Catholics are often about solving climate change (Pope on Climate). Protestants often are not – in fact, only half of Evangelicals even believe warming is happenings (Yale – Christians on Climate). Democrat Christians are all about solving climate change. Republican Christians generally are not.
The division over the issue made me wonder:
Does the Christian faith address environmental concerns? If so, you’d expect most Christians to be on the same side.
Or are both sides focused on different passages and interpretations?
Christian Faith and Environmentalism
Whether you take it as history or symbolic storytelling, the Creation narrative reminds us we were given the Earth to steward. We were given dominion over nature, which means to govern and manage – not destroy. We are called to oversee it, not obliterate it.
The planet is God’s gift to us, a present he took great care to cater to human needs and desires. Genesis 2:9 talks about God placing trees in the garden of Eden “pleasant to the sight and good for food” – not just taking care of our physical needs but also aesthetic desires, for enjoyment. Earth is not just useful, but beautiful as well.
Beyond that, Scripture largely focuses on the needs of small groups of people in nomadic and agrarian contexts where modern concepts of conservation are largely off the radar. Peter was a fisherman, sure – but saving the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t particularly relevant because there weren’t enough humans to trash it yet (Great Barrier Trash).
It is frustrating that God didn’t just inspire a bunch of passages that say directly, “Don’t pollute, take care of your environment, it’s the only one I gave you.” But it wasn’t as applicable in 1000 BC when there were only 100 million humans and God was addressing just one million of them: Israel.
Now there’s 7.6 billion of us and a climbing population means a crowded world. Any healthy future is going to require sustainability measures, caring for the Earth as a means of caring for each other, and safeguarding those who are most at risk in a crowded, polluted world. I feel Scripture indirectly speaks to all three of these.
End of the World
We have an obligation to pass a healthy, useful and beautiful world on to the next generation. An important point in Christian environmentalism is that no one knows when the world will end (Matthew 24:36) – so we can’t afford to have the attitude of “God will destroy it in the end anyways, who cares if I cut down that forest?”
Imagine if Christians had that attitude one hundred years ago and left us a desolate planet. Imagine if Christians had that attitude two thousand years ago and left hundreds of generations with a desolate planet!
Christians know Jesus might come back tomorrow. Christians who care about the environment remind us that we’ve been repeating that claim daily for nearly 73,000 days now.
If we are honest with ourselves, it might be another 2,000 years before He comes back. Which means we need to live in such a way as to preserve the planet until He does.
Love Your Neighbor
Caring for Creation becomes even more relevant as the population climbs. We are above 7.6 billion people today. We’ll hit 8 billion in 6 years, 9 and 10 billion in our lifetimes. Insert every passage here about loving your neighbor and treating others as yourself. Christians have more “neighbors” than ever before, and caring for the planet is one of the ways we treat them with the same love and respect we hope they give us.
Care for the Least of These
Another important element is that the people most likely to suffer the consequences of environmental abuse are the poor, the weak, the ill, the powerless – all whom God commanded us frequently to care for.
Corporations often create profit at the expense of the environment and locals, for example. Poor and weak indigenous groups often get taken advantage by powerful, affluent groups who swoop in, take their resources and leave without compensating or caring for the people they’ve effectively plundered.
Caring for the environment – and forcing the rich, the powerful, corporations and even governments to be accountable in this – is a way to take care of “the least of these.”
Why Do People Doubt?
We should take care of the world God gave, we must protect future generations, we should love others, and we should safeguard the least of these. With that foundation, I’d like to address a few bad theology positions sometimes used to dismiss climate concerns.
God wouldn’t let us ruin the world.
We somehow have this “God wouldn’t allow” idea. “God wouldn’t let us clone things.” Guess what – He did. “God wouldn’t let us commit a holocaust.” Guess what – He did. “God wouldn’t let us pollute the planet.” Guess what – we’re well on our way and He isn’t intervening.
Behind these sorts of assertions is the poor theological idea that God would not let us suffer the consequences of our own behavior. Guess what – He does.
God may never let us completely destroy the world – He promised at least some remnants of humanity will still be alive when He redeems it fully. But nowhere are we assured He’ll magically save us from ruining the world. We may not obliterate it, but we sure do compromise it. And God lets us live in the consequences of our behavior.
It is arrogant to think humans can change climate.
Humans were able to unite and build a tower so grand God intervened to stop us. We also became so rotten in the time of Noah that God stepped in to drastically use climate against us. We built the pyramids. We landed on the moon. God has let us do things – good, bad, and ugly – that no one ever thought humankind could.
So is it really that arrogant to think we could have a profound effect on nature?
Is it arrogant to think we could drive thousands of species to extinction? We did.
Is it arrogant to think we could compromise the ozone layer? We did.
Is it arrogant to think we could kill 50% of coral reefs? We did.
No one doubts we can pollute a river, a lake, a sea – look at the damage of an oil spill like Exxon’s Valdez. Or just look up “great Pacific garbage patch” on Google.
So why do we suddenly doubt humans could change the climate by consistent poor choices such as leveling forests (like 20% of the Amazon already) and siphoning off entire rivers so they no longer reach the sea? From the Colorado River to the Rio Grande and even the Nile, many rivers no longer reach the ocean in the dry season.
If few of us can destroy our local environment, then enough of us can destroy our global environment.
God will burn it all in the end, why care?
The worst anti-conservation position I encounter is the belief God will destroy it in the end, so why worry? Part of this is addressed above – we don’t know when the end is, so we better preserve it in case God is more patient than we are. Another element is that this is a fundamental misinterpretation of Scriptures like Revelation.
For a thorough dealing of this topic, check out “The Rapture Exposed” by Barbara Rossing – an incredible book on how late additions to Christian End Times beliefs (such as the rapture) influence how Christians treat the environment.
It is important to realize that God has promised frequently through Scripture to redeem THIS world. We should keep it in the best condition possible to present his gift to us back to him well taken care of.
“Leave it better than you found it.”
Full circle back to Genesis 1. We have a responsibility to steward the things God gives us. Like the master who gave talents to his servants and then left for a trip, when he comes back he’ll expect ask if we’ve been responsible. Will each Christian generation be known for leaving the Earth better than they received it?