I know, I know. It makes no sense whatsoever. These are the people who believe that “the earth is the Lord’s;” who sing the glories of “my Father’s world;” and who have been made “agents of reconciliation” of all things. But when an evangelical scientist or conservationist dares to speak up in a Christian publication, the readers’ comments tell a nearly incredible story. This sort of backlash assures that their preachers will almost never mention creation stewardship. And politicians devoted to killing environmental protections can generally count on their solid support.
I’ve struggled to understand this myself, and then to explain it to others. But sometimes, the unedited words of our critics tell the story better than we ever could. A couple of days ago, this comment came into Beloved Planet from an evidently sincere young Christian in Pittsburgh:
“The great commission that Christians are to fulfill is to make disciples of all nations – I don’t see why conservation should trump that. The earth, the spectacularly complex beautiful creation of God that it is, has only been around for 6,000 years and it will not be around much longer. Christ promised that he will return and engulf the entire planet in flames (2 Peter 3:10-13). Don’t get me wrong – we should not be polluting our air and water unnecessarily – but if Christ is our example, we should be spending our limited days spreading the gospel instead of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
There you have it, in a polite but thoroughly unvarnished nutshell. The Earth – with all of its millions of created species, and indeed, all of the billions of galaxies God has made with their trillions of stars – will have an unimaginably short lifespan from the time of creation, ending in fire. Everything that was made is merely a stage setting for a few generations of humans on this tiny galactic outpost to pray the sinner’s prayer, and get ready for the everlasting post-apocalyptic world of the spirit. We will blissfully look down upon the utter destruction of everything God made – no matter that He called it “good,” and promised to renew and reconcile it to Himself.
It may be “good,” but it’s the Titanic, destined to rust forever in the frigid darkness. No unnecessary graffiti on the gunwales, please, but why bother retooling the engines?
Now, if you’re a Christian, I doubt that you appreciate my straw-man tactics: trotting out the most facile arguments and implicitly assigning them to all of us. And you are surely correct, to a degree. But something has to explain the otherwise incomprehensible opposition of white American evangelicals to serious efforts to care for the Creation. And the seeds of that opposition are all evident in this little manifesto. Here are a few of the themes you may have noticed:
The Creation is for us. You missed that? Here it is: The only thing in the world that is important is fulfilling something called “the great commission” to humans, not obeying our Creator with respect to his entire Word. But we learn in the Bible that “the Earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” It’s not ours at all. In fact, the Bible’s creation story tells us at the very beginning what mankind’s purpose was: “to tend and keep” the garden. The Hebrew words are “avad” and “shamar.” And together they mean to serve, preserve, love and bless. The Creation is not ours; it is entrusted to us as loving servants and stewards.
God loves us, not the Creation. You didn’t miss that, of course. Don’t waste your time with Creation care, when there is a “great commission” to fulfill. And that great commission is concerned only with people (and with people only in a very limited sense). The Bible, however, knows of no such distinction. God made his covenant with Noah, but also with “all living creatures of every kind on the Earth.” Indeed, whatever we think about the literal historicity of the flood of Genesis, consider the story line: God commanding a nearly impossible mission to save mainly – animals! The apostle John tells us that in Heaven, they declare that all things were and are created for God’s pleasure. And in his Gospel, John tells us that God loved the world enough to send his only begotten Son for its redemption and renewal.
The Great Commission is all about conversions. The Gospel of Matthew concludes with Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” If you’re one who thinks that Christ’s command is all about winning converts, take a closer look. First, we are commanded to go: As the Father sent Christ – to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the oppressed, freedom for the prisoner and healing to the sick; leaving behind possessions, comforts and privileges – that’s how He sends his followers. Then, make disciples: people under Christ’s authority, who do what he commands. And what he commands includes, at the very least, wholehearted love for God and everything God loves, and love for our neighbors. Any decoupling of gospel proclamation from gospel love and gospel obedience simply turns Christians into noisy gongs and clashing cymbals.
The future is bleak. The Christian church has been around for a long time, and over its history, has embraced many different views of God’s plan for the future. But since the 1820’s many American evangelicals have been taught nothing other than the dualistic notion that the physical world is headed for fire. When coupled with the notion that the world has hardly any past, belief in a future-less Earth naturally leads many to wonder: Exactly what is the point of loving the things God has made? Despite our prayers that God’s kingdom would come on Earth as in Heaven, we suppose that it didn’t happen, probably never will, and it’s nearing the time to make a run for it. Pray the sinner’s prayer, and fly away home. With all the “left-behind” talk these days, it’s hard for some evangelicals to imagine that there was a time when almost no one thought that way.
Evangelism doesn’t demand love. Do evangelicals really think this? Well, to a certain degree, yes. Note our friend’s premise: We should be “spreading the gospel instead of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” – another way of talking about matters of practical obedience like Creation care and social justice. You’ll find this attitude among many American laymen. But you won’t find it among missionaries and pastors serving in poor communities. And that’s because they know that you can’t love your neighbor while you’re destroying his livelihood and his health. And to them, the connection between the consumerism of the wealthy and suffering of the poor is evident everywhere.
We find this in Kenya, where climate disruptions have almost completely eliminated one of two growing seasons. Or in Uganda, where once-abundant coffee production has been almost totally wiped out by decades of warming weather. Or in Bangladesh, where sea-level rise now threatens the viability of a country of 160 million souls. Or in China, where toxins now cause one new birth defect every thirty seconds. Or in the Philippines, where the world’s most terrifying cyclone has just killed more than 6,000 people and rendered four million homeless.
Jo Anne Lyon, the leader of the Wesleyan Church, saw much of the same as she witnessed slum dwellers in Haiti losing their homes to freak torrential rains, and widows in Zambia trying to scratch out a living amidst today’s virtually unending drought conditions.
“As I stood there, helpless,” wrote Lyon, “I heard the words echo through my mind: Love your neighbor as yourself. I pondered the practicality of this. Later, on the same trip, I heard the bewildered village elders say, ‘We used to know exactly when to plant, and almost the day the rains would start, but something very strange is going on that we have never experienced, nor did our ancestors.’”
We may also wonder how that “great-commission-without-love” thing is working out in the real world. American evangelicals have long noted the decline in mainline churches, and imagined that their growth validated their commitment to gospel proclamation. But a study completed in 2008 showed that between 1990 and 2005, every major Christian group in the U.S. experienced decline, including evangelicals. And where evangelicals did experience growth, it was among immigrant communities who brought their more holistic faith with them from Asia and Latin America.
Of course, without a doubt there are many factors that have contributed to the decline in American Christianity. But surely, one of them is this: We have pitted proclamation of the gospel of God’s grace against working for a better, healthier, more just world. Our friend from Pittsburgh has given us the perfect world for this dualism: “I don’t see why conservation should trump [the great commission].”
Does practical, public obedience really trump gospel proclamation? Is there really a choice to be made? Or is it possible that without both, we have neither? We think that’s what the Bible teaches. But with both together, we have everything and more.