Creation Groans; But Why? (RJS)

Creation Groans; But Why? (RJS) October 30, 2012

One of the passages that comes into play in the discussion of modern science and the Christian faith is Romans 8, especially verses 19-22. Certainly Romans 8 provides another reflection on Genesis 3 and the consequence of the Fall.  Or so many think.

In Genesis 3 we read:

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3: 17-19)

In Romans 8 we read:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  (Romans 8:18-22)

This passage in Romans 8 casts a powerful, poetic, image. 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. Surely the reference is back to the curse of Genesis 3! Right?

Not so fast. Is it really clear that the reference is back to Genesis 3?

Most of the commentaries on Romans 8 I’ve looked at trace the reference back to Genesis 3. This includes John Stott, F.F. Bruce, and N.T. Wright, scholars for whom I have a great deal of respect. So I put forth my thoughts with a bit of caution, but it seems unlikely to me that Paul’s thought was fixed on Genesis 3 as the source of his reflection on creation in Romans 8. Rather, it seems more likely that his primary source was the prophets and the whole of Israel’s story. Images of the earth groaning because of the sins of Israel are common in the prophets.

I was reading Jeremiah this week (or more accurately listening to Jeremiah). The echoes of much of what I heard in Jeremiah reminded me of Paul’s writing in Romans, and of this passage in Romans 8 in particular. As an example, in Jeremiah 4 we find:

I looked at the earth,  and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying. I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

This is what the Lord says:

“The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely. Therefore the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent,  I have decided and will not turn back.”

I hear a cry as of a woman in labor,  a groan as of one bearing her first child—the cry of Daughter Zion gasping for breath,  stretching out her hands and saying, “Alas! I am fainting;  my life is given over to murderers.” (Jeremiah 4:23-31)

In fact, the image of a woman in labor applied to land, to nations, and to rulers is a common image in the book of Jeremiah (6:24, 13:21, 22:23, 30:6, 48:41, 49:22,24, 50:43).

Some have suggested that the curse upon the earth in Genesis 3 completely changed the nature of the world, resulting in volcanoes among other things – the geysers at Yellowstone are in an ancient caldera (image above).  But this does not seem consistent with either the text we have or with the world we see. The “fall” did not change the laws of physics. The curse did not result in earthquakes, tornadoes or volcanoes; carnivorous animals, or parasites. The curse on the earth in Genesis related to a broken relationship between man as image of God with dominion over God’s good creation and creation itself. Adam and his descendents will have to till an uncooperative soil and separate the good crop from weeds – from thorns and thistles.

Jeremiah 4 cast a far darker image of creation that arises from the deep covenant unfaithfulness of Israel. First and foremost the plight of the earth is a result of the failure of Israel to love the Lord their God and worship no other gods. It is also a result of their failure to care for the poor and hurting, their failure to reflect the love of God to others – which stems from their failure to love God and follow his commandments. These themes appear over and over. Not just in Jeremiah, but throughout the prophets.

In the imagery of the prophets there is a curse on the earth. But this curse is not the result of Adam. It also is not a change in the physical nature of the world.  It does not reflect some cosmic change in the laws of physics worked by God in response to sin. In a figurative and physical sense, the earth groans result of the covenant unfaithfulness of Israel. Romans 8 turns this dark image around to an eager expectation of the renewal that comes through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to Scripture, and  thereby through the renewed children of God, transformed by the working of the grace of God.

I don’t put any of this forward as a final answer – but think it is a topic worth some thought and discussion.

What do you think is the reference behind Romans 8? Why?

Where does the image Paul is presenting come from and where is he taking his reader with the image?

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