by Vern S. Poythress
[published as “The Reversal of the Curse,” Tabletalk 28/3 (March, 2004): 7-12.]
God promises us “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). Some people leap to the conclusion that God will simply throw the present creation onto the scrap heap, so to speak, and start over again from scatch. But this cannot be right. We ourselves are part of this present creation. And if we trust in Christ, we know that we will not end up on the scrap heap!
In Romans 8:18-25 God shows us how to think about our future. We who belong to Christ are “sons of God” (verses 14-15, 19). The Spirit of Christ dwells within us, guaranteeing our final redemption (verse 23). We have eternal life even now (verses 6, 10; John 5:24), but we also long for the full coming of life and peace in the future: “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirt, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).
Our goal is defined by Christ himself. God has “predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (verse 29). Christ is “the firstborn among many brothers,” not simply because his resurrection is chronologically first, and not only because he is preeminent over us, but because his resurrection is the pattern or model that we imitate and to which we conform. He is our representative, not only by bearing our sin, but in displaying the full image to which we are united and into which we are transformed. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (verse 11). “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Christ, in his resurrection body]” (1 Cor. 15:49; see also 1 Cor. 15:42-49). “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
God has a plan for the larger creation, not just for humanity. “… the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Some people have guessed that the “creation” here just includes human beings. But verse 21 seems to distinguish “the creation” on the one hand from “the children of God” on the other. This contrast is made explicit in verse 23: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly ….” The contrast indicates that “the creation” includes animals, plants, and nonliving things, not just human beings.
This creation “was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it” (verse 20). Futility in the world began with the Fall of Adam, because the Fall resulted in effects on the world under Adam’s dominion—thorns and thistles, great pain in childbearing, sweaty labor (Gen. 3:16-19). The creation as a whole, not simply Adam, “was subjected to futility.” As a result of the Fall, human beings who have descended from Adam suffer sin and death, and end up hurting one another in their sin and misery. But the curse that God pronounces because of Adam’s Fall also results in alterations in the broader created order. One thinks of mosquitoes, tapeworms, rabies, all the carriers of diseases so debilitating to human beings. Who can guess all the ways in which the created order may have been put out of joint as a result of the Fall?
Now Christ’s redemption brings a reversal and remedy for the whole disaster of the Fall. Above all, Christ brings a remedy for sin, as Romans 3:21-26 and the rest of Romans 8 indicate. But his triumph will also liberate the larger creation from “futility,” that is, the effects of the curse. The creation was originally good, and the futility was imposed only later, at the time of the Fall. Hence, there is a genuine basis for believing that God will extirpate futility without thereby destroying the good creation as well. And that is what Romans 8:21 promises: “the creation itself will be set freedom from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
What a marvelous hope we have! Notice the contrast between biblical hope on the one hand and a materialistic evolutionary worldview on the other. Materialism says that whatever evils and suffering are in the world now have always been there, at least in principle. “There is no such thing as the Fall,” it says. All things continue as they have always been (2 Pet 3:4!). There has been no radical disruption that spoiled an originally good situation. But that means that evil and suffering are inherent in the very nature of things, so there is no hope of finally eliminating wickedness. This is futility indeed, leading to despair.
By contrast, God’s word dispels despair. It gives us a sure foundation for a hope for our future freedom. We look forward to a final abolition of death, tears, and pain (Rev. 21:4). Moreover, the freedom of the children of God is the pattern for the freedom for the creation as a whole: “… the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). As we have seen, Christ’s resurrection is the pattern for our resurrection. And according to Romans 8:21 our resurrection is the pattern for the liberation of creation. Thus Christ is at the center, both for us and for creation. This should not be surprising, when we realize that he is Creator and Lord of the entire cosmos (Col. 1:15-17). Since he is Creator, he is also Savior and Lord who redeems the entire cosmos from “futility,” the effects of the Fall (Col. 1:18-20). First comes creation, then redemption as the restoration of creation, and finally consummation as the goal of creation. All three hang together in the purpose of God. He accomplishes all three through his Son, the one Mediator.
Redemption reverses the effects of the Fall. But it does not merely return us to the pre-Fall situation with Adam. God planned from the beginning for development. Adam and Eve would have children. They would “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). The created world travels towards its destination, towards its consummation, when it will reveal the glory of God even more marvelously than at its beginning. The beginning had only one man and one woman in a garden. The end has a multitude of humanity in a city. (But it also has one man, Christ the Last Adam, and one Bride, the church [Rev. 19:6-9]!) The creation at the beginning was indeed “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The consummation is a still fuller realization of goodness. We might say that it is very, very good, consummately good, in being filled with God’s glory even more intensively. And this consummation will come. God will achieve his purposes. We can be confident, because God has guaranteed it in Christ’s resurrection and by sending the Holy Spirit as “the firstfruits,” the first portion and foretaste of our final inheritance (Rom. 8:23; see Eph. 1:14).
With the pattern of Christ’s resurrection in view, we can now draw some conclusions about the future.
1. Christ’s resurrection body is a transformation and transfiguration of his preresurrection body. There is both change and recognizable continuity (1 Cor. 15:35-41). The disciples saw the nailprints in his hands. Likewise, the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21:1 do not mean starting over from scratch, but involve a kind of “resurrection” or transfiguration of the present creation.
2. God will eliminate not only sin but all the effects of the Fall (Rom. 8:21; Rev. 21:4).
3. God will bring the original creation of Genesis 1 to its consummation, rather than simply returning us to Adam’s pre-Fall state.
4. Since Christ’s resurrection body can be seen and touched (Luke 24:39), the new creation also includes a real physical aspect. Unlike Platonism, the Bible sees the physical aspect as a good creation of God, rather than something to be despised or thrown off in order to be “pure.”
5. Our resurrection does not remove us from contact with a larger creation, but is in harmony with the transfiguration of creation as a whole, a transfiguration that brings both us and the lower creation into a new, glorified world.
6. The glory of God will be displayed magnificently in the new creation, in a way analogous to the glory of Christ’s resurrection body and the glory of our resurrection bodies in the image of Christ. All serve the glory and praise of God (Rom. 8:18, 30; Eph. 1:10, 14; Rev. 21:23).