How Should Christians Think About The Environment?
In the past few weeks, I have had a curious number of people asking questions or wanting to have discussions about Christianity and environmentalism. I thought I would take the time to lay out some thoughts, starting with a survey of the rich but often-neglected biblical background and then trying to say some things about current debates while not pretending to fully resolve them.
A Biblical Survey
Any discussion of the environment in Scripture has to start with creation itself. One of the unique qualities of the Biblical story is the way that it affirms the goodness of this physical world. God makes it with all its characteristic features – oceans and sky, mountains and forests, birds and sea animals and creatures of the land – and over each one of them God declares “good.” (Genesis 1)
Lest we move on from that fact too quickly, we must stress how different it is from the “spiritualized” idea many have of the Christian faith. God’s work in Scripture starts with matter, not abstract concepts or souls. Adam’s name is closely linked to the ground from which he was formed (“Adamah” is Hebrew for ground), and while there is a divine breath that animates him, he and the rest of humanity are fundamentally “of the earth.” The Bible’s story from start to finish (we’ll get back to that second one) is about God’s work to create and then redeem a physical world of matter and bodies, not to whisk souls off into some ethereal realm.
Scripture draws two facts from this initial, good creative act of God. One is that we are to view the physical world as belonging to God. The Bible is replete with statements of God’s ownership over creation. “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1) “The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.” (Psalm 89:11)
The second result of creation is that human beings have a particular role to play in the world – that of stewards. Stewardship is the task of managing and caring for something that belongs to someone else. In one of the often-ignored facets of the Genesis story, Adam’s specific task in the world was to care for and develop God’s creation. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) In Eden, humanity had a job to do, and that job was to cultivate the garden. The command they were given to “fill the earth” meant not simply to physically procreate across it but to spread out and continue working and keeping the ground all across the world.
This stewardship also has a natural corollary after Adam rebels against God. The creation itself is cursed because of human sin. “And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life.’” (Genesis 3:17) Human rebellion causes environmental destruction. If stewardship involves working and caring for the ground, sin will inevitably mean exploiting and destroying it.
Of course, the central thrust of Scripture’s story from this point forward is focused on humanity. However, that does not mean this original mandate isn’t in some sense still in effect. When God enters into a covenant with Noah to not destroy the earth, it is not only human beings who are included but the whole of creation. “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:8b-11)
We get hints of God’s ongoing concern for his world in a variety of ways. For example, take how God commands Israel to care for the land it inherits, which itself is a microcosm of Eden lost (and perhaps Eden eventually restored.) Israel is clearly meant to understand the place of its dwelling as one that belongs to God and over which they are merely stewards: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Leviticus 25:23) Indeed, God at times gives laws that almost personify the land as an agent of moral obligation. Consider the Sabbath commands to give the land rest: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” (Exodus 23:10-11) “But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.” (Leviticus 25:4-5)
Another example of God’s ongoing concern can be seen in the surprising number of moral statements Scripture makes about caring for animals. “If you come across a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.” (Deuteronomy 22:6) “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain [that is, that it might eat the food it seemingly has a right to].” (Deuteronomy 25:4) “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10) In God’s expression of concern to Jonah for Nineveh’s restoration is included not just its human inhabitants but also its many animals. (Jonah 4:11)
Indeed, God specifically limits and grieves the effects of human sin on the environment. Within the rules of warfare He gives to His people is this: “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you?” (Deuteronomy 20:19) What’s more, God mourns the destructive effects of human sin on the rest of creation. “How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the evil of those who dwell in it the beasts and the birds are swept away, because they said, ‘He will not see our latter end.’” (Jeremiah 12:4)
One last note – we shouldn’t ignore the way that Scripture often pictures God’s judgment within history in terms of environmental catastrophe. From the plagues of Egypt to Joel’s locusts to Revelations curses poured out on land and sea, it is common to see ecological ruin as a punishment for human sin. Given what we’ve said, that should hardly be surprising. One of the main ways God judges us in this age is by letting us reap the destructive consequences of our choices. If sin wrecks creation, one of the consequences we should expect is that we will have to suffer in its wreckage.
All of this might leave us scratching our heads, because most modern discussions of God focus exclusively on his concern for human beings. Certainly, humanity is at the center of the biblical story. However, that doesn’t mean creation is inconsequential. In perhaps the greatest explanation of what God is up to is Paul’s discussion in Romans of the ultimate hope of the biblical story. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21) Paul sees creation in this age as “longing” for the “revealing of the sons of God” – that is, restored humanity. Creation has been “subjected to futility,” being consumed rather than stewarded, but this is only a temporary stopover. God’s ultimate aim is to redeem humanity so that, through their redemption, creation itself will be set free from “its bondage to corruption.”
Ultimately, at the end of the story, what Scripture promises is creation restored, a “new heavens and new earth.” (Isaiah 65 & 66, Revelation 21 and 22) Humanity is restored to obedient relationship with God and therefore obedient stewardship of the world, and creation itself is by this work also restored to the “very good-ness” that in this age is lost.
More could be said about the Bible’s account – we aren’t even touching on things like the way God views sin as “polluting” the land or the way His providence is pictured as providing for the natural world and restraining the effects on it of our rebellion. However, even the above shows that environmental concern should certainly be a part of how we think about and discuss Christian faithfulness in this age.
That said, simply noting that environmental concern is biblical is not sufficient. We need to grapple with the specific discussion of our age. I am not equipped to consider all of the partisan policy debates of the present, and as a minister of Christ I don’t think I should even if I was so equipped. That said, there are some ways this narrative significantly challenges both the Right and the Left in our current discourse, both on the surface and in terms of deeper ideas.
How This Challenges the Right
For the right, the basic application of this survey should call into question certain elements of conservative orthodoxy. One is simply that the world matters: some conservative Christians insist on a humanocentric theology and political philosophy which argues that the rest of creation exists merely to serve humankind. Recognizing that both we and the natural world belong to God, that it is intrinsically good and valuable, and that we must give an account of how we use it as stewards should lead us to an understanding that the “People first; pave the planet” mentality that sometimes emerges is simply incompatible with Scripture.
Likewise, the ideological skepticism towards some of environmentalism’s more dire warnings is also flawed. I remember hearing an evangelical pastor dismiss climate change on the bases that “God is in control, and He wouldn’t let that happen.” This is to miss the fact that environmental destruction is a natural effect of sin and that one of the ways God’s judgment in history can manifest is through abandoning us to the ecological consequences of our evils.
On a deeper level, the challenge for the Right comes from the recognition that sin can be systemic and have systemic consequences and that therefore markets are often a system through which it can be manifested. If we (as most Christians have throughout history) see sin as something that affects whole people, corrupting bodies and minds and wills and emotions, then it naturally follows that the structures within which we interact can likewise be corrupted. Capitalism might be a useful tool for harnessing certain elements of human greed and selfishness to productive ends, but we must also recognize that they are still corrosive attitudes which will inevitably harm the rest of creation and that simply arranging that sin into a free market doesn’t remove the potential damage it can cause. Too often, those that support markets economically (myself included) seem to have the notion that they will somehow, magically and without outside intervention, work some alchemy that removes the destructive consequences of human evil.
How This Challenges the Left
The left is likewise challenged on two levels. On the surface, while Christianity would embrace a posture of stewardship toward creation, it would question both the intuition some in the environmental world have that the “best” form of creation is one entirely untamed and untended and the catastrophism that leads others to a posture of alarmism and hopelessness. While ecological collapse may well be a judgment on God for our societal sins, God is gracious and offers real hope both for current healing and for ultimate restoration. What’s more, to believe that our ecological situation is perfectible in this age fails to hope in the impact of Christ’s return and heaven and earth made new, which can breed a sort of utopianism that ultimately justifies tyranny.
On a deeper level, the problem for more progressive responses to environmental issues is that they tend to be statist rather than recognizing the link between such systemic problems and the realities of human sin. Scripture sees destruction of the earth as inextricably linked to all human evils. This includes both the greed and discontented overconsumption the Left is quick to decry and also the idolatry, cheapening of (some) human life, sexual consumerism, and individual autonomy which it enshrines as absolute goods.
Indeed, one of the consistent problems with Christian progressivism is that it rightly points out Biblical concerns (poverty and inequality as well as environmentalism) but then believes it can solve these issues without an agenda of moral and spiritual reform. The state, like the market, is a system that cannot escape the holistic impact of the fall, and to use it to repair sin’s damage while encouraging sinful self-realization is like trying to cut out an infection with a disease-tainted knife.
The Christian Hope and Calling: Restoration, but Responsibility
How should we as Christians, therefore, engage with these debates? Beyond challenging the reigning ideologies, what are some things we can agree that we as Christians should be doing?
1. Be informed about environmental issues and assume that they are probably real. Humanity is in rebellion against God and human institutions are corrupted by sin. In such a world, if Christianity is true, it would be shocking if the earth wasn’t suffering massive damage from our evils. As those tasked with living as God’s new humanity amid the old, we should be working to fight the destruction of sin both in individual lives and on the global stage.
2. Reject anxiety and despair. Essential to all Christian mission is the recognition that, while we are called to labor, God is the one who brings the increase. While we can grow in God-honoring stewardship in this age, all will not be healed until Christ returns and human sin is finally undone. With that as a certain hope, we can avoid the despondency that leaves some environmentally-concerned people unable to act because of the magnitude of the challenge.
3. Be suspicious of solutions that don’t include societal and moral change. Systemic solutions, while they can be useful in addressing some of the symptoms of a broken world, cannot in themselves treat the disease. If we try to change structures without changing hearts, we will not ultimately succeed.
4. Be suspicious of solutions that don’t make moral demands about stewardship. As the other half of the above, if our conception of Christian ethics doesn’t demand some amount of sacrifice in order to care for creation, we probably have not reckoned with the fullness of the Bible’s story. We should be thoughtful and proactive in trying to take steps that care for creation at both a micro and macro level. Which specific steps we take
5. Use both states and markets where they can be helpful, but remain skeptical of their promises. We live in a world where one political party worships the dollar and the other worships the regulator. Both of these can have their place, but both of them can also be idols that distort Christian faithfulness. Wield them as tools, but let God guide their use as the master craftsman.
6. Take it one step at a time. Given all the above, especially for Christians who have never considered this issue, engaging in a healthy way with environmental issues can feel overwhelming. Rest in the knowledge that God is sovereign and good and then try to make one or two changes that embody good stewardship. Once you’ve learned those, you’ll have space to make one or two more.