Some years ago I attended an Anabaptist-styled bible conference in Bellingham, Washington State. A man who had a strong science background was talking about various environmental and social justice issues and what Christians ought to be thinking about in order to help. I remember my reaction: disappointment and irritation. I had come here to learn the bible, not activism. I thought that this brother was spending too much time focused on this old sinful world that is “passing away” as the apostle Peter said. Only God can change it, I thought, and he will in his good time. And besides, didn’t Jesus say, “My kingdom is no part of this world”? (Jn 18:36) That would preclude activism wouldn’t it?
But as the years went by, I began to hear other voices suggesting that perhaps God’s creation, which he said was “very good”, should play a bigger part in my faith then I had previously imagined–especially considering all the climate related news we were hearing. Perhaps it was time to take a closer look at what Scripture said rather than making assumptions or going with popular opinion. Or as I recall Joyce Meyer saying on her morning program, “When I say personal bible study, I don’t mean showing up at church on Sunday! You need to spend some quality time in God’s Word!” I looked afresh at what the bible said about creation and humanity’s part in it and was pleasantly surprised by the number of good evangelical Christian writers and scholars that were now addressing environmental issues. Here’s a few of the things I discovered.
The Creation Story and Stewardship
In Genesis chapter 1, God creates the “heavens and the earth”. What does this mean? The first task for the interpreter is to determine the original meaning that original hearers of that text would understand. Then the application to us today can be worked out from that. Evangelical Old Testament scholars, like John Walton, in his The Lost World of Genesis One, tell us that the text is describing a common idea from that time: a divine ordering of the cosmos from chaotic to purposeful–creating a cosmic temple, as it were, for God to inhabit (think of the temple at Jerusalem, and the inner holy of holies where God’s presence was; later, with Jesus, the temple becomes his people inhabited by the holy spirit). In other words, Genesis one is telling us that God creates his beloved world, and wants to dwell in it with his creatures. Unlike the surrounding nations of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and their gods, this God recognizes no equals, and considers humans his crowning achievement, made in his image.
And surprisingly, this God wants to be involved in the lives of his creatures for their good. All the pagan gods wanted was slaves whose lives were dispensable. So in this sense, Genesis chapter 1 is a subversive document–unmasking the gods of the ANE as selfish, uncaring and pathetic in comparison. This God, who would later be identified as Yahweh, the God of Israel, was serving his creation: providing food, water, shelter and protection in a paradise garden that was beautiful and good. He commanded humans to be stewards of his garden, and by extension, the entire earth; to care for it, enjoy it, eat of its fruits respectfully, and to love it as God himself loves it.
What was the nature of this stewardship? In Genesis chapter 1, we read the following.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over [or subdue or have dominion over] the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Ge 1:26-27, NASB)
The Hebrew word here is usually translated “rule over”, “subdue” or “have dominion over” in English (Ge 1:26, 28). Unfortunately, this has been used as a rationale for the domination and exploitation of creation. But we know as Christians we shouldn’t look at biblical verses apart from their context. We need to see what the whole bible says on a topic, not isolated verses. In the very next chapter different words are used:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to work it [or cultivate it – NASB] and take care of it. (Ge 2:15, NIV)
How can these two different commands be reconciled? Is it possible to “rule over”, “subdue”, “have dominion over” creation as well as “cultivate it”, “keep it”, “take care of it”? If God’s Word is true, both statements must be true.
The first point to note is an academic one. Biblical scholars have a theory that Genesis 1 may have been written or compiled by a different person or group than Genesis 2, although all texts are based on Moses’ teachings handed down. If so, that would explain the different styles and perspectives between the two chapters, but it doesn’t explain the seeming contradiction between “rule over” and “cultivate”. Noting that “rule over” and “take care of” together describes the ideal servant-kingship of David, which foretells Christ’s kingship, is also helpful. But for me, the moment of understanding came at an evening film event at Regent College, my Alma mater. Loren Wilkinson, a professor emeritus there, was screening his film Making Peace With Creation. There was a scene where some students, living and learning on Loren’s farm, were removing some Scottish Ivy that had invaded part of the island and was choking off the indigenous vegetation. A light went on.
This is the rule over/subdue part: where creation becomes out of balance and needs wise, caring, corrective action. But in order to be true to chapter two’s “cultivate” and “keep it/take care of it” command, such action must always have the objective of restoring the balance that a deep respect and love for God’s creation requires. The particulars of how things should be organized or structured, it appears, God has in large part left to humans to decide. After all, he made us in his image, which would include the desire and ability to design and create.
In this case, a decision had to be made: should they leave the Scottish Ivy and let it kill off much of the local flora which may in turn affect other ecosystems? Or should they intervene to restore the balance of flora that existed previous to the invasion of the ivy? What would God want? The decision was to restore the original flora species balance and cut back the invasive species.
Loren and his students, then, followed Genesis 1 and 2 well: they applied “subdue” to the task of removing the invasive plants and “cultivate” and “keep/care for” to the ecosystems and the variety of plant species that had been healthy and in balance previously. In my opinion, that’s exactly what good stewardship involves. And so it seems that God has not created earth, with its many, varied, and complex ecosystems, to run independently of humans, but in cooperation with humans who have the task of caring for it. If true, then a key objective would be to understand these ecosystems in order to appreciate them and work with them wisely. In other words, Christian ecology should be a given, not an exception.
Earth Burned Up or Transformed?
However, some Christians say that the earth will be burned up and we’re all going to heaven, so why worry about the old earth? Or is this a case of proof-texting without context like above? Does this idea not conflict with the following texts?
A generation goes and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever. – Eccl 1:4
And He built His sanctuary like the heights,
Like the earth which He has founded forever. – Ps 78:69
He established the earth upon its foundations,
So that it will not totter forever and ever. – Ps 104:5, NASB
There appears to be a major problem here. Earth annihilation is flatly contradicted by clear biblical teaching. Nevertheless, proponents of earth annihilation will usually go to 2 Peter:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed [or “laid bare”, NIV]. (2 Pet 3:10, ESV)
The last part of the verse tells us the reason: so the earth and works done in it are “exposed”. Why? For judgement–the fire is symbolic of that in the bible. So earth is not destroyed but is being examined and judged. Fire is also a symbol for cleansing and renewing. Likely both meanings are implicit in the text. The “heavens” and “heavenly bodies” that pass away likely refer to the dark “powers and principalities” that Paul talked about in Ephesians 6 that will be removed and replaced by Christ’s rule, the “New Heavens”. But that aside, wouldn’t ruining something that doesn’t belong to us, when we were asked to look after it, be a serious affront to the actual owner? This seems much more serious to me than the debate over the meaning of a biblical text.
How does it end? In Revelation 21, we see New Jerusalem descending to earth so that God will be with his people for all the ages to come. In other words, heaven is coming here. The garden is restored but now, on a cosmic scale. Trees on either side of a river produce leaves that heal the nations. Death and sorrow are no more–the former things have passed away. As Paul had said in Romans 8, creation is groaning and needs to be redeemed, and in this vision it is divinely redeemed and renewed in Christ. The vision is one of a bountiful, good and beautiful creation in harmony with itself and its creator. It is a vision of the cosmos where worship of the loving and caring Creator is woven into its very fabric. N.T. Wright, a foremost biblical scholar, put it this way:
“Redemption is not simply making creation a bit better, as the optimistic evolutionist would try to suggest. Nor is it rescuing spirits and souls from an evil material world, as the Gnostic would want to say. It is the remaking of creation, having dealt with the evil that is defacing and distorting it. And it is accomplished by the same God, now known in Jesus Christ, through whom it was made in the first place.”
― N.T. Wright,
Many Christians are now increasingly adopting this view. Interestingly, compare this modern result of biblical scholarship to a very old idea. According to Edward Gibbon in The Christians and the Fall of Rome, the hope of the very early Christians was for “Christ, with the triumphant band of the saints…[to] reign upon the earth…[and] the New Jerusalem, the seat of this blissful kingdom, was quickly adorned with all the gayest colors of the imagination.” (p. 30) Gibbon credits this wonderful vision–although not universal–with the success of early Christianity. However, he notes that with the later institutionalization of Christianity within the Roman Empire, this vision was forgotten. (p. 31) Perhaps the climate crisis is pushing us to remember it.
Lord, What Shall We Do?
God created the earth, said it was very good, and asked humans to care for it. We failed and now the planet and its flora and fauna are suffering under the effects of climate change, pollution, injustice, incompetence, greed, violence, and exploitation. We know from Scripture that at some point God will intervene directly (Mark 13:25-27). We also know there is a curse upon those that would ruin the earth (Rev 11:18). So what should we as Christians do? Should we actively contribute to the destruction of the earth by supporting a fossil fuel economy? Probably not a good idea. Should we get an electric car or a bicycle? Maybe a good idea–and add “walking” to that list. Should we march against oil pipelines? Well, Earthkeepers has, and will continue to do so, and we love to have new friends along. There are a lot of things that can be done and we should all prayerfully consider personal and community plans of action to protect God’s good earth and to witness to and peacefully resist those that may want to harm it.
St. Francis, the patron saint of creation care, was reported to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times, to all people, in all places, and if necessary, use words.” We hope that those observing our lives would conclude that our love for our Creator leads us to a love for his creation and a complete acceptance of our responsibility to care for it.
- Edward Gibbon, Christians and the Fall of Rome, Penguin Books, New York, 1994.
- John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2009.
- N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, as quoted on Surprised By Hope Quotes.
- Tremper Longman III & Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2006, pp 38-63.