April 3, 2019

Christians and the Earth

“And God saw that it was good.” What does He see now?

Lael Caesar

Disheveled definitions of “Christianity” make for a fairly poor presentation on “Christians” and earth care. Proper definitions may improve appearances.

Identity Confusion

Jaroslav Pelikan once stated his agreement with a definition of Christianity by Friedrich Schleiermacher while conceding that many would dispute the meaning of “each of the crucial terms in that definition.”1 Such is Christianity’s identity confusion: agreement on statements with no mutual agreement about what the words—“redemption,” “accomplishment,” “Jesus of Nazareth”—actually mean.

With earth care such disagreement on terms has engendered fierce ideological tugs-of-war: some followers of Jesus of Nazareth believe He created everything in one week not too long ago; others find that claim a mockery of their Christian faith. Some followers are convinced that earth care became their stewardship from humans’ first hour in Eden; others—cross-carrying, Bible-believing, grace-celebrating—repudiate any such notions as heathen constraint upon America’s manifest destiny and a planet that God has twice cursed. Others still care about their environment simply for health’s or decency’s sake. Christians are either in favor of earth care, or against it, or in between.

Identifying Jesus Christ Himself and defining His Christian followers should be simple, given the availability of His personal testimony on the matter. He told His enemies that they studied “the very Scriptures that testify about [Him]” (John 5:39). Learning about Jesus of Nazareth means learning what the Scriptures tell us about Him. Old Testament scriptures testified of Him prophetically; then the New Testament testified of Him contemporaneously.

Their testimony is that Jesus of Nazareth is divine and human, Creator of flawless earth, and creature who came to rescue it and us (John 1:1-3, 14; 8:56-58; Col. 1:16). He is also life’s sustainer and restorer (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:2, 3). As Creator, Jesus’ care for flora and fauna goes beyond just telling stories about being good trees or productive grain fields (Matt. 7:7; 12:33; 13:8, 23). His original statement on the environment was a perfect earth. Yet His followers today debate furiously over whether we should seek its good. Some portion of that quarrelling results from misinformation on the part of people widely expected to know better.

Information and Misinformation

In his DVD Is God Green? Bill Moyers remarks in passing that West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains either developed over a period of millions of years or, if you are a creationist, were made in one day.2 Statements such as this certainly complicate conscientious attempts at conversation. Moyers, a respected intellectual, is a member of the United Church of Christ with a graduate theological degree who has been ordained to pastoral ministry. He has studied Christianity’s deep divisions over environmentalism but seems astonishingly lacking in basic creationist explanations of rock formation.

The fullness of earth’s blessing encompasses its reciprocity with the human.

Pope Benedict XVI has described the earth as the heritage of our very humanity: “Seeing creation as God’s gift to humanity helps us understand our vocation and worth as human beings.”3

Many Evangelicals share this positive view of the earth. Richard Cizik, former vice president for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, speaks of Genesis 2:15 as his best text for the environment. There the Creator puts his first humans in a garden “to cultivate it and keep it.”4 And Tony Campolo, founder and president of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, has his own favorite biblical statement on environmentalism: “God so loved the world” [Greek: kosmos” (John 3:16)], a truth that embraces everything there is—air and animals, beasts and birds, land and sea. Campolo warns that “we must not allow [God’s] great love for us to obliterate the fact that He loves all of His creation.”5

E. Calvin Beisner, founder and national spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation (CA),6 offers a different evangelical perspective, listing three cardinal understandings with regard to our topic: (1) humans have been assigned by God to dominate the natural order; (2) climate change, such as it is, is not human-induced; (3) legislation that favors climate change is economically counterproductive.7 CA Evangelicals not only agree on their skepticism about climate change, but know why these wrongheaded policies are being espoused. James Dobson pronounces that “the net effect is anti-capitalistic and an underlying hatred for America.”8 And Pat Robertson remarks that their aim is “to shut America down” and “put people out of work, leaving us in a long, cold winter.”9 For Robertson, the people Cizik supports advocate for earth care because they hate America, and aim to put people out of work. And Beisner’s position that Hurricane Katrina was God’s will for the people and city of New Orleans10 is one more thrust in the continuing Arminian-Calvinist duel on divine omnipotence, sovereignty, election, and predestination. It shows the difficulty some have of distinguishing between following the Bible’s God and handling local or national politics.

Science and Consensus

Unlike Moyers the journalist, Benedict the pope, Cizik the political scientist, Campolo the sociologist, Beisner the theologian, Dobson the psychologist, or Robertson the evangelist and media mogul, Amy L. Brown is a scientist seeking common ground among Christians on earth care. She is fully aware that those engaged “seem to be pretty well informed and demonstrate reasoned arguments”; yet they arrive at “completely different conclusions.”11

On environmentalism Brown finds that Christian beliefs come first, followed by scientific data that strengthen said beliefs. Thus invoking data seems unhelpful. Nevertheless, Brown imagined a point known as “peak oil,” at which both sides would agree. Peak oil is the speculated point at which global oil production reaches its highest limit—its peak—after which production begins to decrease. Then Beisner surprised her by speaking of “a growing body of evidence that oil comes from within the earth’s mantle and is created there continually and is therefore renewable.”12 His claim illustrates why people on both—or perhaps all—sides of earth care discussion remain widely separated.

One thing Christians accuse each other of in earth care debates is perpetrating injustice toward “the least of these.”13 However strong their common faith in Jesus as Savior from sin, this protest on behalf of the most vulnerable seems to be the only small parcel of common ground they share when it comes to earth care. But a Christian stewardship that goes no further than concern for poor fellow humans makes a mockery of the extravagant management privileges and duties that God gave to his son and daughter, Adam and Eve, at the beginning of earth history.

Original Legacy

At the Bible’s opening God explicitly entrusts to Adam and Eve the personal care of a flawless creation (Gen. 2:7-9, 15). Its conclusion shows God restoring His planet to its original and pristine environment (Rev. 21; 22). It takes no literary or intellectual challenge to recognize the Bible’s unmodified dedication to floral and faunal perfection. Tragic importations into the Christian holy Scriptures of a chaotic counternarrative expounding philosophical naturalism may be the order of the day for few or many erudite souls.

But those imports promptly pervert the Bible’s distinctive contribution to philosophy, ethics, or environmental stewardship. It is hard to decide which position does less justice to scientific fact and Bible teaching between CA’s notion of near infinite supplies of fossil fuel and Moyers’ idea that West Virginia’s Appalachians were created in one day.

On the one hand, the one-two combo of a theory of virtually inexhaustible fossil fuels united to rejection of human responsibility for global warming strains credibility almost everywhere except among people profiting from the oil or coal business. On the other, the biblical account of Genesis 6-8 should go a long way toward disabusing Moyers of his caricature of creationist beliefs. The Bible’s singular contribution to reasonable conversations on environmentalism neither partakes of CA’s fantasies nor of Moyers’ uninformed distortion.

The Bible teaches that humans’ original work was care for, not violation of, their environment. They were “to keep it,” not lose it (Gen. 2:15; 1:26-28). CA’s unbalanced, violence-prone understanding of dominion as God’s gift echoes the societal tragedy of Genesis 6 and irreconcilably opposes divine modeling—dominion by making “everything beautiful in its time” (Eccl. 3:11); by clothing the grass and flowers more beautifully than Solomon clothed himself (Matt. 6:29; Luke 12:27); by caring, in the midst of pervasive natural and moral evil, for the welfare of birds sold five for two farthings (Luke 12:6), not one of which falls to the ground without His knowledge (Matt. 10:29).

God dominates by creating all for His children’s good (Gen. 1:31), then taking the blame for everything going wrong (2 Cor. 5:19) so that those responsible and guilty might be innocent again (Gen. 3:15; John 3:16; Rom. 6:23). God dominates by guaranteeing that He will take full care of whoever is willing to trust themselves to His strong and loving arms (Matt. 6:33; Phil. 4:19).

When righteous judgment demands the destruction of the wicked, as in the global Flood of Genesis 6-8, it is because human violence and immorality have come to exceed all limits of tolerance; it is because a loving God (1 John 4:8, 16) is driven, in a paroxysm of grief (Gen. 6:6), to blot out birds, beasts, and people because of the disgrace that life and living had come to (verse 7). In Sodom, God holds out to the very end, seeking some bare minimum of reason for saving the city, and cannot find any (Gen. 18:20-32; 19:1-29).

Yes, God cares about humans, and is “not wanting anyone to perish” (2 Peter 3:9). But He is no less committed to dressing up “the grass of the field” that may last no more than a day (Matt. 6:30). And He has placed in us a cosmological sense, an instinct for the world where He has placed us; a consciousness that the fullness of our living includes embrace of the earth, and that the fullness of earth’s blessing encompasses its reciprocity with the human: we and the earth should be in love, not at war.

Becoming Like God

Such is the Bible’s testimony from Eden bestowed to Eden restored. In sum, the Christian attitude to God’s green earth should cohere with what the Bible says of the God who made us to be like Him: He, the lover, author, and sustainer of creation’s beauty, who formed nature’s mysteries to declare His glory, has made us to be like Him, formers, sustainers, caring lovers of harmony and beauty (Ps. 8; 19:1-6). His natural wonders are opposed by a malevolent genius who ever strives to turn God’s good works to evil that distorts His children’s thinking about His nature (Gen. 3:1-6; Job 1; 2; Matt. 13:28, 36-39; 1 Peter 5:8; Rev. 12:7-9).

In God’s salvation program He has already done what it takes to ensure restoring people and flower petals across the planet to their delicate first beauty (Isa. 11:6-11; 35; Rom. 8:32; Rev. 21:1-5). Christians’ earth care now is character-building practice for that place and that day.

  1. Quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, “Christianity: An Overview,” in Lindsay Jones, editor in chief, Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005), pp. 1660-1741.
  2. Bill Moyers, Is God Green? Films for the Humanities & Sciences, DVD video (Princeton, NJ: Films Media Group, 2006).
  3. Pope Benedict XVI, “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation,” message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 2010.
  4. From Moyers interview in, Is God Green?
  5. Tony Campolo, How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshiping Nature (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), p. 13.
  6. On CA, see www.cornwallalliance.org/about/.
  7. Moyers interview.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. 10 Ibid.
  11. 11 Amy L. Brown, “Environmental Conflict Among Evangelicals” (paper prepared for Environmental Conflict Resolution seminar led by Saleem H. Ali at University of Vermont, Fall, 2006), p. 20.
  12. In ibid., p. 22.
  13. See Matt. 25:31-46. For CA’s position, see www.cornwallalliance.org/articles/read/the-cornwall-declaration-on-environmental-stewardship/. For a contrasting view, see “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action”: christiansandclimate.org/statement/.

Lael Caesar, associate editor for the Adventist Review, loves God’s green earth, blue sky, and ruby heart.