs speaking out against injustices, animal cruelty, the right to bear arms etc but without jeopardizing the cause of Christ.

  • BenB

    I’m not sure what ‘evidence’ you have of dinosaurs being vegitarians, but I’m pretty sure the large majority of scientists have rejeted the idea (including Christian Scientists). Likewise, why does this smack of ‘Liberation Theology’? Can’t we be interested in what the Bible says regardless of what title it seems to follow? Also, NO ONE here is saying Christ’s return is dependent upon the actions of man; only that we have a mission to accomplish (pursue) in the interim.
    This is going to be quite odd to throw into this conversation, but have you read The Shack? Oddly enough, it seems to offer a great answer to the question that some of us seem to have been throwing around and considering throughout this series. That is, man, having eaten from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, decided for themselves (and continue to do so) what is “good” and what is “evil.” Our judgments are based off of self-centered conceptions of the universe, and anything which seems bad to me, is bad, regardless of whether it accomplishes an overall, universal good (the example used was poisonous plants).
    I find this to be a plausible answer which i was already considering, and it is consistent with the whole of the Biblical Story. Man is fallen, the relationship with creation, God, and mankind, is all broken and fallen. The restoration of mankind will be reason for celebration for all three parties, as all relationship will be restored, and everything set right.
    To all,
    This brings me to the question of “will physics change for the New Creation?”
    I think the answer for me is becoming no. Why? Because that allows us to imagine what it might look like according to our fallen, broken concepts of Good and Evil. Maybe it will be very much the same as it is now, we will simply know the good in all of God’s creation which is good. After all, God said “it was good,” and we determined certain things were “bad.” Then we decide “things must have drastically changed” even though this is never said in the Bible, instead of saying “we must have drastically changed” which is always said in the Bible.

  • RJS

    I have not read The Shack – perhaps at some point. Interesting reflections.