The following question was submitted through Ask Footsteps, “With the increasing focus on the environment and climate change, what should the Christian response be and how should we view these issues in the light of the Bible? Is it true?”
Top of the Agenda
Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, carbon, plastic, meat eating, Amazon forest fires, the list could go on – it’s clear that the environment and climate change are once again at the top of the agenda. So, asking ‘what should the Christian response be?‘ is important. We should be able to engage with society on these topics and do so from a Christian viewpoint.
A caveat. There are aspects of this topic on which Christians will disagree. In this post, we try to give Biblical principles and apply these to what we see around us in a balanced way. You may disagree with some of our conclusions, but if it provides food for thought and helps you think through these things yourself, we’ll count that a success!
Finally, by way of introduction, it’s a big topic and this is a pretty long article but stick with it.
Is Climate Change Really Happening?
I will begin with the second part of the question, is it true? Which I take to be asking whether climate change is a real phenomenon or not. If you submitted the question and this is not what you meant, please do clarify in the comments below or get in touch again.
By climate change we mean changing weather and climate patterns, melting ice caps etc, which is linked in the media and in classrooms to increasing amounts of greenhouse gas (e.g. CO2) emissions produced though human activity since the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.
The first thing to say is that we can’t look in the Bible and find a proof text for climate change (one way or the other). We can only try to interpret the evidence around us, which is where things get complicated.
There does appear to have been a steady increase in mean global temperatures, coinciding with increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over this period. However, a correlation in these trends does not prove that one has caused the other, and there are other possible explanations (such as fluctuations in solar activities) which could have a similar warming effect on the earth. This has caused a lot of controversy over the last decade, however the bottom line is that whilst we cannot state conclusively that the changes we observe in the earth’s climate are primarily a result of human activity, this does seem increasingly likely.
Whilst this may appear to be dodging the question in terms of climate change, what we can definitively say is that human beings are harming the earth in terms of pollution (such as plastic in the ocean), loss of habitat, wasteful use of resources, extinction of species etc.
How does the Christian worldview see all this?
Our aim is to explore what the Bible teaches about how mankind – you and I – should interact with the natural environment and use its resources. Do we have responsibilities toward the planet God created for us to inhabit, or can we treat it as we like?
A key concept to understand is that of stewardship and whilst the word is not found in the Bible, the teaching is.
To begin with we’ll go back to Genesis and the sixth day of creation. ‘And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:26)
God gave Adam and Eve dominion – responsibility, or rule – over the earth and all it contained. Since Adam was the first man created, and all people are descendants of Adam and Eve, we too have the privilege of dominion over God’s creation. God also reiterated this to Noah after the flood (Genesis 9:2).
It doesn’t stop there though. Right from the beginning, even before the fall, God ‘took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.’ (Genesis 2:15) Adam was commanded to ‘dress’ the garden. God gave him a major responsibility – to take care of the garden with the animals and plants it contained. As with the privilege of dominion, we too have inherited the responsibility for taking care of the earth. Before the fall this work would have been easy and enjoyable. Adam would have been happy serving God, and the garden would have been sustainable in a perfect state forever. The fall brought corruption, pain, hardship and death into the natural world (thorns, thistles, hard work etc., see Genesis 3:17-19). The task of caring for the earth became difficult and less enjoyable. What the fall did not do however, was to remove the gift of dominion or the responsibility of stewardship.
A steward is someone who looks after something for someone else. We are often told that we have a responsibility to look after the world for our children and grandchildren. It’s a bit like the famous advert for Patek Philippe watches:
You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.
There is truth in this, but it is not the fundamental point. As Paul tells us, quoting the Psalms ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof’. The earth and everything in it belongs to God. We have been given the task of caring for it; for future generations, but above all for God. As we will see, God is the ultimate sustaining power behind all life, but he also expects us to take seriously the task of stewarding the world he has given us.
Practicalities – Finding a Balance
What does stewardship mean in practice? As we hear the media reports about climate change, the need to be carbon neutral and the damage plastics are doing in the environment, how should we respond? Should we shrug our shoulders and say ‘it doesn’t matter, God is in control, there’s nothing we can do’? Or should we be out on the streets (striking from school maybe), joining the protesters, causing disruption and advocating drastic measures to save the planet?
In reality, both these responses are at opposite extremes and neither aligns with the biblical principle of stewardship. Yes, we are to care for creation, but we must also acknowledge that the earth’s resources have been created by God for our good and given to us to make use of in a responsible manner.
There is a middle ground to be found. This is where we will all come to different conclusions and draw our lines in different places. However, think about the following:
- Using Resources – The earth is rich in natural resources (such as oil and gas) and there is nothing wrong with using them. We have also been given the intellectual and practical ability as a species to invent ways of processing them and turning them to other useful things (e.g. oil into plastics). However, we are so often wasteful, we use resources with little regard for the impact today or on future generations. This is where we go wrong. Our lifestyle has much to answer for here, with luxuries treated as necessities. We need to think hard about how we responsibly use the resources God has given us.
- Caring for the Environment – God created a beautiful and varied world containing an astonishing array of plants and animals. We should do our best to preserve this and try to make sure our individual actions have as little negative impact on the environment as possible. A couple of examples (you can think of many more). We should never drop litter and should take the problem of plastic pollution seriously. We should support efforts to preserve habitats and protect wildlife.
The key to all of this is being balanced and reasonable. As an example, to stop eating meat entirely would be completely unreasonable but eating a bit less would be no bad thing! God has given us animals for food (Genesis 9:3), but clearly warns against greed and gluttony (Proverbs 23:20-21).
Thinking particularly about recent protests, we must be clear that there is no biblical mandate for disobeying the rule of law (unless it directly contradicts God’s specific commandments) or causing damage and disruption to other people and their property. We also need to be aware that some ‘green’ organisations and initiatives may come with other less desirable policies or have other less visible agendas.
When I was a school it was the habit of some Christians to wear ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ wristbands. The aim was to remind them to be Christ-like in everything. Whether or not the wristbands helped, the principle is spot on. Obviously, Jesus didn’t teach explicitly about climate change or environmentalism. Interestingly though, if we consider how Jesus lived his life – selflessly and simply – and sought to copy him as best we can, we might find that we started becoming better stewards of creation.
Our lifestyle is very materialistic and it’s very true that the more you have the more you want. We have become used to comfortable lives and very focused on preserving this. Think about it. It’s not wrong to have a car, but could we walk or cycle more often rather than driving because it’s easier? It’s not wrong to get a coffee, but do we really need to use another single-use cup just because it’s convenient? It’s not wrong to have a mobile phone, but do we really need the latest handset when our current one is doing just fine? We’re also very good at justifying to ourselves the way we go about things and can easily get into bad habits and have wrong attitudes. In contrast, if we become more Christ-like in our lifestyles and more focused on serving God rather than ourselves, we might find that our negative impact on the world reduces automatically as our life becomes simpler and more selfless.
Who (What) do we worship?
Ultimately, whatever steps we do or do not take in our stewardship of God’s creation, we must remember that we worship the Creator, not the creation. Much of modern environmentalism springs from a new age type view that turns the earth into a god. ‘Mother Nature’ has dominion over us rather than the other way around. This is completely unbiblical.
God is in control and sustains his creation for his purposes – ultimately for his glory in judgement and redemption. The cataclysmic apocalypse that environmental campaigners would have us believe we are heading towards if we don’t act now may be an exaggeration. It may not be. What we do know, is that if that apocalypse does come, it will be God’s will and part of his plan. We also have his promise that ‘while the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease’ (Genesis 8:22). This is a comfort but does not give us an excuse to be blasé – harvests may not be good, cold and heat may be more extreme. It does not diminish our God-given responsibility to care for the world around us. If we fail to do this, we should expect that life on earth will become more difficult as a consequence. We will undoubtedly lose more of the benefits and wonders which currently remain of this ‘very good’ creation, as habitats are destroyed, species become extinct, natural resources consumed and the earth is damaged.
A New Heaven and a New Earth
Much more could be written on this topic, but for a final thought, we’ll go off on a very important tangent.
Always keep in mind that one day the ‘heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up’ (2 Peter 3:10) and will be replaced by a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1). As Peter goes on to say, ‘Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness’ (2 Peter 3:11). If we hope to enjoy the new creation, we must honour and serve God in this present creation and, when that day of judgement comes, above all be found trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour.[A00112 – 02/09/2019]