“… creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19, RSV).

These are cosmic terms that St. Paul uses in the eighth chapter of the book of Romans. He sees manifold aspects of a cosmic disorder and then rejoices in the certainty of a glorious cosmic hope. Central to his whole thought is the key position of man in relation both to the disorder in the cosmos and to the hope which is set before us; for men are organically related to the whole natural order.

The cosmic disorder is a compound of frustration, corruption, and pain, and it penetrates to every branch of creation. In the human part of creation, there are “the sufferings of this present time”; in the animal and inanimate creation there is subjection to “futility” or frustration and “the bondage of corruption,” and there is “groaning and travailing in pain” everywhere in the physical world, not excluding that part of it represented by the bodies of Christians. Everywhere there is need of redemption.

This revelational light on creation’s insecurities has its counterpart in the scientifically observable facts of the physical universe and in the recurring element of decay in the story of men and nations. Physicists have given us the term “entropy” for the running down of the cosmic clock or “the measure of the unavailable energy in a thermodynamic system” (Webster’s dictionary). According to the second law of thermodynamics the random element in the physical universe has a constant tendency to increase. Then too there is instability in the atomic structure of some elements; and the principle of indeterminacy has been shown to be an integral aspect of the microscopic universe.

Just how much of the knowledge derived from scientific investigation of the physical universe is indicative of an element of disorder in the cosmos, and how much is a discovery of a fraction of the mystery behind the creation, man cannot determine. But concerning man’s everyday experiences in his contacts with animate and inanimate nature there is no doubt in our minds as to the actual mixture existing of a basically good creation with a certain degree of unhappy irregularity. The gardener can be frustrated by pests, the traveller can be discouraged by poisonous plants, mosquitoes, or wild animals, and in the ordinary business of living we are subject to tiredness, decay, and eventually death.

Effect Of The Fall

St. Paul is quite clear as to his own belief that the original germ of disorder and loss in the cosmos is to be traced to the fall of man and to the course which God permitted nature to develop as the aftermath of that fall: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you.… In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread …” (Gen. 3:17–19, RSV). The apostle sees man, with all his high potentialities and destiny, as having a solidarity with the rest of the created universe. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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Clearly something tragic has happened to the highest or spiritual part of creation. With the rebellion of man against God, there has entered into the story of the universe not only the fact of sin and the tendency to sin in the human race, but also as a consequence of man’s spiritual and moral declension, a corresponding and, as it were, a sympathetic disorder in the whole physical and material universe—man’s environment. As St. Paul puts it: “creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope” (RSV).

In the loving wisdom of our Creator, man was made a free spirit “in the image of God.” God took the risk of leaving the way open for man to take the irrational line of using freedom to rebel against Him and bringing disorder into the warp and woof of the cosmic situation. But only by taking this risk could the highest blessings of creation be made possible. In order to produce a fellowship of men and women who would gladly and freely use their God-like capacities in love and service to God and to one another in God, it was necessary that these same human ‘lords of creation’ be free to experiment with a line of behavior rebellious toward God, inimical toward the rest of creation, or destructive of man’s true self. Love that is not freely, given is not love. Goodness is not goodness that is automatic. So in order to experience the gracious gift of God’s highest and best, the road had to be left open for descent to the lowest and worst. The story of human sin and misery is the story of man’s taking that road despite the clear warning posted at its entrance: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.

The lower orders of creation are involved unwillingly in this sad tale. The animal kingdom has suffered and in many parts of the world still suffers because of the unregenerate hardness of man’s heart. Animals have been treated as if they had no feelings, and as if their suffering pain by careless or cruel handling was of no account. Being dumb creatures they have had no recourse but to endure what man appoints. When man behaves as one made “in the image of God,” then the lot of animals is a happy one. But where man’s fallenness is in the ascendant, then animals “groan and travail in pain” waiting for the promised new day when Paradise shall be restored, when man, converted in the spirit of his mind and fully redeemed, shall make possible again the enjoyment by creation of its raison d’être in the whole divine scheme of things.

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The Restoration Of Man

So it is that St. Paul shows us how the restoration of man to his proper dignity of a God-like leadership in the created universe is the sine-qua-non of the experience of fulfillment in creation as a whole. Creation therefore is pictured as “straining its neck,” as eager spectators do at an exciting and dramatic competition on the race track, and waiting for the final success of the human experiment, “the manifestation of the sons of God” who, having found and responded to Christ their Redeemer, have also gladly accepted their saving role within their whole creaturely environment and have permitted the blessed answer of God to creation’s cry of pain in a complete remaking of heaven and earth, and the beginning of those promised blessings which “pass man’s understanding.”

The preredemption plight of creation is a temporary one. Hope for the cosmos is here already because the redemptive process is on. The appearance has already begun to be manifested of “the sons of God.” The crucial event has taken place which made both that and the cosmic hope possible. The divine initiative for man’s salvation has happened at a definite and strategic point of human history. The fulfillment of the purpose behind creation now begins to take shape. Now we can begin to expect to see the dissolution of the forces of corruption to which creation has been in bondage on account of man’s fallen condition. New and unheard-of potentialities of things created can be seen on the horizon, in proportion as the corrupted and corrupting element in man is dealt with redemptively. A lost world can become a paradise beyond man’s highest imaginations through the miracle of his spiritual remaking. This miracle takes place in the central citadel of a man’s personality through the application there of the saving grace in the cosmically redemptive victory won by Christ on the Cross and by his Resurrection.

The Key To The Cosmic

So it is again that the human situation is the key to the cosmic. St. Paul speaks of a group of people having the “firstfruits of the Spirit”—as the redemptive nucleus for the whole cosmos. These people share in “the sufferings of this present time.” But they are not submerged by them. Indeed they not only enjoy for themselves the grace of buoyancy, but they serve as distributors to the world of the one optimism which never deludes—the optimism that is based solidly on the cosmic redemption already accomplished at history’s crucial center by the one Person completely qualified for that mighty act. Within Christians there is enough dynamism of hope to spread by chain-reaction to the whole cosmos. Because of “the glory that shall be revealed” in Christians, the whole creation reaches out in eager anticipation of its own redemption and of the blessed fulfillment of a destiny undiscoverable by telescope, microscope, or mathematics but already assigned to it by the omniscient and omnipotent God of all grace.

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The presence of Christians in the world therefore acts as a perpetual witness that eternity is an abiding reality which stands over against the changes of time and is not merely the consummation at the end of time. By the mercy of God, Christians are enabled to transmute things temporal so that they serve as the main material for them of things eternal. They can do this because they already “have the firstfruits of the Spirit,” and thus things eternal are already in a measure part of their temporal experience.

At the same time Christians are not exempt from “the sufferings of this present time.” St. Paul says that “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” The sufferings of Christians, patiently borne, have healthy repercussions on the world, for the world catches therefrom a flash of insight into the hope that lies before us. While external decay is a reminder of the internal corruption which was responsible for it, so spiritual triumph reminds those who see it of the redemption that is ahead for the body itself. The redemption of the body is the final victory over sin and its fruits and the glorious achievement of true destiny: it is the final consummation beyond history of Christ’s saving work by the Cross, and in some sense we may anticipate the whole cosmos, transformed and transfigured, to have a share in this expected “glory.”

The Great Consummation

The redemptive conclusion is in sight. The key to the situation on its human side is the attitude of the redemptive nucleus—the “glorious liberty” among Christian people to yield a free and happy self-surrender to God’s service, and to reproduce Christ’s character and love in every segment of their environment.

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While then we wait with confidence for the ultimate consummation to come in God’s time and way, the faithful use of our stewardship as having “the firstfruits of the Spirit” already has universe-wide repercussions. One of the miracles of Christian “other-worldliness” is that it is the strongest factor in improving the statistics of the world’s hope—even in that part of the world which tends to limit its horizons to material and temporal values. By making our time serve the constructive purposes of eternity, that is, by so passing through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal, we are far from being spiritually selfish, for we are choosing a course which is as beneficial to the world now and in this time as it is preparatory to a final redemption of cosmic proportions.


Teach Us to Pray

By the waters of Babylon we sat down to weep;

Why should our unstrung hearts their measure keep?

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Drop, slow tears, till the swollen river rise

Spewing sand of Babylon out of my eyes,

And the faith-distressing image of its town

From the smooth surface slip, dissolve and drown.

Undertow of memory plucks me, saying, “Come,

See through salt dimness the wavering shore of home;

(Rest for thy weary limbs, peace after war,

Now a fair tide can carry thee far);

Or seek no landfall, where quiet lies deep,

Breasting the long-limbed swells in sleep.”

Drop, slow tears: such courses are

Still deviation from the pure soul of prayer.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in our own land?


John W. Duddington is Episcopal chaplain at Stanford University. From 1928–48 he was an Anglican missionary to China. He came to America in 1950, serving Episcopal parishes in California and Manila before going to Stanford University.

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