Making the case for Christian environmentalism

  • Question 163 from Elizabeth, Canada

    I recently went on vacation to the U.S. and was just blown away by the “Christian” right wing movement that seems to be rampant. I had no problem using my dusty memories from bible college to defend my “socialist” ideas of health care, but drew a blank when it came to being eco-friendly. Somehow the Genesis passage about subduing the earth became the rallying cry for consumption, the earth was made for us to use (and apparently abuse.) I know we are to be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us and I believe the environment is a gift. How is a “pinko liberal communist tree hugger” to respond?

    The following article was written by guest theologian, Abi.

    This is an interesting question, especially in the light of lots of international talk about carbon footprints, zero gas emissions and reaching Kyoto protocol targets! Theologically, the issue of ecology, climate change and the environment can be a confusing one, and with so many approaches it is difficult to know how respond. Therefore, in order to answer your question, it seems best to first look at the creation narrative with which the Bible begins, especially as it is being used to justify environmentally damaging activity.

    In Genesis chapter 1, verse 18, God commands Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” However, the English word ‘subdue’ doesn’t really do justice to the meaning of the God’s command. By definition, ‘subdue’ has negative connotations. The Oxford Dictionary states the word to mean “Conquer and bring into subjection with military force. Overcome or overpower with physical strength or violence.”[1]

    For some then, to ‘subdue’ the earth means to bring under control by forceful dominance, intimidation and ultimately, consumption and abuse. Almost as if creation itself is rebellious and unruly and needs humanity to take it under control and submission.

    However, even before humankind comes into existence on day 6 of the account, the rest of the creation has already been described as ‘good’. [2] Creation then, isn’t a bad thing that is defiant and disobedient but has an intrinsic value. The ‘use and abuse’ philosophy of ecology doesn’t seem to fit in with how God defines what He has made.

    The commands to ‘rule’ and ‘subdue’ come before the fall of man in Genesis chapter 3. If the earth was perfect before the fall, then the outworking of these commands will also be perfect. Therefore, the verbs to rule and to subdue cannot have negative connotations in the context of the creation story. As man was created “in the image of God” [3], humanity’s ‘rule’ over creation should mirror God’s rule over all things: loving, patient, leading, caring and compassionate.

    Additionally, although humans were made in the image of God, putting the human race above and of more value than the rest of creation [4], the Bible states multiple times that creation in its entirety, humanity included, belongs to and is ruled by God.[5] As it belongs to God, it is of immeasurable value.

    It therefore follows that humans are not the owners of creation; rather, it has been entrusted into their care. Psalm chapter 115 verse 16 says that “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the Earth has given to man.” The world has been gifted to humans, to make use of and enjoy but not to abuse and destroy.

    Another common view in fundamentalist theology is that the earth is in a state of increasing decline until the point where Jesus returns. Therefore, destroying the environment, or leaving it to be destroyed by others, essentially speeds Jesus’ coming.

    This viewpoint is often held by Christians with a dispensational premillennialist view of the end times (for more on this viewpoint, see this previous article on freelance theology).This view would see ecological collapse and destruction such as famines, droughts, floods and pestilence to be signs of the forthcoming apocalypse.[6]

    Although this is not the place to get into a discussion about the views about the end times, a response would be to reiterate that creation is of intrinsic value, and that God has entrusted humanity with the care of His creation. Is speeding the fate of the world through destructive action really the way Christians should act? If the apocalyptic destruction of Earth is due to evil and sin, maybe Christians should do all they can to oppose it? To do otherwise is to surrender to evil.

    In conclusion, Christisn theology states that it is humanity’s privilege as the pinnacle of God’s creation to care for and rule lovingly over the rest of the Earth. This should inspire Christians to recognise the value that God has given creation and act accordingly.

    Related articles
    Millennial Fever
    Global Warning

    Notes and references
    [1] ‘Subdue’ in Oxford Shorter Dictionary (5th Edition): Volume 2, Oxford University Press, 2003.
    [2] Genesis chapter 1 verse 10, 12, 18, 21, 25.
    [3] Genesis chapter 1 verse 26.
    [4] For example: Matthew chapter 6 verse 26; Matthew chapter 10 verse 31; Matthew chapter 12 verse 12; Luke chapter 1 verse 27; Luke chapter 2 verse 4.
    [5] Psalms chapter 24 verse 1,Psalms chapter 104 verse 24, Deuteronomy chapter 10 verse 14, Job chapter 41 verse 11, 1 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 26.
    [6] See for instance Matthew chapter 24 verse 7.

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