In a marvelous passage designed to provide comfort for afflicted children of God, Paul affirms that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward” (Romans 8:18). He continues by suggesting that “the creation,” with great anticipation, awaits the revealing of God’s children (vv. 19-23). He notes that this “creation” at one time was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but by the Lord.
There is the hope, however, that eventually the creation will be set free from the “bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.” Paul describes “the whole creation” as experiencing the pangs of child birth. The inspired writer concludes this section by affirming that Christians also, who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan (i.e., suffer difficulties) waiting for our adoption, even the redemption (i.e., the resurrection) of our bodies.
The most difficult aspect of this narrative is the allusion to “the creation,” and particularly what is meant by Paul’s affirmation that the “whole creation” anxiously anticipates its deliverance from the bondage of corruption. How is the term “creation” employed in this setting?
The matter cannot be ascertained merely by looking at the word ktisis (creation) for that expression is used in a variety of senses in the Bible. For example:
- it is employed of the material creation in some passages (Romans 1:20,25; Colossians 1:15);
- at other times, it denotes humanity in general (Mark 16:15; Colossians 1:23); and
- it also is used occaionally in a special sense of Christians (Galatians 6:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17).
It is obvious, therefore, that the context must determine the meaning of the word in a particular setting.
With reference to “the creation” in Romans 8:19ff, Paul affirms that the creation was subjected to the bondage of corruption, and that ultimately there is a promised deliverance from that state into a new glorious existence. What is the meaning of this controversial promise?
First, millennialists assert that this context contains the pledge of a restoration of the entire material/physical creation at the time Christ returns to establish an earthly kingdom (see Shank 1982, 23). One minister has even argued, on the basis of Romans 8, that his pet poodle will be in heaven!
Such theories, however, cannot represent the correct view of this passage. The Bible clearly teaches that the material universe will be utterly destroyed at the second coming of Christ (Matthew 24:35; 2 Peter 3:1-13; Revelation 21:1). Moreover, no eternal reward has been provided for animals (cf. 2 Peter 2:12). No interpretation can be placed upon Romans 8:19ff which forces these verses into conflict with other clear affirmations regarding the destiny of this earth. An obscure passage must yield to the clearer.
Second, does “the creation” refer to the “unredeemed portion of humanity” (Coffman 1971, 305)? That hardly seems likely for Paul asserts that this creation will be delivered “into the liberty of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21). How is that applicable to the unbelieving world?
Nothing but a resurrection of condemnation awaits unregenerate humanity (John 5:29). Moreover, the Bible establishes elsewhere the principle that those out of harmony with God do not live in joyful anticipation of coming judgment; they await such in fear and trembling (cf. Isaiah 33:14; Hebrews 10:27).
Third, does the phrase “the creation” refer to the church? Obviously not, for “the creation” is said to look forward to the revealing of the sons of God (v. 19). In addition, the apostle declares: “And not only so, but ourselves also . . . groan . . . waiting for our adoption” (v. 23). It is clear that Christians are treated as a group separate from “the creation.”
What, then, is the meaning of this controversial context wherein the “whole creation” appears to anticipate deliverance? The most reasonable explanation seems to be this. Paul, in these passages, has personified the creation. He figuratively represents it as longing for deliverance as a prelude to that time when its purpose shall have been completed.
When God’s redemptive plan is brought to fruition, earthly affairs are ended. The righteous will obtain their reward in “the new heavens and the new earth” (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1), which is heaven itself (see my book, Revelation – Jesus Christ’s Final Message of Hope, chapter thirteen).
Just as there is a link between man’s physical body and his new, resurrected spiritual body, even so, figuratively, there is a connection between the present creation and a new creation wherein eternal righteousness abides.
This type of argument is not without precedent in the Scriptures. In Psalm 114, the inspired writer describes the deliverance of Jehovah’s people from Egyptian bondage. In conjunction with that glorious event, various elements of the creation are depicted as cooperating with, and rejoicing at, Israel’s freedom. The sea saw it and fled, the mountains skipped as rams, the hills frolicked like little lambs, and the earth trembled. The Old Testament is replete with this type of symbolism (cf. Psalm 96:12; 98:8; Isaiah 35:1; 55:12).
No one contends that the language in these passages is literal. In view of other clear biblical indications, why should such an assumption be made with reference to Romans 8? There is simply no need for that.