The Groaning of Creation in Romans 8:19-23

Christians and the call to care for the earth.

Christians and the call to care for the earth (Image credit: Catholic Web Services)

Earth Day is coming up soon, and Christians who are called to engage the culture are faced with how to respond to the call to care for the earth. But what does the Bible have to say about it?

In what sense does the whole of creation; including plants and animals, cats and dogs, rocks and weather systems, await the complete fulfillment of God’s plan for redemption? The Apostle Paul appears to be addressing this issue in Romans 8:19-23 (ESV):

For the creation waits with eager longing 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 will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

It covers a lot of areas related to environmental concerns, everything from the question of natural evil (why are there earthquakes and hurricanes?), to hot topics like global climate change, to the question of whether or not your pet dog will be in heaven. It is as though Paul is connecting God’s ultimate redemptive plan for humanity; i.e. the revealing of the sons of God, with the full revelation of God’s purpose for the created order. But before that day comes, the creation is subjected to futility. Hence, we will live in a world where the creation groans in frustration as in the pains of childbirth.

I have been working through Romans 8 along with our small group, and the passage just jumps out at me with questions. There is a lot of theology here for the thinking person, so please indulge me to ponder a bit on this blog post. As a little taste, I would like to refer you to part of the “Great Debate” between Young Earth and Old Earth Creationism feature on the John Ankerberg show, highlighted some time ago on Veracity, or you can simply skip the video and read on…

The Frustration of Creation and Its Hope

The first question is about this word creation. So before I get too far, I must mention that there is a minority view that says that this word should just be translated in the singular as creature, as you find through most of this passage in the KJV. Some then take this to mean that the creature should more properly be understand as “the Gentile,” and not an umbrella concept of the totality of God’s creation. Here it is “the Gentile;” that is, the non-Jew, who is groaning for the coming of God’s redemptive purposes. In other words, Paul might be using this word for creature or creation as a kind of shorthand or metaphor for “Gentile.” There is some evidence for this point of view, in that the whole topic of the literal creation is rarely discussed in the Book of Romans. The word for creation here in other contexts specifically refers to human people, as in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15. Paul is mostly concerned about the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles in terms of the Gospel message in this letter, so it would seem that talk about the entire natural world is rather out of place. There are other places in the New Testament where creation appears to refer to “the Gentile” or the whole Gentile world, not really the world of dogs and cats. For example, Jesus is calling his disciples to preach the Gospel to all creation in Mark 16:15.

With all due apologies to Saint Francis of Assisi, does this really require that Christians go around preaching to your neighborhood dogs and cats?… “Hi, little doggie. Do you know the Lord?“… Woof! Woof! …Mmmm…maybe not.

Nevertheless, most scholars opt for the typical modern translation of creation in Romans 8, arguing that it indeed refers to the entirety of creation, including dogs and cats. I would tend to agree. Paul is not simply concerned in Romans 8 about the salvation of people, but rather he is also concerned about the purposes of God in general, including the natural world that He created. By bringing in the thought of creation, Paul is showing his reader that God’s plan to redeem rebellious humans must be placed within the larger context of God’s objectives for all of creation from the beginning.

But here is my second question: what about the reason why the creation is being subjected to futility? Many scholars point to the curse brought on as a consequence of “the Fall,” or Adam and Eve’s sin, in Genesis 3:14-19. Because of human sin, the creation is in this state of groaning, waiting for the full disclosure of redeemed humanity. Once God’s purpose for humanity is ultimately achieved, the creation, too, then is transformed and realizes its true purpose in the re-creation of the “new heavens and new earth.”

However, there is another view that challenges this approach (as found on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog). The Apostle Paul was accustomed to drawing from Old Testament imagery to make his arguments, so it is interesting to note this passage from the prophet Jeremiah as he laments the disobedience of the nation of Judah prior to the Babylonian Exile:

I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and behold, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger

For thus says the Lord, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
“For this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above be dark;
for I have spoken; I have purposed;
I have not relented, nor will I turn back.”
(Jeremiah 4:23-28 ESV).

And then here:

For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
anguish as of one giving birth to her first child,
the cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before murderers.” (Jeremiah 4:31)

The groaning of creation in Romans 8 could be connected to the groaning of childbirth in that last verse here from Jeremiah, which is a familiar theme of lament for the prophet.

Yet in that first verse, the comment about the earth being without form and void and the heavens having no light looks be a reference back, not to Genesis 3 and the Fall, but rather to Genesis 1:2, at the very beginning of creation, before the Fall.  If this is what Paul has in mind, the “subjection of futility” in Romans 8 would be a reference to the chaotic state of creation at the very, very beginning, NOT the curse placed on Adam and Eve. This would give the impression that Paul believed that even though the world was created good, it was not perfect. The groaning of creation indicates that long before the incident of eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the created order was still in a state of disorder. Humanity was originally brought on the scene in order to domesticate, or subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). But sadly, eating that tasty piece of fruit prevented humanity from accomplishing the mission, allowing the created order to fall back not simply to a state of disorder, but even further into a state of corruption brought specifically by human sin.

This runs us right into the very heart of the theological debate between Young Earth and Old Earth Creationism. In the Young Earth perspective, Adam and Eve’s sin resulted in every possible distortion and frustration of the created order, including animal death and suffering.  But in the Old Earth perspective, the condition of creation after the Fall is far more complicated. Yes, the Fall introduced corruption into creation, but because of the original state where there was disorder at the very beginning of creation, it is difficult to tell what is truly a product of sinful corruption and what is from the original state of disorder, left that way since humanity was unable to properly tend the garden and domesticate the created world. God’s purposes are not simply to resolve the problem of sin. They also include going beyond that to make the created universe fully ordered and thus completing His plan for what Adam and Eve originally were meant to do in the Garden of Eden.

Are earthquakes and hurricanes therefore a part of God’s original design in nature, yet to be properly subdued by God’s designated co-rulers of that creation, namely the humans created in His image? Are these earthquakes and hurricanes something that were originally intended to be harnessed by humans for some greater purpose, only to have that plan left unfulfilled and furthermore twisted due to the crafty cunning of the Serpent? This is essentially the position of the Old Earth Creationist.

Or is the Young Earth Creationist correct? Are earthquakes and hurricanes simply a kind of “evil,” a byproduct and consequence of that original sin?

It gives us something to think about.

Nevertheless, the story does not end there. Romans 8 is ultimately one of the greatest chapters in the Bible to teach us about our eternal hope. The Apostle Paul tells us that as the Gospel goes forth to transform hearts and minds, setting them on fire in the love of God and His Truth, this leads us steps closer to the ultimate goal where the labor pains of creation finally give way to a triumphant hope where all of the plans and purposes of the created order are finally brought to completion.

There is simply no excuse for being idle as we await the coming of our Lord. Just as a woman approaching labor must tend to prenatal care for her child, so Christians should care for the earth. Without having to endorse the extremes, Christians can indeed support Earth Day. We have a lot of work to do  to be ecological good stewards of the earth, all while still proclaiming the Gospel, but the long range promise associated with the final consummation of God’s purposes should be encouraging to the believer. Such a promise means that we will no longer need to live under the threat of global climate change, enjoying all of creation as God originally intended it. Perhaps we will not even need to consider having household pets since it would appear that the entire animal kingdom might be become domesticated. We can barely conceive of what we might experience in the glorified state. To think that this would include everything from weather patterns to dogs and cats, just goes to demonstrate how glorious God’s work in redemption really is. We must endure the suffering in this world in the interim, but the hope for the future is one of incredible healing and restoration. What a wonderful day that will be!


About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “The Groaning of Creation in Romans 8:19-23

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: