Humanity will find some spirit to guide its environmental concerns. Will it be Christian?

In March 1990, in Seoul, South Korea, I attended an international conference on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation sponsored by the World Council of Churches. I heard many persuasive claims about the way Christians had distorted humanity’s mandate to have dominion over the Earth—the consequence of these distortions being a ravaged creation. I became concerned, however, when I noticed that no one had mentioned the fact that human beings have an exalted status within creation, in that they alone are created in the image of God.

So I proposed a one-sentence addition to the document we were debating. From the floor, I asked that we add a sentence affirming that, as we confess these misunderstandings, we nonetheless “accept the biblical teaching that people alone have been created in the image of God.”

The drafting committee promptly accepted the addition but dropped the word alone. I pointed out that this undercut the basic point. Are trees and toads also created in God’s image? When the drafting committee remained adamant, I called for a vote. And the motion lost! At that moment, a majority of attendees at this important convocation were unwilling to say what historical, biblical theology has always affirmed: that human beings alone are created in the image of God.

As my experience illustrates, in today’s environmental movement there is a lot of theological confusion. Actress Shirley MacLaine says we must declare that we are all gods. Disciplined but unchastened Catholic theologian Matthew Fox says we should turn from a theology centered on sin and redemption and develop a creation spirituality, with nature as our primary revelation and sin a distant memory. Australian scientist Peter Singer says any claim that persons have a status different from monkeys and moles is “speciesism.” Several decades ago historian Lynn White argued that it is precisely the Christian view of persons and nature that created the whole ecological mess. Meanwhile, many evangelicals come close to celebrating the demise of the Earth, enthusiastically citing the decay as proof that the return of Christ is very near.

These and other factors will tempt evangelicals to ignore or denounce environmental concerns. But that would be a tragic mistake—for at least three reasons. First, because the danger is massive and urgent. Second, because there are evangelistic opportunities that arise out of environmental concern. And third, because if we do not offer biblical foundations for environmental action, we will have only ourselves to blame if environmental activists turn to other, finally inadequate, world-views and religions. With wisdom and a renewed appreciation of the wholeness of God’s plan for redemption, we can lead the way forward in the healing of our Earth.

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Why be involved

An urgent problem. That we are in trouble is increasingly clear. Gaping holes in the ozone layer, polluted rivers, expanding deserts, denuded mountainsides, air-poisoned cities, and spiraling carbon emissions producing global warming—all sound the warning. In the last 40 years, we have lost one-fifth of our topsoil and one-third of our rain forests. Leading scientists are so frightened that even prominent secularists like Carl Sagan have issued an urgent plea to the religious community to help find solutions to impending ecological disaster.

Evangelistic opportunities. The very urgency of the problem has created tremendous evangelistic opportunities. As one reads the environmental literature, the deep yearning for religious meaning becomes clear. Many environmentalists have rejected the materialistic “scientism” that drives our technoculture. They are right in thinking that secular naturalism, which has been so influential in the last 200 years, cannot solve environmental problems. The tragedy is that when these folks yearn for religious solutions, they assume that historic Christianity has nothing to offer. So they turn to goddess worship, nature spirituality, Eastern monism, and New Age nonsense.

What an opportunity—if we have the courage, intellectual vigor, and faith. Instead of rejecting environmentalism lest our theology become contaminated, we must stride boldly into the mainstream of the green movement, showing how biblical faith offers a better foundation for environmental engagement. We need to imitate Paul’s bold strategy in the face of the Athenians’ religious confusion and spiritual groping. Paul praised their religious yearning and told them about the God for whom they did not have a name (Acts 17). If we do the same, naming God in the midst of the massive contemporary longing for religious foundations, we may be surprised at the evangelistic results.

Christian leadership. Third, evangelicals must become environmentalists to make sure that a biblical rather than a monist world-view shapes what will undoubtedly be one of the most central global problems of our lifetime. Make no mistake: Modern folk will find some spiritual foundations to guide and shape their environmental concerns. If it is not biblical faith, then it will be something far less adequate.

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There is a spiritual battle going on. Satan would dearly love to persuade modern folk that the best way to solve our environmental crisis is to jettison historic Christianity. The truth, of course, is exactly the reverse. The best foundation for saving the creation is by worshiping and obeying the Creator revealed in Jesus Christ.

Called to garden

The only way to make sure that the biblical world-view plays a central role in shaping key environmental decisions is for large numbers of biblical Christians to join enthusiastically in the environmental movement. As we pray, teach, and act, five biblical principles will be especially important.

First, whereas a one-sided view of either God’s transcendence or immanence compounds our problems, a biblical combination of both points the way through our dilemmas. If we focus only on God’s immanence (his presence in the world), we land in pantheism where everything is divine and good as it is. If we talk only about God’s transcendence (his radical separateness from creation), we may end up seeing nature as a mere tool to be used at human whim.

The biblical God is both immanent and transcendent. He is not a cosmic watchmaker who wound up the global clock and then let it run on its own. God continues to work in the creation. In Job we read that God gives orders to the morning (38:12), that the eagle soars at God’s command (39:27), and that God provides food for the ravens when their young cry out in hunger (38:41). The Creator, however, is also radically distinct from the creation. Creation is finite, limited, dependent; the Creator is infinite, unlimited, self-sufficient.

Second, we should gratefully learn all we can from the book of nature without in any way abandoning biblical revelation. When Matthew Fox tells us that we can get most or all the revelation we need from creation, we will firmly reply that the biblical revelation of redemption from sin through Jesus Christ is as true and essential as ever in our environmental age.

Third, human beings are both interdependent with the rest of creation and unique within it, because we alone have been created in the divine image and given stewardship over the Earth. Christians have at times forgotten our interdependence with the rest of creation. Our daily existence depends on water, sun, and air. Everything is interrelated in the global ecosystem. The emissions from our cars contribute to the destruction of trees—trees that convert the carbon dioxide we exhale into the oxygen we need to survive. Christians today must recover an appreciation of our dependence on the trees and flowers, the streams and forests. Unless we do, we shall surely perish.

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But the Bible insists on two other things about humanity: Human beings alone are created in the image of God, and we alone have been given a special “dominion” or stewardship. It is a biblical truth, not speciesism, to say that only human beings—and not trees and animals—are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). This truth is the foundation of our God-given mandate to have dominion over the nonhuman creation (Gen. 1:28; Psalm 8).

Tragically—and arrogantly—we have distorted dominion into domination. Lynn White was correct in placing some blame for environmental decay on Christianity. But it is a misunderstanding of the Bible, not God’s Word itself, that is at fault here.

Genesis 2:15 says the Lord put us in the garden “to work it and take care of it” (NIV). The word abad, translated “work,” means “to serve.” The related noun actually means “slave” or “servant.” The word shamar, translated “take care of,” suggests watchful care and preservation of the Earth. We are to serve and watch lovingly over God’s good garden, not rape it.

The Old Testament offers explicit commands designed to prevent exploitation of the Earth. Every seventh year, for instance, the Israelites’ land was to lie fallow because “the land is to have a year of rest” (Lev. 25:4). Failure to provide this sabbatical for the land was one reason for the Babylonian captivity (Lev. 26:34, 42–43). “I will remember the land,” Yahweh declared.

If we have no different status from that of mammals and plants, we cannot eat them for food or use them to build civilizations. We do not need to apologize to brother carrot when we have lunch. We are free to use the resources of the Earth for our own purposes. Created in the divine image, we alone have been placed in charge of the Earth. At the same time, our dominion must be the gentle care of a loving gardener, not the callous exploitation of a self-centered lord. So we should not wipe out species or waste the nonhuman creation. Only a careful, stewardly use of plants and animals by human beings is legitimate.

Clothing the lilies

Fourth, a God-centered, rather than a human-centered, world-view respects the independent worth of the nonhuman creation. Christians have too easily and too often fallen into the trap of supposing that the nonhuman creation has worth only as it serves human purposes. This, however, is not a biblical perspective.

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Genesis 1 makes clear that all creation is good—good, according to the story, even before our first ancestors arrived on the scene. Colossians 1:16 reveals that all things are created for Christ. And according to Job 39:1–2, God watches over the doe in the mountains, counting the months of her pregnancy and watching over her when she gives birth! The first purpose of the nonhuman creation, then, is to glorify God, not to serve us.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:1–4).

It is important to note that God has a covenant, not only with persons but also with the nonhuman creation. After the flood, God made a covenant with the animals as well as with Noah: “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” (Gen. 9:9–10).

Jesus recognized God’s covenant with the whole of creation when he noted how God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies (Matt. 6:26–30). The nonhuman creation has its own worth and dignity apart from its service to humanity.

Insisting on the independent dignity of the nonhuman creation does not mean that we ignore the biblical teaching that it has been given to us human beings for our stewardship and use (Gen. 1:28–30; Ps. 8:6–8). Always, however, our use of the nonhuman creation must be a thoughtful stewardship that honors the creation’s dignity and worth in the eyes of the Creator.

The Earth’s hope

Finally, God’s cosmic plan of redemption includes the nonhuman creation. This fact provides a crucial foundation for building a Christian theology for an environmental age. The biblical hope that the whole created order, including the material world of bodies and rivers and trees, will be part of the heavenly kingdom confirms that the created order is good and important.

The Bible’s affirmation of the material world can be seen most clearly in Christ himself: Not only did the Creator enter his creation by becoming flesh and blood to redeem us from our sin, but the God-man was resurrected bodily from the tomb. The goodness of the created order is also revealed in how the Bible describes the coming kingdom: the marriage supper of the Lamb, where we will feast on bread, wine, and all the glorious fruit of the earth.

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Unlike Hindu monists who think the created order is an illusion to escape, biblical people know that the creation is in itself so good that God is going to purge it of the evil introduced by the Fall and restore it to wholeness. Romans 8:19–23 tells us that at Christ’s return, when we experience the resurrection of the body, then the groaning creation will be transformed: “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (NIV).

In Colossians 1:15–20 we read that God intends to reconcile all things, “whether things on earth or things in heaven,” through Jesus Christ. That does not mean that everyone will be saved; rather, it means that Christ’s salvation will finally extend to all of creation. The Fall’s corruption of every part of creation will be corrected.

The prophets often spoke of the impact of human sin on nature (Gen. 3:17–18; Isa. 24:4–6; Hosea 4:3). But they also foresaw that in the messianic time nature would share in salvation: “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air” (Hos. 2:16–23, NIV; see also Isa. 55:12–13). In the coming kingdom, I hope to go sailing on an unpolluted Delaware river.

The Christian hope for Christ’s return must be joined with our doctrine of creation. Knowing that we are summoned by the Creator to be wise gardeners caring for God’s good Earth, knowing the hope that someday the Earth will be restored, Christians should be vigorous participants in the environmental movement. Our motives are many. We must preempt world-views that would undermine both Christian faith and a lasting environmental solution. We will discover, perhaps to our surprise, that environmental engagement grounded in biblical truth will attract many spiritually lost contemporaries to our Lord. Also, we may be able to save our grandchildren (should the world still exist 40 years from now) from ecological disaster. Most important, we will honor the Creator of this gorgeous and astonishingly intricate cosmos.

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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