A Biblical Understanding of the Environment

“Earth Day” as a Confessing Millennial

This year, Earth Day also falls on a Sunday, or what many Christians regard as the “Lord’s Day”.  This happenstance gives me a somewhat unique opportunity to comment on a perceived tension out there. Though many Christians throughout the world follow a liturgical calendar (especially in the weeks surrounding Easter), it’s likely that many were lost on the fact that Earth Day was coming up.

Many people in my generation especially charge Christians (or the popular notion of Christians) with a gross, problematic negligence toward the environment. A lot of lip service is given today over concerns of pollution, deforestation, greenhouse gases, etc. In fact, I just read an article earlier this week which described the damages done to the Great Barrier Reef are Image result for earth day“irreversible”–it’s mostly about damage control, now. And millennials turn to the Church with skepticism and ask cynically, Does the Christian, biblical worldview possibly have anything of value to offer or contribute to these world concerns? After all, aren’t Christians people that are so “heavenly minded” that they’re of no earthly good? [Emphasis on “earthly good”]

But I say au contraire! 

If you truly take the Bible seriously, there is no way you can come away from it with a low view of creation. The biblical worldview offers one of the highest views of creation that has ever been espoused by a belief system. But it also puts it in its proper place and context. And just like most Biblical nuances, it levels both liberal and conservative categories alike.

 

The Narrative Setting: A Home To Live In

I remember that one day as an energetic young boy running laps inside the house, I decided to spit on the floor in passing. I mean, Why not? After all, I did it all the time outside with my friends, who lovingly taught each other how to correctly spit as growing boys. My mom found the collection of saliva on her precious carpet and did not share my cavalier attitude–I was promptly and harshly scolded, and given a lecture that I would obviously not soon forget. The content and reasoning? This is our homeshe said, and we are supposed to take care of our home, not trash it. That stuck with me for years (in part because the echo of  my mom’s thunderous voice rang through my ear canals for weeks to come).

The opening chapters of Genesis likewise feature God making a home for humanity to live in, take care of, and enjoy. Not only that–although God transcends space and time, He also made it to be a place where He could live alongside us in perfect harmony. Genesis 3 describes God as “walking in the cool of the day”. Just exactly what it looked like for the pre-incarnate Deity to “walk” beside Adam and Eve is a mystery, and yet the idea remains that the same God that made entire galaxies wanted to relate to us in a very personal, relational, and intimate way. For any husbands out there that have gone through the effort of actually building a house for their wife and family to live in together, you get the sentiment. The Earth was meant to be a home–a dwelling place–for both humanity and God to live in and enjoy together.

And not only did God declare all of His physical creation as “good!”, but Genesis also says that God made humanity in His “image”, as the crown-jewel of His creation. Throughout the centuries of the Church, the “image of God” concept (or imago Dei) has been intensely discussed. But advances in ancient Near Eastern studies and biblical anthropology have scholars convinced that to have been created in the “image of God” simply meant that we were originally made to be God’s representatives in creation. That meant, first and foremost, in our relationships: in the way that humans were to make families and build communities on Earth (“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth…!”–v. 28). But it also meant in the way we were to rule over all the Earth as faithful, responsible stewards of His creation. Notice after God’s command to populate the Earth (verse 28), He then commands the first humans to “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” In fact, when the “image of God” is first mentioned in verse 26, it is followed up with the clause, “so that they may rule over” the created order. Clearly from the very beginning, the “image of God” was inextricably tied with responsible dominion as stewards over all creation. Adam and Eve were the first park rangers.  Scholars like D.A. Carson describe the human vocation in the image of God as “vice-regents” or “viceroys”–the latter of which means, “a ruler exercising authority in a colony on behalf of a sovereign.” In other words, God always meant to rule over creation through human beings.

Unfortunately, because of humanity’s Sin, we have failed to be good stewards of creation in the way we treat each other and the way we treat the environment. As one of my professors liked to say, “Responsible dominion has gone awry.”

Some Christians believe that this physical world is unimportant. Their idea of heaven is a disembodied, ethereal existence on some other plane, and that everything else is going to hell in a hand-basket. But that’s not the view that the biblical authors have. God declared this physical world to be “good!”, and the only reason it’s fallen is because as the “stewards” of creation, we messed everything up.

Practically no one knew this better than the apostle John. In his writing ministry, John was fighting a group of people that had infiltrated the early church known as the Gnostics, who believed that the the physical, material world was defective (or sometimes downright evil). In contrast, John emphasized that God “became flesh” in Jesus (John 1). Luke says that Jesus ate a fish. Paul talks about “glorified bodies”. And though Revelation is heavily symbolic, John gives us a glimpse of a restored physical creation. Nowhere in the biblical narrative do you have a defective view of physical creation except when it is ruled under Sin.

So you see, if you take the Bible seriously, there is no way you can come away from it with a low view of creation.

 

A Word of Caution

So on the one hand, God commands us to take care of His creation, which He made for us. On the other hand, a biblical view of creation also gives us an important word of caution: that because of our Sin, it has become our nature to worship the creation rather than the Creator. In biblical times, this typically meant explicit idols. In our time, it can mean nature itself, along with a host of other created things. Idolatry isn’t necessarily loving bad things. It’s making good things into ultimate things. Nature is a good thing–the Bible affirms that. God created it! And yet, if we place it above God and others, it becomes an idol. It was never meant to be an end in itself. We must never mistake the home for the builder that made it for us.

I sincerely believe that Christians need to have care for the environment. And yet, it must never digress into nature worship.

 

In short…

So is today the “Lord’s Day” or is it “Earth Day”? Yes. It is both, in that particular order. They are not antithetical to each other.

Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”. This includes the way we are to live in the home that God created for us. We were meant to display God’s glory and dominion in the way we care for creation. In his quote, Kuyper was echoing God’s own glorious sentiment in Genesis 1.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to go for a walk/run to enjoy God’s beautiful creation. Happy Earth Day!

 

*Author’s Note: My mom just reminded me that she also made me clean up my spit, another helpful analogical comparison to our responsibility as human beings. 🙂

For further reading on the imago Dei:

 

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