Romans 8: A Little Help From Milton
“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 8:20-21
In John Milton’s classic epic, Paradise Lost, we see in poetic form the fall of Adam and Eve and with them the fall of all creation. First Eve, deceptively led by the Serpent,
“So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck'd, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.”
“With liberal hand: he scrupl'd not to eat
Against his better knowledge, not deceav'd,
But fondly overcome with Femal[e] charm.
Earth trembl'd from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan,
Skie lowr'd, and muttering Thunder, some sad drops
Wept at compleating of the mortal Sin Original.”
Milton is picking up what Paul has been moving us to consider more closely, namely the intimate connection between the fall of man and the fallen state of creation. But for Paul, all of that is reversed in Jesus. Because of Christ (the second Adam) creation personified is now avidly anticipating the future revelation of God’s adopted sons and daughters. As we already saw in our last study, the relationship between Adam and the creation he was meant to rule over was (and still is) intimately connected; as humanity goes, so goes the rest of the world. But what are we to make of Paul’s contention that it was God who subjected creation to futility? Paul most likely has in mind Genesis 3:17-19 where the created order becomes cursed by God because of Adam’s sin. In other words, God subjected all of creation to the decaying futility of death because Adam (and all of humanity in Adam) was now cursed under death.
The Reformed Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck astutely remarks that “Man did not because of sin merely become mortal: he began to die. He dies constantly from the cradle to the grave. His life is nothing other than a short and vain battle with death… And from without, too, it is constantly threatened from every side. Immediately after the transgression, man was driven from Paradise. He may not return to it in his own right, for he has forfeited the right to life, and such a place of rest and peace is no longer suitable for fallen man. He must go into the wide world to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow and so to fulfill his calling. Unfallen man is at home in a Paradise, and the blessed live in heaven, but sinful, though redeemable, man gets the earth as his sojourning place – an earth which shares in his fall, which for his sake is accursed, and which, together with him, is made subject to vanity (Rom. 8:20).”
Of course, creation wasn’t the cause, and therefore, isn’t to blame, for why everything is futile and fallen. This is why Paul adds the words, in verse 20, “not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.” His point is that the corruption we now see through out the created world is due, ultimately to Adam’s sin and God’s judgement. What does that mean, then, for things like Covid-19 or cancer or the common cold? How are we to understand our germ and virus fixated world in light of this text?
Brian Tabb, in an article published at Themelios, helpfully reminds us that “disease and death have indelibly marked the human experience east of Eden. In the beginning, there were no rogue parasites or harmful germs—everything was ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31). Then everything changed when sin entered the world and ‘death through sin,’ and creation itself ‘was subjected to futility’ (Rom 5:12; 8:20). Though the OT does not explicate this point, the realities of sickness and disease accompany the ‘thorns and thistles’ of creation’s curse and humanity’s ‘dust … to dust’ sentence. Without sin, human beings would experience neither death nor illness, which serves as ‘death’s prelude.’”
In other words, disease and sickness only exists because of Adam’s disobedience and sin. And yet, we cannot escape the truth that God is still actively and sovereignly in control over all creation, even the aberrant phenomenon of viral diseases. The Old Testament never lets us forget that it is God who alone has the authority to “wound” and to “heal” (see Deuteronomy 32:39 and Job 5:18). And in the New Testament Jesus reminds us that even what looks like random disasters and catastrophes are still used by God to showcase his good authority and power (see John 9:1-3 and Luke 13:1-5).
It is not insignificant that when Jesus began his ministry on earth, he did so by healing the sick and raising the dead to life. This was the inauguration of the incoming of the Kingdom of God; the beginning of a fuller reversal over disease and death which will find fulfillment in the final coming of Christ. In other words, his earthly ministry signaled the dawn of a new age, an age of restoration, and the incoming of the New Heavens and the New Earth. Of course, we don’t yet see the fulness of that new age yet, but it’s coming, and when it does it will be seen in the full and final resurrection of all those who have been born again in Christ.
This is what Paul says in Colossians 3 verse 4 that “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” And it is this event to which the creation itself longs to see. Right now it is subjected under the futility of corruption, death, and decay – but soon it will reemerge under the leadership of a new humanity into a new glorified state.
Lloyd-Jones puts the problem in a clear light when he says “Creation is in a state of corruption. By corruption is meant ‘physical corruption’, ‘putrefaction’, ‘death and destruction’. It is like a piece of meat which has decayed, become polluted, and which will gradually disintegrate. It is offensive. Similarly, creation now is in this state of physical corruption. It is putrefying and it is subject to death and to destruction.” But nonetheless, Paul says there is still hope; “…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.” Frustration and futility will not last forever. All creation will experience a cosmic liberation from the cold grip of death and, through the resurrection power of the Spirit, enter into a renewed state of glory never to suffer under the Fall again.
This is why Paul, in Colossians 3, instructs all those who are born-again in Christ (that is, those who are spiritually resurrected unto new life) to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).
It's secret that over the past few years there has been this universally heightened awareness of how fallen the creation is and how powerless we are over death, and these words from Paul should give us a renewed focus on where our attention should be. Rather than seeking refuge and security in all that this world has to offer, be it the latest science, the most up-to-date-news, or the leadership of our governing officials (all of which, by the way, we should be thankful for if done well), let instead us turn our gaze heavenward to Him who has the power to liberate all that he has subjected to futility.
Consider, in closing, the Apostle Peter’s encouragement: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3-7).
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 Thomas Schreiner, Romans: Second Edition (Baker Academic Press, 2018), p. 426
 Ibid., p. 427
 Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), p. 238-239
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 8:17-39, The Final Perseverance of the Saints (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), p. 51