The first verse of the first chapter of the Bible says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In verse 27, God creates man as male and female in his own image, and then says in verse 31 that it is all very good. In chapter three, Adam and Eve reject God as their supreme wisdom and beauty and desire and thus bring down God’s curse on themselves, their posterity, and the natural order of creation: “Cursed is the ground because of you [says the Lord]; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).
Genesis 3:15 holds out hope that this curse will not be the last word for God’s creation. God says to the soul-destroying, creation-destroying serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The apostle Paul sees this hope in the midst of this curse and puts it like this in Romans 8:20–21:
The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
The Unendurable Sight of Suffering
So the big picture in outline form: God created the universe out of nothing; it was all very good the way he made it; it had no flaws, no suffering, no pain, no death, no evil; then Adam and Eve did something in their hearts that was so horrifyingly evil — so unspeakably wicked, preferring the fruit of a tree to fellowship with God — that God not only sentenced them to death (Genesis 2:17), but also subjected the entire creation to what Paul called “futility” and “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21–22).
“Natural evil is a signpost pointing to the unspeakable horror of moral evil.”
In other words, whereas once there was no suffering or pain or death, now every human dies, every human suffers, animals suffer, rivers overflow their banks suddenly and sweep villages away, avalanches bury skiers, volcanoes destroy whole cities, a tsunami kills 250,000 people in one night, storms sink Philippine ferries with 800 people on board, AIDS and malaria and cancer and heart disease kill millions of people old and young, a monster tornado takes out an entire Midwestern town, droughts and famines bring millions to the brink — over the brink — of starvation. Freak accidents happen, and the son of a friend falls into a grain elevator and dies. Another loses an eye. And a baby is born with no face. If we could see one ten-thousandth of the suffering of the world at any given moment, we would collapse under the horror of it all. Only God can endure that sight and carry on.
The Horror of Sin Pictured in Creation’s Futility
Why did God subject the natural order to such futility because of the sin of human beings? The natural order did not sin. Humans sinned. But Paul said, “The creation was subjected to futility.” The creation was put in “bondage to corruption.” Why? God said, “Cursed be the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17). But why? Why are there natural disasters in creation in response to moral failures in man? Why not just simple death for all the guilty offspring of Adam? Why this bloody kaleidoscope of horrific suffering century after century? Why so many children with heart-wrenching disabilities?
My answer is that God put the natural world under a curse so that the physical horrors we see around us in diseases and calamities would become vivid pictures of how horrible sin is. In other words, natural evil is a signpost pointing to the unspeakable horror of moral evil.
God disordered the natural world because of the disorder of the moral and spiritual world — that is, because of sin. In our present fallen condition, with our hearts so blinded to the exceeding wickedness of sin, we cannot see or feel how repugnant sin is. Hardly anyone in the world feels the abhorrent evil that our sin is. Almost no one is incensed or nauseated at the way they belittle the glory of God. But let their bodies be touched with pain, and God is called to give an account of himself. We are not upset at the way we injure his glory, but let him injury our little pinky finger and all our moral outrage is aroused. Which shows how self-exalting and God-dethroning we are.
The Trumpet Blast of Physical Pain
Physical pain is God’s blast with a physical trumpet to tell us that something is dreadfully wrong morally and spiritually. Diseases and deformities are Satan’s pride. But in God’s overruling providence, they are God’s portraits of what sin is like in the spiritual realm. That is true even though some of the most godly people bear those deformities. Calamities are God’s previews of what sin deserves and will one day receive in judgment a thousand times worse. They are warnings.
Oh, that we could all see and feel how repugnant, how offensive, how abominable it is to prefer anything to our Maker, to ignore him and distrust him and demean him and give him less attention in our hearts than we do the carpet on our living room floor. We must see this, or we will not turn to Christ for salvation from sin, and we will not want heaven for any reason but relief. And to want heaven for relief is to be excluded.
Wake Up to the Reality of Sin
Therefore God, mercifully, shouts to us in our sicknesses and pain and calamities: Wake up! Sin is like this! Sin leads to things like this. (See Revelation 9:20; 16:9, 11.) Preferring television to fellowship with God is like this. Desiring relief in heaven, but not desiring the Redeemer, is like this. The natural world is shot through with horrors that aim to wake us from the dream world of thinking that demeaning God is no big deal. It is a horrifically big deal.
I preached this truth at Bethlehem on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, knowing that there were people in our church dealing with terrible suffering. Two or three weeks later, I was in a pre-service prayer meeting with our folks, and one of the young mothers of a severely disabled child prayed, “Dear Lord, help me to feel the horror of sin the way I feel the horror of my son’s disability.” Brothers, I love being a pastor — a trembling emissary with the word of God.
So back to the big picture description: God created the universe out of nothing. It was all very good the way he made it. It had no flaws, no suffering, no pain, no death, no evil. Then Adam and Eve did something in their hearts that was so horrifyingly evil that God not only sentenced them to death (Genesis 2:17), but also subjected the entire creation to “futility” and the “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21–22).
What then is to become of us, and to the creation that God has subjected to futility? What do you say to the parents whose children will never in this life have mental powers any greater than a six-month-old? You read to them, with tears and with the joy of hope (“sorrowful yet always rejoicing”), the rest of this passage from Romans 8:18–25:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
For young pastors, there are few texts more important to get clarity on than this one. One of the first sermons I preached twenty-seven years ago after coming to Bethlehem was called “Christ and Cancer.” I wanted my people to know my theology of sickness and suffering. I wanted them to know that when I came to visit them in the hospital I would not be assuming that if they just had enough faith, God would surely heal them.
I wanted them to see especially verse 23, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Spirit-filled people groan, waiting for the redemption of their bodies. This whole passage is one of the most cosmically significant and pastorally precious passages in the Bible. It takes us to the new heavens and the new earth with new bodies, and it gives us an utterly realistic picture of our groaning now in this age, and it sustains us with the hope in which we were saved.
So let me try to open it with four observations.
1. God promises that there will be a liberation of this creation from this pain.
Verse 21a: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption.” The natural world — the material, physical world — will be freed from the curse, the subjection to futility and corruption. This is Paul’s way of speaking of the new heavens and the new earth. This earth, this sky, will be freed. This earth will be a new earth.
“As creation followed fallen man into corruption, so creation follows redeemed man into glory.”
Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. (Isaiah 65:17)
As the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. (Isaiah 66:22)
According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. . . . He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:1, 4)
Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:19–21)
Paul’s words in Romans 8:21 are a clear witness to the continuity between the old earth and the new earth: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption.” So he understands “new” to mean “renewed,” not replaced. It’s not like, “I got a new car.” When something is set free, it doesn’t go out of existence or get abandoned. It may change, but it is still there, and free.
So one of the things you say to that mom with the disabled child: You know, the Bible teaches that even though your son has been denied a lifetime of leaping and running on this earth to the glory of God, there is a new earth coming, freed from every disease and disability, and he will have not just a lifetime, but an eternity, to run and leap to the glory of God.
2. This will be a participation in the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Verse 21: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The order here is significant. Just as creation followed fallen man into corruption, so creation follows redeemed man into glory.
One might be tempted to say to a suffering saint (parent of a suffering child), “You see what the Bible says: The natural order — the creation — will be set free from its bondage to corruption. Well, your body — or your son’s body — is part of that order, isn’t it? Yes. Then you too — he too — will experience this glorious liberation from corruption and have a new resurrection body, because you are part of what is being liberated.”
That is emphatically not the way Paul sees things. It is true that our bodies will be redeemed in the new order. Verse 23b: “We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” But our bodies are not drawn up into this newness by being part of creation. It’s the other way around. The creation is drawn up into “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Verse 21: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
The freedom of the glory of the children of God comes first. Then having glorified his children with their new and glorious bodies — which Jesus said will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father (Matthew 13:43) — then the whole creation is fitted by God as suitable dwelling for the glorified family.
So you say to the parents of the disabled child, “Your child will not be changed to fit the new glorified universe; the new universe will be changed to fit your glorified child — and you.” The point of verse 21 is that God loves his children and provides what is best for them. Notice the phrase “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Not the freedom of the glory of the saints, or the freedom of the glory of Christians, or the freedom of the glory of the redeemed. That would be true. But it’s not the way Paul is thinking.
What’s in Paul’s mind here is something five verses earlier he said in Romans 8:16–17: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
The point in verse 21 is that the new heavens and the new earth are the inheritance of the children. The universe is not important in itself. It’s important as the playground of the children of God — and as the temple and the farm and the craft shop. God doesn’t design his children for the universe. He designs the universe for his children. This was true from the beginning and it is true in the end, and it is especially true for his incarnate Son, the God-man Jesus Christ. All things were made for him. Your disabled child won’t have to adapt anymore. His body will be totally redeemed and new. And everything in creation will be adapted to him.
3. The arrival of the new, liberated creation brings continuity and discontinuity.
Verse 22: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth (sunōdinei) until now.” When a child is born, the child is a human, not a horse. There is continuity. But the child is not the very same human. Now I don’t think we can force a metaphor like this — the arrival of the new earth is like the birth of a child — to mean that the new earth has exactly the relationship to the old earth that a child does to a mother. That would force the words to carry too much. But they do raise the question of possible discontinuity and send us looking to other passages to see what sort of discontinuity there might be. Of course, the present context says: this body is going to be free from futility and corruption. But there is more.
In fact, we find some pretty clear pointers to both continuity and discontinuity. In Paul, the clearest pointers are in 1 Corinthians 15. He poses the question in verse 35: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” Then he answers with words like these. Verse 37–51:
What you sow is not the body that is to be [that’s discontinuity], but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body [this sounds very creator-like, not just redeemer-like, which is comforting when you think that the bodies of your ancestors have now decomposed, and the atoms that made up their bodies are now in thousands of other people and plants and animals]. . . . What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. [Over and over he says, it was sown, and the same it is raised. That’s continuity.] If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body [So the word body implies continuity and the words natural and spiritual imply discontinuity]. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. [The images are not identical; there is discontinuity and continuity.] I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery.
Indeed, a mystery. We shall all be changed. But, as John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2). Jesus said, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). Things will be different.
Peter, for example, in his second letter, doesn’t see a simple restoration or improvement of the present world. He says in 2 Peter 3:7, “By the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” John the apostle says, “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). “And night will be no more” (Revelation 22:5).
No night, no sun, no moon, no sea, no marriage, spiritual bodies in a world brought through fire. And yet real continuity — Philippians 3:21: “He will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” And what sort of body was Jesus’s resurrection body that ours will be like? It was recognizable. It was spatially inexplicable, arriving and disappearing in extraordinary ways. And yet look at these astonishing and important words from Luke 24:39–43:
“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
“God doesn’t design his children for the universe. He designs the universe for his children.”
He ate fish. So the third point is: In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be continuity with this world and discontinuity in a way that for us remains a “mystery.” It does not yet appear what we shall be. We do know we will be like him. So when the parents of the disabled child ask, “Will our son grow up? Will he eat on his own? Will he be able to make something out of the creation?” we will say, God did not make the world and preserve the world to be wasted. Your son will eat with Jesus. God will give him a level of development that will be for his greatest joy and God’s greatest glory. But there is much mystery. We see through a glass dimly.
So what is their deepest assurance in the light of so much mystery? And what is their highest hope for their son — and for themselves? That brings us finally to the fourth observation and to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
4. The hope of having redeemed bodies is secured by our salvation, but this is not our best hope.
Notice especially Romans 8:23b–24: “We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” What does that mean — “in this hope we were saved”? It’s a dative (tē gar elpidi esōthēmen). Perhaps a dative of reference: with reference to this hope, we were saved. Surely this would include the meaning that, when we were saved, this hope was secured for us. And since we are saved by banking on the gospel that Christ died for our sins and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:1–3), this hope is secured by the gospel. The gospel triumphs in bringing us to this hope (Romans 6:5; 8:11).
But we must not leave it there. The gospel is the rock-solid assurance that there will be a new heavens and a new earth and that we will be raised with redeemed bodies to live there forever. The gospel of Christ crucified in our place, providing our pardon and providing our righteousness and vindicating this work by rising from the dead with power over all things — that is what we will tell these parents when the are looking for a rock to stand on in the face of fear and guilt.
The Ultimate Gift of the Gospel: God Beheld in Christ Crucified
But the ultimate gift of the gospel is not the new heavens and the new earth. The ultimate good of the gospel is not a redeemed body. The ultimate good of the gospel is not forgiveness, or redemption, or propitiation, or justification. These are all means to an end. The ultimate good of the gospel that makes the gospel good news, and without which none of these other gifts would be good news, is God himself — beheld in the glory of his crucified and risen Son, and enjoyed because of his infinite beauty, and treasured because of his infinite worth, and reflected because we have been conformed to the image of his Son.
The Gospel: The Fullest Display of the Glory of God
And the ultimate reason there is a new heavens and a new earth is because the risen Christ will never lay down his human body but keep it as an everlasting emblem of Calvary where the glory of God’s grace was most fully displayed. The whole material universe was created in the first place, and then given its new form, so that the Son of God could be incarnate as a man, suffer in the flesh, be crucified, rise from the dead, and reign as the God-man and be surrounded by a countless host of redeemed people who in our spiritual bodies sing and speak and work and play and love in ways that visibly reflect his glory most fully precisely because we have bodies in a world spiritually and physically radiant with the glory of God.