And we know that all the creation together groans and together suffers birth pangs up to the present moment.
The creation is giving birth to us. She is our mother. Paul sets this remarkable image before the eyes of the Roman Christians. Or, better stated, he seeks to open their ears to the groaning of the creation, as it gives birth to them as the sons and daughters of God. As in the Scriptures, this groaning is a plaintive yet hope-filled cry that waits for the fulfillment of the Creator’s promise. In making this groaning audible, Paul invites his readers to his confession of faith: “For we know that all the creation together groans and suffers birth pangs up to now.” This invitation is an anticipation of Paul’s following word: “We know that all things work together for our good” (Rom. 8:28). The groaning of creation is not the only voice that Christians hear. “Knowing” that everything works together for our good is an act of faith. It is a knowledge given to us in Jesus Christ alone.
Creation in Paul’s Mind
Paul’s confession concerning creation appears at the close of his lengthy description of Christian living, which begins and ends with an announcement of Christian hope: our boast in the coming glory of God, the glory for which creation waits (Rom. 5–8). In both instances, he makes it clear that we have this hope only in the midst of suffering. He does not therebyWhen Paul speaks of the groaning and birth pangs of creation, he has in view the whole of creation, both nature and humanity. suggest that suffering is given to all Christians in the same measure or that all Christians are thrust into suffering at all times. He himself knows of answered prayer, relief, and deliverance. Yet he understands that we Christians, who are many, are all one body. And this body, in which we all share, is constantly subject to suffering. Suffering will make its mark on the life of each and every Christian.
It is in this context that we hear Paul’s word about the groaning and birth pangs of the creation. It is a vivid, audible expression of hope that “the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Despite contrary appearances, the creation, Paul announces, acts on our behalf. Whatever it may bring us, it serves us and our good. It eagerly awaits the revelation of God’s sons and daughters, the glory of God’s children.
What does Paul have in mind as he speaks of “creation?” Does he have in view nature in distinction from humanity? Or is humanity here included? At first glance, it might seem that Paul speaks of “nature” alone, since he distinguishes God’s children from creation. Yet God’s children are not simply human beings. They are the ones whose glory creation awaits. They themselves are distinguished—but not separated—from their present bodily life in that they have the Spirit, “the first-fruit” of the age to come. It is for this reason that they too “groan, awaiting instatement as sons, the resurrection of the body” (Rom. 8:25; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). As Paul goes on to make clear, Christians, for their part, must presently endure “the sufferings of the present time,” including not only famine and nakedness, but also persecution and “the sword” (Rom. 8:18, 35). They are afflicted not only by the forces of the natural world, but also by the reality of human evil. They are “put to death daily and regarded as sheep for slaughter” (Rom. 8:36; Ps. 44:23). In this larger context it becomes clear that when Paul speaks of the groaning and birth pangs of creation, he has in view the whole of creation, both nature and humanity.
The Mask of Creation
Naturally, those who persecute and murder Christians are not aware that God is working good for his children through them. Nor is it likely that Paul—who is no worshiper of Gaia—understands the groaning and suffering of birth pangs as an expression of an inherent self-consciousness of creation. He nevertheless ascribes to it personhood. One here cannot help recalling the biblical personification of Wisdom (Prov. 8:1-36). As in Proverbs, Paul’s personification of creation serves as a visible and audible expression of the divine wisdom. It also implies the divine omnipotence that makes all things serve his good purposes (Rom. 8:28-30).The creation serves as a mask behind which God hides in doing good for his children. Paul here presents creation as a divine alter ego, indeed, one who only unwillingly has been subjected to corruption and vanity (Rom. 8:20). For Paul, as well as later for Luther, the creation serves as a mask behind which God hides in doing good for his children.
The Creator truly hides behind this mask! He has subjected the creation to vanity, enslaving it to corruption and decay. That which humanity has turned into an idol—especially “the corruptible human being”—God has subjected to vanity and emptiness (Rom. 1:23-25; 8:20). Vanity! In this description of the creation Paul recalls Ecclesiastes, with its opening characterization of all things, both nature and human activity, as “vanity of vanities.” All things are utter vanity. Every enterprise, every dimension of human life is included in the refrain, “this, too, is vanity.” The useless, unendingly repetitive course of nature without end or goal, has its counterpart in all human endeavors, which are rendered empty and meaningless by death.
Living within Our Limits
That is not to say that Ecclesiastes, or Paul’s borrowing from it, descends into nihilism. Human activity, including care for creation, paradoxically has value, even if nature runs a seemingly endless circuit in which nothing new appears, and death renders all things meaningless in any case. Despite this vanity, wisdom retains its value, not least in that it recognizes its limits and its end. Temporality itself, the God-given kairos, for each and every activity provides all that is necessary for human flourishing: the enjoyment of life with one’s spouse, the enjoyment of food and drink, and the enjoyment of one’s toil. We are to learn to live within the times that God has set for us and for all things. All our duty toward creation, including our duties toward other human beings, is to be done in awareness of these God-given times. To attempt to reach beyond these limits for the enduring and eternal is mere futility—a futility in which we alternately tyrannize the creation or idolize it (Eccl. 3:11).Cf Oswald Bayer, Schöpfung als Anrede: Zu einer Hermeneutik der Schöpfung (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 24, in citation of Johann Georg Hamann.
We are to learn to live within the limits of the times, the created moments given to us. Yet these times are not the end of the matter in Ecclesiastes, nor are they with Paul. The emptiness of death is not the end of all things. Not only has God appointed our times, he has appointed a time of judgment (Eccl. 12:13-14). The meaning of all things rests not in the hand of the creature, but in the hand of the Creator. Our end lies in the fear of God, the keeping of God’s commands, and the awareness that God will bring our every deed into judgment. This glimmer of hope—and it is hope!—dispels all nihilism.All our duty toward creation, including our duties toward other human beings, is to be done in awareness of these God-given times. With Christ’s resurrection this glimmer of ancient hope becomes a brilliant light. The null point of death is not removed. It is overcome. For this reason, according to Paul, we are to abound in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the crucified and risen Lord—and only in him, not in our efforts or in the appearance of earthly success—our toil is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
As we have noted, Paul’s word about “all creation groaning and suffering birth pangs” is a confession of hope, not an observation concerning a manifest reality. We wait for a hope that we do not see. In this confession of hope, “we know” but we do not yet see, “that to those who love God, all things”—including murder and violence, disease and death—“work together for our good” (Rom. 8:28). The creation does not yet sing the song of triumph. It groans. Only those whose ears have been opened by the message of Christ can hear this groaning. There are other, louder voices, a cacophony, immediate and audible, that ring in our ears: affliction, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and the sword. Christians are under assault from the creation, both human and natural. We experience these assaults as charges and accusations. Paul’s rhetorical questions to his Roman readers presuppose this drama: “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ is the one who died, rather who was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:33-34). With these words, Paul recalls the voice of the Isaianic servant, who beset by opponents, speaks in hope, “The One who justifies me is near. Who is the one who condemns me?” (LXX Isa. 50:6). The questions are rhetorical, but the adversaries are not imaginary, neither for the Servant, nor for Paul. The creation that groans and suffers birth pangs with Christians is the same creation that hurls its accusations at them. The creation in itself is thus ambivalent: does it speak to us in hope or accusation? Does it offer us life or condemn us to death? Is it charged with promise or is it empty and meaningless?
The answer, for Paul, lies in Jesus Christ, the son of God, whom God surrendered to emptiness and death for us. With him, God promises to give us all things. In him, God removes the mask behind which has hidden himself in creation and reveals himself to us in his omnipotent love. No suffering, no loss is too great for the omnipotent love of God that has been manifest in the resurrection of Jesus. In the crucified and risen Son, the creation that condemns and destroys is made to be our mother, who even now, in our suffering and hope, is giving birth to us as God’s sons and daughters. In Christ we conquer, indeed even more than conquer, in all things. No ktisis, no created thing, no creation—Paul speaks pars pro toto—can separate us from the love of God that is found in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Areopagite: The Groaning of Creation