Does a Faithful Christian Fear Climate Change?

Two weeks ago, we saw a revealing  exchange between a talk radio host and a Christian pastor regarding the nexus between global environmental threats and the Christian faith. It began with a cynical argument hatched by Rush Limbaugh that followed this line of reasoning:

Christians believe that God rules his creation. Climate science warns that man-made climate change poses an existential threat to much of that creation. However, since no one but God can “destroy the world” he’s made, such notions betray unbelief, or worse.

Along came Rev. Mitch Hescox, leader of Evangelical Environmental Network, who exposed Limbaugh’s silliness for what it was. We posted Hescox’s riposte here. But as right as the pastor certainly was, I think that some of us would do well to ask some serious questions about the Christian gospel and today’s climate crisis. In particular, what assurance can we find in the gospel – if any – that the potentially calamitous consequences of climate change will not befall our race, or the ecosystems upon which we – and all other creatures – rely?

This issue actually comes up all the time. In one example, I was talking last year with a brilliant environmental leader at the height of the struggle over the Keystone XL pipeline. As we discussed our planetary headlong rush into climate imbalances not seen for millions of years, the conversation turned to my faith in a sovereign God.

“I envy you,” she told me. “I wish I had that kind of hope.”

Fair enough. A robust faith in Christ certainly does offer hope that eludes even the most optimistic agnostic – a hope rooted in the physical resurrection of Christ and the promised reconciliation and renewal of the entire creation. Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright sums it up beautifully:

What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we ‘leave it behind altogether.’ They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom. (Surprised by Hope, p. 193) 

Gospel hope isn’t rooted in a vague notion that everything will work out all right in the end, but in the sure and certain hope in the resurrection of the dead and the coming kingdom of God.

But hold on a moment! What does gospel hope really mean in concrete terms now as we face today’s imponderable ecological catastrophes? What consequences of our race’s abuse of God’s creation can the faithful rule out? What extinctions? What famines? What floods? What pandemics? What resource conflicts? 

I see Christians treading gingerly on draconian climate forecasts all the time. Many go out of their way to distance themselves from anything including the word “apocalypse.” Popular Christian books comfort us that “the world is not ours to save.” I think the implication– never fully explained – is that we will somehow be theologically absolved of the worst consequences of global climate disruption, if God’s sovereignty means anything at all (and whichever “we” the speaker has in mind).

Am I the only one who’s not really so sure? I had thought that maybe I was, until I came across a great little book by Kyle Kramer, a Christian farmer and Catholic lay worker. Kramer’s book, A Time to Plant, invites us to join the author on a journey following Christ in small things: growing food, creating a home, offering hospitality – all on a small American farm salvaged from ruin and neglect.

But Kramer’s account begins with a confession of deep personal anxiety: “Will Earth’s overtaxed ecosystems collapse and make human life impossible, or merely mean and miserable – not just for distant future generations, but for my children, perhaps even for me and my contemporaries?”

Anxiety in a devout Christian? That’s something to repent of, right? And yet, Kramer’s angst for his contemporaries reflects what I’ve seen with my own eyes – for beleaguered Kenyan farmers, for poisoned Chinese children, for displaced New Orleans residents – let alone the many more I’ve only read about.

Kramer acknowledges the tension of faith and fear: “On my better days, I do indeed trust that the world is in God’s hands and that somehow, finally, God will bring to its fulfillment this marvelous, tragic mess that is Creation. Perhaps if my faith were not woven with threads of doubt, I could take refuge in the idea of God as the powerful and purposeful figure who will guide us through – that ‘mighty fortress’ who will protect us. But to be honest, I cannot begin to fathom how or when this will happen, or what cataclysms might intervene in the interim….”

Can we honestly say that we do not share his alarm? After the Holocaust, Rwanda and Darfur – among countless other milestones of human brokenness, can God’s people expect him to “step in quickly and dramatically to prevent unfathomable suffering?”

I honestly don’t think so. And I’m almost certainly not plowing much new theological ground here. The writer of the Biblical letter to the Hebrews framed the discussion for us long ago. Puny little mankind, he says – meditating on the vastness of the created heavens – and yet God is mindful of us, making Man only a little lower than the angels, crowning us with honor. But with an honest look around, we don’t see all that much honor, the writer acknowledges. Mainly chaos, suffering and injustice.

But what else do we see? “We see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels,” the apostle writes, “namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). Not a Jesus who fends off danger, or assures us of abundance. Jesus suffering; Jesus tasting death for everyone.

And that’s where Kramer gets it pretty much right, I think. “I can picture Jesus born quietly and unassumingly in the manger at Bethlehem. I can see Him offering food, healing, comfort – and challenge – to those in need. I can see Christ suffering and dying an ignominious death. In all this, I suspect that God’s action in our world tends to be mostly quiet, humble, easy to miss, always mysterious and often strange and ridiculous, at least at first glance.”

And so, hopeful Christian earth-keepers, where does that leave us?  Well. I’m probably not competent to wrap this up with theological precision. But I would take us back to that little narrative in Hebrews. This suffering Jesus, we are told, “is not ashamed to call [us] brothers.”  And again: “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect….” Well, the world today is full of the brothers of Jesus. We’re told that they’re the hungry, the immigrant, the sick, and the prisoner. Jesus calls them “the least of these brothers of mine.”

As we think about ecological threats – mass extinctions, rising sea levels, floods and droughts, declining food production, desertification and the like – we might be anxious for ourselves. Maybe that’s okay, or maybe it’s not. But if we’re not anxious for somebody, for anybody, then I wonder how we’ll answer the King of the creation at the gathering of the nations? Because we already know what he will tell us: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

So if you’ve pasted a serene smile over the dismal outlook for the world’s most vulnerable facing an increasingly inhospitable ecosystem, take this as your license: Maybe it’s okay to be anxious. Maybe it’s okay to be downright terrified.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

3 thoughts on “Does a Faithful Christian Fear Climate Change?

  1. Darren Beem

    This was a great piece and helpful because it allowed me to think through my own feelings toward climate change. I totally tracked with you.

    To be totally honest, I do my best to ignore Rush Limbaugh, Fox News or Glen Beck. Call it willful ignorance, but when it comes to these people, I feel comfortable saying that we don’t follow the same Jesus. Rather than a climate denier, I’m a Rush Limbaugh denier.

    From the perspective of my faith, all around me I see the consequence of human sin and brokenness. War, death, disease, along with racism, poverty and hunger around the world and even in the United States. When we see and hear of these things, as followers of Jesus, it should cause our heart to ache with sadness. We know that none of these things was intended by our creator. I like a phrase from Nicholas Wolterstorff. We are called to be “aching visionaries.”

    In the same way, when I see the effects of climate change, I know this is yet another example of human sin and result of our brokenness, in the same way that nuclear war is an example of our sin and brokenness. The question of whether any of these things would result in our total destruction is to ask and raise the wrong question. Do I care about racism, war or poverty, because it will result in the destruction of our world? It’s almost setting the bar too high, as if we should only care about our total destruction, and anything less is, “meh.”

    I come down with your conclusion and think Matthew 25 hits it out of the park. As followers of Jesus, we are called to care about the sin and brokenness we see in the world. Yeah, I suppose as you write, it might even cause me to have anxiety.

    Jesus could have looked at the paralyzed and the blind, and the hungry and said, “Not my problem. They’re doing alright. They’re not totally dead after all.” Far from it, instead Jesus healed each of these folks. They were his problem and in the same way, these are my problems.

    Reply
    1. John Elwood Post author

      Darren: Very thoughtful and very moving. I have learned that there is a real place for lamentation in spiritual speech, and I hear your lament (and Wolterstorff’s). However, a dear friend of mine, Norman Viss, recently preached a sermon with the opening proposition: “The world is getting better!” What followed were 20 metrics that impressively supported the notion, ranging from reduced violence and war to “moral” advancements. His point was to stimulate discussion of the possibility that the Church can indeed effect positive change, and that we mustn’t yield to a sort of pre-millennial despair and disengagement. Such a vision is especially important for those of us who closely follow the globally bad news about climatic disruption.

      Reply
      1. Darren Beem

        I think you’re right. We need to keep focused on hope and that ours is a gospel of hope. We need to be reminded of the good things being done and the good news as a kind of testimony of encouragement. Personally, I feel that God has uniquely placed us here at this time in human history, to act as agents of hope and healing in our broken world.

        This is important for me to remember, because in the case of life, as in climate change, there is no time, short of heaven, when we’ll be able to raise our arms victorious and say, “We’ve done it.” We live taking small steps of faith. We love each day and we live each day, mindful that we’re not there yet, but grateful at the small steps we’re taking.

        I confess that I tend toward seeing the world and sometimes my own life as “half empty.” Maybe a funny confession for a Christian to make, but this is my disposition. I am grateful to my fellow followers of Jesus, who remind me to hope, who remind me that small steps are important, who remind me that God loves us, to trust in Jesus and to never give up.

        Thank you for the encouraging word!

        Reply

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