The epistle is particularly noteworthy because it proclaims, perhaps more clearly than any other New Testament passage, that the creation, the world that God made in Genesis, will share in the glory of the coming resurrection.
Romans 8:20 says that the creation was an innocent victim of the fall. It was made subject to effects of sin “not willingly” but because God willed it “in hope.” The sin of the people God put in charge of the creation affected the creation so that there is turmoil, decay and death in the created order. However, there is hope for the world that is marred by our sin, just as there is hope for us as fallen creatures. On the cross Jesus redeemed, not just people, but the whole creation. As the Good Friday hymn says, “Earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood from stain are freed” (Hymn 66 v. 3). The creation shares with us the hope of resurrection: “The creation itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” This hope is described as an inner longer that fills the created order. “The whole creation groans and travails in labor” waiting for the promised deliverance, just as “we, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” long for the completion of our redemption.
There is a tendency to spiritualize our understanding of salvation. People talk about salvation in terms of “going to heaven” when they die. Heaven is generally thought of as a “spiritual” or non-physical place. While we do believe that the departed in Christ are “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23) or “in paradise” (Luke 23:43), this is an intermediate sate. The departed in Christ also await the return of Christ to judge the world, raise the dead and renew the creation. If “going to heaven” is the ultimate destiny of the redeemed, then salvation has no connection with the physical world. This leads many to think of the Christian hope as escape from the physical world into the realm of spirit.
This is why we must continually emphasize that the Christian hope is the hope of resurrection. “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” As long as our spirits are separated from our bodies, we have not yet reached our destiny. We will be given new bodies for the purpose of living in a new world, for the creation will also experience the resurrection.
The idea that salvation involves escape from the physical into the spiritual is a eastern idea. It is a concept found in Hinduism and Buddhism, not in Christianity. Christianity teaches that we will be saved, not when we are free from the body, but when we are free in the body. The problem with our current bodies is not that they are physical. The problem is that they are subject to sin. Resurrection is the restoration of physical life in harmony with God in a renewed creation.
The idea of salvation as escape from the creation is implied in the popular “rapture” theology. Rapture adherents are waiting for Christ to take them away from the earth to some unspecified place. Their main concern is to guarantee a seat on the train that is leaving earth before it is destroyed. This ignores the promise that the creation will also be saved. It also mitigates against a proper Christian concern for stewardship of the current creation, which is a sacramental sign of our future inheritance. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
To think of salvation in purely spiritual terms also makes the promise of salvation less attractive. I’ve attended many funeral where people have said that the departed is in heaven in a “better place,” but I always doubt that people really believe it. What we love in life is largely physical. We gather together, eat together, work together and play together. When people die, what we miss is the ability to do those things with them. This is why it is hard for us to long for a salvation that is presented as an escape from body and creation.
If we think about it, it doesn’t make sense that God would create a glorious and beautiful world in the beginning and then plot out a plan of salvation that involves the destruction of that world. In fact, the last chapters of Revelation describe the redeemed creation in terms that sound very much like the Garden of Eden, like a renewed creation. There is a “river of water of life” that flows from God’s throne. There is “the tree of life” whose “leaves for the healing of the nations.” There is a marriage supper to be celebrated and, presumably, eaten. It is presented to us as a spiritual reality to be sure, but it is not spirit divorced from body and creation. It is, rather, body and creation filled with God’s Spirit. It is body and creation restored to, or brought to, the glory God intended when he made the world in the beginning.
We want life in the body in the creation, but we want that life to be free from the curse of sin. This is what the Bible promises. As St John tells us in Revelation:
God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new (Rev 21:4-5 KJV).
When the Bible tells us that God will make all things new, it does not mean that he will completely obliterate the old. It means that God will renew what is old and dying so that it can become what God intended. The New Covenant that God made with us in Christ did not obliterate the Old Covenant. The New Covenant brought the Old Covenant to its fulfillment. The new creation will not obliterate the old creation. The new creation will bring the old creation to its fulfillment.
This principle can be understood in the light of Easter. God did not destroy the body in which Jesus died. He resurrected and renewed it. This is the pattern for our own bodies and the creation. Our current mortal bodies will be changed. As 1 Corinthians says, “This mortal must put on immortality” (15:53). Likewise, the current creation will not be thrown away. It will be changed and renewed.
If we are in awe of the creation as we now observe it, imagine how it will be when the creation has been “delivered from its bondage to corruption” and our eyes have been fully opened in the resurrection so that we can really see. This is a salvation we can truly desire. Indeed, the whole creation groan and travails in labor pains of anticipation. “And not only they, but we also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”