I grew up in a low socioeconomic area in a densely populated Asian city. The rapid urbanization resulted in high-level air and noise pollution, which had substantial negative impact on people’s physical and mental health. I certainly found life oppressive in that environment. Now, I have made Australia home for many years.
I enjoy the tranquil suburban life in Melbourne, and I am thankful to God for every breath of fresh and clean air. But I often ponder over the stark contrast between affluent suburban Australian life and the arduous urban life among the poor in Asia. The theme of suffering in Romans, including the groaning of creation in Romans 8:19–23, has been a good resource for my reflection.
It is a daunting task to discuss the “groaning of creation,” not least because many capable biblical scholars and theologians have worked on the topic in recent years.See, for example, Cherryl Hunt, David G. Horrell and Christopher Southgate, “An Environmental Mantra? Ecological Interest in Romans 8:19–23 and a Modest Proposal for its Narrative Interpretation,” Journal of Theological Studies 59 (2008): 546–79; Richard Bauckham, “The Story of the Earth According to Paul: Romans 8:18–23,” Review and Expositor 108 (2011); Mick Pope, “With Heads Craning Forward: The Eschaton and the Nonhuman Creation in Romans 8,” in Ecotheology in the Humanities, edited by M. J. Brotton (London: Lexington Books, 2016), 159–76; Courtney J. P. Friesen, “Birthing the Children of God: Echoes of Theogony in Romans 8.19–23,” New Testament Studies 63 (2017): 246–60. It is, therefore, with a sense of “fear and trembling” that I will outline my understanding of Romans 8:19–23. I will frame the discussion within the context of God’s purpose for humanity and the entire creation in Romans 5–8.I am thankful for Dr. Mick Pope’s comments on a draft of this article. His valuable feedback was helpful.
God’s Purpose for Humanity
We cannot understand the groaning of creation in Romans 8:19–23 without first recognizing God’s purpose for humanity. The majority of recent commentators see Romans 5–8 as a major section in the structure of the letter.The reasons are many, and most recent commentators discuss them, whether they are in agreement or not. For me, one important factor is that the expression “through our Lord Christ Jesus” (with minor variations) appear only in Romans 5:1, 11, 21; 6:23; 7:25; 8:39 and nowhere else in the letter, and that it bookends the section. Paul begins this section by saying that those who have a right standing with God by faith have peace with God and that they have been reconciled to him (5:1–11).
The next passage, 5:12–21, provides profound insights into God’s purpose for the world. Paul says that sin entered the kosmos through Adam, and death spread to all people because all sinned (5:12). As a result, sin and death reigned (5:14, 17, 21). Throughout 5:12–21, Paul contrasts Adam’s disobedience with the obedience of Christ (the “last Adam”) and highlights the superiority of God’s grace. While Adam’s trespass led to condemnation, Christ’s righteous act leads to life for all (5:18). Therefore, God has formed a new humanity in Christ out of the humanity under Adam. While the “Adamic humanity” is under the power of sin, the new humanity in Christ has been delivered from sin’s dominion.
In Romans 6:1–23, Paul explains how the new humanity should live. He says that believers have been buried and crucified with him (6:4, 6). They are united with him in his death and resurrection (6:5). God’s purpose of setting believers free from sin is that they may live a life of obedience (6:6–12, 14, 16–17). They are no longer slaves (douloi) of sin, but slaves of righteousness (dikaiosynē) under grace (6:17–18).
Apart from deliverance from sin and living a life of obedience, God’s purpose is also that the believing community may become a family of God. While Adam brought about condemnation (5:16, 18), there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (8:1). God sent his Son (huios) to become an atoning sacrifice (8:3; cf. 3:21–26), in order that the just requirement of the law may be fulfilled in those who walk according to the Spirit and not the flesh (8:4–13). All who are led by the Spirit are children of God (8:14; huioi theou, “sons of God”). The Spirit bears witness that they are God’s children (tekna theou) and by the Spirit they cry, “Abba Father” (8:15–16).
The fact that the believing community consists of the children of God is important. As we will see later, their existence and destiny are intrinsically intertwined with the creation.
In the meantime, we note what Paul says in 8:17:
And if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him . . .
Here we see that God’s intention for his new humanity is that his children will be glorified with Christ. Note that glorification and suffering are inseparable, and participating in Christ’s suffering is an integral part of having a Spirit-led Father-children relationship with God. Therefore, believers are united with Christ’s death (6:5), they live with him (6:8), they are heirs with him, and they suffer with him in order that they may also be glorified with him (8:17).
In sum, we have learned that God’s purpose is to create a new humanity. Through Christ’s atoning death believers have been set free to walk in his ways by the Spirit. They are the children of God, who participate in Christ’s death, resurrection, suffering, and glory.
God’s Purpose and the Creation’s Groaning and Freedom
The above understanding of God’s purpose provides us with a crucial framework to discuss the groaning of creation in Romans 8:19–23. God’s redemptive plan involves not only humans, but also the non-human creation.
In Romans 8:18 Paul states that the sufferings of the present time are incomparable with the glory that is about to be revealed to God’s children. Then, perhaps surprisingly for modern Westerners, Paul includes the renewal of non-human creation in God’s purpose for the world.
For Paul, the creation was, figuratively speaking, subjected to futility (8:20), and is under the bondage to corruption (8:21). As a result, the creation groans and travails (8:22). The deep sense of despair resembles the distress expressed in Jeremiah 4:31 and 22:23,It is important to note that the experience and destiny of the creation are interlocked with those of the children of God. where the picture of a woman in birth pain is painted without the joy of giving birth. This explains why the creation eagerly longs for freedom from bondage (8:19, 21).
It is important to note that the experience and destiny of the creation are interlocked with those of the children of God. The creation waits for the revealing of the children of God (8:19). And its freedom from corruption is inseparable from the freedom of the glory of God’s children (8:21). Also, not only that the creation groans and eagerly waits for its freedom, God’s children also groan and wait for their adoption and future resurrection (8:23). Implicit here is Paul’s expectation that God will eventually restore and renew his creation, so that it will not be subject to decay. The creation is not evil in and of itself, and Paul does not say that God will completely destroy his creation. Rather, it will be set free from its bondage (8:21). Also implicit here is that the renewal of creation will take place at the future bodily resurrection and glorification of God’s children.
Importantly, in the midst of groaning there is hope and empowerment by the Spirit. The theme of hope is prominent in 8:20, 24–25. Believers and the creation are not without hope in their affliction and groaning. And the Spirit assists the believers and intercedes for them in their weakness (8:26–27).
In sum, the creation groans and travails because of its bondage to corruption and longing for freedom. But this groaning and expectation of freedom have to be understood in terms of God’s purpose for humanity and the entire creation. Significantly, the renewal of non-human creation is profoundly intertwined with the glorification of the children of God. We must remember that their glorification is inseparable from their participation in Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. The Christocentric character of Paul’s thought comes to the fore here. As Paul says in Colossians 1:16:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
Connecting the Dots through Genesis 1–3
But in what sense is the creation corrupted, and what are the causes? The primeval creation account in Genesis 1–3 is helpful here.See Siu Fung Wu, Suffering in Romans (Eugene: Pickwick, 2015), 70–75, 165–175, for a more detailed discussion on how Romans 8:18–30 may evoke the first chapters of Genesis. Many scholars believe that the transgression of Adam in Romans 5:12–21 and the decay of creation in 8:21 allude to Genesis 3:1–24. Here we must note that the curses in Genesis 3:14–19 have wide-ranging consequences, involving breakdown of relationship between God, human beings, and the creation. As Terence Fretheim says:
[One] could speak of humiliation, domination and subordination, conflict, suffering, and struggle. The sentences touch every aspect of human life: marriage and sexuality; birth and death; work and food; human and non-human. In all these areas, one could speak of death encroaching on life.Terence Fretheim, Genesis (NIB 1; Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 362–63.
In light of this, the entrance of sin and death into the cosmos in Romans 5:12–14 may be understood as the introduction of (anti-God) cosmic powers that enslave the Adamic humanity, leading to an idolatrous life that produces broken relationships and failure to love and obey God (1:18–32).I think it is possible to argue that today’s environmental degradation is caused by, at least to some extent, idolatrous human behaviors. But it is beyond the scope of this article to argue for this exegetically and hermeneutically. And the decay of the creation in 8:21 refers to the fact that the non-human creation may no longer provide a favorable environment for human flourishing—the earth may not be fruitful. (This, however, does not mean that the non-human creation is intrinsically evil, for Paul does not say that at all.) The interconnection between human sinfulness and the devastation of non-human creation is attested by Israel’s prophets. Scriptures such as Isaiah 24:4–6; Hosea 4:1–3; Joel 1:4, 10–12,But the good news is that through Christ God has defeated sin and death. The reversal of the effects of Adam’s disobedience has been set in motion. speak of land devastation, deaths of animals, plague of locusts, and crop failures as a result of human rebellion. Of course, this does not mean that these are always human-induced. But it demonstrates how the enslaving power of sin and death causes harm to the non-human creation via human activities.See also Robert Jewett, “The Corruption and Redemption of Creation,” in Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, edited by Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2004), 37, regarding how Roman imperial military and economic exploitation had led to ecological degradation.
But the good news is that through Christ God has defeated sin and death. The reversal of the effects of Adam’s disobedience has been set in motion. No wonder Paul uses the language of creation in Genesis in Romans 8:29, where he says that the children of God are to be conformed to the image of his Son (cf. Gen. 1:26–27). Human beings are God’s image-bearers. But a humanity under the power of sin cannot please God. They worship the created rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:23–25). They fall short of the glory of God (3:23). But God has created a new humanity in Christ. They participate in Christ’s death, life, and suffering, so as to reflect the glory of God as his image-bearers. It is these Spirit-led children of God who groan with the creation, and the renewal of the entire creation is interconnected with their transformation into the image of God’s Son (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4; Col. 1:15; 3:10). Such is God’s purpose for the cosmos. In short, Paul has a holistic vision of God’s redemptive plan to transform humanity and renew creation.
A Case for Eco-Justice?
One must acknowledge that Paul probably did not have in mind the modern concept of ecological sustainability. And Romans 8:19–27 speaks of the future resurrection and cosmic renewal rather than taking action now to protect the environment.I do believe in taking action for ecological sustainability. But we must look to a larger set of Scriptures for support. But Paul does assume an intrinsic interrelationship between believers and the creation. And he certainly thinks that the believing community should walk in righteousness by the Spirit here and now (6:4; 7:6; 8:3–4). If love is the most important Spirit-led virtue for Paul (Gal. 5:6, 13, 22; cf. Rom. 12:9; 13:10; 1 Cor. 13:1–13), then there is every reason for Christ-followers to stand in solidarity with those who are adversely affected by environmental degradation. As I breathe in the fresh air in affluent Australia, I cannot help but think of the poor in other parts of the world, who suffer from urban pollution, floods caused by deforestation, loss of livelihood due to declines in biodiversity, and forced relocation as a result of rising sea levels. There are many people, Christians and non-Christians included, who are groaning with creation as they suffer from the effects of an earth subject to decay. Romans invites us to reflect God’s glory by dying to self and any self-centered idolatrous lifestyle—to resist the allure of sin and walk in newness of life by the Spirit. And one way to do that is to weep with those who weep (12:15) and walk with them through concrete actions in every sphere of life.