In Romans 8:19-22, Paul lifts the gaze of his readers from their present circumstances to look around at an entire creation that shares in their suffering and hope and to look forward to the incomparable glory that awaits. Other than John 1:14 (“the Word became flesh”), this text is perhaps the most significant in the New Testament for a Christian doctrine of creation. It has transformative potential to inform faithful Christian witness in an age some are calling the “Anthropocene” in recognition of the scale and scope of human influence on earth.
Yet the potential of this text to shape contemporary Christian life and practice is largely unrealized, due in part to disagreements about such things as the topic of this symposium, the meaning of the “groaning of creation.” This essay,No amount of academic discussion of creation amounts to much if Christians fail to live in a way that actually shows what it means to name the world as God’s good creation and to care for it well. alas, will not convince everyone of my interpretation; but my aim is that even if a reader is not persuaded at every point, we may find common ground in learning to value the earth and its life as God does. For, as this passage reveals, all of creation is included in the results of the redemption accomplished in Christ.
I am grateful for the chance to contribute to the Creation Project at Sapientia, which has already yielded dozens of helpful, clarifying essays; we have tremendous need for the sort of civil discourse that is modeled here. But no amount of academic discussion of creation amounts to much if Christians fail to live in a way that actually shows what it means to name the world as God’s good creation and to care for it well. While evangelicals wrangle over evolution and creationism, the health of many of the earth’s ecosystems is declining precipitously; the loss of God’s creatures, in their abundance and diversity, is accelerating; the climate is warming at rates unprecedented in the history of humankind; and the world’s poor are experiencing the damaging effects first and most acutely. In what follows, then, I will move from what I take to be most straightforward about the meaning of Romans 8:19-22 to what is more disputed and potentially uncertain, with the hope that my own convictions about its interpretation not lead any to miss the relevance of Paul’s all-encompassing vision of creation’s plight and future hope for how the church fulfills its mission today.
Creation Groans in Hope
The “groaning together” (sustenazō) of all of creation in Romans 8:22 cannot be understood apart from the verb with which it is joined, “suffering birth pains together” (sunōdinō). This is reflected in most English translations, as, for example, the NIV: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” The point is that creation’s present groaning is directed towards hope for a better future: its current state will not be its last. Labor pains are real and intense, but they lead to birth and new life. Such a future orientation is evident in vv. 19-21: creation waits expectantly (v. 19), and one day it “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (v. 21).
The implication is that the same creation that is now groaning has a future within God’s purposes. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this. The substantial continuity Paul here envisions between creation’s present and its future rules out escapist eschatologies and solely human-centered versions of Christian hope.See Jonathan A. Moo and Robert S. White, Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 97-114. However radical may be its transformation at the time of the revealing of God’s children (v. 19), it remains this groaning creation that then finds its freedom. The only possible analogy is in v. 23, where Paul links the adoption of God’s children to the “redemption of our bodies.” The resurrection of the body is thus a sign of the mix of continuity and discontinuity that must mark the renewal of all creation.
Most importantly, the ethical implications that Paul derives from his conviction that our bodies will be redeemed (v. 23) and have been “bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20) might therefore apply, mutatis mutandis, to our care for the rest of creation. For Paul, the hope of the transformation of bodies in the future resurrection undergirds the significance of how we treat our bodies now. Indeed, such hope gives meaning and purpose to all our work (1 Cor. 15:58). In Romans 8, it seems that creation must await the revealing of the children of God to find its longing fulfilled. Yet, even now, “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Rom. 8:14), as “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (v. 16). If God’s children begin to live as who they truly are in Christ, led by the Spirit, then surely creation too should even now experience a taste of its longed-for freedom.
Creation Groans in Suffering
Creation’s groaning reflects its anticipation of a better future, but it also reflects its present subjection to frustration (v. 19) and slavery to ruin (v. 20). And here is where commentators part ways. One avenue is to take this as something of a proof text for a primordial “fall of nature,” wherein God’s curse of the ground in Genesis 3:17 entails an ontological change in creation, involving, perhaps, the introduction of death, parasitism, predation, decomposition, volcanoes, earthquakes, mosquitoes—or whatever someone finds dangerous and unpleasant. Such an understanding of a cosmic fall would obviously contradict all science reveals about the history of life on earth, and it finds no explicit support elsewhere in Scripture. But it would be consistent with passages like Isaiah 11:6-9 that envision the Messianic kingdom as a time of peace between wild creatures and settled human life, a time when the “lion will eat hay like a cow” (11:7) and “nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (v. 9). But even if we were to grant that such pictures be taken as straightforward depictions of reality, the trouble with using these texts to posit a cosmic fall is that it assumes that what is said of the future of creation applies to its beginning.The main problem with assigning all that is wild and dangerous to a cosmic fall is that threatening, death-dealing parts of creation are celebrated in Scripture as part of God’s good world. This is not at all evident. As Irenaeus discerned and is portrayed in Revelation and assumed by Paul in his teaching about the resurrection, the manifold goodness of the given world of Genesis 1 does not preclude a future transformation into something new and better.
But the main problem with assigning all that is wild and dangerous to a cosmic fall is that threatening, death-dealing parts of creation are celebrated in Scripture as part of God’s good world. This is a world with lightning, volcanoes, roaring lions, eagles whose young gulp down blood, Behemoth, and Leviathan. Yet, the psalmist says, “in wisdom you have made them all” (Ps. 104:24).
But what about Paul? The key question is what is meant by the subjection of creation: “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly but because of the one who subjected it, on the basis of the hope that even creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to ruin . . .” (vv. 20-21, my translation). The “one who subjected it” is God himself; only God has the power to do so, and with the intent of liberating creation. That God’s purpose was creation’s eventual freedom also tells against the “cosmic fall” interpretation; cursing the ground could hardly be the basis for such hope. Rather, the reference is to God’s decision to subject creation to human rule (Gen. 1:26-28). This subjection results in creation’s futility (mataiotēs) when its human rulers fail to honor God and become futile (mataioō) in their thinking, the very situation Paul describes in Romans 1:21-23. James Dunn explains this succinctly: “God subjected all things to Adam, and that included subjecting creation to fallen Adam, to share in his fallenness.”James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, WBC 38a (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 471. God intended human rule to reflect God’s own love and care for creation, to be his instrument in bringing about his purposes; yet creation’s telos is frustrated when human beings reject God and become broken, empty creatures.
The “fallenness” of humanity thus lies behind Paul’s thought here, but not in the sense of a cosmic fall involving a once-for-all change in the created order. Rather, Paul envisions a dynamic and relational outworking of the situation described in Genesis 3. As is often the case in the Hebrew Bible, humanity’s relationship to the earth reflects the consequences of its broken relationship with God; but this is experienced to a greater or lesser degree depending on the actions of God’s people. The curse of the ground in Genesis 3:17 is thus pronounced again, in much the same language, in Genesis 4:11-12, after Cain kills his brother. The implication is that there is something contingent about the consequences of this curse; it will be experienced to differing degrees depending on human faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God. Job can thus acknowledge that “if my land cries out (stenazō; “groans”) against me, and all its furrows are wet with tears, if I have devoured its yield without payment or broken the spirit of its tenants, then let briers come up instead of wheat, and stinkweed instead of barley” (31:38-40). There is a connection between human faithfulness and the fruitfulness of the earth. This connection is most obvious in the life of biblical Israel, for whom the land itself reflected the state of the nation’s relationship to God.
In fact, Paul’s description of the groaning of creation in Romans 8 and its bondage to “ruin” (phthora) draws from the Hebrew prophets, who portray the earth as mourning and ruined because of human sin. Take, for example, Isaiah 24Paul’s recognition that all of creation together groans is an insight gleaned not from mere observation but from his understanding of the cosmic scope of a biblical story that has reached its fulfillment in Christ. (a text I argue elsewhere has informed Paul’s thought here).Jonathan A. Moo, “Romans 8.19-22 and Isaiah’s Cosmic Covenant,” New Testament Studies 54 (2008), 74-89. The Greek translation of Isaiah 24:3 describes the earth being “utterly ruined” (phthora phtharēsetai), and the following verses continue: “The earth mourns and withers . . . the earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth . . .” (Isa. 24:4-6a). In this text, Isaiah universalizes his people’s experience of drought and ruin, painting a cosmic picture of an entire creation that groans under the weight of human sin.
Like Isaiah, Paul undoubtedly interpreted drought, ruined land, and food shortages as signs of creation’s groaning. Yet his recognition that all of creation together groans is an insight gleaned not from mere observation but from his understanding of the cosmic scope of a biblical story that has reached its fulfillment in Christ. This story does not end with a groaning creation subjected to broken humanity and enslaved to ruin but with a creation that shares in the freedom that results when humanity is redeemed in Christ, the image of God renewed, and the glory of proper human rule within creation restored. As my Whitworth colleague Haley Jacob has shown, Paul’s use of “glory” reflects its association with rule; hence “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” refers to the freedom in which creation shares when the glory of God’s children is restored and their rule in creation rightly reflects God’s purposes.Haley Goranson Jacob, Conformed to the Image of his Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018).
To sum up, then, the groaning of creation is the response of the earth to its current state of being subjected to the rule of sinful humanity while anticipating the freedom and renewal in which it shares at the redemption of God’s children. In a time when the global scope of Paul’s vision of a groaning creation has become all too real, the church more than ever needs to reclaim this earthly eschatology and take up its Spirit-empowered work of caring for creation in ways that reflect the royal vocation of God’s children—for whose revealing an entire creation yearns.