“Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth and they should come together to save creation.” (Harvard Wilson)
News about what is happening to the environment has never been gloomier, nor has it caught the attention of journalists and the general public as it does today. The increasingly alarming results of climate and environmental research no longer only interest the scientific community, as findings relating to the topic are now found on the front page of newspapers or in the news feeds of many social media users.
At the end of last year, top researchers on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an intermediary report, warning that the planet only has 12 years left before global average temperature increases, rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius per year above pre-industrial levels, will be irreversible. After this grace period, each additional 0.5 degrees Celsius will amplify the risk of extreme weather events.
Although it brought hard figures and frightening scenarios to the conversation—that showed that a difference of only half a degree Celsius could translate into millions of affected human lives—the report was still “incredibly conservative”, says Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. The document does not mention the likelihood of an increase in the number of refugees due to climate change, nor the danger that the planet will reach a point where extreme warming becomes a one-way street, Ward says.
In November 2019, in a paper published in the Oxford Academy’s journal BioScience, more than 11,000 researchers in 153 countries said that our planet was “clearly and unequivocally” facing a climate emergency. While acknowledging that the effort to resolve the environmental crisis over the past 40 years has witnessed a number of failures, scientists say that the “recent surge of concern” about the climate crisis is encouraging for those studying this thorny issue.
However, both older and more recent studies show that, as far as Christians are concerned, environmental worries remain low. According to studies, Christians are rather skeptical when it comes to climate change, the entropy of the environment being seen exclusively in eschatological terms: the antidote to the climate babble is the new world, which will be recreated from the ashes of the old one.
This apathetic attitude towards the environment has been reprimanded by external critics and fuelled, at the same time, by voices inside the church.
Christianity: a corrosive agent for environmentalism?
In 1967, historian Lynn White wrote a veritable indictment of the Christian vision of the West, which he considered responsible for the environmental crisis, in an article entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. According to the historian, Christianity has swept away the idea of the sacredness of nature that the pagans nurtured, replacing it with the image of the human created in the image of God, who “rules” over the creatures of the earth.
Therefore, Christianity introduced the duality between humanity and nature, and imposed a human monopoly on the environment, thus letting the last barriers to the exploitation of nature collapse silently, White says.
American theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer was one of the first Christian apologists to challenge the claim that Christian theology supports the exploitation of the environment, arguing that the mastery that the book of Genesis talks about involves managing the elements of nature, taking into account the fact that they have intrinsic value and must not be damaged. Another passage in Genesis clarifies the meaning of the “dominion” over the earth given to the first humans: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). This verse emphasizes the idea of protection rather than domination.
In recent years, the idea that we must wisely manage the created world has come under fire from within the Christian community, according to an analysis by researcher Madison Calvin DeWitt from the University of Wisconsin, and philosophy professor Ronald Nash, who taught at the Reformed Theological Seminary.
The first powerful challenge from within was launched by the Evangelical Christian, James Watt, US Secretary of the Interior during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who supported the idea that the earth serves only as “a temporary way station on the road to eternal life”, but also as a storehouse of exploitable resources in this short earthly journey. Watt’s position seemed to validate White’s view that the Christian vision is the pillar of the ecological crisis, and Christian apologists opposed this philosophy of exploitation, pointing out that the Bible sends another message: the earth belongs to its Creator, not to the people, and the purpose of creation is not limited to meeting human needs.
The Gnostic view, according to which matter is evil, but also suspecting that Christians who are concerned about the environment are contaminated with pantheistic philosophy or New Ageism, were other reasons to exempt Christianity from any debt to the environment, DeWitt and Nash say.
A final category that is disengaged from the duty to protect the planet is that of Christians caught up in endless debates about the veracity of the environmental crisis. Because they are not sure that the evidence pointing to the approach of the planet’s collapse is beyond doubt, they remain confined to an expectation devoid of any hope for action.
This position is not a Biblical one, the authors argue, because the responsible management of creation remains an imperative, regardless of its state, not representing an option, nor a solution to the crisis, “but a way of life”. In fact, the Bible abounds in advice on caring for the environment, right from its first pages, and even contains a final message for those who damage creation, thus deconstructing attempts to minimize the importance of this subject.
Guidelines of the biblical message
The New and Old Testaments reveal a doctrine of life, says theology professor Joann Davidson, listing a series of Biblical evidence for divinity’s concern about each and every element of the created world.
In the first chapters of Genesis, God describes created things as “very good”. Animals, like humans, received the “breath of life” and a vegetarian diet. Later, the fall into sin affected all of Creation.
In the days of Noah, God gave instructions to save animals in an ark, protecting them from a global catastrophe, and the biblical text mentions that God remembered, after the rain stopped, “Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark” (Genesis 8:1) and even included in His covenant, beyond just mankind, “every living creature” (Genesis 9:8-10).
Davidson points out that animals are mentioned in the instructions given to the children of Israel at the entrance to Canaan (for example, the donkey that fell under the weight of the burden had to be helped, even if it was owned by an enemy), but also the land and trees. For instance, during a military campaign, it was forbidden to cut down the trees surrounding the besieged city. Also, both the land and the animals are included in the instructions related to the weekly Sabbath or the Sabbath year.
In the promises of the restoration of Creation, in a world that has been purged of sin, the animal world is also included, according to a message sent to the prophet Hosea.
The New Testament continues this “life theology”, presenting the image of a God who is not indifferent to any of the beings He created: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God” (Luke 12:6). The last scenes of the book of Revelation, describing the just and final judgment of God, include the punishment of those who “destroy the earth”.
Studies showing a lower concern among Christians for the environment leave Steve Dunbar with a bad taste in his mouth. Steve Dunbar is a marine biologist at Loma Linda University, who confesses that this situation reminds him of the apathy of the Israelites, very vividly described in the book of the prophet Jeremiah: “Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard and trample down my field; they will turn my pleasant field into a desolate wasteland. It will be made a wasteland, parched and desolate before me; the whole land will be laid waste because there is no one who cares” (Jeremiah 12:10-11).
This is a surprising statement about the chosen people, among whom there is no one who cares about the destruction of the environment, says Dunbar, who takes over the biblical text and uses it as a sounding board for our own indifference. “Do we hear the cry of His oceans dealing with our pollution, of His creatures trapped in our garbage?… Do we hear the cry of our fellow creatures when they can’t live in the habitats He has created for them?” says Dunbar, pointing out that if our ears hear the cries of the abused creation, “the greater question is, ‘Is there anyone who cares?’”.
Eschatology is not an excuse to ignore environmental issues
In some cases, the eschatological doctrine is used by Christians to avoid any effort to protect the environment, given that the fate of the planet seems to have already been sealed.
The belief that the earth will be destroyed and recreated at the coming of Jesus causes many Christians to treat environmentalism as just so much baggage to be tossed onto the back seat, says Rahel Wells, a professor at Andrews University. However, a correct doctrine must not model wrong behaviours, says Wells, pointing out that “eschatology provides a definitive motivation for ecology”.
Noting that “eschatological passages include a picture of earth restored and rejuvenated”, Wells concludes that an eschatological creed involves caring for the environment rather than opposition towards its thoughtful administration.
“Eschatology and environmentalism are not, after all, contradictory but complementary ideas. The care of the earth is not disconnected from the Christian mission of proclaiming the good news of salvation,” says Silvia Schimpf-Torreblanca, professor at Antillean Adventist University.
Ben Holdsworth, professor at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, wrote about the intersection of the “five E’s”: eschatology, ecclesiology, evangelism, economics, and environment. Eschatology speaks of an accentuation of the destruction of nature as the events described in Revelation approach, and ecclesiology should focus on the impact of this reality on church members. A deteriorating environment will affect the economy, but this crisis must be seen by the church not only as an eschatological fulfilment, but also as an opportunity “to bring hope to a world immersed in growing crisis.”
Instead of looking reluctantly at the efforts made to save the environment, Christians should be the first to be concerned about this crisis, precisely because of their eschatological belief, says Bob White, geophysics professor at the University of Cambridge. He says that, from a Biblical perspective, the earth looks less like the Titanic and more like the Queen Mary, considering that “it will be rebuilt yet more gloriously.”
Additional reasons to preserve the gifts of nature
It is not Christians’ mission to resolve global warming disputes, says Joann Davidson, noting that, while concern for the environmental crisis is recent in our society, Bible writers have expressed their gratitude for Creation, as well as their concern for the way we relate to it, much earlier than this. Consequently, Davidson believes, biblical motives for environmental protection are not only older, but go deeper than current environmental ethics.
Christians need to protect the planet that has been given to them as a home because the material world is important to God and He is involved in supporting it, says Bob White. On the other hand, this is the specific command God gave at the dawn of human history, and the thoughtful management of the planet’s resources is part of Christian worship, the professor says.
Nature is the book whose pages still reflect the love and strength of the Creator. Therefore, by administering it judiciously, we strengthen our connection with divinity, and pass this privilege on to the next generation, biology professor William Hayes says.
There are, however, other reasons to prudently manage the environment and its resources. For instance: economic ones. The planet’s resources are finite, and unsustainable consumption ultimately affects the environment, causing significant damage from a financial point of view. In 2018 alone, the 10 most severe natural disasters caused damage of at least $84.8 billion, according to a study by Christian Aid, which showed that “climate change is having devastating impacts on…lives and livelihoods right now”, said Kat Kramer, head of the organization’s climate department.
Care for the environment should also be motivated by reasons related to health and social justice, Hayes says. A healthy environment supports human health through its ecosystems, but a damaged environment generates disease, tensions, and inequality. In general, the world’s poorest people pay an unfair cost to support comfort and waste in developed countries, and Christians should be the most vocal in upholding the rights of those who have been disadvantaged by the environment’s exploitation, not just for human beings, but also for other life forms, Hayes concludes.
We do not value nature enough because we have never had to live without its beauty and abundance. A world devoid of biodiversity, “a stainless-steel-and-cement world stripped bare of any plant and animal, any tree and hillside” would mean not only that “such a world be barely livable from a biological point of view” but that “we would barely want to live in”, journalist Thomas Friedman says.
It would be a world in which we would fully realize the meaning of the words of entomologist Edward Wilson, who compared the destruction of ecosystems for profit to the burning of paintings in the Louvre for the purpose of cooking dinner—except that, in this case, the paintings have an unquantifiable value, because the One who signed them caused life to flow through their every pore. And when the Infinite One cares even for a sparrow that falls to the ground, the human—the creature whose life cost the Creator the most— should not fall blindly into a haze of indifference.