Last week my firstborn son and I went kayaking for his twelfth birthday. For five hours, we enjoyed the beautiful Arkansas countryside. It is good for the human soul to bask in God’s creation. As we navigated through the rushing white waters and glided through calm pools, we noticed the Caddo River bedecked with stacks of turtles and the occasional crane. I couldn’t help but to feel continuity with
creation. But moments later a large pile of empty Pepsi cans, crumbled Lays Barbeque potato chip packages and other random bits of rubbish interrupted my musings. My awe at God’s creation erupted into anger at man’s pollution of it.
When I was twelve years old, I camped with a group of Christian men. As we were packing up to leave, someone asked whether we should pick up the litter. One of the leaders responded: “Nah, it’s all gonna burn anyhow.” His words were seared into my memory. What did he mean by “it was all going to burn”? I heard similar expressions throughout the next few years. I came to understand that this idea was based on their interpretation of passages in the Bible. God is going to burn the world to the ground. He is going to annihilate the earth and then replace it with a new version: Creation 2.0.
But this is not what Paul says in Romans 8.
“19The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (NIV)
In this passage the Apostle connects the current state of creation to Genesis 3 where God cursed the earth in response to Adam’s sin. You see, the history of sin is more than a human tragedy: it is a cosmic calamity. Therefore, according to Romans 8, God’s rescue mission is not merely for his children but also for his creation. Or, as my friend Eddie Adams puts it, “salvation consists not so much in the rescue of human beings from a sinking ship, but in the recovery of the wayward vessel itself.” For this reason, the world waits—not to be destroyed but to be delivered. At the second coming, when the children of God appear, the earth will be renewed rather than replaced. And the world cannot wait. For at that time, in the words of Nietzsche,
“Nature, which never leaps, makes one leap, and that a leap of joy: for then it knows that at last and for the first time it has attained its goal.”
To be fair, I should say that Paul’s view of creation in Romans does cut against the grain of a common Jewish and Christian ideology that did expect a cataclysmic destruction of the earth. But in Romans, Paul does not subscribe to such a radical antithesis between the old world and the new. Instead, “creation is to be redeemed, not redeemed from.”
Despite the importance that Christians tend to place on Romans, I find it curious that many have tossed this view of creation onto the cutting room floor. Instead of saying, “it’s all gonna burn anyhow,” perhaps we should reconsider Romans 8, pick up our Pepsi cans and be stewards of our inheritance. But please do not misunderstand my point: this post is meant to be more than an anti-litter rant or Go-Green rally. It is an appeal for us to change the way we think about creation altogether, to know that, like us, nature is not hopeless. Over against the picture of an incinerator—the world in ash, I prefer that of labor and delivery—a new world that proceeds from the womb of the old.