Now who’s taking scripture out of context? Romans 8: Not about sin

Now who's taking scripture out of context? (iStockphoto.com)

Young-earthers believe God’s original creation was completely devoid of physical pain, suffering and death, based on little more than the fact that Genesis 1 calls the world “very good.” They explain away the existence of everything from cancer to carnivorous animals (e.g., in their fantasy world, lions’ sharp teeth and powerful jaws were once used to eat watermelons and coconuts) with a supposed “cosmic fall” — a catastrophic corruption of the entire universe that, for some reason, God didn’t really think was worth mentioning anywhere in scripture.

They see all this, naturally, as the perfectly reasonable punishment for a single act of disobedience committed by two people long ago (because, after all, if anyone should have to pay for the sins of man, it should be non-sentient animals living thousands of years later).

As I’ve said before, the “cosmic fall” is so appealing not because the Bible clearly teaches it (it doesn’t). It’s appealing because it provides a “Get out of a hard conversation free” card for the extremely difficult question of the existence of natural evil (terrible things like hurricanes and polio that can’t be attributed to human free will).

Now, I know my literalist readers (if I still have any, that is) have just been seething until now, because, of course, they do believe the cosmic fall is taught in scripture. The funny thing is, the only way they can find any support for the idea in the Bible is by misusing the text in exactly the same ways they accuse us more moderately thinking Christians of doing — usually by ripping a passage out of context. (This is only annoying because they claim so frequently to be the only ones who are “faithful” to scripture, while calling the rest of us COMPROMISERS.)

For example, in Genesis 3:14, God is described as addressing the talking serpent who had just helped tempt Adam’s wife into sin, and cursing it in the following way: “on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” This simple verse powerfully illustrates the fundamental inconsistency in the young-earth exegesis (the same inconsistency that causes them to take literally the six days of the Genesis 1 creation account, while taking metaphorically the many verses that describe a flat earth or a geocentric solar system). In this case, they easily brush aside the most straightforward meaning of the words (that this individual serpent was caused to, literally, eat dirt), while bizarrely extrapolating from the “all the days of your life” clause that this is the precise moment at which all living things besides humans became capable of physical death.

But no, we’re the ones who don’t “respect God’s word.”

Anyway, back to the cosmic fall. In my experience, the primary passage that is used as evidence for the idea is — oddly enough — nowhere close to Genesis. It’s Romans 8:18-25. Here’s Geoff Chapman, director of a group called Creation Resources Trust, responding to one of my articles in this poorly formatted Word document (emphasis mine):

To suggest that God used such an inefficient, wasteful and cruel process to bring us into being insults His character. [If you haven’t guessed, he’s talking about evolution.] It means that sin, pain and suffering existed for millions of years before humans appeared, making God, not humans, responsible for the evil in the world. It undermines the New Testament teaching that the creation is “groaning” because of the curse of human sin (Romans 8).

Do a little research, and you will find similar wording on the articles at all the other big creationist organizations. They all say Romans 8 is about the curse and the fall and the inherent punishment for human sin.

So, what’s the problem? Only that Romans 8 isn’t about the curse or the fall or the inherent punishment for human sin. How do I know? Well, for one thing, the says nothing about Adam, Eve, the serpent, the fall or original sin. The only mention of sin in the entire chapter is at the beginning — a clear carry-over from the previous chapter, where Paul was discussing his personal sin, not original sin and certainly not the ancient sins of our supposed ancestors.

Now, let’s look at what the text actually says: “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.” First, we must ask what, exactly, is the “whole creation” that is being referenced in this passage? Does it refer to the entire universe, or — like in Mark 16:15 — does it refer only to all mankind? Surely Mr. Chapman would not insist that Mark 16:15 exhorts us to preach to stars and rocks and goldfish and kangaroos, so why would he presume they are being referenced here?

It’s an important question to consider, but I actually don’t think its answer changes the overall meaning of the passage very much. The most relevant question, I believe, is who is the “him” who subjected creation to futility? And I think, as most theologians have held over the years, that it can only be God himself. If one tries to shoehorn Adam into the text, then it makes the passage utter nonsense: “Adam subjected creation to futility, in hope that it would be set free from the subjection to futility that his actions alone were responsible for.”

So, incontrovertibly, Romans 8 teaches exactly what Mr. Geoff Chapman (and many other YEC proponents) claims to find so untenable: that God is directly responsible for the corruption and decay within the created order. The next question, then, is why would God do this? The YEC answer is that it was a punishment. But that is, essentially, the complete opposite of what the passage says.

According to Romans, the subjection was not done out of anger or vengeance, but out of necessity, in hope that something greater would be revealed. And indeed, Paul goes on to say that this order of things (including the subjection, the futility and the corruption) has always been in place (i.e., before the appearance of man and before his sin): “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Notice that end date of this “groaning” is clearly specified, but no start date is mentioned, as one would expect if there ever had been a time when the “whole creation” wasn’t groaning.

No, Romans 8, with its talk of “futility” and “corruption,” brings strongly to my mind a much older biblical text, Ecclesiastes, and like the author of Ecclesiastes, Paul seems to view physical death and decay as an inherent part of God’s original creation. The difference is that Paul sees the good purpose God had in making us mortal, and he has hope in the promise of eternal life in Christ.

We know that darkness isn’t good, and yet, God has allowed it to exist in the world since the very beginning. Why? In my opinion, so that something that is decidedly good — namely, light — could exist. Without darkness, how could we have light? It would have no meaning. And in the same way, perhaps, without death, we could have no life, and without evil, there could be no good. Maybe — just maybe — God subjected his creation to the bondage of corruption because it was the only way we humans could know, appreciate and desire the eternal freedom and redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Just one man’s opinion. Ultimately, it’s God’s universe and we have no right to question how any of it works. No, all we Christians can do is speculate about what God did and why he did it, and subtly (or not so subtly, as the occasion may be) accuse those who disagree with us of taking scripture out of context.

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Tyler Francke

  • PurpleAardvaark

    RE: The sharp teeth of lions…

    In the Chris Smither song “Origin of Species” The Flood is covered as :
    “How they fed that crowd is a mystery

    It ain’t down in the history

    But it’s a cinch they didn’t lived on cakes and jam.

    Lions don’t eat cabbage

    And in spite of that old adage

    You’ll never see one lie down with a lamb.”

    • Awesome! Of course the YECs would say that, since the flood came after the fall, these song lyrics actually are in line with their theology 😛 It’s only in the prelapsarian world that they believe lions were cuddly and harmless.

  • Nick Hodgetts

    Funny how YECs always refer to evolution with words like ‘inefficient, wasteful and cruel’, all profoundly human concepts that have no place in the discussion. On the contrary, I am always astonished by just how beautifully everything works (‘in him all things hold together’). A carcass lying in the forest is not ‘wasted’, but used by thousands of insects, fungi and bacteria, all busily recycling the chemicals so they can be used again in the ecosystem. I blame Walt Disney for peddling us rampant anthropomorphism!

    • Hey, excellent point! I hadn’t thought about it like that before.

  • RandomGuy

    Read and then explain Romans 5:12

    • I’m quite familiar with Romans 5:12, and could probably talk about it all day. But basically, I think it’s very clear that the passage is talking about spiritual death, not physical death. Paul frequently references the former in his writings, such as two chapters later, in Romans 7:9, when he says, “Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” Obviously, he was not physically dead when he wrote that, so he is talking about something other than physical death. I believe it is the same case in Romans 5. Also note that the context is identical in the two passages, namely, the consequences of sin.

      I have absolutely no problem with the idea that sin causes spiritual death — i.e., separation from God. Indeed, in my mind, it’s one of the central concerns of the Christian faith. Does that answer your question?

      • RandomGuy

        Yes that answers my question concerning what you believe, but maybe you can help me with this question. How do we answer the argument that AiG puts forth: God said in Genesis that everything was very good (Genesis 1:31). So is death just a natural thing that God called good?

        • In short, yes. Death is part of the current created order that God set up. Personally, I think that makes a whole heck of a lot more sense than the YEC version, the God originally created everything immortal, then made everything mortal for all time five seconds later because of a single act of disobedience. I believe that, as Hebrews 9:27 says, God simply “appointed” it, “for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” and that this is all part of “the old order of things” that will one day be abolished (Rev. 21:4).