Church dogma would have us believe that creation is under a curse stemming from the sin of Adam. It is held that this is taught or implied by Genesis 3:17-19 in particular and underscored by Paul in Romans 8:18-25. (1* See e.g. Cranfield, p.413.) Thus the well-known schema promulgated by Reformed theology, for example, is that of creation, fall and restoration. (Even as I write in October 2011 I have a book under that title on my book shelves.)
I have sought to deal with the subject elsewhere (2* See my Cosmic Curse?, Romans 8:18-25, Another Shot at Romans 8:18-25, Regarding the Restoration of Creation) though with what success in the eyes of others I have yet to learn since editors and publishers seem unwilling to grapple with the issue. However, in order to buttress the views I have already propounded I am adopting here an alternative approach.
First, the Bible begins with the beginning of creation. The mere fact that a beginning is mentioned suggests that creation is not eternal and that it will inevitably have an end. If this is deemed mere conjecture, it has to be recognized that it is supported by what is taught later about the nature of creation and its native corruption. For instance, Jesus himself refers to the fact that heaven and earth, that is, the material creation as a whole will in contrast with his own words pass away (Mt. 24:35). Categorical statements like this can readily be supplemented by a good deal of other material like Psalm 102:25-27, Isaiah 34:4; 51:6,8; 54:10, Zeph. 1:18; 3:8, Matthew 6:19f., Luke 12:33; 17:28-30, Hebrews 1:10-12; 12:27, 2 Peter 3:7,10-12, and so forth. Of course, as Motyer, for example, recognizes in comment on Isaiah 34:4, the universe is not eternal (p.270, cf. 406f.). But he goes on to say that human sin has infected it with built-in obsolescence and its span of life is only as long as the purpose planned for it. (3* Cf. Mounce who states that corruption (that is, decay) “is first of all an element of the natural world ever since the sin of Adam and Eve (Rom. 8:21)”, p.138). There is obvious confusion in statements like this. For, if the universe is not eternal by nature, reference to sin is irrelevant since creation is clearly temporal and obsolescent by design. Sin only makes a ‘bad’ situation worse (cf. 2 Cor. 4:17; Gal. 1:4). (4* It is surely wrong to say that the situation is ‘bad’. After all correct exegesis of Romans 8:18-25 makes it abundantly clear that natural corruption is all in the purpose of God who has always had something better than this world in mind for his adopted children. Our hope is an invisible hope and Christ is the hope of glory, Col. 1:27, cf. Rom. 5:2; 1 John 3:1f.) Like the law and the old covenant which relates to it (Rom. 3:20; 7:1), this present world is naturally obsolescent as Paul implies in 2 Corinthians 3 and the author of Hebrews especially in 8:13 (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-18) who also reminds us that we who are called are to receive the promised eternal inheritance (9:15).
Job and Habakkuk
For Job life was an enigma. While he did not regard himself as sinless, he nonetheless maintained his basic integrity which even God acknowledged (1:1,8). In light of the view that God always rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous held by some of his so-called comforters, he finds his suffering difficult to understand. Indeed, despite his eventual vindication, he never properly understands as Paul is to do at a much later date (cf. Rom. 8:18:25 and 2 Cor. 4:7-5:10 on which see my The Correspondence Between Romans 8:12-25 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10). However, despite maintaining in his speech in chapter five that though the innocent prosper, Eliphaz provocatively comments that affliction and trouble come neither from the dust nor from the ground but that man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:6f.). The truth of man’s troubles receives support elsewhere (cf. e.g. 7:1; 14:1; Eccl. 2:23) and it should occasion no surprise that Job (ch.3), like Jeremiah (20:14-18), wishes that he had remained permanently in his mother’s womb. In this regard, a reading of the early chapters of Genesis helps to put things into better perspective. Once Adam and Eve are out of Eden, which, on the assumption of recapitulation, is the womb of the race, they run into difficulty even apart from sin. The dominion they are meant to exercise over a recalcitrant earth is hard work (cf. Gen. 3:17). And since having already sinned they are in fact sinful by nature (cf. John 8:34; Eph. 2:3), that work is more than they can bear (cf. Prov. 24:30-34). The same is true with regard to Cain (4:11f.) and later Lamech who apparently looks to Noah to relieve the situation in which he finds himself (5:29). Of course, as a man of faith Noah like Abraham at a later date proves his faith by his works and is rescued (finds redemption). (Regarding the great ages referred to in Genesis we must bear in mind again on the assumption of the truth of recapitulation that the antediluvians were like infants. On the one hand individuals in contrast with groups are barely distinguishable. Adam, for instance, is both individual and community, one and many. On the other hand children as individuals have little idea of age, time and even identity. It would appear that both Adam and Noah as individuals simply stood out from the rest of the members of their tribes by which they were identified and in which they were absorbed. Solidarity loomed large for the simple reason that babies through lack of personal development are largely lumped together even today. For all that, even early in the history of mankind there was an element of separation. Indeed, some scientists suggest that man as such was separated from other hominids, the Neanderthals, for example, and developed separately. I see no reason to dispute this on biblical grounds. After all, ‘flesh’ is often understood globally, e.g. Gen. 6:17.)
In Habakkuk 3:8 the prophet tells us that when God gains victory, his anger is not vented against the rivers and the sea but against his human enemies. In light of this it is hardly surprising to find the prophet portraying God’s fury in nature as also serving the salvation of his people (3:9-15). But there is something else that we must not miss. While the day of calamity comes on the enemies of God’s people, the prophet is himself apparently caught up in the maelstrom reminding us of Jesus’ comment that the sun shines and the rain falls on good and evil alike. But at the end of his book when even he is affected by nature which seems to have failed, Habakkuk expresses his faith in God in a marvellously moving passage of trust. As so many of the OT prophets stressed, it is God who is our hope, refuge and salvation (Ps. 18:2, etc.).
The above-mentioned passages of Scripture are not alone in expressing God’s use of nature to punish his enemies. Isaiah 64:1-4 is but a variation on a regular theme which makes the point even more poignantly in 66:15f. In the NT the punishment of God’s enemies is equally graphic in 2 Thessalonians 1:7f., for example, (cf. 2:8). In Luke 17:26-30 Jesus himself endorses the idea that God can employ nature to overwhelm sinful man. His references to Noah and to Sodom and Gomorrah would be even more familiar to his audience than they are to us today. But the point to note is that despite cataclysmic forces let loose on the earth, there is rescue or deliverance for those who put their trust in their Creator whose basic intention is to save (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9; Rom. 2:4; 1 John 3:3). Again if nature is God’s universal weapon of war as in 2 Peter 3 we might be prompted to ask, as Paul did about the law (Rom. 7:7), whether nature itself is evil (cf. Gal. 1:4) and not ‘good’ as it is portrayed to be in Genesis 1. 2 Peter 3:7, however, indicates that as in Habakkuk 3:8 there is no suggestion in the destruction of creation that God is punishing it as cursed and ‘fallen’ as traditional Augustinian theology holds! On the contrary, it is inanimate, but as it grows old naturally and suffers ultimate corruption, God uses it to judge and destroy godless human beings. This point is underscored in 2 Peter 3:9 and 11 where as in Luke 17:26-30 the stories of Noah and Lot serve as types of the end of the world. Then the godly are rescued from what is an inevitable calamity for the rest of society.
The word ‘inevitable’ needs elaboration, for two points are at issue. First, according to the NT there are two ‘natural’ necessities which contrary to tradition are totally unrelated to sin: human regeneration and transformation. (5* See my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.) Why? Since heaven and earth are fundamentally different (cf. e.g. Mt. 5:34f.), we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven in our natural state. John 3:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-55, where sin is not mentioned, make it abundantly clear that we are the captives of a natural condition which without transformation cannot possibly bridge the gap between earth and heaven. But corresponding with these two necessities is, secondly, the necessity under which nature itself labours. This is brought out, for example, in Luke 21:9 and Romans 8:20. Thus in Luke 21:23 the Greek word ananke is used for ‘distress’. Basically it means ‘necessity’, something that must happen in the nature of things as Romans 8:20, usually translated ‘not willingly’ but pointing to divine necessity, implies. In verse 23 Jesus illustrates this by referring to pregnant women at the sack of Jerusalem (also a type of the end) who in the nature of the case must eventually give birth. We all, like them, are caught in a trap which since it is set will necessarily be sprung and bring destruction (vv.34-36, cf. Mt. 24:42-44; 1 Thes. 5:2f.; 2 Pet. 3:10). In John 16:20ff. Jesus uses pregnancy to describe his disciples’ experience in this world: it will be one of suffering but it will end in joy. In light of this, it is not at all surprising that Paul in Romans 8:22 uses the word ‘travail’ suggesting that creation is like a expectant woman about to give birth. Otherwise expressed, creation is the ‘womb’ of those who will eventually be the children of God (cf. 1 Cor. 15:46-49). Just as they are freed from their mother’s womb to live life in the present world, so they will be set free from their present bondage to decay (8:21,23) to an invisible (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18), that is, a spiritual hope where all the grief and tears of this material world will have passed away (Rev. 21:4). There they will attain to a paradise of which the first was only a type, as Revelation 22 indicates.
I suggest then that the evidence alluded to above points not to a curse on the earth requiring eventual restoration but to a naturally obsolescent and hence corruptible creation which serves the purposes of God. (6* Note how the sinless Jesus gets older and is incarnate only for a little while, Heb. 2:7,9. As a product of creation through his mother he himself as flesh was obsolescent, Luke 3:23; John 8:57, but spiritually indestructible, Heb. 7:16.). In this scenario, God uses nature (Hab. 3:5-7) which was slated for destruction from the start (7* See my The Destruction of the Material Creation, The Transience of Creation.) to inflict punishment on those who rebel against him as he did at the time of the Exodus (7:19; 14:16,21; 15:4-10, cf. Ps. 77:16-20; 2 Sam. 22:8-20). There God did not muster an army as he was to do in Joshua’s (Jos. 8.) and David’s time (1 Sam. 13, etc.) to gain victory; rather he used plagues, signs and wonders that manifested his power over nature (cf. Jos. 6:20; 10:12-14). At the same time he made a distinction between the Egyptians and his people indicating that he can use nature to save as well as to destroy.
If it is true that at the end all shakable, that is, visible, impermanent things, are to be removed, only the invisible unshakable things will remain (Rom. 1:20; 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 12:27). In light of this we cannot but conclude that Paul’s reference to the subjection of creation to futility has always been part and parcel of the purpose of God and has nothing to do with sin. While Greek thought presented material things as evil, biblical thought presents them as being simply transient. They are futile by nature; that is the way God made them. (8* See my Concerning Futility.) If the flesh which stemmed from creation was unprofitable (John 6:63, cf. Rom. 7:18), so is creation itself. It has no permanent purpose or raison d’etre and, once its harvest has been reaped, it will be destroyed.
While Jesus focuses effectively on the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, the NT like the OT (e.g. Jer. 50f.) also draws attention to Babylon in the book of Revelation. Babylon, like Egypt, doubtless symbolizes this world, not simply ungodly human beings but the world of creation itself. And it should be noted, as in Genesis 19 where both inhabitants and habitat alike are destroyed, that Babylon’s destruction represents that of the physical world which has no ultimate future (Rev. 18). This point is underscored in Revelation 20:11 and 21:1-4, for example, where we learn as elsewhere that the material creation itself will pass away.
So, I conclude that just as God can use heathen nations like Assyria as the rod of his anger (Isa. 10:5), Nebuchadnezzar as his servant (Jer. 25:9; 27:6) and Cyrus as his shepherd (Isa. 44:28; 45:1) to punish or even to save his own people, so he can use the natural forces of creation. (In view of the fact that early in their history God used Egypt to save the Israelites, Jeremiah’s apparent betrayal of his nation to Babylon ought not to come as a great surprise, Jer. 21:9; 27:5-11, etc. Truly does God work “all things according to the counsel of his will,” Eph. 1:11, ESV.) If the plagues of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea make this point, so do Jonah, Paul in Acts 27 and Jesus when he calms the storm and walks on the water. As the Psalmist says, all things are his servants (Ps. 119:91) and so even creation obeys his commands (Jer. 33:25, etc.) for good and/or evil. On the one hand, all things work together for the good of those who love God (Rom. 8:28, cf. John 17:9-11,15; 2 Pet. 2:9a; Rev. 1:9; 3:10), on the other, despite superficial appearances (Rev. 11:10), they ultimately conspire to test and judge those who do evil (Ps. 37:20; 49:13f.; 73:27; 119:155, etc.). In the book of Revelation it is “those who dwell on the earth” who will finally be condemned (6:10; 8:13; 17:8, cf. 2 Pet. 2:9b). And when the material earth in which they invested so exclusively is destroyed, they lose everything (Ps. 49:16-19; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17; Rev. 18).
I finish this brief excursus on the day (5/10/11) when, according to the TV news, scientists using the latest equipment are saying that the expansion of the universe is accelerating ever more rapidly. In response, an Australian secular newspaper, “The Age”, after quoting Aldous Huxley’s claim that “the more we know (about science), the more fantastic the world becomes and the profounder the surrounding darkness”, somewhat oddly heads one of its editorials with the words “Hope at the end of the universe”. It reminds me of Revelation 20:11 where we are told that from the presence of the Lord of creation, creation itself will flee away, for he who can create can either save or destroy (2 Pet. 3:11*, cf. Mt. 10:28). We are therefore well advised to sing the praises of him who rides in the ancient heavens to give power and strength to his people (Ps. 68:32-35, cf. Dt. 33:26f.; Ps. 18; Hab. 3).
* Michael Green comments relevantly on this verse (pp.152f.). Regrettably, taking his cue from Bauckham, he goes on quite inconsistently to talk of the fall and restoration (pp.154f.).
Michael Green, 2 Peter and Jude, rev. ed., Leicester, 1987.
J.A.Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, Leicester, 1993.
W.D.Mounce, ed. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, Grand Rapids, 2006.