I suggest: "Vanity" describes either Adam's sin [ the first recorded sin] or God's reaction to that sin, the curse of Gen 3.

The A.V. always translates "mataiotei" as "vanity". It comes in three places:

1) In Eph 4:17 vanity, the hardness of human hearts not the ground, sounds like a human attitude, sin, rather than God's response to sin.

2) In 2 Peter 2:18 again sounds like sin rather than God's response.

3) In Romans 8:20 it is more ambiguous. Hence the reason for this question.

In 1 Peter 1:18 we are not redeemed from the curse but from the our vain [mataios] conduct which brought the curse.

In Romans 1:24 God did give them over to uncleanness, but, before that happened they were already vain. Rom 1:21. Mataios again seen as a starting point.

God's cursing is not vain. Nothing God does is vain.

The curse did not render Adam and Eve's efforts futile, but difficult.

What is vain/futile is that man should not obey God's spoken commands as in Gen 2:16-17 and other commands e.g. the Ten Commandments.

If I am right that "vanity" is sin and not God's response to sin, does, "for the creature was made subject to vanity" challenge this conclusion?

The Westminster Confession of Faith says that God is not the author of sin thus making something without Him a first cause (see John 1:3). God is holy and uncreated, sin is created. The uncreated does not become created by creating that which is other than Himself, namely, sin. This question is based on New Testament references to one Greek word. It seeks to compare two specific possibilities.


3 Answers 3


No, vanity is not Adam's sin. It doesn't mean sin. Vanity is a reference to "vanishing" and it refers to things that pass away. One could also use the archaic "corruption" or the more modern "ephemeral". Basically it's the second law of thermodynamics -- "things fall apart".

Romans 8:20–21 (KJV 1900)

20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, 21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

We see a parallel between "subject to vanity" and "bondage of corruption [φθορά]", e.g. a rewording of the same idea, namely that of dying, perishing, being destroyed.

In addition to corruption and vanity, παράγω - "passing away" - is also used to describe this idea:

1 John 2.17:

And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

1 Corinthians 7:29–31 (KJV 1900)

29 But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.

That is what is being talked about. Not sin. The relationship with sin is that Adam's sin caused the earth to become subject to vanity and thus pass away.

This idea that decay is the effect caused by sin can be seen in several places, e.g.

Galatians 6:8 (KJV 1900)

8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.

Paul uses corruption and vanity as synonyms, as can be seen in Ephesians:

Ephesians 4:17 (KJV 1900)

17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,

and then later in verses 22-23:

Ephesians 4:22–23 (KJV 1900)

22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; 23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;

2 Corinthians 11:3 (KJV 1900)

3 But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.

And in both cases, the corruption of the mind is to be subject to vain thoughts or thoughts of things that perish or pass away.

Before Adam's sin, the life of God was in the earth. But after Adam's sin, the land was cursed. The effects of this curse are that the earth is dying, passing away. The whole of creation is perishing.

But God promises to renew it with a new creation in which there is a new heaven and a new earth, and the deposit of that new creation is the new life within us. This new life will swallow up the old life that is perishing, slowly withering like a plant removed from the window and put in a dark room after the light of God has been removed from it due to sin. The sin is the darkness and the withering of the plant is vanity, and our new life is the light that shines in the dark place, as a deposit on the future creation that will be swallowed up in light.

2 Corinthians 4:16–5:2 (KJV 1900)

16 For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; 18 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. 5 For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven


Although, as you note, ματαιότης (mataiotēs) appears only 3 times in the New Testament, it appears over 50 times in the Septuagint. The meaning of the word generally means something like futility, pointless existence, or, as one Eastern Orthodox commentator describes it, "a departure from the norm or from God's will for man and his life."1. I think this meaning is captured our expression "in vain" (e.g. "He did it in vain"). Examples from the Septuagint include:

Ῥήματα Ἐκκλησιαστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυιδ βασιλέως Ισραηλ ἐν Ιερουσαλημ. Ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων, εἶπεν ὁ Ἐκκλησιαστής, ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων, τὰ πάντα ματαιότης.

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king of Israel in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, said the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, Brenton translation)

υἱοὶ ἀνθρώπων, ἕως πότε βαρυκάρδιοι; ἵνα τί ἀγαπᾶτε ματαιότητα καὶ ζητεῖτε ψεῦδος;

O ye sons of men, how long will ye be slow of heart? wherefore do ye love vanity, and seek falsehood? (Psalm 4:2 LXX)

οὐκ ἐκάθισα μετὰ συνεδρίου ματαιότητος καὶ μετὰ παρανομούντων οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθω,

I have not sat with the council of vanity, and will in nowise enter in with transgressors (Psalm 25:4 LXX)

The other key word here is κτίσις (ktisis), which your title translates as creature, but was more widely understood (at least in antiquity) to mean creation. This would be consistent with how modern versions translate the word and is probably the meaning intended by the KJV (AV) translators as well. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "creature" in Elizabethan times meant anything created, not necessarily something animate. Take, for example, the Coverdale version of 2 Peter 3:4 (c. 1535):

For sence the fathers fell on slepe, euery thinge contynueth as it was from the begynnynge of ye creature

The understanding of Romans 8:20 in antiquity was that man's transgression corrupted (made vain) not only himself but all creation. The explanation offered by John Chrysostom in the 4th century was:

What is the meaning of, “the creation was made subject to vanity?” Why that it became corruptible. For what cause, and on what account? On account of thee, O man. For since thou hast taken a body mortal and liable to suffering, the earth too hath received a curse, and brought forth thorns and thistles.2

1. Archbishop Dmitry Royster, St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Pastoral Commentary (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008), p.210.
2. Homily XIV on Romans (tr. from Greek; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, 1.11

  • 1
    I agree with your assessment. And the reason Creation was made futile was because now it has to be replaced with something incorruptible and lasting (eternal). Essentially no matter what you achieve in this realm of material creation because it will all burn up ultimately it is not considered true riches, true riches are those that are eternal. It’s almost, almost like but not the same as virtual reality or a simulation. Except this reality influences and determines your eternal destiny. +1. This is partly why God will not receive any works of the flesh because it has no eternal value, futile. Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 14:47
  • @user33515 2 events: 1. man's sin 2. God's response. Though these are related can we apply "vanity" to one and not the other as per my 1st para, "either" "or"?
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 15:04

The operative word in Rom 8:20 is ματαιότης (mataiotés) which BDAG defines as "state of being without use or value, emptiness, futility, purposeless, transitoriness" Thus we have several renderings of the text:

NIV: For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope

NASB: For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope

The Pulpit commentary observes:

For the creature (or, creation, as before) was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who subjected it in hope. Because (or, that; i.e. in hope that) the creature (or, creation) also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the sons of God. The aorist ὑπετάγη ("was subjected") seems to imply that the present "vanity" and "bondage of corruption" were not inherent in the original Creation, or of necessity to last for ever. Thus the assertions of Genesis 1: and 31, stand unshaken, viz. that in the beginning God created all things, and that all at first was "very good." The ideas, resorted to in order to account for existing evil, of matter (ὕλη) being essentially evil, and of a δημιουργός, other than the Supreme God, having made the world, are alike precluded.

Thus, the curse of sin is seen as resting, not only on mankind, but our entire world. The only way out is our hope in the redemption found in Christ Jesus, Rom 8:21. It is significant that the other occurrences of ματαιότης (mataiotés), Eph 4:17 (see v18) and 2 Peter 2:18 (see v20) also make a link to the coming restoration offered by Jesus.

  • My question tries to give reasons why "vanity" =sin and not, God's response to sin. Your answer does not appear to me to say whether these can be separated or to treat them separately.
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 17:38
  • "Vanity is NOT sin as is never declared as such in Scripture. It is correctly understood as futility as any good lexicon makes clear.
    – user25930
    Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 21:29
  • 2Peter2v18 "speaking loud boasts of [E.S.V.] folly/vanity/matataiotetos" sounds like sin to me.
    – C. Stroud
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 11:49
  • I agree - futility leads to sin but futility in itself is not sinful and never equated with sin.
    – user25930
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 21:32
  • If you are right that futility leads to sin, then, Romans 8v20 would read "the creature was made subject to that which leads to sin". Are you agreed?
    – C. Stroud
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 12:00

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