How Much Should Christians Care about the Environment?

This Is Our Father’s World

God is committed to the earth and has given humans the responsibility to care for it. This biblical truth is foundational from the opening chapter of the Bible. But what does this look like and how do we express it? Our relationship with the environment is an issue of growing concern, especially among the young, and a Christian voice, informed more by theology than by politics and secular ideologies, needs to be heard. Until we have a clearly articulated theology of the earth, our confusions will reverberate within our siloed echo chambers, and the wider world will not hear that we have something of great relevance and importance to say.

Traps abound as we seek to articulate our biblical commitments. We do not want to end up worshipping the environment and falling into pantheism. We do not want to say that only spiritual realities matter and fall into dualism. We do not want to view the earth as transient and of fleeting importance—the Bible talks of its renewal. We do not want to be pragmatic and self-serving with the world’s resources. Like everyone else, we want to protect the planet for our grandchildren, but even this is not our primary motivation. As Christians, we recognize that the world was created neither for us nor for our grandchildren—it was created to bring glory to its creator. Anything less is idolatry. We are confused. We affirm that this world is our home for which we were created. We appreciate its beauty and utility, yet we also see unfathomable misery and pain. We are not home yet. We live with a now/not yet tension as we await the renewal of all things.

Not Home Yet

Ian K. Smith

Understanding God’s plan to renew the earth connects what Christians learn on Sunday mornings with the rest of the week—shaping their mission as they discover purpose in all their daily work here on earth.

The Bible affirms the redemption of all that is under the curse of the effects of sin. This includes the redemption of individual humans, but it goes beyond us. Just as Adam, the firstborn of creation, brought enslavement to all of creation through his fall into sin, so too the final Adam, the firstborn from among the dead, brings liberation and reconciliation to the breadth of creation, whether on earth or in heaven (Col. 1:18–20). God’s scope for redemption is cosmic.

Sin’s Impact

We need to be careful here. The impact of sin on the natural order is different from that on humans. Trees are marred by the fall. They succumb to diseases and to deforestation, and their days are finite. But they are not culpable for rebellion against their creator. There is a significant difference between the redemption of trees and of humans. There is no call for the trees to repent and believe in the gospel. Yet their liberation from the curse is part of God’s plan, and to a degree, part of our redemption. Bodies need the environment to survive. It’s true now and it will be true when we have received our resurrected bodies. It’s all integrated. God declares all of creation to be very good (Gen. 1:31), including trees. The return of Jesus will usher in a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1), which means the renewal of the cosmos (not its replacement), and this includes trees. I for one hope there will be fruit at the marriage supper of the lamb. We need to get on board with this and to live in the light of what is coming.

Christian cries for ecological awareness need to be informed by theological convictions that are firmly grounded in the Bible, which has much to say on the issue. Land is an important character in the Bible. It nourishes (Lev. 26:4), devours its inhabitants (Num. 13:32), and mourns (Jer. 23:10). It can be remembered (Lev. 26:42), abandoned (Lev. 26:43), defiled (Lev. 18:25, 27; Deut. 21:23), cleansed (Deut. 32:43), subdued (Josh. 18:10), cursed (Deut. 29:27; Jer. 44:22) and polluted (Jer. 3:1). It groans, awaiting its renewal (Rom. 8:22).

If we are Christians, Jesus’s story is our story. We have union with him in his work of redemption and renewal.

In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with his people is within the context of a promised land. Adam and Eve are given a garden, a land, where they are to exercise dominion over all that God has made (Gen. 1:28). They are warned against disobedience, for it is not their garden, they are but stewards of it. Disobedience will result in expulsion from the garden (Gen. 3:24). As the Old Testament continues, the Promised Land of Israel is likened to the Garden of Eden (Ezek. 36:35; Joel 2:3), and as in Eden, disobedience continues. In response to this, God chooses one man, Abram, that his descendants might be a corporate Adam. Abram’s descendants are given the promise of a land (Gen. 12:1–3). In the same way that Eden was a microcosm of God’s blessings to the whole earth, so too will be the case for Israel. They will be God’s people in God’s place from which blessings will flow to the whole earth. If they are obedient to God, he will make them a nation of priests through whom blessings will flow to the whole earth (Ex. 19:5–6). The requirement for Israel is the same as it was in Eden: obedience. Blessing in the land (and from the land) is contingent on the stewards of the land being obedient to the owner of land.

The story of Israel, however, is a story of disobedience, that results in expulsion from the land (e.g. Deut. 4:25–27; Lev. 18:24–30; 20:22). It is the story of Adam and the garden revisited which finds a climax in the exile to Babylon where the people of God lay down and wept for Zion (Ps. 137:1–4). Expulsion was not the cause of this weeping; disobedience was. The conditions of the covenant are clear. Obedience.

As the pages of the Old Testament come to a close, the question resounds, Can an obedient remnant be found that God’s people might find blessing in God’s land and through this be a blessing to all the earth?

As the New Testament opens, we meet an enigmatic figure whose name is John. He stands in the prophetic tradition of the denunciation of Israel for its disobedience. His language is dramatic. He declares judgment upon Israel as a baptism of fire (Matt. 3:11). The axe is poised at the root of the tree (Matt. 3:10). But this judgment is not without hope, for within the narrative we finally meet the perfectly faithful remnant of Israel: Jesus Christ. As the story unfolds, we see that Jesus’s obedience leads to a substitutionary atonement that brings satisfaction for the sins of Israel’s disobedience. He takes the curse of the fall upon himself. In so doing, Israel is reborn in the resurrection. No longer does this new Israel have geographical limitations. God is true to his word, and obedience results in blessings flowing to the nations. The idea of a Holy Land is replaced by a Holy Earth. God sends the gift of his Spirit who fills the earth, starting from Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). The effects of the curse of the fall are reversed. The hope of the renewal of all things (yes, even the trees) is grounded in the obedience of this faithful Israelite. We’re not home yet, but our future is assured as we await the new heavens and new earth (Isa. 65:17 cf. Rev. 21:1).

Redemption and Renewal

If we are Christians, Jesus’s story is our story. We have union with him in his work of redemption and renewal. It is not our job to redeem creation. That is beyond our competence, whether through legislation or activism or even in writing this article. The world already has a messiah. But it is our responsibility to live in the light of what Jesus has done and to recognize God’s commitment to the earth.

We need great wisdom when we think about a theology of the land. We are not pantheists or pragmatists. We remember that “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1). God is committed to the earth. This is not surprising for not only did he create its beauty, but he has also redeemed its ugliness. He continues to entrust us, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, with the responsibility of being stewards of that which does not belong to us. The future hope of the heavens and the earth is assured, and we await the final consummation. But in the meantime, as those around us are also very concerned about the future of the planet upon which we live, we have a message to declare. Our story does not end in annihilation and destruction but in restoration grounded in resurrection. We are singing from a different song sheet, not in a minor key, but in a triumphant key that points with certain hope to the one who is both the creator and the redeemer of all.

Ian K. Smith is the author of Not Home Yet: How the Renewal of the Earth Fits into God's Plan for the World.

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