For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope. Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope; but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it....He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? (Romans 8:18-25, 32)There's definitely something to be said for an upbringing in which you are made to memorize a lot of Scripture. Yesterday I had the phrase "the glorious liberty of the children of God" rattling around in my head, and I was sure it was from Romans 8, as indeed turns out to be the case. It was exceedingly worthwhile to look it up and read the entire passage. The passage goes on, too, with "If God be for us, who can be against us?" and "I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities...shall be able to separate us from the love of God." The whole chapter is well worth committing to memory.
But about that "glorious liberty of the children of God." What does it mean? In context, it certainly looks like it means the new heaven and the new earth and our own redeemed bodies. The restoration of all things. Jesus said, "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5), and that is what St. Paul is teaching about here. In, to be sure, somewhat general and non-specific terms, but as best we can understand it, it means that there will be an entirely new creation after the end of this world, a creation in which there will be no sorrow or pain but which will not be disembodied, which will involve all the beauty and grandeur of physical Nature, purged of its horrors and dangers.
We don't know what this will be like. Will there be germs, while we are simply resistant to them? If there are dogs, cats, and horses, will they have puppies, kittens, and foals, and how will the animal population problem work if they do? Where will our food come from, and how will we acquire it without the "sweat of our brow"? Bugs certainly have their place in the present ecosystem, but a new earth containing ticks, mosquitoes, and chiggers sounds a bit problematic, so how is that going to work? We have no idea of the answer to any of these questions.
So, yes, the promise of a new Nature, a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, is left somewhat vague. But it is impossible to read Paul's words about the whole creation waiting in expectation without feeling a thrill of excitement. Paul even hints that in some sense the redemption and recreation of the whole world is bound up with us. The world is waiting for men to be redeemed, which will in some sense allow or bring about the redemption of the whole earth through the "glorious liberty of the children of God."
Then there is verse 32. It is all too easy when one is trying to submit oneself to the will of God to take such a verse about "freely giving us all things" in an entirely spiritual sense. Yes, yes, one says, along with the death of Jesus Christ God the Father gives us Himself, gives us the promise of the beatific vision, gives us spiritual growth and spiritual riches. That's all it means. But I'm not so sure of that. In fact, though it doesn't come immediately on the heels of the verses about the whole creation waiting for redemption, it now seems to me that verse 32 is about the redemption of the body and of the creation. God will with Jesus Christ give us all things--new bodies that never grow old or ill, freedom from pain and death, the end of sorrow, and the beauty we have loved in this world, translated into a new key.
In fact, perhaps the distinction between spiritual riches and recreated earthly riches is a little artificial, and perhaps we would see it to be wholly artificial if we were sufficiently spiritually insightful. Paul can be read here as teaching a kind of mystical spiritual truth--that the redemption of our souls and the redemption of our bodies and the redemption of the world are all bound up together at the root. "Whom he did predestinate, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified, and whom he justified, them he also glorified" (Romans 8:30). Glorified? Doesn't that have something to do with the "glorious liberty" and the "redemption of the body" he was talking about a few verses before? I think it does.
Perhaps it's a kind of spiritual mathematical equation: If we understood everything, we would understand why the whole of Nature was skewed and damaged by the Fall of Satan and the Fall of Man. Then we would also understand why it simply follows that when the Church Triumphant is gathered together in the presence of our Lord, when this present human history of mingled sorrow, misery, beauty, and grandeur comes to an end, when the glorification of human nature is completed, creation itself will "come right" and be recreated, so that what comes after is the best of all, though we can glimpse it now only through a glass darkly.
I announce to you what is guessed at in all the phenomena of your world. You see the corn of wheat shrivel and break open and die, but you expect a crop. I tell you of the Springtime of which all springtimes speak. I tell you of the world for which this world groans and toward which it strains. I tell you that beyond the awful borders imposed by time and space and contingency, there lies what you seek. I announce to you life instead of mere existence, freedom instead of frustration, justice instead of compensation. For I announce to you redemption. Behold I make all things new. Behold I do what cannot be done. I restore the years that the locusts and worms have eaten. I restore the years which you have drooped away upon your crutches and in your wheel-chair. I restore the symphonies and operas which your deaf ears have never heard, and the snowy massif your blind eyes have never seen, and the freedom lost to you through plunder, and the identity lost to you because of calumny and the failure of justice; and I restore the good which your own foolish mistakes have cheated you of. And I bring you to the Love of which all other loves speak, the Love which is joy and beauty, and which you have sought in a thousand streets and for which you have wept and clawed your pillow.Thomas Howard, Christ the Tiger, pp. 158-9.