It’s not easy being green: Christian conscience and Earth Day
Here we are again. It’s Earth Day and, if you’re anything like me, I suspect you wrestle with how to make some sense of the day. Chances are we’re not about to go out on a Greenpeace expedition or going to retrofit our cars to run off used cooking oil. But does the gospel have anything to say to how Christians think about the environment? We see twin pitfalls. On the one hand, we must reject any worldview that idolizes the creation and fails to worship the Creator. On the other hand, we must reject a miniaturized Christianity that implies that King Jesus makes no demand on how we steward his creation.
First, God made us to care deeply about the entire created order. On the sixth day, God finished his work of creation by forming man in His own image. Part of this image-bearing identity was inextricably linked to the first man’s charge to exercise “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen 1:26).
Moses also points out that prior to man the created order was incomplete because “there was no man to work the ground” (Gen 2:5). After forming Adam, God then placed him in the garden “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Before sin ever entered the world, God made humanity to exercise care for the earth, to cultivate it and care for it.
While secularized forms of environmentalism seem to suggest otherwise, the Christian story understands that it’s not presence of human beings per se that are the problem with the created order, as if to suggest that everything else would be better off without us. Instead, Scripture is quite clear. Humankind was created and placed in the Garden in large part to care for and to steward the creation. Presumably, Adam and Eve’s righteous labor would have yielded fruitfulness and blessing for flora and fauna alike!
In part, that is why we experience such joy at seeing the earth give up its fruits.
We can’t all be skilled gardeners, but we experience something of the joy of our first parents when we find pleasure in cultivating the earth, when we delight in seeing new crops sprout up and give of their fruit for our own provision. God made us that way. And it is good and right for us to care for the earth and exercise a godly dominion over it. We don’t abuse it, but neither do we worship it. Instead, the Christian worldview liberates us to delight in and care for nature, but also to recognize that it is all a gift and a signal, pointing us to the Creator himself.
Second, the entire created order has been deeply affected by the fall. This becomes evident immediately after Adam and Eve’s sin. In fact, God pronounces a curse that involves the earth. The ground itself is now cursed because of that primal sin such that it will now be cultivated with difficulty, even bringing forth “thorns and thistles” (Gen 3:18).
The apostle Paul understood the pervasiveness of sin, extending its devastating reach even into the created order. He even described it as a “groaning together” because of its “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21-22). So we shouldn’t be surprised to conclude that the earth has been profoundly affected — even at the subatomic level! — by the fall. Our theology of sin and the fall must be appropriately large enough (and biblical) to make sense of what we observe. Not one molecule has escaped the lethal and corrupting effects of the fall. And if that’s the case, then we have a renewed ancient way of interpreting the ecological destruction, degradation, and disaster we see around us.
We can be tempted to so compartmentalize our human existence that we fail to recognize just how far-reaching and devastating sin has been in the cosmos. That first sin in the garden had ramifications for everything in the creation. In other words, the problem of ecological degradation is far worse than we realize. And the secular worldview falls short of understanding just how bad things really are. Water and air contaminants, unsustainable farming practices, and strip mining certainly do have damaging effects. But they’re just symptomatic of a more insidious and devastating reality — sin has damaged and corrupted everything. And if the problem is that much more profound, the solution will have to be much more than government policies, changed behaviors or new technologies. None of those can remedy the core problem.
Third, in the “already not yet” Christians should promote a biblical vision for caring for the created order.
So how does the gospel animate our care for creation? Or does it at all? Clearly it must. We are not materialists, concluding that all the “stuff” around us is all there is and is just to be used as we see best. Christians recognize that this world has been fashioned by God himself and that it exists to bring glory to him. We confess with the Church throughout the ages that the incarnate God-man, the second Adam, walked on this earth, lived a perfect life, and died a substitutionary death to provide atonement for all who would believe. And we recognize that Jesus Christ’s saving work is about the redemption of a blood-bought people for God’s own possession. But that has implications not just for spiritual realities. Instead, the gospel changes everything.
Perhaps one of the closest parallels is how we think about money. The world tells us that if you have it, you can spend it (never mind the debt crisis). Even in the church, this can seep into the way we think about our finances. “I’ve earned it and saved it, so it’s mine to spend as I wish,” we conclude. But the Christian worldview recognizes that we are merely stewards of our financial resources, that they have been entrusted to us by God to use for his glory. So just because it’s in our bank account doesn’t mean we aren’t called to steward it.
In similar fashion, Christians must be careful of failing to see their ongoing responsibility as stewards of the natural resources God has entrusted to us. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s best for us to slash it, burn it, drill it or mine it. Instead, we start from the foundational question: what would glorify the Creator? Christians can and will disagree on a whole host of policy questions in this area, but we should all agree that our starting point must be God-centered.
Fourth, Jesus will one day consummate his Kingdom and the entire cosmos will be renewed.
The gospel frees us from worshiping the creation and gives us a renewed vision for our role as God’s image bearers who exercise loving dominion. But it also propels our vision forward. Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death and is indeed sitting at the right hand of the Father as king over the cosmos. But we look around us and see a world that still seems very much under the curse of Genesis 3.
But throughout the Bible, God continually promised a coming day when he would create a “new heavens and a new earth.” Isaiah prophesied of this long ago, declaring the word of the Lord and making clear that God’s salvific purposes for his people would also be linked to a new created order, one that would not just be a recovery of Eden, but would even surpass that original perfection (Isa 65:17-25).
The New Testament continues this expectation. The Apostle Peter wrote that this new heavens and new earth will be one “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 2:13). The vision is perhaps at its clearest in John’s Revelation. He now saw what had been prophesied by Isaiah: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1). And what is distinctive about this new order? God makes his full and perfect dwelling among his people. His presence is now full and comprehensive, driving away suffering and death, grief and pain, “for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
Just like Kermit said, it’s not easy being green. But the gospel reminds us that the path of Christian discipleship never is. Perhaps Earth Day can be a helpful day for us as followers of Christ to give thanks for God’s power, mercy, and skill as the Creator. Perhaps it can prompt us to self-evaluation to explore ways in which we have been shaped more by the culture than the gospel. And perhaps most significantly, it can prompt us to praise God for his work of redemption in Jesus Christ.
Matthew J. Hall is vice president of academic services at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.