Among various matters in dispute among those who believe that God has spoken to us in Scripture (Heb.1:1) is the question of whether the material creation, the earth in particular, is to be annihilated, purged, restored, renewed, redeemed, re-created, repristinated, transformed or replaced. On the face of it, the evidence appears somewhat ambiguous, but this in all probability arises from certain false assumptions, based on traditional theology, made about critical passages in the Bible, the principal one being Romans 8:18-25.
To my knowledge it has been all but universally held, at least in the West, that Paul is here elaborating Genesis 3:17-19, but his stress on the hope of glory, at present invisible, and his failure to mention sin scarcely harmonises with this. The difference between death throes and birth pangs is dramatic, though it is important to note that the two can occur together (Gen. 35:16-20; cf. John 12:24). Paul was doubtless well aware of this, and he points to the connection here in Romans 8 (cf. Acts 2:24; 1 Thes. 5:3 and note 2 Cor. 4:11f.; Gal. 4:19).
For many years and for various reasons I have held that the usual understanding is erroneous. While it is true that Genesis 1 teaches that creation was ‘good’ (Gk. kalos, literally ‘beautiful’) and we naturally tend to think that everything that God does is (morally) good, the Hebrew, like the Greek (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3f.), word at this point almost certainly means useful or ideally suited to its intended purpose (cf. Eccl. 3:11) of habitation (cf. Gen. 8:21f.; Isa. 45:12,18; 54:9f; Jer. 27:5; Mt. 5:45; Acts 14:17; 2 Cor. 5:5, etc.). Thus green plants are ‘good’ (kalos) for food (Gen. 2:9; 3:6; 1 Tim. 4:4, cf. Gen. 2:18). Why then, it may be asked, does the LXX refer to the good (agathos) land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8; Num. 14:7, cf. Mt. 7:17; contrast Egypt, Num. 16:13, cf. 11:5, which was certainly not good)? It may be replied that kalos and agathos are usually synomymous (see Grundmann, TDNT, 3,543f.; 1:10; 2:98, Beyreuther, in NIDNTT, 2, pp.98ff., Mounce, pp.240, 32,116). I would suggest, however, that the reason may well be that the Promised Land, like heaven which is characterised by the divine presence (Lev. 26:12; Dt.12:11; 1 K. 8:29; Ps. 11:4), was ‘good’ (agathos) in a moral sense like God himself (cf. Mark 10:18). It was a goal (cf. John 17:3) the Israelites were under a divine obligation to reach (Num. 13:2; 14:40; Dt. 1:8,21f., cf. Num. 15:39. Barclay quotes Hort to the effect that agathos is good in result, p. 154) so that the promise made to Abraham might be fulfilled. Numbers 13 and 14 are full of instruction at this point. While Joshua and Caleb are commended, the majority of the spies become the butt of God’s anger. The same is true in the NT where many prefer earth to heaven (e.g. Rom. 2:7f.; Phil.3:19-21; 2 Tim. 4:10, cf. Heb. 12:16; Rev. 6:10, etc.). In his commentary on Romans 8:28, Schreiner says that the ‘good’ is eschatological and will be realised at the end of time (p.450). So while the immediate ‘good’ to which the ancient people of God had to aspire was the Promised Land, so that to which we as Christians aspire is heaven, the presence of God himself (cf. Heb. 11:8-16).
This suggestion receives support from the recognition that the OT stresses that creation was achieved, like Israel’s redemption from Egypt, “by hand” (Ps. 102:25; 119:73; Isa. 48:13, etc.). Students of this term such as Lohse (TDNT, 1X, p.431) have contended that the expression relates exclusively to the Old Testament, and quotations in the NT underline its pejorative nature (see e.g. Mark 14:58; Col. 2:11). For all that, there is a tendency among theologians to imagine that what the expression indicates is the difference between man-made and God-made. However, 2 Corinthians 5:1 and Hebrews 1:10f., for example, hardly fit in with this. (Note also Acts 17:24f.). Consequently, we are led to infer that the natural creation as made “by hand” (Ps. 8:3,6), though “good” that is, ideally suited to its purpose, was certainly not perfect. Had it been so, it would hardly have required man to exercise dominion over it. And even man was to be regulated by a “hand-written” law (Col. 2:14) which in the event proved “faulty” or inadequate (Heb. 7:18f.; 8:7,13, cf. 2 Cor. 3:11f.; John 3:31). Furthermore, as the very first words of the Bible signify, since creation had a beginning, it was temporal and in strong contrast with its perfect eternal Creator (Dt. 32:40; 145:13, cf. Rom. 1:23; Heb. 7:3,16,23-25), as I shall proceed to emphasise.
The Teaching of Jesus
First, Jesus himself clearly taught that the present creation along with the law would eventually pass away (Mt. 5:18; Heb. 8:13). In Matthew 24:35 (cf. v.29) he endorses this but in the process points up a contrast between the law and his own words, as France indicates (p.115, cf. Isa. 40:8; 1 Pet. 1:25; 1 John 2:17). Other teaching of Jesus also points to the inherent transitoriness of the material world. For example, what he says about rust and moths in Matthew 6:19-21, (cf. Isa. 50:9; 51:8; Jas. 5:2f.), aging in Luke 12:33, and food in John 6:27ff. (cf. 4:13f.; Mt. 15:17) would seem to imply that what is natural must be perishable or corruptible even apart from sin (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3f. where, as indicated above, the Greek word ‘kalos’ is used). Indeed, Jesus implies in John 4:13f. (cf. 6:49-51,58) that the water we repeatedly drink like the food we eat (6:27) in this world is ultimately as futile (cf. Mt. 15:17) as the OT sacrifices referred to in Hebrews 10:1f. Man, like the animals that God feeds (Ps. 104: 21; Mt. 6:26) simply cannot live forever on (material) bread alone (Mt. 4:4).
The Teaching of Paul
When we turn to Paul we find that his teaching conforms to that of his Master. Though he intimates in Romans 1:20 that the visible creation testifies to the eternal power and deity of God, he nonetheless insists in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that the things that are seen are transient (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9; Rom. 8:18,24f.; Heb. 12:27) and subject to wear and aging (cf. Col. 2:22; Heb. 1:11). In Romans 1:23 he explicitly contrasts the glory of the immortal, or more specifically the incorruptible, God with mortal earth-derived man and his artefacts (cf. Ps. 106:20; Jer. 2:11). Further, he stresses that those (i.e. mortal men and women) who persist in doing good do so in order to gain immortality (i.e. incorruptibility, Rom. 2:7,10). He too was convinced that the law, which was written by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18), like the physical body (1 Cor. 15:42ff.; 2 Cor. 4:16; 5:1) also made “by hand” (Job 10:8; Ps. 119:73, cf. 2 Cor. 5:1), was in the process of passing away (2 Cor. 3:11). For Paul as for Jesus, food is naturally destructible or corruptible and the stomach along with it (1 Cor. 6:13). This suggests that while some things may be lawful (e.g. eating, physical exercise), they have limited value, and to set one’s heart on them can only lead to final corruption (Gal. 6:7f.,cf. Rom. 8:13). In other words, it must be said yet again that man cannot live on bread alone. The fact to be faced is that the advent of the age to come means the oblivion of the present age and all it comprises (1 Cor. 2:6; 7:31; 13:10; 2 Cor. 5:17). (This present ‘age’, cf. Luke 20:34-36, surely refers to this temporal age of creation, even this world, cf. 2 Tim. 4:10, which presupposes the age to come, Eph. 1:21. Though true, it is somewhat misleading to suggest that “The old age is the age of fallen humanity, running from the Fall to the Last Judgment”, Frame, p.558. Sin may feature in this age, Gal. 1:4, but it is not an essential part of it. If it were, then God himself as its creator would be compromised as he is by the traditional view of original sin. God’s light shone out of darkness at creation, cf. 2 Cor. 4:6, that is, before the advent of sin, and the darkness is passing away and giving way to the true light, 1 John 2:8.) According to Paul (Rom. 9:28f.), a decree of destruction (cf. Isa. 28:22) has been passed on the earth as at Sodom and Gomorrah, but people, like Lot (Lu. 17:29) may yet be saved in the mercy of God (v.33, cf. Oswalt 1, p.520). When Jesus returns in the glory of God, he will rescue his own from a fiery holocaust (2 Thes. 1:7).
If all this is true, it is impossible not to conclude that the traditional understanding of Romans 8:19-22 is unique in Paul. Brendan Byrne (as referred to by Burke, p.181 n.6) claims that its distinctiveness arises from the fact that the apostle here for the first time considers human beings in relation to the non-human created world. However, this assumption of uniqueness leads us willy-nilly to conclude that the passage is a contradiction of what Paul teaches elsewhere, for in 1 Corinthians 15:50 he explicitly denies that the corruptible can inherit the incorruptible. Jesus had implied the same in his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-7). Man may live bodily in heaven (Rom. 8:23) but not physically (materially).
The Teaching of Hebrews
The writer to the Hebrews also believed unequivocally in the impermanent nature of both creation and the law, as 1:10-12 and 8:13 (cf. v.7) make clear. The similarity of language in 1:11 and 8:13 can easily be picked up in both English and Greek. Furthermore, this author, like others, is very much aware of the difference between a creation that was made ‘by hand’ and one that is not (1:10; 9:11,24). It is worth commenting that, with its emphasis on the contrast between the nature of angels and that of the Son, the first chapter of Hebrews, apart from verses 3 and 9, has nothing to say about sin. This suggests that the difference between the impermanence of created things (cf. 12:27) and the enduring of the heavenly world (1:3,6,13) of the Son who inhabits it (1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2) is intrinsic.
The Teaching of Peter
Other considerations apart, it is surely fair to say that the implication of 1 Peter 1:3f. (cf. vv.7,18,23; 5:4) and the natural meaning of 2 Peter 3:7,10-12 (cf. 1:11) point to the total dissolution or annihilation of the earth and all it contains (cf. Heb.12:27). Regarding the latter, Kelly says it is ‘demanded‘ (p.365). On the other hand, Bauckham, along with many others, jibs at this on the ground that Romans 8:21 and other extra-biblical literature “describe a renewal, not an abolition, of creation” (p.326). This, however, is precisely what must be questioned in view of the apparently categorical statements in the references made above and others which occur elsewhere in Scripture such as Deuteronomy 32:22; Psalm 90:3ff.; 97:3-5; 102:3f.,11; Isaiah 13:9-13; 33:14 (cf. Heb.12:29); 51:6,8; 54:10; Joel 2:10 (cf. Mt. 24:29); Hab. 3:5; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Heb. 10:34; 11:8-10,13-16; 13:14). Further, it is worth observation at this point that Peter refers to the removal of his own body of flesh (2 Pet. 1:14) in a manner that calls to mind the reference of the author of Hebrews to the removal (metathesis) of all created things (12:27) though he uses a slightly different compound (apothesis) to describe it. 2 Peter has more to teach us as we shall see further below.
The Teaching of James
James underlines the transience of created things notably in 1:10f. and 5:2f. and by implication in 1:12 where he refers to the fulfilment of the promise of life when our earthly pilgrimage has finished. Unsurprisingly, James (4:4), like John (1:2:15), warns us against loving this world.
The Teaching of John
This brings us to the writings of John (I am assuming that he is the author of the gospel, the epistles and Revelation). While more detail is required than is presented here, the implication of much of what is said in the gospel is that heaven and the presence of God is our future home, not a refurbished or even a newly created earth. Jesus goes back where he came from with the intention of preparing the way for those who put their trust in him (3:13; 6:62; 13:3; 14:2-4; 16:28; 17:5,24). The contrast between perishable earth and abiding heaven is the same as in Hebrews, for example, (3:3-6,27,31; 6:27,32f.,37-40,58,63; 8:23,58; 11:25; 12:25; 16:33; 17:15f.; 18:36). Clearly only Jesus, who alone conquered the world (16:33, cf. Heb. 2:9f.), could unlock the gates of heaven and let us in (3:16; 20:31)! In the epistles the contrast is plainly etched in 1:2:15-17 (cf. 1 Cor. 7:31). Unless we unwarrantably limit “the world” to sinful human society, the same is true in 5:4f. To the extent that anything is clear in the highly symbolic book of Revelation, the teaching in 6:13f.; 8:5; 11:19; 16:20f.; 20:11 and 21:1-5 harmonises with the evidence presented above. (On the new heavens and new earth, see below.)
In view of all this we are compelled to take another look at Romans 8:21 which has been interpreted against the background of Augustinian theology in such a way as to require the redemption (Dunn, p.471), regeneration (Murray, p.305) and transformation of the material universe (see e.g. Bruce, Romans, pp.160f.). Though he produces evidence that appears to militate against it, F. Merkel in his article on phtheiro (destroy, etc.) puts the issue as follows: “The defeat of death through the victory of Christ affects the whole cosmos. Through the sin of man it has been subjected to mortality, but the redemption of mankind means the redemption of the creation. It will be set ‘free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21)” (NIDNTT, 1, p.470). But does this verse really support the notion of death and corruption through sin leading to redemption, purgation, restoration, renewal, regeneration, rejuvenation or even repristination? If Adam’s sin led to curse in time, then logically Christ’s righteousness should have led to its reversal in time. But by all accounts it has not (cf. Heb. 2:8). The reasoning is clearly faulty.
Before going further it is important to lay our cards on the table. Those who opt for an interpretation of Romans 8:21 which involves the redemption of creation assume an Augustinian worldview, that is, original perfection, sin, fall and universal curse. Thus they speak of creation as fallen! However, in light of evidence of the kind I have provided above, I am compelled to deny this. My contention is that, since it is temporal in contrast with its eternal Creator, creation was never perfect: rather it was useful, a tool or temporary expedient in God’s hands and was noticeably “made by hand” (Isa. 45:12; 48:13, etc.). It was a means but certainly not an end and was subjected to futility by divine purpose apart from sin (8:20). So, whatever Romans 8:21 means, I submit that it cannot refer to the redemption or restoration of creation. So, bearing in mind the presuppositions which colour my interpretation, I offer the following analysis.
Literally verse 21 reads: “because the creation itself also (or, even the creation itself) will be freed from the slavery of corruption to (or into) the freedom of the glory of the children of God”. Modern translations like NIV, RSV, REB, Jerusalem and ESV, having referred to ‘creation’ or ‘universe’, lead us to believe that ‘into the freedom’ (NKJV) means something like ‘will obtain’, ‘participate in’ or ‘share in’ that freedom. But, in the light of the evidence presented above, this looks suspiciously like pre-emption, paraphrase and potential perversion, even special pleading, especially since Paul is quite capable of writing ’to obtain salvation’ (eis peripoiesin soterias) in full (1 Thes. 5:9; 2 Thes. 2:14, cf. Heb. 10:39). This gives us the clue to another possibility. The Greek word ‘eis’ can have telic force, as in the references just mentioned, and mean ‘with a view to’ or ‘for the purpose of’ (cf. Mt. 3:11a, 26:28; Rom. 1:1, and especially Col. 1:16. See also Fung, pp.216,244 n.2). If this is accepted, it is then possible to see what Paul is getting at. In tune with what he says in 1 Corinthians 15:42ff., 2 Corinthians 4:16 and 5:1, where he deals with our physical (natural), earth-derived bodies, which are creation in miniature, he is saying that creation, or the creature (cf. Rom. 1:25 KJV), gains its freedom by being destroyed (cf. 1 Thes. 5:3; Gal. 4:19) and changed (1 Cor. 15:50ff.), and this paves the way for the children of God to receive the freedom of glory. In other words, just as the physical or lowly (RSV) body is destroyed before it is transformed into a body of glory (cf. Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2f.), so creation, which belongs to this present (evil) age (Gal.1:4), is destroyed to give sole sway to an already existing heaven where Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us (John 14:2f.; 17:5,24, cf. Heb. 6:20; 12:2. Here we may note 2 Tim. 4:8,18 where Paul is sure of being saved for God’s heavenly kingdom despite death and physical corruption which he had hoped to avoid (2 Cor. 5:2f.; Phil. 1:21-23).
As a possibly more credible alternative to this, we can follow the KJV and translate ktisis as creature in verses 19,20 and 21. Then, in verse 20 the “not willingly” (implying complete subjection to the divine will) makes more obvious sense as, in verse 21, does the idea of the creature being set free from bondage to decay in order to experience the freedom of the glory that will characterise the children of God in heaven (Rom. 8:17). Susceptibility to corruption or bondage to decay, after all, as Genesis 2:17, like 1:1, implies, was evident from the start. For fleshly and hence mortal (not immortal as Augustine maintained) Adam, obedience promised eternal life apart from mortal flesh (cf. John 3:6; 1 Cor. 15:50). In the event, it was left to the second Adam to achieve it (2 Tim. 1:10). There is little doubt that this interpretation accords with the rest of Scripture.
Even if, however, we adopt the first view, creation, including ourselves as part of it (2 Cor. 5:2-4), is seen to be in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in us (cf. Gal. 4:19). Then, in essence, Romans 8:21 is saying little more than verse 19. If this is the case, there can scarcely be any doubt that the evidence at our disposal is again in substantial harmony (though see further below). On reflection, it is striking that writers, while acknowledging the link between man and nature, proceed to draw the conclusion that just as man’s body is redeemed so is creation (see e.g. Bruce, p.160. See further on this below.). In doing so, they ignore the teaching about the destruction of the physical or fleshly body so plainly set forth in 2 Cor. 4:16-5:1 (cf. Gen. 3:19, cf. Ps. 104:29) and implied in 1 Cor. 15:35ff., Rom. 8:13 and Gal. 6:8. Fee’s comment on 1 Corinthians 15:50 is worth repeating: “The two lines are most likely to be understood as synonymous parallelism, so that the second makes the same point as the first. Together they declare most decisively that the body in its present physical expression cannot inherit the heavenly existence of vv. 47-49. Of the two terms that describe present physical existence, the second, ‘the perishable’, was used in v. 42 and will be repeated in vv. 52-54” (p.798. See also his comment on Philippians 3:21, ad loc.). The unequivocal argument of the NT writers is that just as the physical body of flesh and blood is destroyed, so is the material creation from which it derives (cf. Isa. 51:6; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8). The two, being interrelated and interdependent, stand or fall together.
It would seem that there has been a failure on the part of many, perhaps under the influence of Bultmann who taught that man is a body, to recognise that man constitutes a dualism and is made up of two components (cf. the two Adams!) – flesh (earth) and spirit (heaven), and it is the latter alone that is redeemable (cf. John 3:6; Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet. 4:6. As body and soul man can doubtless be regarded as monistic.). Certainly our bodies are not left out of account for they are transformed into “spiritual” bodies (1 Cor. 15:44; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2). (I have addressed this subject at some length elsewhere and concluded, in view of the evidence of the NT writers, the impossibility of continued physicality or materiality.) On the other hand, the only reference to change in the material universe that I can discover is in Hebrews 1:12 where, in light of verse 11 and 8:13, the meaning is obvious.
Before leaving Romans 8:21, I feel it is perhaps necessary to focus again on the alternative interpretation already referred to above. Elsewhere I have made much of the fact that both Adam and Israel have two meanings which commentators sometimes find difficult to distinguish (cf. e.g. Wenham, pp. 32,82,126). Paul’s language and thought alike are highly sophisticated and subtle as is evinced by his use of ‘seed’ in Galatians 3:16, for example (cf. John 15:1ff.; Phil. 3:2, etc. See also Paul’s use of pneuma to refer both to the human spirit and the Holy Spirit, e.g. 8:14-16, and his play on words with regard to law in 1 Cor. 9:20f. and glory in 2 Cor. 3:9-11). And it is in Romans that the apostle makes an explicit distinction between physical and spiritual ‘Israel’ (2:28f.; 9:6-8). Since I would argue that in spite of his clear references to national Israel throughout most of Romans 9-11, ‘all Israel’ in 11:26 (cf. Gal. 6:16) probably means “all believers in Christ” or, at the very least, “all Israelite believers in Christ”, I am logically bound to allow the possibility that he is using the same word (i.e. creation) in a slightly different if related sense here in Romans 8 (cf. 1:25; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Col. 1:15,23). If we admit with the KJV and Michaels, whose essay in “Romans and the People of God”, pp.92ff., repays very careful reading, that in verse 21 at least ‘creation’ can, or rather should, be translated ‘creature’, meaning man himself, then harmony, especially with vv. 14-17 and 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 can be more easily recognised. It seems to me that ktisis in 1:25 (cf. Dt. 4:16-19; Col. 1:23; Heb. 4:13), in particular can be translated either way without materially altering the sense. The same is arguably true here for, as I have already said, the physical creation and man, who derives from it, stand or fall together. (In case I am accused of special pleading, I would urge the reader to consider how John uses the word ‘world’ in more than one sense and even in the same verse. See, for example, John 1:10 on which Ridderbos comments, “the term ‘world’ is not unambiguous either here or elsewhere in the Gospel”, p.44. See also 2 Samuel 7 for the ambiguous use of the word ‘house’ and Galatians 3 for the word ‘seed’, clearly differentiated in 1 Pet. 1:23. The latter is important when exegeting 1 Corinthians 15:35ff. Furthermore, if I already knew that ktisis can mean both ‘creation’ and ‘creature’ and was asked to translate Romans 8:21 in isolation from its context, I would not dream of using the word ‘creation’. See also Grudem, 1 Peter, pp.171f.) Indeed, on reflection, it seems rather odd that Paul, having alluded to ‘creation’ in verse 20 should use the expression ‘also (or even) the creation itself’ in the very next verse unless he is pointing up a difference or contrast (cf. Cranfield, 415, and Michaels, p.105). Thus, if by “the creature itself” he means man (Adam) who, as a product of the naturally corruptible creation, was created mortal but in hope of eternal life (Gen. 2:17, cf. Lev. 18:5, etc., which is a promise of life if the commandment is kept, and note Rom. 1:23, 2:7,10 and 1 Pet. 4:6), then what he is saying not only makes very good sense but eliminates the contradiction between his own, and indeed the rest of the Bible’s, teaching regarding the natural corruptibility of the temporal creation (cf. Burke who quotes Byrne, p.181 n.6). This point seems to gain even more pertinence when we consider that in the very next verse (22) he refers to ‘the whole creation’ as if in contradistinction to ‘the creature itself’ of verse 21. What is more, in verse 23 he again contrasts, or rather compares, ‘the creation’ with ‘we ourselves’ who, as in verse 21, look forward to adoption and its benefits. To dismiss this as mere playing with words seems to me to do injustice to the subtlety of Paul’s mind and perhaps the nuances of the Greek language he was using.
But there is more to be said. It would seem that my contention receives yet further support from verse 23, for here Paul does not allude to the resurrection of the body but to its redemption. Why? The answer must surely lie in the fact that on account of sin man normally loses his body (of flesh) through death and corruption (Gen. 3:19, cf. 8:10). In other words, as Paul, who apparently did not relish the prospect of nakedness (2 Cor. 5:3), was well aware, when physical corruption or disintegration occurs man is indeed left naked, for he has, like Adam at the start (cf. Gen. 2:17; 3:19), forfeited his body (cf. Heb. 12:23, etc.). In these circumstances, there is, strictly speaking, no possibility of a resurrection involving restoration like that of Jesus, so the body must be redeemed. And this involves the gracious gift of “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” or a “heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor. 5:1f., cf. 1 Cor. 15:37). But to talk in this way is to point unerringly yet once more to the fact that creation, like the FLESH which stems from it, cannot be subject to redemption (cf. John 3:3-6). The inherently perishable simply cannot inherit the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50). (Various writers have pointed out that there is no reference in the NT to the bodies of the damned. If we assume that their bodies are not redeemed, then they are reduced to naked spirits which are incapable of the bodily satisfaction on which they set so much store while in the flesh. This will be hell indeed. Note the craving of the demons for bodily habitation in the gospels, Mk 5:12f.; Luke 11:24-26.)
On the assumption that this is the essence of the matter we can now paraphrase verse 21 as follows: “… because the creature (man) himself also, who is part of and representative of corruptible creation (cf. Gen. 2:7), will be set free from his bondage to decay (cf. Rom. 2:7,10) with a view to (or, in order to gain) the liberty of the glory of the children of God (cf. Rom. 1:23).” This surely harmonises with the general tenor of the passage (8:18-25) where Paul is contrasting future glory with present suffering (cf. 2 Cor. 4:17), the present age with the age to come (v.18. Cf. Luke 20:34-36 where the two basic characteristics of this age death implying corruption, Jos. 23:14, and procreation, Gen. 19:31, figure so prominently).
Finally, if this is what Paul intends in verse 21, Barrett’s comment on verse 19 (p.165) assumes new relevance. He writes that Paul’s “main object in mentioning the creation is to emphasise the certainty of future salvation for Christians. He is not concerned with creation for its own sake ….” Cranfield, while in basic agreement, complains that this statement is too categorical. On the contrary, I think Barrett has hit the nail on the head. Creation, like the flesh as part of it, is headed for ultimate destruction, not restoration as under the old covenant, and certainly not perfection, as Cranfield seems to think (p.414). What traditional theology under the influence of Augustine has failed to realise is that salvation is precisely deliverance from the natural bondage of the material creation and/or this present (evil) age (Gal. 1:4, cf. Eph. 1:21). This was surely implicit, as I have already suggested, in the original promise made to Adam before he transgressed (Gen. 2:17, cf. Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:9). Because of sin, however, and man’s inability to keep the law, that promise proved unrealisable until Christ came, fulfilled all righteousness and brought incorruptibility to light for the first time (2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:14f.).
One final point regarding Romans 8:21. It is quite remarkable that, given his theological stance, Murray who of all people might be expected to opt for the view that the corruption of creation is a consequence of sin, correctly in my view denies its ethical nature (p.304 and n.30). True, he tries to distinguish between earth and the rest of creation, but to all intents and purposes he contradicts himself having gratuitously referred to Genesis 3:17-19 on page 303. The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the fact that its corruption is natural is that creation does not require redemption. It was never intended. (See more on Murray below.)
New Heavens and the New Earth
What about the new heavens and the new earth of 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 which some see as proof positive of a re-creation or restoration supporting the usual view of Romans 8:21? First, the expression is clearly an OT one borrowed by Peter and John from Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22. (For the Jewish background and opposing views of these, see Beasley-Murray, pp. 305ff., who, though he produces evidence to the contrary, p.309, apparently embraces the strange idea that the city of God descends to earth (sic) even though the latter has fled away, Rev. 20:11,21:1,4, p.310, cf. Twelftree, pp.201,209.) This being the case, we need to recognise, as Bruce points out (Hebrews p.339, cf. pp.298f.), that the land loomed much more largely in the eyes of pious Israelites than the life to come for reasons spelt out at length by the author of Hebrews. In view of this it should not surprise us that “The new is portrayed wholly in terms of the old, only without its sorrows; there is no attempt to describe any other kind of newness” (Kidner, NBCRev., Isaiah, p.624). This contrasts to some extent with Revelation 21 and 22, though even there the imagery is inevitably physical. Next, Lane’s claim that the principle that a new act of God makes the old obsolete (pp.cxxxiii, 210,270) receives ample justification in Hebrews, and indeed elsewhere (e.g. 2 Cor. 3). When the new (i.e. the perfect and permanent, 1 Cor. 13:10; Heb. 1:10-12; 10:9; 12:27), which being eternal already exists, arrives, appears or is revealed, it inevitably takes over. Who uses candles when electricity is available or when the sun has risen following the appearance of the morning star (Rev. 2:28; 22:16)? This is essentially Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 3.
The New Creation
What, it may be asked however, is the new? A totally new creation? The answer is both negative and affirmative: affirmative from our point of view who have previously been earthbound but are now born from above (John 3:3,7) and are a new creation, or creature, in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) with our citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20), but negative in the sense that the new heavens and new earth translate simply into heaven (Heb. 11:10,16; 12:22; 13:14) or the abiding eternal world (2 Pet. 1:11; 1 Pet. 1:3f.; Heb. 9:15) which Jesus has re-entered (1 Pet. 3:22, cf. John 17:5) to bring us to God (John 14:2-6; 2 Cor. 4:14; Heb. 2:10; 6:19f.; 9:24; 10:19f.; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:18, cf. 1 Thes. 3:13; 4:17; 5:9). And it is here, in this kingdom of righteousness (2 Pet. 3:13; 1 Thes. 2:12) where God’s will is done (Mt. 6:10), that we shall see our Saviour’s glory (John 17:5,24, cf. 2 Thes. 1:10). All this would seem to be borne out by the new Jerusalem (Isa. 65:18f.), which also already exists, remains (Heb. 1:11, cf. Isa. 66:22) and is preserved for us (1 Pet. 1:4) in its heavenly form (Heb. 12:22) since she is our mother (Gal. 4:26), and which was manifested to John in his vision (Rev. 21:10, cf. 3:12; 21:2). In addition, it might usefully be pointed out that if God has already begun his eternal rest (Heb. 4:1-11), his continued work (John 5:17) will not involve creating a new material universe.
But the real reason for the current obsession with restorationism and new (or fresh) creationism, apart from an erroneous covenant theology, is surely a false view of the relationship between Genesis 3 and Romans 5. Here we can again blame Augustine who, despite the triumph of grace in his thought, did more than anyone else to queer the theologian’s pitch. The truth is that original perfection, original righteousness, original sin, universal Fall in Adam and cosmic curse all represent serious distortion of what the Bible actually teaches. Thus writers like Bruce, Murray and Stott, who emphasise the Fall, go badly astray when dealing with Romans 8:18-25. All flatly deny the annihilation of the earth despite the most explicit testimony to the contrary. Indeed, while Bruce, governed by his false understanding of Romans 5:12-21, contradicts in Romans 8 (pp.160f.) what he affirms in Hebrews (see e.g. pp.21, 383f.), and Stott implicitly denies what Paul explicitly teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:50 (pp.239f.), Murray claims that “annihilation is ultimate negation” (p.304 n.28). A little reflection on the Jewish temple, however, rules this out of court: it flies in the face of the facts. For though, as Jesus warned (cf. Mark 14:58), the temple in Jerusalem was totally destroyed, it was far from being negated as the following references make clear: John 2:19; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21; Rev.21:22. And the same can be said not only with regard to circumcision (Rom. 2:28f.; Gal. 6:15; Col. 2:11) but to the body (1Cor. 6:13; 15:50; 2 Cor. 4:16; 5:1; Phil.3:21; 1 John 3:2f.). While corporeality is preserved, physicality or materiality certainly is not.
To sum up, after creation has been consumed by fire (Dt. 32:22; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12), we shall receive our eternal (Heb. 9:15) or heavenly inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4, cf. 2 Pet. 1:11) and dwelling (2 Cor. 5:1) and be at home with the Lord for evermore (1 Thes. 4:17, cf. John 12:26) in fulfilment of the age-old promise first glimpsed in Genesis 17:7, implied in Genesis 2 and 3 and resoundingly confirmed in Revelation 21:3 (cf. 7:15).
When dealing directly with Romans 8:21 above, I suggested that modern translations in general appear to pre-empt, paraphrase and pervert its meaning. Such is the conciseness of Paul’s language that I have had to resort to paraphrase myself (1*), and it may well be argued that such statements are in danger of boomeranging on the heads of those who make them. So, it must be asked, Is there still more evidence available to substantiate my case? I am convinced there is.
Jesus in Heaven
First, according to Psalm 8:5f. God’s original purpose in creation was to subject everything to the control of man and ultimately to crown him with glory and honour (in heaven, cf. Rom. 2:7,10; 1 Pet. 1:7). This is noted by the writer to Hebrews who, in a somewhat ambiguous argument, indicates that this intention has been properly achieved only by man’s representative, the second Adam (2:5ff.). And, as we have already seen, Jesus now exercises his dominion not on earth, from which as a priest he was legally disqualified on genealogical grounds (Heb. 7:13f.; 8:4), but in heaven (Heb. 1:6; 2:5; John 17:24) at the right hand of the Father (Heb. 1:3, etc.). In other words, having suffered death and conquered (cf. John 16:33; 17:4f.; Rev. 3:21), he is now, like David whose throne he occupies in heaven (Lu. 1:32f.; Acts 2:29-36), in the process of making his enemies his footstool (Acts 2:32-35; 13:32-37; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Phil. 2:9-11, cf Jos. 10:24) like the creation itself (Isa. 66:1). Once this is accomplished, the temporal earth, which God from the beginning, in anticipation of something better, subjected to the bondage of corruption to encourage hope, will have served its purpose by producing its harvest of the sons of God, and will consequently be dispensed with (Heb. 6:7f.; 12:27; Col. 2:22, cf. Rom. 9:28f.; Mt. 5:13).
It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the harvest of the earth. Normally we associate harvest with fruit, grain and the like, but in the Bible the language of harvest is often metaphorical or analogical. The implication of this is that the earth, like the field or the vineyard, is not the harvest, but its fruit is. This point is underlined in Matthew 3:12, 13:30,36ff. and Revelation 14:14ff., for example. Men and women constitute the harvest and it was on their account that Jesus came to live and die (cf. John 3:16). It is also worth noting that Revelation 14:3 talks of redemption from the earth (apo tes ges, cf. Gal. 1:4). This is surely in harmony with Paul’s comment in Romans 8:21 (cf. 2:7) where it is people, specifically (spiritual as opposed to fleshly) children of God, not the material earth from which they stemmed, who make up the harvest. And Jesus himself was the first-fruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23).
So, apart from the fact that the first heaven and the first earth will pass away (Rev. 20:11; 21:1,4), Jesus’ desire is that we who have believed in him should be with him (John 12:26; 14:19; 17:24) and that can only mean in heaven (John 14:3,6; 17:5; Col.3: 4; Heb. 2:10; Rev. 3:21, cf. Mt. 25:34), not least because at God’s right hand, having passed through the created heavens (Heb. 4:14) into heaven itself (Heb. 9:24) he is permanently separate(d) from sinners in a spatial sense (Heb.7:26 on which see, for example, Bruce, Lane, De Silva, ad loc. Hughes, consistent with his obsession with sin, opts for the moral view failing to recognise that Jesus was morally separate from sinners even while on earth, as the other adjectives in this verse imply. In support of his case he quotes Moffat who alludes to Heb. 9:28. This verse leads me to draw the opposite conclusion, i.e. that Jesus, having already dealt with sin, will have no more direct dealings with the corruptible creation, cf. Acts 13:34, except to rescue his own from it and pluck them as brands from the burning, Amos 4:11; Zech. 3:12; Jude 23, cf. 1 Thes. 4:17, at his second advent (2*). Cf. Gen.19:24-29 and Lot’s rescue from Sodom and Gomorrah which were totally destroyed.)
Freedom, Bondage and Death
Secondly, in the Bible freedom from bondage is almost always gained by death (supremely in sacrifice and atonement, of course, cf. 2 Cor. 4:11f.; Phil. 3:10; Col. 1:24). This was true in the case of Paul, as noted above (2 Tim. 4:18) and of John the Baptist (see also Romans 8:31ff. and Heb. 11:35). Perhaps even more to the point it is especially true with respect to law (Gal. 2:19; Rom. 7:1-6), to sin (Rom. 6:2,13; 1 Pet. 2:24), to the flesh (Col. 3:5; Gal. 5:24; Rom. 6:6), to the rudiments of this world (Col.2:20, cf. Gal. 4:3,9; Rev. 2:10), to fear (Rom. 8:15) and to death itself which is characteristic of this temporal world (Rom. 8:21; Heb. 2:14. Cf. the famous work of the Puritan, John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ). Jesus himself said on many occasions that in order to live eternally we must die according to the flesh (Mark 8:34f.; John 12:25; cf. Col. 3:5), first metaphorically then literally. He told the devil that man cannot live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Mt. 4:4). Thus, even he did not please himself (Mt. 26:39,42; Rom. 15:3) but prevailed over all his fleshly temptations (cf. Rom. 8:3) in his commitment to the perfect accomplishment of the will of his Father (John 4:34; 16:33; Heb. 4:15; James 3:2).
Thirdly, it must be argued that the very word ‘bondage’ gives the lie to traditional assumptions. The word Paul uses for ‘groaning’ (Gk. stenazo), apart from its associations with birth, would immediately ring a bell with Hellenistic or Greek speaking Jews. They would instantly be reminded of their ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and their consequent groaning referred to in Exodus 2:23f. and later in Judges 2:18. While admittedly sin figures in Judges 2:17, it does not do so in Exodus. It is not surprising therefore to find that McComiskey maintains that the word ‘groaning’ is used of the consequence “of physical affliction and distress” (NIDNTT, Vol. 2, p.423). Referring to the NT he says, “Paul uses the term exclusively of sighing in the sense of longing for something (Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 5:2,4)” (ibid.). With regard to the noun ‘stenagmos’, he says it is used of the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt and elsewhere of their times of oppression.
McComiskey goes on to note the element of progression in Romans 8 from the groaning of the believer and of creation to that of the Holy Spirit. All this militates against the traditional obsession with sin. (The reference to the groaning of the Holy Spirit is reminiscent of Jesus at the raising of Lazarus. Sin was excluded then, for the aim was to glorify God.) Paul could hardly be unaware that his reference to ‘groaning’ set in a passage dealing with bondage and pregnancy would almost certainly prompt ideas of death (cf. Ex. 12:29; 14:26-29) and destruction (Ex. 10:7).
Yet another point of vital importance must be made. The strong emphasis of Hebrews and 2 Peter on the inherent transience of creation has already been noted. It needs further to be recognised, however, that 2 Peter 2:19 (cf. Rom. 6:16) describes wicked people, like creation itself (Rom. 8:21), as being in bondage to corruption, not specifically to sin. So, what is the point at issue? Surely not so much that they sin against the law but that, like Esau in Hebrews 12:16f., the sensual and hedonistic barter an eternal inheritance for an essentially temporary and hence corruptible one (cf. Mt. 6:19f., etc.). Their reward is in this temporal, corruptible world (Ps. 17:14; Luke 16:25; 1 Cor. 9:25) and not like that of Moses in the next (Heb. 11:24-28. See note 2 below). Paul, like John in 1:2:15-17 and Peter in 1:1:3f., highlights the same point in Romans 8:13 and Galatians 6:8, for example. Just as there is no future in the flesh, so there is no ultimate future in the present world (or age) from which escape is fundamentally necessary (3*). 2 Peter 1:4 (cf. Eph. 4:22), which is reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:6, cf. James 1:14f.), and 2:12, which underlines the essential corruptibility and destructibility of the flesh, are in complete harmony with this (4*). This brings us back to Murray who is nothing if not inconsistent. He seems to regard phthora as having an ethical connotation in Gal. 6:8; 2 Pet. 1:4 and 2:19 but, as noted above, not in Rom. 8:21, Col. 2:22 and 2 Pet. 2:12a. The truth is that physical corruption as such, like the ‘good’ creation, is not ethical at all (cf. Luke 12:33; Col. 2:22), though unethical or corrupt conduct (cf. Gen. 6:11f.; Tit. 1:15) make us vulnerable to it and/ or hastens its effect. The assumption that it is arises from a failure to understand Genesis 1 and the implication of Genesis 2:17. Augustine’s belief that creation, including man, was originally perfect led to the notion of fall and universal curse. In contrast, what the Bible teaches, and surely this is Paul’s point, is that creation is naturally corruptible and that only man made in the image of God can by keeping the commandments escape its corruption (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, cf. John 3:1-7; Rom. 2:7; 2 Pet. 2:19). The ethical connection is indisputable, but neither creation nor the flesh itself is either (morally) good or bad. Sinless (amoral) plants and animals all alike die and succumb to corruption (cf. Gen. 1; Ps. 49:12,20; 106:20; Eccl. 3:18-20; Jude 10; 2 Pet. 2:12, etc.) even when they are fed by God (Ps. 104:21, etc.). As for us, even though we die and see corruption according to the flesh because we are sinners (Rom. 8:10), yet we shall live spiritually through faith in Christ (John 11:25, cf. Ps. 49:14f.) and the promises of God (2 Pet. 1:4). The flesh, being profitless (John 6:63) and incapable of good (Rom. 7:18), finally gives way to the corruption that characterises creation. Once they have served their purpose (cf. Col. 2:22), both are removed like corpses (2 Pet. 1:14; Heb. 12:27).
In light of this, 2 Peter 2:17-22, like Galatians 6:7f. and Romans 8:13, points to the fact that moral corruption (cf. Adam) leads inevitably to failure to escape physical corruption (Gen. 3:19). As 2 Peter 1:4 indicates, the morally corrupt are incapable of overcoming physical corruption since they have failed to meet the condition of life (Gen. 2:17; Ps. 8:5f.) involving participation in the divine nature and sharing God’s glory. (At this point I am led to say that the idea that the physical creation will participate, share in or obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God is not merely absurd but also, as I have intimated above, implicitly idolatrous. It confuses the creature with the Creator, Rom. 1:25.) The plain truth is that Peter provides strong support for the interpretation of Romans 8:19-25 that I am advocating. Bondage to corruption is the hallmark of a temporal creation, and to love this world is inevitably to court its death and corruption (1 John 2:15-17). Since this is so and we all sin and fail to meet the condition of life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5), the gospel is of fundamental importance and of universal relevance (2 Tim. 1:10). With regard to the latter reference, we do well to remind ourselves that Jesus himself, who never sinned though he died on our behalf, did not, like Adam (Gen. 3:19), experience corruption (Acts 2:31, etc.); rather he put everything in subjection under his feet and thus became the perfect man (Ps. 8:6, cf. Heb. 2:5-10). In other words, having fulfilled the condition of the promise of life, he transcended or escaped from (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4) the natural corruption of the world, including his own flesh, and inherited life both for himself and all who trust in him (Heb. 2:9-15; 5:7-10). On the other hand, in his flesh Jesus was clearly mortal like Adam before him: he inevitably experienced the aging process (Luke 2:41ff.; John 8:57) and would have died had he lived long enough on the earth. As Jesus himself makes clear in John 3, the need to be born again stems primarily from the fact that we are impermanent flesh living on an impermanent earth (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50). And it was precisely he himself who, having kept the law and exercised proper dominion over creation (cf. Heb. 2:6-9), brought the life and “incorruption” (2 Tim. 1:10) God had promised from the start (Gen. 2:17, cf. Rom. 7:9f.). So, it is important to re-iterate and stress the point that the sinless Jesus himself in the flesh was clearly subject not only to death (1 Pet. 3:18) but also to corruption (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16). But his resurrection (cf. Acts 2:23f.), including his ascension, exaltation, glorification and heavenly session, was the culmination of his escape or exodus (Luke 9:31). In escaping himself, as our representative and pioneer, he also paved the way for us to escape too (cf. Heb. 2:3,10-15).
I have already referred more than once to Galatians 1:4 which highlights Paul’s belief in two ages (cf. Eph. 1:21). This points to the fact that the age to come has always been our destiny as human beings made in the image of God even apart from sin (cf. Ps. 8:5f.; Gen. 2:17; Rom. 2:7,10). Thus, while in Galatians 1:4 (5*) and Colossians 1:13 sin figures prominently, in Romans 8:18-25 and 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5 the need for transference, transformation or glorification arises from the nature of creation itself which belongs to the present temporal age (cf. Mt. 28:20 in contrast with Mark 10:30; Lu. 20:34-36). Jesus, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:50, was surely making the same point without reference to sin in John 3:1-7 where he insisted that all those born of the flesh (and he himself was born of the flesh!) needed to be born again in order to achieve transference into the kingdom of God or the age to come. In the present age because death is all-pervasive the procreation or reproduction of both plant and animal is a dire necessity (cf. Gen.1; Ps. 49:12,20; Isa. 40:6-8, etc.), in the age to come there is neither death nor reproduction (Luke 20:34-36). Because Jesus has brought life and immortality to life, we can be sure that in heaven we shall enjoy the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
This brings up another point made by Jesus. In John 12:24f. he underlines the importance of the role of death during this present age. While the need for death is evident in Genesis 1 where plants are given for food, Jesus points out its necessity for reproduction. Death bears fruit, but so does a human life lived by putting the flesh to death (cf. Mark 8:35; Col. 3:1-5). Glorifying God in our bodies necessitates their crucifixion (cf. Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24) and sacrifice on the altar of worship (Rom. 12:1). In light of this and since man was meant to exercise dominion over all earthly things including his own flesh from the beginning, it is scarcely cause for surprise that at the end the flesh is permanently cast out (Gal. 4:30; 2 Cor. 5:1) like the physical creation in general (Heb. 12:27).
Before going further it is important for us to look more closely at the figure of pregnancy. This image appears quite frequently in Scripture with ‘an assortment of applications’ (Ridderbos, p.539. See, for example, Ps. 48:5-8; Isa. 13:6-13; 21:2f.; 26:16-21; 66:7-14; Jer. 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:5-9; Mic. 4:9f.). In the Bible pregnancy has none of the evil connotations associated with the traditional Augustinianism. Rather it relates not to sin and curse but to the fruitfulness and the fulfilment of the creation (Gen. 1:11) and cultural mandates articulated in Genesis 1:28. With regard to John 16:21f., Carson avers that Isaiah 26:16-21 is especially important because “it contains the figure of a woman in childbirth, the words ‘a little while’ and the promise of resurrection” (p.544). Jesus himself refers not merely to the truth observable in nature that death gives rise to new life (John 12:24f.), but also to the end-times using the metaphor of birth pangs (Mt. 24:8; Mark 13:8). While in John the suffering is endured by Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:12; Gal. 4:19), in Romans 8:18-25 and arguably in 2 Corinthians 5:2-4 it is creation that is involved (and we do well to remember that Jesus as part of creation suffered and conquered, John 16:33, in the flesh, Rom. 8:3; 1 Pet. 3:18; Heb. 2:9f.; 12:2, etc.). This reminds us immediately of 1 Thessalonians 5:3, which refers explicitly to destruction with joy implied in what follows (v.9, cf. Gen. 35:16-20 where the child of sorrow becomes ‘the son of my right hand’, and note Isa. 66:14).
Again, it has to be said that the world, which was created to be inhabited (Isa. 45:18); Gen. 8:21f.), was always intended to produce its harvest of the sons of God (cf. Rev. 14:14-16) despite concomitant destruction (Rev. 14:17ff.: note v.18 with its reference to ‘the angel who has power over fire’). And so in Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 4-5. Pregnancy ultimately gives way to birth, for God’s purpose cannot be frustrated. (See further note 3 below.) This might be taken to imply that the corruptible can produce the incorruptible (cf. Stott, p. 240), but that is impossible (1 Cor. 15:50; John 3:6). What is involved is the difference in order (1 Cor. 15:23,46), the distinction, even disparity, between the physical (or natural) and the spiritual (2 Cor. 5:1, cf. Isa. 31:3; 66:7-9), the visible and the invisible (Rom. 8:18,24f.; 2 Cor. 4:18), the earthly and the heavenly (2 Cor. 5:1; Luke 16:9). And it is the latter, definitely not the former, for which we wait in eager anticipation (Rom. 8:25; 2 Cor. 4:18; 5:2,4). This is further borne out by Paul’s mention of deliverance (or rescue or escape), which would not simply recall the exodus itself but entry into the Promised Land. Assuming typologically that Egypt symbolises this present material world and the flesh (cf. Ex. 16:3), to which there was no going back (Dt. 17:16; 2 Pet. 2:21f.), and the Promised Land heaven (cf. Heb. 11:16), his readers would be inevitably reminded of the afflictions of the wilderness journey (cf. Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). And this brings us to yet another matter of crucial importance which Augustinianism, with its exclusive focus on sin and curse, has hidden from our eyes.
Creation itself is a problem since it constitutes for us “resident aliens in a foreign land” (Marshall, p.30, cf. Heb. 11:13; Ps. 39:12, etc.) a wilderness, which the OT constantly insists has to be subjected to the rule of man (e.g. Gen. 1:26,28; Lev. 26:3ff.; Dt. 28:1ff.). I noticed many years ago when considering Paul’s description of his own sufferings that while some of them were the result of sin – persecution, hostility and the rest – others stemmed from his earthly environment (cf. Acts 27 and Luke 13:1-5) and his personal fleshly weakness including his sickness, as 2 Corinthians 4:8-12, 6:3-10, 11:23-30 and 12:7-10 make clear. But the same is true in Romans 8:35-39 which should surely be correlated with 8:18-25. Like Jesus himself, we have to conquer not simply sin and persecution but intrinsic weakness (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4; Heb. 4:15) and the problems inherent in the futile creation (cf. Mt. 24:7f.) over which our original calling was to exercise dominion (Gen. 1:26,28). Needless to add, this was uniquely and representatively achieved by Jesus (Heb. 2:8f.) through whom alone we are more than conquerors. And just as it is surely wrong to limit the ‘world’ that Jesus conquered to the organised opposition and hostility of godless men (John 16:33, cf. Rom. 8:3), so it is wrong to suggest that all Paul is concerned with in Romans 8 is sin and its resultant curse. The plain truth is that, sin apart, the temporal, naturally futile and corruptible creation presents us with countless difficulties which have to be surmounted (cf. Gen. 1:28). But the time will come when we, who through Christ triumph over the trials and tribulations of this world (cf. Acts 14:22; 1 Pet. 1:6f.; Rom. 8:35ff.), will exchange its built-in harshness and frustration (8:20), as well as its natural but impermanent beauty, for the delights of heaven (cf. Isa. 65:18) and the presence of God (cf. Ps. 16:11; 23:6; 37:4; Rev. 22:1-5). (See further below, note 3). In other words, it is vital for us to maintain the distinction between earth and heaven, flesh and spirit and the visible and the invisible if we are to enter into the mind of Paul and the apostolic band in general. Then we can be assured that nothing in all creation (no other creature?, cf.John 10:28f.), can separate us from the love of God (1 Cor. 15:50; John 3:6, etc.).
The Correspondence between Romans 8:19-25 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10
Finally, an analysis of Romans 8:18-25 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10 reveals a remarkable correspondence between the two. Man is creation in miniature on the level of the flesh, and what applies to him applies to creation in general. (See note 1 below.)
Though more evidence remains to be sifted (see my separate Additional Note on Romans 8:21), I conclude that Romans 8:18-25 rightly understood teaches that the material universe, which includes our physical bodies (2 Cor. 4:7-5:5), gains its liberty from bondage to corruption by destruction (cf. the reconciliation of Col 1:20 on which see Bruce, p.75) and thereby opens up the gate to the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Note how Paul teaches us to metaphorically put our physical bodies to death even while we are in the flesh (Col. 3:5, etc.)! Thus what Paul affirms here clearly accords with what both he (2 Cor. 4:16-5:1) and others (e.g. Mt. 24:35; Heb. 12:27) teach elsewhere. In the last analysis, the bottom line is that the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42,50,53,54). On this point at least the Bible is entirely consistent, and Romans 8:21 can be no exception.
1* Assuming my view is correct, it may still be wondered why Paul uses such compressed language in Romans 8:21 and leaves himself open to misunderstanding. Two observations may well help to solve this problem. First, in NT times, though there had been Rabbinic intimations, the false Augustinian worldview had not been invented, and the concepts of a Fall from original perfection and a consequent universal curse did not dominate the believer’s horizon as they have done since. Secondly, the teaching of deliverance from universal frustration and bondage to corruption by the death of Christ (cf. Heb. 2:9), made necessary because we have all, like Adam, sinned, was so much part and parcel of the apostolic gospel that Paul’s meaning would have been immediately apparent.
2* It is easy to forget that God is presented in the Bible as a consuming or devouring fire (Dt. 4:24; 9:3; 32:22, cf. Isa. 33:11-14). What is more, as Dumbrell (p.47) avers, “mighty upheavals in nature attend God’s appearing (Mic. 1:3-4; cf. Judg. 5:4-5”. See also Ps. 18:7f.; Jer. 10:10f.; Nah. 1:5f., Zeph. 1:18; 3:8, etc.). We must assume then that when Jesus returns in the glory of the Father (Mt. 16:27), he will himself be a flaming fire (cf. 2 Thes. 1:7; Rev. 1:14; 19:12) consuming his enemies (2 Thes. 2:8; Heb. 10:27) and rescuing his friends (Mt. 3:12; 13:30; John 14:3; 1 Thes. 4:17, cf. Mt. 22:7-10). All this is reminiscent of Moses ruining the Egyptians and their gods and rescuing his fellows from the house of bondage.
3* Kruse says rightly enough that there is no future in “worldliness” (p.96). It is truer to say, however, and surely this is John’s point, that there is no future in this world or this age. As Moses and Paul point out, we must worship the Creator not the creature!
4* As we have seen above, Bauckham thinks that Romans 8:21 indicates the renewal rather than the abolition of creation. In comment on 2 Peter 1:4 (p.182), he highlights the contrast between the incorruptibility of the divine nature and the corruptibility of everything in this material world including man’s body. He maintains (p.183), however, that Hellenistic dualism in 2 Peter 1:4 is significantly modified by the reference to desire and asserts that “Decay and mortality are not due simply to the materiality of this world, as in Greek thought, but to sin”. This, I believe, is to misunderstand the issue. The background of Bauckham’s thinking is apparently the traditional Augustinian worldview which assumes the original perfection of creation and the immortality of man. Thus, though he correctly says that phthora is the divine judgement on sin as in 2:12, he apparently fails to recognise that physical, not to mention spiritual, death and corruption are inevitable when men fail to keep the commandments which promise life in escape from the natural and universal corruption of the material world (cf. Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:7f.). It is as false to imagine that desire brought physical corruption into being as to think that Adam’s sin was the origin of physical death (cf. Rom. 5:12). When man sins, like Adam who was dust, he relapses into his natural element, which is dust (Gen. 3:19, cf. Ps. 104:29; Eccl. 3:20; 12:7). By contrast, as Romans 2:7,10 indicate, patience in well-doing by man who is naturally mortal (Rom. 1:23) leads to spiritual immortality (cf. Ps. 8). Only Jesus, who as flesh was himself clearly subject to corruption (John 8:57, cf. Luke 12:33; Heb. 1:11; 8:13; Col. 2:22), succeeded in escaping from its clutches by keeping the commandments (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5). He thereby brought “incorruption” in a world in bondage to corruption to light for the first time (2 Tim. 1:10, cf. Rom. 6:9). Though he died in the flesh for his sheep (1 Pet. 3:18), being personally innocent he rose without seeing corruption, ascended (Acts 1:9,11) and was transformed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50ff.).
5* In light of his reference to the present age here Paul’s language is perhaps ambiguous. While this age is tarnished by sin, it is also inherently transient, given to suffering and hence in evil contrast with the glory of the age to come (cf. 2 Cor. 4:17f.). According to BAG, Vine, etc. porneia (evil) is associated with toil, pain, etc.
It would appear that the difference between Greek dualism and Hebrew thought has been much misunderstood. The truth is that while both seem equally opposed to future materiality, the Jews thought in terms of a body (1 Cor. 15:44,46; Phil. 3:21), which for the Greeks was the prison house of the soul, and not merely of the preservation of the intellect or of the rational part of man’s nature (cf. Harris, pp.283ff.). As the incarnate Word or Logos Jesus and those who belong to him are spiritually embodied in heavenly glory (Phil. 3:21).
Note 1 – The Correspondence between Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 4 & 5
|2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10|
|Creation or creature (v.20)||Body (creation in miniature: 4:7,11,16)|
|Glory (vv.17f.,24f.)||Glory (4:17-5:1,4)|
|Futility and bondage to decay (vv.20f.)||Futility (4:7-10) and bondage to
decay (4:11,16; 5:1)
|Suffering (vv.17f.)||Affliction (4:17)|
|*Groaning (vv.22f.)||*Groaning (5:2,4)|
|Adoption as sons (vv.14-17,19,21,23)||Adoption (implied:4:14,17,
|Destruction (implied:vv.20f., cf.1 Thes.5:3)||Destruction (5:1, cf. 4:16)|
|Redemption (vv.17,21,23)||Redemption (4:14;5:1)|
|Hope in the unseen (vv.20,24f.)||Hope (implied:4:18;5:5,
faith:5:7, cf. Heb.11:1)
|Expectancy (vv.19f.,23f.)||Expectancy (4:18;5:2,4,9)|
|Confidence (8:15f.)||Confidence (5:6-8)|
|Eternity in heaven (vv.18,21,cf.24f.)||Eternity in heaven (4:17;5:1,cf.vv.6,8)|
|Holy Spirit the guarantee (vv.16,23)||Holy Spirit the guarantee (5:5)|
|Plan and purpose of God (v.20)||Plan and purpose of God (5:5)|
|Patience in waiting (v.25)||Patience (4:17;5:6-9)|
*For instructive typology see Ex. 2:23f.;6:5 and note Judges 2:18
What is striking about both of these passages is the lack of explicit reference to sin, though it is arguably implied in Romans 8:13, 15 and 2 Corinthians 5:10. This being the case, it is reasonable to suppose that Paul, like the author of Hebrews (1:10-12, etc.), is concerned with nature or creation irrespective of sin. So, to be in this creation or this age (Gal. 1:4), in the physical body (2 Cor. 5:6,8f.), is inevitably to be separate from the Lord (Rom. 8:24f., cf. vv.35,38f.). And since creation is given over to futility, decay and ultimate destruction, to love this world (or this age, 2 Tim. 4:10; Jas. 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17), which Jesus has conquered on our behalf (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9f.; Rev. 3:21), is to sell an eternal spiritual heritage (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17) for a temporal mess of material pottage (Lu. 12:13-21; 1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 12:16; 1 John 2:15-17 and note especially the book of Ecclesiastes).
For an OT version of the above, see Psalm 102:25-28 and 103:14-18
Note 2 – The Correspondence between 2 Peter 3 and Hebrews 12:
|Repentance urged (v.9)||Repentance urged (v.25a)|
|Divine warning (cf. 2:5ff.)||Divine warning (vv.20f.)|
|then (3:5f.) and now (3:7)||then and now (vv. 25f.)|
|Fleshly passions of the ungodly (v.3)||Ungodly passions (v.16)|
|Previous judgement a warning of future judgement (v.6)||Previous judgement a warning of future judgement
(v.25b, cf. 2:2f.; 3:17f.; 10:28ff.)
|Holiness urged (vv. 11,14)||Holiness urged (vv.10,14,28b)|
|Future judgement by fire (vv. 7,10-12)||Future judgement by fire (v.29, cf. v.18)|
|Destruction (vv.7,10-12)||Removal (v.27, cf. 1:10-12;
|New heavens and new earth (v.13)||City of the living God (vv.22-24;
heavenly country (11:16)
|Patience of God (vv.9,15)||Patient endurance of men (6:12;
re God (note 10:37,13:5b-6)
It should not go unnoticed that Romans 8:19ff. is strongly reminiscent of Isaiah 13:4ff., not to mention 2 Corinthians 4 and 5, and evinces some of the same features: pregnancy associated with the destruction of both sinners (cf. 1 Thes. 5:3) and their habitat along with implied redemption (see also Isa. 26:17-19, cf. 25:6-8) as at Sodom and Gomorrah (v.19). As was indicated above, the paradigm of destruction and redemption from Egypt provided by the exodus is just too plain to miss. It is strongly emphasised in the OT that going back to the house of bondage, except for punishment (Hos. 8:13, etc.), is out of the question (Dt.17:16, cf. Neh. 9:17; Ezek. 17:15; 20:32; Acts 7:39). In Christian terms, it involves return to the world (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5?) and ultimate destruction (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5(?); 2 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2 Pet. 2:20-22, and note Galatians, e.g. 5:2-6; 6:7f.).
There is good reason for believing that Romans 8:18-25 has Jubilee overtones. If we accept the recapitulatory (or resumptive or parallelist) interpretation of the book of Revelation, the last scene is the fiftieth (7 x 7+1), which instantly reminds us of Leviticus 25 (see e.g. Wilcock, pp.202f.). As the note on Leviticus 25:8-10 in the RSV Study Bible points out, the year of Jubilee was a year of liberty (Ezek. 46:17), redemption (Isa. 63:4) and favour (Isa. 61:2, cf. Luke 4:18f.). Assuming adoption is favour (cf. Mt. 3:17, Mark 9:7 and Luke 9:35 where Jesus was openly acknowledged as God’s Son), all three terms appear in Romans 8:12ff. During the Jubilee the land was to lie fallow and produce spontaneously. In the book of Revelation, the cycle has ceased and the earth has disappeared (20:11; 21:1) but of its own accord the tree of life produces abundant fruit for the people who dwell securely in the presence of God (22:1-5. Cf. the womb whose archetype is Eden).
I am greatly gratified by, if not indebted to, Dunn who strongly stresses Romans 8:13 and Gal. 6:8. I was somewhat belated in reading his valuable work on Paul.
It might profitably be added here that verses like Psalm 79:11 and 102:20 highlight the “theme of prisoners released and of peoples and kingdoms flocking to Zion” (Kidner, Psalms 2, p. 362). And as Webb intimates in comment on Isaiah 62, to which Kidner refers along with Revelation 21, “Descriptions of Zion in a passage like this are, at their deepest level, descriptions of the people of God in their final, glorified state” (p.238, cf. Oswalt, 2, p.590). Not without reason then does Motyer entitle his comments on Isaiah 62:10-12 “The Great Pilgrimage” (pp.508f.). What began in the ground (Gen. 2:7) ends in glory (2 Cor. 5:1-5).
C.K.Barrett, Romans, London, 1957.
W.Barclay, New Testament Words, London, 1964.
R.J.Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, Milton Keynes, 1986.
G.R.Beasley-Murray, Revelation, London, 1981.
F.F.Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Grand Rapids, 1984.
F.F.Bruce, Hebrews, London, 1965.
F.F.Bruce, Romans, 2nd ed., Leicester, 1985.
T.J.Burke, Adopted into God’s Family, Nottingham/Downers Grove, 2006.
C.E.B.Cranfield, Romans, Edinburgh, 1975.
W.J.Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, 2002.
J.D.G. Dunn, The Theology of the Apostle Paul, London/New York, 1998.
G.D.Fee, First Corinthians, Grand Rapids, 1987.
G.D.Fee, Philippians, Grand Rapids, 1995.
J.M.Frame, The Doctrine of God, Phillipsburg, 2002.
R.T.France, Matthew, Leicester, 1985.
R.Y.K.Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, Grand Rapids, 1988.
M.J.Harris, From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
P.E.Hughes, Hebrews, Grand Rapids, 1977.
D.Kidner, Psalms 2, Leicester, 1973.
C.G.Kruse, The Letters of John, Grand Rapids, 2000.
W.L.Lane, Hebrews, Dallas, 1991.
I.H.Marshall, 1 Peter, Downers Grove, 1991.
J.Motyer, Isaiah, Leicester, 1993.
W.D.Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Nashville, 2000.
J.Murray, Romans, London, 1967.
J.Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39 and 40-66, Grand Rapids, 1998.
J.Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, London, 1959.
H.N.Ridderbos, The Gospel of John, Grand Rapids, 1997.
D.DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, Grand Rapids, 2000.
T.R.Schreiner, Romans, Grand Rapids, 1998.
Soderlund/Wright eds., Romans and the People of God, Grand Rapids, 1999.
J.R.W.Stott, Romans, Leicester, 1994.
G.H.Twelftree, Life after Death, London, 2002.
B.Webb, Isaiah, Leicester, 1996.
G.J.Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Waco, 1987.
NIDNTT, Exeter, 1975.
TDNT,1,2,3,9, Grand Rapids, 1964.
Read the follow-up article The End of the World 2