The Environment and The Christian: Part 1

I sat in the back row of the auditorium where we congregated daily for chapel. Half way through service my eyes jolted from my book and I glared at the stage where the speaker stood. I must have misheard him. “Jesus wouldn’t get along with environmentalists… and they wouldn’t like him if they heard what he planned to do to the earth.” This was the only time I’ve booed a chapel speaker. I’m not proud of it. But when this pastor mocked those who desire to steward the earth I was really annoyed. When he implied that God was not concerned with caring for creation because he plans to destroy the earth anyway, I was furious. I shared glances with my friends who sat around me, stood up, and rushed back to my dorm. As I made my way through the campus lawn I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing – tears welling up in my eyes. I wasn’t just angry. I was horrified. I was devastated. A pastor had just undermined environmental stewardship in the name of Jesus to a room filled with Bible college students.

Why Such Hostility Towards the Earth?

I could write all day about the damages caused by fundamentalism, the “moral majority”, and dispensationalism.[1] The combination of these movements has led to what some have labeled as “evacuation theology.” When a group of people emphasize a rapture[2] away from the earth and separation from the world, and when these ideas become fused with a right-wing, religious-political system, then care for the earth not only becomes irrelevant, it becomes a wrong. While these cultural phenomenons are worthy of attention, I’d rather not spend my time disproving a system.[3][4] Instead I’d like to look to the scriptures and see what God has said about the earth and our responsibility towards it.

The Image of God

The Bible begins with a story of God bringing chaos into order. At the final stages of this grand orchestration he sets one creature apart and places him in the most privileged position: he makes mankind in his own image.[5] There has been a lot of discussion concerning what it means to be “made in God’s image.” However, the ancient readers were familiar with this language and would have been quick to recognize the primary meaning of what it meant to be made in the image of God. In the ancient world, religious statues were more common than they are in modern, western society. During the time Genesis was written statues of deities were found on street corners, in temples, and surrounding palaces. These statues served as representations of the gods that a particular society worshipped. In the Second Commandment God forbids his people from creating such statues: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness…[for the purpose of worship].” God did not want his people to create “images” of himself (or any other deities) for the purpose of divine representation on earth. Instead, God made mankind in his image to be his representatives on earth.

Representing God

After making mankind in his image, God gave these humans responsibilities as his representatives on earth. This instruction is known as the Dominion Mandate.[6]

“Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”

  1. Be fruitful
  2. Subdue the earth
  3. Rule over all creatures

The words “subdue”[7] and “rule” do not sit well in our postmodern minds because we’ve rarely seen subduing and ruling exercised properly. Ruling has often been aligned with exploitation. But let’s not read our prejudices into this story. Remember the context. In God’s original design, ruling and subduing were to be acts of care done for the purpose of cultivation and flourishing. God had just completed the creation event and he was very pleased with what he saw. He described the earth and its creatures as “good.” He was ready to take up his throne in his cosmic temple and enjoy the wondrous beauty that was before him. Lovingly he had brought all things into existence and gave everything a function so that the earth could exist in balance and harmony. He gave mankind the responsibility of representing him, cultivating the earth on his behalf, and ruling over the creatures in his place. This role given to mankind was to be a continuation of the creation event begun by God himself.

I have heard this passage interpreted in ways that support the exploitation of the earth and its creatures, claiming that “ruling over the earth” means that humans have the right to use its resources however they see fit. Not only is this interpretation exegetically irresponsible, but it also defies the character of the Creator and undermines his instructions of care for his creation.

Failing at Our Responsibility

Sadly, we humans undermined God’s rule and this resulted in a severed relationship with both God[8] and the earth.[9] We decided that we wanted freedom from God and we believed the lie that we could be our own gods. This decision led to our destruction, and it also led to the earth’s destruction. Because of our sin the earth does not run the way God planned, and this is evidenced by suffering that is ever in our midst. We humans have trampled on everything and everyone in our path. And one of the greatest failures of the human race has been the repeated disregard of our role as God’s representative caregivers of the Earth.

To read “Part II” of this post, click here. There I explore the New Testament to see what Jesus and other authors have to say about our responsibility towards the environment. Additionally I provide  some practical steps we can take as Christians who desire to fulfill our role as God’s representatives on Earth.


 

[1] Charles Darby invented dispensationalism in the 1830’s. This system cannot be affirmed by church history, and its only similarities are found in the teachings of heretical doomsday cults. It rose to popularity in the 20th century through the work of C.I. Scofield and Charles Ryrie. In recent years, the claims of these theologians (i.e. That the state of Israel is the people of God, that world events point to the “end times,” irresponsible eisegesis, etc.) have led to a sharp decline of dispensationalism. In, fact dispensationalism is nearly extinct in Christian academia, and churches and denominations are quickly following suit.

[2] There was no Christian teaching of “the rapture” before Darby began preaching it in the 1830’s.

[3] Many authors have taken the time to honestly evaluate dispensationalism. One book that I found helpful is Dispensationalism: Rightly Diving The People of God? By Keith Mathison.

[4] For further reading on Evangelical right-wing politics see The Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd.

[5] Genesis 1:27

[6] Cultural, Adamic, or Edenic mandate are also acceptable terms.

[7] The Hebrew word kabash is understood as an agricultural term in this context, and can therefore be translated as cultivate.

[8] Genesis 3:24

[9] Genesis 3:19

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *