This article questions the theological weight of Paul’s portrayal of creation as a suffering thing in Romans 8:19-22 and its ability to support a prophetic response to ecological issues. The author argues that the standard interpretation of creation’s suffering as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin is over-ambitious and suggests a more limited historical account of creation’s subjection to Greek idolatry. The article also critiques the focus on Rome as the cause of ecological devastation, arguing that Paul’s argument is about Greek idolatry, not environmentalism or anti-imperialism.
In our age of intense ecological anxiety, Paul’s sympathetic portrayal of creation as a suffering thing, yearning for liberation from its bondage to corruption (Rom. 8:19-22) has an obvious appeal. It’s a remarkable image, but how much modern theological weight can it bear? Can it support the sort of heavy-duty prophetic response that I think is needed to undergird the mission of the church in the western context, if not globally, as we enter the Anthropocene?
The statement looks both forwards and backwards—forwards to the revelation of the sons of God and the liberation of creation from the slavery of corruption, backwards to a moment when creation was subjected to futility.
The standard understanding is that all created existence is included in this span. Dunn writes, for example: “What is at stake in all this is creation as a whole and the fulfillment of God’s original intention in creating the cosmos.”[fn]J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 1–8 (1988), 487.[/fn] The cause of creation’s suffering is found in the original sin of Adam and Eve, which resulted in the entry of death into the world (cf. Rom. 5:12), pain in childbirth, and the cursing of the ground (Gen. 3:16-19). The future consummation is the end of all things and the beginning of a new creation (cf. Rev. 21:1-8).
I suggested in The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom that there are two stages to the future fulfilment envisaged here: the vindication of the sons of God at the parousia, at the time of the confession of Jesus as Lord by the peoples of the Greek-Roman world, and then much later the final renewal of creation. The point was that creation looked forward to the first event as a sign and guarantee of its own eventual liberation from suffering. Now I think that there may be a better way of construing the relation between the two trajectories.
The standard interpretation is theologically useful because it encompasses the whole of human experience. My argument here will be that, as with much theological interpretation of scripture, it is over-ambitious. What Paul puts forward is not a universal but a limited historical account of the subjection of creation to the futility of “Greek” idolatry, consistent both with his critique of Greek idolatry in Romans 1:18-32 and with the speech that Luke gives him to make in Athens (Acts 17:22-31).
The scholarly obsession with Rome
That Paul might be thinking here in contingent political-religious terms was suggested by two speakers on the Ecological Hermeneutics / Paul and Politics stream of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting.
First, Crystal Hall argued that Paul’s language echoes not the primal fall of humanity but the subsequent descent into violence portrayed in Genesis 4: the blood of Abel cries from the earth, Cain is cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive his brother’s blood, and there will “be groaning (stenōn) and trembling on the earth” (Gen. 4:10-14 LXX). Cain then goes off and builds a city, which is the prototype for Babel, which is the prototype for Babylon, which is the prototype for Rome.
Secondly, Robert Mason proposed to make use of post-colonial interpretive strategies in order to imagine how the provincial non-elites, among whom Paul elucidated his gospel, might have perceived Rome’s ideologically determined abuse of the environment. In particular, he suggested that the unnamed agent of creation’s subjection in Romans 8:20 is not God or Satan (the usual suspects) but Caesar.
I think that these two scholars are right to break with the standard theological interpretation, but in focusing on the ecological devastation inflicted by Rome on subjugated territories they mistake the target of Paul’s analysis. Paul is neither an anti-imperialist nor an environmentalist. His argument about the groaning of creation is an argument about Greek idolatry.
Let me explain.
Wrath against the Greek
Paul’s critique of idolatry in Romans 1:18-32 is grounded, I think, not in Genesis 2-3 but in a distinctly Hellenistic-Jewish analysis of the origins of the dominant Greek culture. The Greeks should have perceived the transcendent reality of the creator God in the natural order but instead made for themselves images of created things to worship. This is quite different to the sin of Adam and Eve.
So God handed them over to uncleanness and unnatural sexual practices, and to all manner of unrighteousness. The prominence given to same-sex relationships in this passage, therefore, is attributable not to Paul’s fundamental anthropology but to a civilisational analysis. For the details and the implications for our own telling of the “evangelical” story see my book End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission.
The same contingency is operative in Paul’s address to the “men of Athens” in Acts 17:22-31. Despite the proliferation of objects of worship—so distressing to a devout Jew such as Paul (Acts 17:16)—the Greeks have overlooked the God who made the world and everything in it, who is not “like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29). God has long turned a blind eye to this ignorance, but he has now fixed a day when he will judge the Greek-Roman oikoumenē “in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:30-31).
So I suggest that in Romans we are dealing with a limited historical outlook: the period of classical pagan hegemony, which would end with wrath against the idolatrous practices of the Greeks.
Now to the argument about creation in Romans 8.
The sufferings of the now time
Those who will be heirs-together (synklēronomoi) with Christ, Paul writes, are those who suffer-together (sympaschomen) in order that they may be glorified-together (syndoxasthōmen) (Rom. 8:17). Again, contrary to the theological consensus, I have to insist that he is not talking about the experience of all Christians throughout history. It is the exclusive community of the persecuted witnesses to the coming reign of Christ over the nations that will share in his inheritance and glory.
The “sufferings of the now time” (Rom. 8:18) are the afflictions experienced by the apostles and by the churches at this particular eschatological moment—the birth pains of the age to come. The afflictions are real but trivial by comparison with the glory that will be revealed to them when Christ is accepted as Lord and King by the nations of the Greek-Roman world. They are now disgraced, humiliated, and harassed, but eventually they will be vindicated for their faith, found to have been right all along, and thenceforward held in high esteem.
Creation also looks forward to this climactic moment in history.
At some point in the past, creation “was subjected to the futility (tēi… mataiotēti… hypetagē), not willingly, but because of the one who subjected it in hope.” It therefore “groans together and suffers-pain together until the now” (Rom. 8:20, my translation). But when the sufferings of the persecuted apostles and churches come to an end, creation will be “liberated from the slavery of corruption (phthoras) to the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21-22).
Two texts help us understand how Paul came to this conclusion, drawn from works that unquestionably influenced his thought in Romans. The first is Isaiah 24, the second is Wisdom of Solomon 14.
The Lord is ruining the world
Isaiah 24 is an oracle of judgment, probably against the “land” of Israel and its environs rather than against the whole “earth,” but that doesn’t make too much difference here.
- The people who live in the land, from the greatest to the least, from the priest to the slave, have “transgressed the law and changed the ordinances—an everlasting covenant” (Is. 24:5 LXX). The nature of the sin strongly suggests that the passage principally has Israel in view.
- Because of this, “the Lord corrupts (kataphtheirei) the inhabited world (oikoumenē) and will make it desolate” (Is. 24:1 LXX). The land will be “corrupted with corruption” (phthorai phtharēsetai) and “plundered with plunder” (Is. 24:3 LXX). A “curse will devour” the land (Is. 24:6 LXX). This is a change that has taken place in history, not at the beginning of history: there used to be natural and social flourishing; now the vineyards are wasted, streets are silent, cities are desolate (Is. 24:7-13 LXX).
- Therefore, the land “mourned” (epenthēsen), and the vine “mourns” (penthēsei) (Is. 24:4, 7 LXX). The land grieves over the wickedness that has been committed on it and over its entanglement in the fate of the people.
- In fact, the experience of the land mirrors the experience of its inhabitants: the land mourned and the “exalted ones of the land mourned”; the land behaved lawlessly (ēnomēsen) because its inhabitants transgressed the Law; the vine will mourn, and “all who rejoice in their soul will groan (stenaxousin)” (Is. 24:7 LXX).
- The oracle concludes with the affirmation that in the end the Lord will punish both the hosts of heaven and the kings of the land. He will reign in Zion, “and before the elders he will be glorified” (Is. 24:21-23).
If Isaiah 24 is an oracle about the “land,” then its scope is narrower than Paul’s appropriation of the prophetic argument in Romans 8:19-22. But the basic shape of the argument is the same: divine action by which the land is subjected to corruption (phthora); the mourning or groaning of the land; the parallel between the experience of the land and the people who live on it, though Paul’s interest is in the hope of the righteous rather than the lawlessness of the unrighteous; and a final scenario in which the Lord reigns and is glorified among the elders of Judah, just as the “sons of God” will be glorified in the presence of Christ.
But we also need to account for the widening of Paul’s perspective.
Idolatry and the corruption of life
His argument about the “degeneration” of Greek civilisation in Romans 1:18-32 echoes several themes in the standard Hellenistic-Jewish critique of pagan religion.
The author of Sibylline Oracles Book 3, for example, says that idolatry was introduced into the world 1500 years back by the Greek kings, which led to vain thinking (ta mataia phronein). But the wrath of God will come upon them, and they will “groan (stenaxousai) mightily and stretch out their hands straight to broad heaven and begin to call on the great king as protector and seek who will be a deliverer from great wrath” (Sib. Or. 3:551–561).
Similarly, we read in Wisdom of Solomon of the impending “visitation” of divine judgment on the idols of the nations. The idols as physical objects are “part of the divine creation” (en kismati theou), but their invention was “the beginning of fornication, and the discovery of them the corruption (phthora) of life” (Wis. 14:11–12). The created order has been misappropriated by the pagan nations, and the result is corruption.
The end of creation’s enslavement to the corruption of idolatry
Paul clearly draws on this analysis, or something very much like it, in the first two chapters of Romans—indeed, in one of the SBL sessions Margaret Mitchell accused him of having plagiarised Wisdom of Solomon. The wrath of God has been—and will be—revealed against the Greek world because they did not acknowledge the transcendent power of the living creator God, but “became vain” (emataiōthēsan) in their thinking and “worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator” (Rom. 1:18-23, 25; 2:9-10).
If we suppose that Paul still has this polemic in mind when he gets to chapter 8, there is good reason to connect the argument about the subjection of creation to the futility and its enslavement to corruption with the widely referenced Jewish narrative of Greek idolatry and an impending divine judgment. The article with “futility” (tēi… mataiotēti) may, in fact, look back to the whole argument about futility in Romans 1:21.
The general subjection of creation to futility or vanity, in that case, is a consequence of the fact that the physical materials of God’s creation have been forced into the service of pagan religion. Gold, silver, and stone (cf. Acts 17:29) do not want to serve idolatry; they have been conscripted against their will (hekousa). Because idolatry leads to the “corruption of life,” this is a “bondage to corruption” (tēs douleias tēs phthoras).
Perhaps the subjugation was God’s doing, in much the same way that God “handed over” the idolatrous Greeks to dishonourable passions and a debased mind (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). But if we allow for a simple parenthesis in the text, the one subjecting creation to futility could easily be the “Greek”:
For the eager expectation of the creation awaits the revelation of the sons of God (for the creation was subjected to the futility, not willingly, but because of the one having subjected it) in the hope that the creation itself will be liberated from the slavery of corruption to the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom. 1:20-21, my translation)
So within the purview of Paul’s apostolic mission, the foundational “error” (cf. Rom. 1:27) of the Greeks in manufacturing and worshipping images has resulted in the subjection of creation to the futile practice of idolatry; it has been forced into servitude to a religious system that corrupts life in the manner described in Romans 1:24-31.
This is why creation is so eager to see the revealing of the sons of God on the day of Christ. When, because of Jesus, the nations of the oikoumenē abandon their idols en masse and finally worship the “immortal God,” creation will no longer be subjected to the pointless production of “images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things,” and will be liberated to be what the creator always intended it to be—a sign of, or evidence for, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20-23).
The future fulfilment means not only the establishment of Christ’s rule over the nations and the vindication of his followers, but also the end of Greek idolatry and with that the liberation of creation from its implication in the corrupting practice of idol worship.
The re-enslavement of creation in the modern world
So the passage is less useful to the modern post-colonial, eco-prophetic programme than we might have hoped. It has its own historical context, and I think that it makes excellent sense in that context. So I have moved this passage to the second horizon category in my table of eschatological texts, leaving only 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and Revelation 20:7-21:8 as third horizon texts. That will be disappointing to some people.
It was reported a couple of days back, however, that scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Sciences in Rehovot, Israel, have worked out that by the end of the year the weight of human-made products on the earth will exceed the weight of living things. Christmas will no doubt be the straw the breaks the camel’s back. That’s ironic—the celebration of the birth of Israel’s impoverished king.
If creation was liberated from its servitude to Greek idolatry when the nations of the Greek-Roman world confessed Jesus as Lord, over the last couple of hundred years it has been resubjugated, compelled against its will to feed the monstrous appetite of modern, global consumerist society.
Only it may not merely groan with those prophetic communities that desire a better world. It may be getting ready to fight back.