Is God Green? Part 1
The View from Above
More than 40 years ago, the Apollo space missions to the moon sent pictures of the earth back home. For the first time ever, humanity saw its planet from afar. The clouds, the land, the oceans, sitting there: whirling, powerful, innocent, vulnerable. And that image caused a revolution in the hearts and imaginations of millions around the world. Suddenly, the world was no longer an endless vista of untapped resources and infinite possibilities. Instead, we began to realize how small, how fragile, how very delicate our home really is. No longer were environmental issues confined to a few lonely voices. We began, en masse, to get very anxious about what we were doing to this lonely globe. 40 years later, in the news, almost every day there’s something about our environment.
- Global warming
- Endangered species and extinction
- Air pollution
- Soil contamination
- Water pollution
- Light pollution
- Noise pollution
- Radioactive waste
- Uranium mining
- Genetic modification
The list goes on and on
How do you feel about these issues? Are you worried, distracted, anxious, complacent, apathetic, confident, skeptical?
How should Christians approach these issues?
I’ve actually preached on this topic 4 times over the last 7 years. Before I did my ministry training I was a solar energy engineer. And over the last 7 years the general consensus on environmental issues has changed. The first time I preached in 2003, people who cared about the environment were seen as a bit weird and alternative, “tree-huggers”. The second time in 2006, environmental issues were trendy. Now, environmental issues seem to be part of the air we breathe. Everyone cares about the environment now; it’s not trendy any more, it’s just a given.
And Christians are getting on the bandwagon too!
Take, for example, The Green Bible
The blurb from the website says:
The Green Bible will equip and encourage people to see God’s vision for creation and help them engage in the work of healing and sustaining it. With over 1,000 references to the earth in the Bible, compared to 490 references to heaven and 530 references to love, the Bible carries a powerful message for the earth.
Verses in the Bible about the earth are highlighted in green. Is that the way that Christians are to approach this topic? To me, The Green Bibleseems to be a kind of Christian way of playing catch-up to the world. The world around us cares about global warming. So we publish a Bible on recycled paper that highlights the green verses, just to prove how with-it we really are!
But I want to suggest that actually there’s a far better approach. That actually everything in the Bible is relevant to issues of the environment, not just 1,000 green verses. But to really come to grips with these issues, we need to get a firmer grasp on the Bible’s whole message—from beginning to end. We need to understand God and his purposes for our world first. And that’s what this 3-part series is all about. We’ll be looking at God’s plan for us, for the world, for his son Jesus, and particularly, how those plans relate to us in the world.
First, let’s look at a few alternative visions of the world; three very popular non-Christian approaches to the environment, just to help you to see how different they are to the Bible.
First, Dualism. Dualism is an old belief, thousands of years old, but it’s still around today. The idea of dualism is that there are two ‘realms’, the ‘physical’ realm and the ‘spiritual’ realm. In the higher, spiritual realm are souls, angels, eternity, God. In the lower, physical realm is matter, change, bodies, the earth. If you’re a dualist, then the higher realm is better and more important than the lower, physical realm.
How do you treat the world if you’re a dualist? There are two possibilities.
Either, you see the physical environment as ugly, evil and distracting to the soul, something to be avoided, so that when you hear about environmental issues, you ignore them, you shut yourself into a monastery and contemplate your navel.
Or you could, as a dualist, join in the abuse of the physical environment, because it’s not really important. Who cares about the environment? It doesn’t matter. It’s not spiritual. It’s just matter. Do what you like with it. Some Christians have been guilty of dualism in the past. In fact, the apostle Paul had to combat dualism back in the first century, because Christians were in danger of falling into it. 1 Timothy 4:1-5 says:
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
The Bible isn’t dualist, it believes the world is good. Are you a dualist? Do you think the spiritual is all that matters?
The second popular approach is called materialism. For example, say you’re a materialist. If you’re a materialist in the proper sense, you believe that there is no God (or if there is, he’s got nothing to do with the world or with you). The material world is all that matters. You have no soul. You are, first and foremost, a consumer.
Ultimately you can abuse the world if you like, there’s no higher power to tell you what to do. You can buy whatever make-up you feel like, who cares if it’s tested on animals? You leave the lights on at home, burn up as much petrol as you feel like, because matter is matter. As long as you’re happy who really cares what you do?
The former Soviet Union was a whole superpower founded on communal materialist principles. The Aral Sea in the Soviet Union, was once the size of Tasmania. Over the 20th Century, this great sea has shrunk by 80%. That is, only 20% of the Aral sea is left. Its waters have been diverted for irrigation of cotton farms to bring wealth to the Soviet Union. What’s left is heavily polluted by weapons testing, industrial projects, and fertilizer runoff. Apparently, the disappearance of a whole sea the size of Tasmania was no surprise to the Soviets; they planned for it to happen.
Which makes perfect sense to a materialist. A sea is just a sea. Drain the sea to grow your cotton if it makes your society better off. Of course, if you’re a materialist, you might start to get a bit worried if you think the world won’t sustain your wasteful behaviour. You might start to realize that if you keep draining seas then maybe there won’t be any seas left. Which would be very inconvenient for you because you can’t grow any more cotton or at least it would be inconvenient for your biological offspring who will carry your DNA into the next generation. Where would they ride their jetskis? And so, you might do something about the environment, because you are afraid that your lifestyle will be affected. Are you a materialist? Here’s some logic for you; it’s often used on the street by environmental groups: We shouldn’t cut down the Amazonian rainforests. Why? Because we might find a cure for cancer there, and you might have cancer one day, and you might need those rainforests. If you think that’s the best argument not to cut down the rainforests, then you’re probably a materialist. Because that reason is all about you, your future consumption and health
Some people have come along and said, No, materialism is no good at all! There’s something so selfish and wrong about it! Surely the world is more than just a thing to be consumed. Surely, there has to be some higher power or powers that should prevent us from abusing and raping our environment like this. A popular solution amongst environmentalists is to embrace what’s called ‘paganism’.
Pagans believe in God, in a sense. But the trick is, God is in the world – the world itself is God. They usually don’t call it God—they call it, ‘Mother Nature’, or ‘Gaia’. For a Pagan, the world is one big interconnected organism. And all things have equal value and equal status as part of that whole. Plants and animals have souls, spirits, that are worshipped. We have to respect everything in nature, the whole ecosystem. Humans have no right to use nature for our own ends.
But the problem with Mother Nature is that she often isn’t very motherly. In fact, some people believe that humanity is a cancerous growth that might be spewed out by Mother Nature one day. James Lovelock, for example, has written a book with a lovely title, called The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We can Still Save humanity!
Paganism can breed great fear and anxiety, because how do you know what Mother Nature will do to you, and when? Maybe global warming is inevitable? Maybe Mother Nature will produce massive storms and tsunamis that wipe us out as a species? Maybe Mother Nature has given up on us and is going to start again? Who are you or I to say?
The view from above
How you view the environment is very much caught up with what you think of God, what you think of God’s relationship to the world, and what you think of your place in the world. The view from above makes a difference to what you do here on earth.
So what about the Bible? What’s the Bible’s view from above? Is God green at all? Does he care about the world? Well to answer that I want to explore the story that the Bible tells about the world. The Bible has a lot to say about the world: where the world came from, what state the world is in, and the future of the world. And as it tells this story to us, I hope we will see that God and you and I are very much involved in that story. We are intimately caught up in the story of the world. I hope that as we understand the Bible’s story of the world, it will help us to know what to do with the world, how to think and feel and act rightly towards the world. And hopefully make a positive difference
People and the world (Genesis 1-2)
In this first article, we’re going to concentrate on the beginning of the story of the world, where it came from.
Please look up Genesis 1, the opening chapter of the Bible. It would really help for you to read it through right now. This chapter describes the creation of the world. I want to focus on some of the key points of the passage in front of us.
The first point is that the world is not the same as God. God chose to make the world—but God was there before the world was made. The first verse says: in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In other words, God isn’t a pagan.
The second point is that the world is good. Whenever God makes something, he sees that it is good. The light is good, verse 4. The land and sea are good, verse 10. The trees are good, verse 12, and so on. God loves what he has made. And that means that the world has value, given to it by its creator
The third point is that you and I, men and women, we have a special place in the world. We’re part of the world, we’re not God. But we are made in the ‘image of God’. See, especially, verses 26-28. We are part of the world, but we have a special place in the world. A special relationship to God, different to the world. We also have a special relationship to the world: we are the rulers of the world under God.
We also see that in Psalm 8). God has made us to rule the works of his hands. Everything he has made is under our feet (‘flocks and herds, wild beasts, birds, fish.’) Our job is to rule these things. That is our God-given role.
How to rule the world
In 1967, a man called Lynn White wrote a famous article called ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’. It was more sweeping artistry than real history. But it was very influential. You may have heard of it. In his article, Lynn White blamed Western Christianity for most of the environmental degradation that has happened in the history of the world.
His accusation was this: The Bible—and Genesis 1 especially—had been used to justify wholesale exploitation of the environment. Lynn White says:
‘God planned all of this [creation] explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.’
We can’t deny that some Christians in the past have been arrogant and selfish towards the environment? And to our modern ears, the Bible does sound pretty harsh, doesn’t it? ‘Fill the earth’, ‘subdue it’, ‘have dominion’, ‘rule’. Doesn’t that sound like God has given us the world to dominate, to bash into shape?
But like anything in the Bible, we need to read these verses in context. Remember in this chapter that God saw that the world was good before he made human beings. The world has positive value in God’s eyes, simply by being created by him. So as we rule, we have to remember that we are ruling something God has made and that God believes is good. It’s not just good for us, it’s good for God even before we came along.
(If you want to know more, have a look at Psalm 104)
Secondly, have a look at how that rule is described in the next chapter:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15, NIV)
Our ‘rule’ is not selfish rule. It’s not being a despot or a tyrant or a dictator. Ruling the world is all about serving; serving God (who made the good world), and serving the world itself by taking care of it.
This makes sense of what we see humans doing all the time. There’s an organization called Save the Whales—they even have a song. You can download the MP3. But you won’t find a bunch of whales getting together to form a society called ‘save the humans’, will you? Whales can’t download MP3s about saving humans. That’s because humans are there to look after the whales, not vice-versa. Our special role in the world is to be the servant kings of the world. God does not want us to exploit the world purely for our own greedy gain. But at the same time, God doesn’t want us to leave the world alone. We’re not just to be the stewards of the world, not just the park rangers, making sure nothing happens to it. God wants us to be active, to turn chaos into order like he did at the beginning. To save whales, to fill the earth and subdue it.
At the beginning of the story of the world, human beings were good for the world. And as we rule, we also enjoy the benefits of being God’s rulers. If we look back at chapter 1, we see:
Then God said [to the human beings], “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground– everything that has the breath of life in it– I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis 1:29-31)
We can enjoy the world as we subdue it, and this is very good, according to God. When you eat food, that is very good, because that is what the food is for. Here’s a description of ecological harmony from the Bible:
He who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit (Proverbs 27:18).
So how does this all work out? How do you and I actually go about ruling? How do we know what to do?
Did you notice that repeated little phrase ‘according to its kind’ in Genesis chapter 1? It’s there in verse 11, 12, 21, 24, 25. God has made vegetation according to their various kinds; fish according to their kinds; birds, livestock, wild animals, according to their kinds. There’s variety in creation. This variety helps us to understand that we do different things with different parts of creation. This next little verse is an example of how this works:
Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel (Proverbs 12:10 ESV).
One of the things about being righteous is that you have regard for the life of your beast. That is, you know the value of an animal’s life—not just for your own selfish purposes, but in terms of what God has made. The righteous persons understands that the animal has been made a certain way ‘according to its kind’. And he respects that creation. An animal is different to a human, of course. Respecting a chicken is different to respecting your mother. But a righteous person will still respect the life of the chicken, as a chicken. It’s not just an egg-producing machine. Do you buy free-range eggs? Why? Why not? Do you regard the life of the chicken? Not just the taste or the eggs. The life. Because God thinks the chicken is good. The good ruler of the world is the one who discerns what this value is. While we eat the eggs and the chicken nuggets, we also take care of the chicken while it’s alive according to what God has made it, not just what we can get out of it. This is what ruling and subduing, is all about
What is a tree for?
Try to work out all the things a tree is for, according to God.
A tree is a blessing from God for his creation, even in those wild places where no human being has set foot.
This is interesting, because this part of the book of Job is all about how God has made and cares for all the little details of his creation even though human beings may have nothing to do with it! God says to Job ‘Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?’ (Job 39:1). The point is that Job has no idea when the mountain goats give birth. But God does; and he cares about the mountain goats giving birth. Reading Job 39-40 is like watching those nature documentaries: when you watch those shows you go, ‘wow, all this stuff happens and I never even knew’. But God knows, and God has a purpose.
A tree is a blessing from God for people and a sign of peace, giving shade and shelter to those under his protection.
A tree is a gallows for a man cursed by God.
A tree is for houses for kings and people.
A tree has lots of purposes. Some of the purposes of a tree are for humans. But others have nothing to do with us, do they? A tree is there to praise God, a tree is there to feed and house birds. And of course we’ve discovered other purposes for trees, too, that the Bible doesn’t mention. A tree is for making oxygen.
Even in warfare, God tells his people that they should do what’s right by the trees.. Not wanton destruction, but sustainable development.
If these are the things a tree is for, how should we rule trees? Our job as rulers is to discern the purpose God has given for things, and act accordingly. So we should do our best to make sure that as many of the purposes for trees as possible are fulfilled. Cut some down for building, leave some for the birds, make sure there are beautiful forests. This is what people mean when they talk about ‘sustainable development’. It’s what the Bible calls ‘wisdom’.
It’s not always easy, is it? There’s no cut-and-dried answers to this. Christians may disagree with each other on this. We may have to use scientific tools in our pursuit of understanding; research and maps, etc. But that is exercising dominion.
And actually a lot of it is quite simple. When you go to press ‘print’ on your word processor, to send a file to the printer, to use paper, that comes from woodchips, from trees. You should ask—am I using this tree in the best way? Do I really need this printout? Can I save the paper so more trees can fulfil their God-given purpose in other ways? Especially in old growth forests. Can I recycle the paper? This is possible and right in God’s world
We had a go at starting up a compost heap a few years back. Why? Because each Australian, on average, contributes one tonne of waste each year, and we’re turning the land into tips to get rid of this rubbish. But God has made the land for reasons other than dumping rubbish. It’s for beauty, for living in, for growing crops, for recreation. And it’s getting to the point where it’s harder to find land to do these things, because the land is taken up with rubbish. So our compost heap helped to reduce our rubbish and helped the earth that God has given us to be used for other purposes. It’s not rocket science. We are created by God to rule our world, to serve our world, to enjoy our world.
But I know what you’re thinking. ‘Stop telling me about your compost heap. What about the Aral Sea? What about Chernobyl? What about Global Warming?’
We’ve only just looked at the beginning of the story, haven’t we? We still have a huge problem, don’t we? The fact is, we don’t rule the world properly. We’ve stuffed it up, big time, and all around us is the evidence.
Does the Bible tell us why? Well, yes. And in the next couple of articles we will look in more detail at that terrible circumstance. But we will also see what God has done about our crazy broken world.
This article is part 1 in a 3-part series, adapted from a talk given at the Wollongong ECU Reload Conference in 2009.