Originally my term paper for Catholic Distance University
With the environment always so prominent in the news and everyday discussions, a Catholic may be curious as to what plans God has in store for his non-human creations after the Final Judgment, and Romans 8:18-23 helps shed some light on this subject. When taken in the context of the whole of scripture, there is reason to believe that the afterlife may not just be people sitting on fluffy clouds like Hollywood and cartoons have often depicted. There are theologians and biblical scholars today who believe in the possibility that the afterlife will have room for all of God’s creation and not just man. Romans 8:18-23 says:
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 of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
We must avoid the mistake made by many in today’s environmentalist movement, where they reject mankind in their embrace of nature; Romans is telling us that both mankind and creation will be relieved of their groaning through the liberty and redemption that comes from Christ. In this biblical view, man and nature share a common destiny, whereas “anti-biblical environmentalism...tends to see the natural world as gentle and benign and the human world (like the world of cities) as broken, damaged, warped.”1 On the contrary, the New Jerusalem will be God’s dwelling place, come down from Heaven to the new earth (Rev 21:2-3). Although it is believed that “the picture of the new heavens and earth [are not] a literal historical description of what things will look like,”2 we can still explore Romans in the context of the entire body of scripture to see if man and nature may indeed share in the same destiny.
Man is intimately associated with creation, starting from the fact that he was formed out of the dust of the earth itself (Gen 2:7). Adam is placed in charge of the Garden to till and keep it (Gen 2:15). When Mankind sins, his relationship with God is severed (Gen 3:23-24), as well as his relationship with woman (Gen 3:16), animals (Gen 3:21), and the entire created world (Gen 3:17-19);3 in effect, “the whole of creation has been cut off from the Creator by the fall of Adam.”4 Because of man’s sin, the ground has been cursed and we must toil in it with great effort in order to live. Storms, earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis, tornados – nature’s “labor pains” are ever before us as a reminder of how Original Sin has damaged creation. “The non-human creation as a whole suffers the effects of human sin and God’s judgment on it...the land or earth is said to ‘mourn’ (Jer 4:28, 12:4; Hos 4:3; Joel 1:10-12, 17-20).”5 Therefore it only makes sense that “since creation’s bondage is due to human sin, its liberation must await the cessation of human evil at the end.”6
Although mankind is God’s crowning achievement, since we are made in his image and likeness, nevertheless, the natural world is ever-present throughout the Scriptures; when Israel rests, its animals are to share in this rest. The land itself has a Sabbath every seventh year.7 “Throughout his public ministry, Jesus teaches in parables and points to the realities of creation all around – fish in the sea, crops growing in the fields, flocks of sheep, leaven in dough,” the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Mat 6:25-33). “Thus all of creation speaks about the presence and meaning of the kingdom of God”8 because “ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”9
We can see in the story of Israel reaching the Promised Land that their relationship with nature and its bounty rested upon Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant, once again showing that the natural world is not forgotten in the background. “If the Israelites are faithful, the heavens will give rain. Crops will be abundant. There will be no dangerous animals threatening them.”10 However, whenever Israel is unfaithful to God, they experience famines, droughts, and the ruination of their land. Creation and mankind are in the same boat, experiencing the same limitations and impurities due to our fallen nature. “Creation, it appears, is the innocent victim of human wrongdoing, since ‘it was subjected to futility, not of its own will’ (v. 20), and must therefore await the liberation of humans before it too can be liberated and participate in the coming glory (v. 21).”11
Is what St. Paul says in Romans about the renewal of creation a completely new idea, or is it the culmination of what has been promised throughout the scriptures? We can see that there is a theme in the Old Testament, especially the Psalms and the prophets, where there are references to a renewed creation. In praising God for his mercy and justice, King David said that God saves both man and beast (Psalm 36:6) and that like clothing, God changes the earth and the heavens (Psalm 102:26-27). In a famous passage from the prophet Isaiah, he writes how there will be peace in creation, that the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the goat; the nursing child will play by the cobra and a young child will put his hand in the viper’s den (Isaiah 11:6-8). God also reveals through Isaiah that he will create new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17-25, 66:18-24) whose description sounds like a reversal of the curses from Genesis 3. Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises that in the new creation there will be no weeping, no loss of infants after birth, no death; crops will produce and people will not toil the land in vain; all animals will have perfect peace and will eat together instead of one another and their fear will be taken away; “ample rain will produce a rich harvest, the mountains will drip with wine; it will be a time of abundance and plenty and peace will reign throughout nature.”12
At the end of time, Jesus’ promise to “renew all things” will be fulfilled (Mat 19:27-29). After the final defeat of Satan and Death, “with a roar the sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and melt away, the earth and all that it contains will be burned up. What we are waiting for…is the new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:10-13).” The whole of invisible creation will be renewed through the purifying fire, however there is still a debate on whether or not the living non-human creation will be granted immortality. There are many saints who have argued very logically that the non-human creation cannot merit eternal life since they do not share in being made in God’s image, nor have they rational souls. However, there are still voices of other saints and Catholic scholars who believe the issue hasn’t been settled. St. Anselm wrote of the new creation, “This earth, which sustained and nourished the holy body of the Lord, will be a paradise. Because it has been washed with the blood of martyrs, it will be eternally ornamented with sweet-smelling flowers, violets, and roses that will not wither.”13 William of Paris, who believed that everything of this universe will be destroyed forever by fire, also added, “A large number of learned men among Christians consider that, after the resurrection, the earth will be bedecked with new evergreen species and incorruptible flowers, and that a perpetual springtime and beauty will therein prevail, as in the paradise in which our fathers were placed.”14 In regards to animals, theologian Peter Kreeft adds, “How irrational is the prejudice that would allow plants but not animals into heaven!”15 Because St. Paul also wrote how Christ will be the ruler of “the heavens and everything on earth (Ephesians 1:10),” and how “everything in heaven and everything on earth” will be reconciled to Christ (Colossians 1:19-20), the debate on the salvation (or not) of the non-human natural world continues.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to expand upon Romans 8:18-23 in its discussion of the cosmic renewal at the end of time (1042-1050, 1060). In this section of the Catechism, it teaches how the universe will be renewed after the Final Judgment: “At that time, together with the human race, the universe itself, which is so closely related to man and which attains its destiny through him, will be perfectly re-established in Christ” (CCC1042). In recalling that mankind and creation have a common destiny, the Catechism then quotes Romans 8:18-23 when teaching that the visible universe is “destined to be transformed” (CCC1047). Although we don’t know exactly when or how the universe is to be transformed (GS39), “...the Creator will renew them in a more perfect and harmonious order.”16
This renewal and perfection of the created universe is no better on display than in the Holy Eucharist (CCC1405). “Fruit of the earth...fruit of the vine, the Eucharist represents the ongoing transformation of material reality in anticipation of the future glorification of creation.”17 As God uses the material world (oils, water, bread, wine) to reveal his truths to us, is it hard to believe that the material world will exist in some shape or form after the end of time? “The universe will participate in the resurrection and the Final Judgment by being transformed into the fullness of the Kingdom where Christ the Bridegroom will live with his Bride in the eternal Jerusalem by returning the cosmos to its original state as a New Eden.”18
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those that love him” (1 Cor 2:9). We can say with certainty that the New Jerusalem, where there are many dwelling places (Jn 14:2), will be a home where there is no sadness, no death or mourning, crying or pain “for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). When St. Paul references the “labor pains” and “groaning” of creation, we are reminded of our common bond; “human bodies are our solidarity with the rest of this material creation, and this solidarity makes it appropriate that the bodily redemption of believers accompanies the renewal of the whole created world.”19 This creation, which was good when the Lord fashioned it for us and became “very good” upon our existence (Gen 1), points us to the future reality of the new creation which awaits us if we persevere in Christ. “Once the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness at the end of time, there will be a renewal of the universe in Christ”20 so that through him, and with him, and in him, “we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:12), judging the angels and the world (1 Cor 6:2-3). Groaning alongside of us through it all, why wouldn’t all of God’s creation be renewed in the next life for his greater glory, honor, and praise? Romans 8:18-23 seems to say that very thing when St. Paul writes, “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
1. George Weigel, “Creation Groans,” (9 March 2005, accessed 10 August 2013); available from http://catholicexchange.com/creation-groans/
2. Michael D. Guinan, “The New Heavens and the New Earth,” (January 2000, accessed 11 August 2013); available from http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/MM/ap0100.asp
3. Michael D. Guinan, “The New Heavens and the New Earth,” (January 2000, accessed 11 August 2013); available from http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/MM/ap0100.asp
4. Agape Bible Studies, “Part VIII: The New Creation,” (n.d., accessed 9 August 2013); available from http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/EightLastThings/ELT_New_Creation.htm
5. Richard Bauckham, “The Story of the Earth according to Paul: Romans 8:18-23,” (2011, accessed 25 July 2013); available from Review and Expositor 108 (2011) 91-97.
7. Michael D. Guinan, “The New Heavens and the New Earth,” (January 2000, accessed 11 August 2013); available from http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/MM/ap0100.asp
9. First Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chapter 2:1.4,” (24 April 1870, accessed 10 August 2013); available from http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum20.htm#Chapter%201%20On%20God%20the%20creator%20of%20all%20things
10. Michael D. Guinan, “The New Heavens and the New Earth,” (January 2000, accessed 11 August 2013); available from http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/MM/ap0100.asp
11. Richard Bauckham, “The Story of the Earth according to Paul: Romans 8:18-23,” (2011, accessed 25 July 2013); available from Review and Expositor 108 (2011) 91-97.
12. Michael D. Guinan, “The New Heavens and the New Earth,” (January 2000, accessed 11 August 2013); available from http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/MM/ap0100.asp
13. Fr. Charles Arminjon, The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press. 2008), 116.
14. Arminjon, Ibid.117.
15. Dr. Peter Kreeft, “Fourteen Questions About Heaven,” (2010, accessed 12 August 2013); available from http://catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0462.html
16. Fr. Charles Arminjon, The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press. 2008), 113.
17. Michael D. Guinan, “The New Heavens and the New Earth,” (January 2000, accessed 11 August 2013); available from http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/MM/ap0100.asp
18. Agape Bible Studies, “Part VIII: The New Creation,” (n.d., accessed 9 August 2013); available from http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/EightLastThings/ELT_New_Creation.htm
19. Richard Bauckham, “The Story of the Earth according to Paul: Romans 8:18-23,” (2011, accessed 25 July 2013); available from Review and Expositor 108 (2011) 91-97.
20. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing. 2010), 157.
Agape Bible Study. (n.d.). Part VIII: The New Creation. Retrieved from http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/EightLastThings/ELT_New_Creation.htm
Arminjon, C. (2008). The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life. (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press. 2008).
Catechism of the Catholic Church (2011). Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/ccc_toc.htm
First Vatican Council. (1870). Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith. Retrieved from http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum20.htm#Chapter%201%20On%20God%20the%20creator%20of%20all%20things
Guinan, M. (2000). The New Heavens and the New Earth. Retrieved from http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/MM/ap0100.asp
Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1966).
Kreeft, P. (2010). Fourteen Questions About Heaven. Retrieved from http://catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0462.html
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2010). United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing. 2010).
Weigel, G. (2005). Creation Groans. Retrieved from http://catholicexchange.com/creation-groans/