We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
– Romans 8:18-23 (NIV)
Certainly there is much compelling evidence in scripture that we humans are charged to care for the rest of creation. To steward resources responsibly. To respect the created order and to protect the natural world. Those are the very precepts upon which The EcoTheo Review and countless other websites, books, publications, blogs, documentaries, organizations, etc. are based.
We see not only the importance of taking care of the planet for the sake of ourselves and future generations, but the biblical mandate to do so.
But this passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans hints at something more. Something deeper and more holistic than simply a responsibility to do our best to preserve and protect.
Back to the Future
Do you remember The Jetsons? The 1960s cartoon series featured an imaginative glimpse into the future. It featured things like flying cars, instant meals, robot maids, and real-time video telecommunication.
Fast-forward 50 years. Microwaves and drive-through fast food. Roombas. Skype. Google Glass.
The only thing we’re lacking is airborne Chevys. (But have you looked at a map of active aircraft over the US lately? The friendly skies are busy.)
It seems that somehow the writers that worked under producers William Hanna and Joseph Barbera had an eerie ability to foresee half a century into the future.
Or was it the other way around? Was the future somehow influenced by the engineers at Spaceley Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs?
New World Order
In Chapter 21 of John’s Revelation, the imprisoned apostle receives a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. And God himself, from the throne of eternity, makes this promise:
“Behold, I am making all things new.” 1
Creation groaning. A promise to make things new.
So what does all that have to do with 1960’s cartoon video phones and 2014 iPhones with FaceTime?
A Narrative Mandate
In the broad sweep of scripture, an overarching story unfolds. And that story is one wherein God’s ends are achieved through the activities of human beings in history.
The elect people of Israel come about because of Abraham’s faith and obedience. The line of Judah (from which Jesus is eventually born) is carried on through the long-suffering faithfulness of Joseph. Rahab shelters Joshua and Caleb so the Israelites can conquer Canaan. Ruth lays on the threshing floor with Boaz, and a couple of generations later King David is born. The heroic actions of Esther and Mordecai preserve the Jewish race during the exile.
Again and again, God uses ordinary people to unfold his redemption plan. A plan which, as Romans 8 reveals, includes not just human salvation, but rescue for all of creation.
It seems that waiting for God is not so much a passive thing.
In fact, it seems like something we get to participate in.
The Best Laid Plans
God’s plan, it seems, is not so much something that magically reveals itself in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. Rather, it appears to come to life as human beings actually live into it.
If that is true (and the narrative arc of the Bible seems to bear it out), God’s promise of a “new heaven and a new earth” is probably not something we should expect to come about in an unexpected instant.
Instead of a sudden and instantaneous change from one state of affairs to a totally different one, it seems likely that it will happen gradually, over time.
What’s more, it will probably be something that happens not despite human activity, but because of it.
I once had a more or less good-natured argument with a friend on a flyfishing message board about the futility of what I thought at the time to be his extreme conservation strategies. I don’t remember all the details, but as I recall he was contending for complete extirpation of non-native trout species (namely brown and rainbow trout) from indigenous Eastern brook trout habitat.
While I sympathized with a desire for restoration work to reestablish healthy natural stream systems, I thought his argument went too far. My response was something along the lines that “we’re never going to turn back the clock and return to the 8th Day.”
In hindsight, I can see that my thinking represented a sort of tacit acceptance of the pain humanity has inflicted on the planet. Certainly I wanted to ease that pain, at least to the extent that it was convenient, but my attitude was far from doing anything to actually cure it.
It just seemed impossible.
But I’m starting to think in some ways that’s precisely what we should be advocating. Not a futile effort to undo all of history, but an inspired movement to work actively toward God’s explicit desire for the state of the universe.
After all, he has a history of making the seemingly impossible possible.
Paul’s childbirth imagery is significant. Babies aren’t just born. It’s the end of one biological process and the beginning of another…not incidentally, requiring specific human activity.
So when Paul talks about creation awaiting release from its “bondage to decay…into the freedom and glory of the children of God,” the implication is that human involvement is integral to God’s master plan of the total redemption of the whole universe.
Rather than seeing ourselves apart from, or at least superior to, the rest of creation, Paul envisions us being an essential part of it.
Human redemption will not just liberate creation. Rather, the redemption of creation and humanity seem intrinsically intertwined.
Back to the future again
This brings us back to our cartoon friends from the 60s. Did the creators of the Jetsons have some magical insight into the future, or did their imaginations inspire the creative force that motivated the innovators who invented the technologies we have today?
The answer, of course, is yes. Both.
As we envision what our futures could hold, we influence the realization of those futures.
To call it self-fulfilling prophecy is probably a bit oversimplified, but it’s accurate enough.
And so when God promises a new creation, it’s not just a prediction of a future event. It’s an invitation into a vision. We are being called to conspire for a time when everything is fully and finally in line with God’s intentions.
For me, this goes beyond conservation movements to an active and even radical call toward restoration.
What does that mean within our very human limitations? I don’t know. Anymore than Abraham knew how God would go about making his children as innumerable as the stars in the sky or Rahab the prostitute knew that her great-times-31-grandbaby would be the Messiah.
But it does give some additional theological backbone to our continuing call for the church to elevate creation care to foundational doctrine. There is an ecological aspect to eschatology.
We are called to put things right.
Will God bring about his ends with or without our participation? Absolutely. But it certainly appears that his intent is for us to be part of the plan, not apart from it.
We are not just recipients of salvation. We are agents of redemption.
- Revelation 21:5, NASB ↩