For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope – Romans 8:20
It seems to me that this verse is among the Great Ignored in Scriptures. It says something about creation which should be common knowledge in the Church. It should be part of our Biblical Anthropology; our Soteriology, especially our doctrine of Sanctification; and even if we do not study Theology and know the big words, it should be part of the man in the pew’s common understanding of How Things Are.
What this verse says is that something was foundationally changed in creation. We say, “Yes, sin spoiled creation in a systemic way” but that is not what this verse says. “Sin – In the beginning, Genesis 3 sin – introduced something foreign into God’s creation and we have to live in this new reality (which new reality was ultimately dealt with at the Cross)”, but that is not what this verse says. We say that, “being fallen, people do bad things to creation and creation just has to put up with it”, but that is not what this verse says. What this verse says is that God’s response to the introduction of sin into creation was to place creation under a new order. The new order is one of futility (or vanity, to make the connection with Ecclesiastes clear) in which creation groans (Romans 8:22), we groan (v 23) and The Spirit, helping us in our weakness, groans (v 26).
Let’s take a look. For 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. – (Romans 8:18-21) Note that Paul is talking about “this present time” a time in which the Apostle Paul lived and we live. It is a time in which we in hope await a Revelation, revealing glory in the Sons of God. This revelation is not the same as The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God – (Romans 8:16) but a wholly new Revelation and bringing in of a new order, setting free Creation from its bondage and futility. What comes to mind is the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30). The wheat represents the Sons of the Kingdom; the weeds, the sons of the enemy’s Kingdom. At the end is when the separation is made and the Sons of the Kingdom are revealed. This age, subject to futility, is not the time to make the call.
If I may speculate, I think one of the reasons this verse does not come up so much in our world view is that we read it with the (mis)understanding that we are not part of creation. “Oh, yes”, we say as if we are outside of it, “Poor creation, red in tooth and claw”. Yet, as the thought is developed, we are very much in the thick of it, not even knowing how to describe or pray concerning the futility which besets us. We are creatures, subject to the order of Creation.
So, as I have it, this verse in Romans describes an ordering of Creation, declared by the Creator. The question is obvious: When did this happen? It happened in Genesis 3. After Adam and Eve sinned, God found them out and, starting in verse 14, declares the new order: futility for the Serpent; futility for Adam and the earth; futility for Eve; futility for animal life; futility which ends in death.
If I may speculate, I think one of the reasons Genesis 3 loses its connection with Romans 8:20 is because most people call this section “the Curses” and not “the reordering of creation”. It seems a fairly direct parallel with Genesis 1 creation. Starting with chaos (formless and void), God creates and orders his creation. With Genesis 3 sin, a new chaos has taken over and God, choosing not to re-create (for now, Revelation 21:5), declares a new order.
Since then, many people have tried to “get back to the garden”. Most tries are fairly obvious selfishness as well as futile attempts to ignore the reality of sin. There have also been those in Christian Theology who, pointing to “Revelation of the Sons of God”, say that since Christians are the Sons of God we are the ones who, by faith, are to live out our sonship and overcome the futility and bondage of creation. This, I believe ignores the nature (all Creation subject to futility) and duration (until the end and revelation of the new order) of God’s declaration. While not a this=that, I think an illustration is found in Numbers 14. Israel had been released from Egypt. They are on their way to the Promised Land. This is God’s plan and will that Israel be in this land. But on the edge of the land, Israel rebelled and God declared that they will not enter the land but will die in the desert. In response, some confessed their sin and said “we will take the land”. But that was neither faith nor obedience. It was, in Moses’ words, “transgressing the commandment of the Lord” (v 41) and ended in those people’s defeat. We live in the order of futility but we live in hope of the future Revelation and order. Declaring the end of the order when God has not is rebellion.
So, what does this mean? Paul uses this concept to help him understand that the present sufferings will not compare with that future revealed glory in the Sons of God. This gave him hope in the midst of suffering and assured him that hope will not disappoint (Romans 5:5).
I think this also broadens the often frustratingly inadequate concept of depravity. We are depraved, no question, but we also live in subjection to futility. What does this add? I think it guards against perfectionism. Not sinless perfection, which is popular in some parts of Christianity (and a theological error in its own right), but the harsh scrutinizing and uncompassionate judging which so often seems part and parcel of reformed analysis. Knowing our mutual subjection to futility allows for response of common humanity rather than a dispassionate (because I didn’t make the rules, take it up with God) “You don’t measure up” declaration. We, all of us, are in process in an order. Shouldn’t we, like the Spirit, groan with one another?