Caring for the Beloved Planet: A Christian Perspective
Right or wrong, evangelical Christians are often perceived as regarding environmental concerns with suspicion or disinterest. To some, environmentalism has been tainted with hints of pantheism or worse. The biblical notion of “dominion” has often been misunderstood, and sometimes expropriated as a religious justification for exploitation of the creation. Many of us have not been sure what to believe.
But with pervasive evidence of ecological crisis all around us, a growing chorus of global Christian leaders is calling us anew to care for God’s creation. From the Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch one the one hand, to evangelical icons like Rev. John Stott, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization, Christians are affirming creation care as a central tenet of the gospel, not a modern appendage to conform to popular trends.
The Gospel and Creation Care
The Christian gospel affirms certain core truths concerning the creation:
- The earth and all its creatures belong to God, not us. He delights in all he has made, calls his creation “very good,” and uses the creation to reveal his glory and character. (Psalm 24:1, Genesis 1:31, Psalm 19:1-2, Romans 1:20)
- Mankind’s first mission on earth was to “tend and keep” the garden God had made. As such, God humbled himself into partnership with mankind, which he made responsible to care for his blessed earth. (Genesis 2:15)
- While mankind was given dominion over the earth, this dominion was not to consume and destroy it for our benefit, but to cause it to flourish, together with all its creatures – as stewards and tenants on behalf of its true owner. Jesus’ incarnate dominion on earth was one of servanthood and restoration – and we, his servants, can only follow our Master’s lead. (Genesis 1:26, Leviticus 25:23, Matthew 8:27, Mark 10:45, John 13:12-16)
- Man’s sin and rebellion against God broke and perverted all of our relationships – to God, to others and to the earth itself. Indeed, the physical earth – ground, water, atmosphere and living things – fell under the curse because of human sin. (Genesis 3:8-19, Romans 8:22)
- But God loved his world, and he gave his only Son to reconcile all things to himself, and to make peace among all things through the shedding of his blood. In overcoming human sin and its devastating effects on all things, Christ is restoring our relationship to God, to others, and to the rest of creation. Gospel reconciliation does not ignore the broken creation; God causes redeemed men and women to become their brothers’ keepers, but they also become earth-keepers. (John 3:16, Colossians 1:19-20, 2 Corinthians 5:18-21)
- With so many humans suffering today from the effects of pollution, deforestation, loss of vital ecosystems and climatic disruptions, God’s command to love our neighbor cannot be separated from his command to care for the creation. (Mark 12:28-31, James 2:14-17)
- God identifies with the most humble of his creatures – most notably the poor and oppressed. As we care for “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” we are caring for the Lord we love. Christians live in the hope of one day hearing the Savior’s words: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father….” (Matt 25:31-40)
- When Christ’s kingdom comes in all its fullness, he will make all things new, both in heaven and on earth. While we cannot know the exact relationship between tomorrow’s promised new earth, and the restored earth that we can heal today, we do know that our labors are not in vain. That is why Christ teaches us to pray for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven now – not just in the future golden age. (Revelation 21:1-5; Matthew 6:9-10)
An Evangelical Awakening
How do these truths of scripture apply in our increasingly injured world? A growing number of Christian leaders are calling for a fundamental rethinking of overconsumption and exploitation of nature. They stress the threat posed to the world’s poor by climate change and environmental degradation. And many have drafted and embraced statements that we would commend for review, including the following:
- Evangelical Climate Initiative: Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.
- The Radical Disciple: John Stott’s final call to discipleship, including creation care.
- Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment (National Association of Evangelicals)
- The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (The Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization)
- Creation Stewardship Task Force Report (Christian Reformed Church of North America)
- Call to Action (Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel)
Among other things, these Christian leaders affirm the following:
- Love for God demands that we repent of our part in the destruction, waste and pollution of the earth’s resources and our collusion in the toxic idolatry of consumerism. We commit ourselves to urgent and prophetic ecological responsibility (Cape Town[i]);
- Human-induced climate change is real and results largely from the burning of fossil fuels (ECI[ii]);
- When a broad community of experienced and reliable [scientists] agrees on consistent conclusions over a period of several decades, it is reasonable to accept these broadly based conclusions and plan for the future. Delay carries risk, and when significant impacts are very likely, it is no longer sufficient to watch and wait (CRCNA[iii]);
- The consequences of climate change will be significant, and will hit the poor the hardest (ECI[iv]);
- The climate outlook for developing countries is bleak. They most likely will not have the ability to adapt to change with technology. Reduced crop yields due to either persistent climate change or more variable weather may produce chronic malnourishment or episodic starvation (CRCNA[v]);
- Of all the global threats that face our planet, climate change is the most serious (Stott[vi]);
- We lament over the widespread abuse and destruction of the earth’s resources, including its bio-diversity. Probably the most serious and urgent challenge faced by the physical world now is the threat of climate change (Lausanne Call to Action[vii]);
- The need to act now is urgent; governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change, starting now (ECI[viii]);
- There are millions of suffering people in the world…. Unfortunately, the realities of climate change mean that those suffering millions may become billions. All of us who follow Jesus will need to respond (NAE[ix]).
Science is Not the Enemy of our Faith
These evangelical voices are responding to the facts on the ground: increased drought, flooding, intense storms, resource conflicts, soaring food prices and resulting hunger. But they are also listening to the scientific evidence for what is causing much of this tumult. If the heavens can declare the glory of God, and if his invisible qualities can be displayed in what he has made, then we are bound to listen to everything the creation has to teach us.
Among other things, we note that:
- 97% of climate scientists confirm that the earth is warming, and such warming is caused by human activities (Doran & Zimmerman, Univ. of Illinois, 2009).[x]
- The U.S. National Academy of Sciences offers this unequivocal assessment: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment.”[xi]
- The National Academies of the industrialized world – the leading G-8 countries plus China, Brazil, India, S. Africa and Mexico – have warned: “The need for urgent action to address climate change is now indisputable.”[xii]
- The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded: Warming of the climate system is unequivocal…. Most of the observed global warming is very likely due to increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations…. Global mean temperature will continue to increase, about 3.2 to 7.2°F over the next century. [xiii]
Secular Earth-Keepers are Not our Enemy
If the scientific consensus is correct, then the world will face serious tumult in the coming years. Drought, flooding, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and accelerated extinction of species will cause great harm to many people and other living creatures. The poor will be especially vulnerable, having the least ability to adapt. Christians will have to respond with vigor, out of love for God and our neighbor.
But we are not alone. Secular environmental activists have observed these trends, and many work tirelessly to protect the earth. Our allegiance is to Christ, and our motivations often differ from our secular counterparts. But as a reflection of our love for God and for our fellow man, we can choose to affirm our commonality with all people of goodwill who work to protect our Father’s world.
We recall that Jesus had little praise for the Pharisee who prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:9-14). Indeed, we are humbled at the care for creation exhibited by many who don’t acknowledge the lordship of the Creator; we seek to repent of our idolatrous embrace of lifestyles that despoil the earth for future generations; and we are happy to make common cause with all people in protecting our Lord’s good earth and his creatures that depend upon its health and bounty.
Lausanne: An Evangelical Call to Action
Under the auspices of the Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance, 57 Christian church leaders and scientists from 26 countries gathered in Jamaica in 2012 to pray, deliberate and develop an evangelical call to action regarding creation care and the gospel. The following is a summary of their call to Christians:
Creation Care is indeed a “gospel issue within the lordship of Christ.” Informed and inspired by our study of the scripture … we reaffirm that creation care is an issue that must be included in our response to the gospel, proclaiming and acting upon the good news of what God has done and will complete for the salvation of the world. This is not only biblically justified, but an integral part of our mission and an expression of our worship to God for his wonderful plan of redemption through Jesus Christ….
We are faced with a crisis that is pressing, urgent, and that must be resolved in our generation. Many of the world’s poorest people, ecosystems, and species of flora and fauna are being devastated by violence against the environment in multiple ways, of which global climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water stress, and pollution are but a part. We can no longer afford complacency and endless debate. Love for God, our neighbors and the wider creation, as well as our passion for justice, compel us to “urgent and prophetic ecological responsibility.”
Our call to action. Based on these two convictions, we therefore call the whole church, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, to respond radically and faithfully to care for God’s creation, demonstrating our belief and hope in the transforming power of Christ….
Specifically, we call for:
- A new commitment to a simple lifestyle (detailed discussions omitted).
- New and robust theological work (in creation care).
- Leadership from the church in the Global South.
- Mobilization of the whole church and engagement of all of society (including government, business, civil society, and academia).
- Environmental missions among unreached people groups.
- Radical action to confront climate change (dramatically cut greenhouse gases).
- Sustainable principles in food production.
- An economy that works in harmony with God’s creation.
- Local expressions of creation care (including protection of biodiversity and habitat).
- Prophetic advocacy and healing reconciliation.
Our call to prayer: Each of our calls to action rest on an even more urgent call to prayer, intentional and fervent, soberly aware that this is a spiritual struggle. Many of us must begin our praying with lamentation and repentance for our failure to care for creation … and with hope in the fullness of our redemption, we pray with confidence that the Triune God can and will heal our land and all who dwell in it, for the glory of his matchless name.[xiv]
- For a more comprehensive list of evangelical declarations regarding care for the creation, click here.
- To read or download the complete text of the Lausanne Creation Care Call to Action, click here.
- To endorse the Lausanne Creation Care Call to Action, click here.
- To join the BelovedPlanet.com dialogue on creation care, go to the top right box on this page, and enter your email address.
- For a more detailed summary of the state of climate science, click here.
- To read or download “Loving the Least of These” by the National Association of Evangelicals, click here.