Have you ever heard of a genre of novel or movie called ‘apocalyptic’? Most books or movies, especially from Hollywood, have a happy ending. Some books or movies have tragic endings, e.g. the lead character dies. But apocalyptic novels or movies go beyond tragedy. They have stories that end with the whole world being destroyed and everybody dying!
Stark, the novel by the comedian Ben Elton, is one such example. It’s a story about a worldwide conspiracy of greedy capitalist industry bosses. In the book, all the big capitalists of the world are aware that their enterprises are causing environmental meltdown (pollution, deforestation, exploitation of the sea, land and air – basically global warming and pollution on a grand scale). But they also admit that they’re all too greedy to stop. So, instead of fixing the problems and making their enterprises sustainable, they let the world go into meltdown, and they form a global consortium to build secret rocket ships out in the West Australian desert called ‘star arks’ (as in Noah’s ark). When the world does collapse into a foaming mess of rubbish and rising sea levels and general yuck and everybody dies of disease and drowning, they can blast off in their ‘star arks’ and start again on another planet!
Unfortunately, when they do take off in their rocket ships, they end up fighting with each other up in space and killing each other off, because they’re horrible nasty people. And so the novel ends with the whole of humanity completely wiped out.
Of course, Stark is fiction, but it raises some questions. How bad are the environmental problems in our world? Are they going to cause the extinction of the human race? And who is responsible for these environmental problems? Is it those nasty capitalist industry leaders? Is it the politicians? Is it us, the consumers? Can the problems be fixed at all? Are we doomed before we start?
The Bible actually does have a lot to say about these issues.
The Broken Image of God (Genesis 3)
In the previous article we heard the beginning of the Bible’s story of the world. We discovered that a good and loving God had created a good world, and we learned that God has given us humans a special role in the world. We are made in God’s image. Our job is to rule the world, to look after it, for God’s sake. Not to be tyrants, but good kings, good rulers, under God.
And we saw when we rule the world properly, it’s good for the world. When we treat the things in the world according to their kind, according to their purpose (e.g. when we ask, ‘What is a tree for?’ and then treat trees according to their God-given purpose), this is good for us, good for the trees, good for the world, good for God.
From Psalm 8, we see:
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet:
Now we continue the story, and the next chapter is not nearly so happy. Early on in the story of the world, something went terribly, tragically wrong.
Please read Genesis chapter 3.
The first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were put into a garden. It was a garden with many trees. Many good trees made by a good God. Trees that were good for food. Trees that were good to look at.
But there was another tree in the garden. A tree that was not for eating. God told Adam and Eve that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not for eating, verse 3. If they ate of it, they would surely die.
But these rulers, these people made in God’s image, they did not do what God intended with this tree. Instead, they ate from the tree that God had commanded them not to eat from.
The effects of that one action were absolutely devastating. You and I are still reeling from the effects of that disobedient act. In fact, as a result, You, me, and the world are under a curse.
Notice what happened. They didn’t die straight away. It’s not as if the fruit from the tree was laced with arsenic, and they just kicked the bucket. Their physical death didn’t happen for many years. But at this point death still came to them and their world: spiritual death, social death, and what we might call, environmental death.
The relationships that made their life worth living, those beautiful relationships, became cursed, horrible and twisted. The man and the woman are ashamed. They’re ashamed of each other, verse 7. And they’re also ashamed of meeting God. They hide from God, or at least try in verse 8. And God himself curses their relationships in verse 16. The woman’s childbearing becomes painful. The man and the woman are no longer in a loving union. Instead their lives become a battle of the sexes.
But it’s not just human relationships that are cursed. In verse 17, God curses the relationship between the man and the whole creation:
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Our relationship with the earth itself is cursed. God curses the ground because of the sin of the human being. Adam ends up living in a state of war with the world God has made (That’s why I hate mowing the lawn so much. I’m at war with it!)
Of course, that’s what happens when the image of God stops acting as the image of God. When God’s rulers stop ruling the world properly under God. When God’s rulers try to rule their own way. When we shake our fists at God. When we think we know what’s right and wrong despite what God says. It’s what the bible calls ‘sin’. And when God’s image-bearers sin, they fail to rule the world, and the world that they are supposed to rule is cursed.
The big issue at the moment is global warming – and we’ll look at that in more detail in the next article. But for now let’s look at an example of environmental degradation that happened a while back: the Exxon Valdez oil tanker that ran aground on a reef near Alaska in the USA. 11.2 million gallons of oil spilled into the sea. The oil came ashore along 750 km of coastline. It was ugly: 250,000 sea birds, billions of fish, and other animals dropped dead. It was a huge, huge disaster.
Why did it happen? Well, they’ve analysed it. Firstly, the ship was severely understaffed, because the shipping company wanted to make more money; and secondly, the ship’s master didn’t provide a proper navigational watch because he was drunk. Greedy human beings, living for money, living for alcohol, instead of following God’s good purposes for the world.
But before we blame the corporate giant or the drunk captain, let’s look to ourselves. The typical American household would be willing to pay to avoid such disasters in the future. And the answer was $31. The typical American household spends about $1000 a year on petrol. What does that say about us? (even if we’re not Americans, the principle is the same). We’re willing to spend about 32 times more money getting ourselves around conveniently than we are to stop these terrible events wrecking the lives of our fellow human beings and the beautiful world God has given us. Living for ourselves. Living for things in the world rather than for God.
How often have you complained about petrol prices? Each time you complain about petrol prices, you’re contributing to the pressure on oil companies, to reduce prices, to cut costs, etc., etc. Are you willing to pay more money for transport, petrol? That would mean going out less, maybe. It’s just an example.
The same applies to the issue of global warming, of course. Hasn’t much of it been caused by unmitigated greed, as we keep producing things as cheaply as possible? It’s not just an economic issue, it’s not just something that can be solved by putting greedy corporate bosses in jail.
These environmental disasters can’t be separated from what the Bible calls ‘sin’. And sin affects all of us. The root of sin is the rejection of God’s rule over you. Sin is living for what you think is right instead of what God tells you is right. Sin mutilates your relationships, and sin poisons the whole creation. It happened on a big scale with Adam and Eve, and it just keeps happening over and over with us.
You see it in Hosea chapter 4, verses 1-3.
Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.
What does Hosea say is the root cause?
- Verse 1, humans reject God
- Verse 2, humans hurt each other
- Verse 3, the birds and the fish die
The creation is dying and mourning and its people are wasting away because we have rejected God. That’s the pattern. The root cause is that humanity is out of relationship with God. Sometimes you can’t pin it down to a particular sin. Sometimes the link between sin and environmental degradation is general. But it’s there.
Is that how you feel about our world? Our world is in mourning, because we, its rulers, have turned our backs on the creator, not living for him, but living for ourselves, worshipping what we can get out of the world. As a result, we hate each other, we are greedy, we lie, we steal.
Do you do that? Do you hate? Do you lust after more stuff? Do you lie? We have rejected the will of God for our lives. Our natural state is that we are under a curse.
Professor Frank Ascione is a world-leading researcher in animal abuse. He has shown the very strong statistical links between cruelty to animals and violence and cruelty to humans. If you are the sort of person who tortures cats, chances are, you’re also the sort of person who abuses women and children. There it is again—sin is linked to the abuse of the creation.
So how are environmental problems going to be solved? Should we make stricter laws for oil tankers? Should we petition Kevin Rudd to create a strict carbon emissions trading scheme? Should we reduce, reuse, recycle? Buy green detergent?
Well, they’re all good ideas. They’re all right and proper. But they’re not going to fix the problem, are they? The root of our problem is our sin, our rejection of God,
Recycling is like putting callomine lotion on chicken pox. When I had chicken pox, I broke out in all these horrible spots. The callomine lotion was very good. It was soothing, it stopped the itching, but it didn’t do anything whatsoever to fix the chicken pox virus in my blood. The virus had to be dealt with, not the spots.
Our world has a terminal disease, worse than chicken pox. It’s cancer. Head cancer! We human beings are supposed to be the head of this world, we are supposed to be the image of God, ruling the world in obedience to God. But we’ve turned away from God, we have turned away from our source of life, we’re living under a sentence of death. And no amount of environmentally friendly acts are going to fix this problem.
Jesus is The Man (Hebrews 2:6-10)
But I’d like now to consider Hebrews chapter 2, verse 6
there is a place where someone has testified: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.”
The book of Hebrews here is quoting Psalm 8 (the Psalm that we referred to earlier). The Psalm that tells us about the place of human beings as rulers of the world.
Hebrews 2 verse 8…
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.
When we look around, we don’t see humanity ruling, do we? What we see is humanity wrecking the world. We see humans getting drunk and greedy and letting their oil tankers poison coast lines and livelihoods. But there’s something else we should notice…
Hebrews 2 verse 9…
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Who is the man of Psalm 8? Who is the man who rules our world? It’s not you, it’s not me. We’re disqualified. We’ve abdicated. We’ve forefeited our right to rule. We’re naturally under a curse, under a sentence of death.
No, the man of Psalm 8, the only human being who fits the description, is Jesus. The man who never rejected God. The man who always lived for God. THE Man. The man who rules the world rightly, under God.
What do we see about this man? We see that this man hasn’t left us to our fate. Jesus has actually entered into our suffering. He has become one of us, in our death-bound, cursed world. This man died, though he never deserved death. He died, he entered into our curse. Why? Verse 9, ‘so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone’
We are under God’s death sentence. We are cursed by God. But Jesus took that curse on himself, though he didn’t deserve it. He suffered, he died, instead of us, in our place. But in dying, Jesus took the curse of God upon himself, and he gives us life, freedom and forgiveness.
Do you believe this? Do you trust this man? Do you trust that this man died for you? In your place? To restore your relationship with God? To restore your humanity, your dignity, your life? To deliver you from death? Verse 10, to bring you to glory? To make you a child of God? Do you believe in this man? Because you can’t begin to understand or know what the Bible tells us about the world and about the environment, until you know the man who rules that world, and until you know that you can be forgiven for turning your back on God and all the horrible ugliness that flow from that sin. If you don’t know Jesus, there’s not much point in finding out about the environment, actually. You need to do business with God, to get your relationship with God sorted out first.
But if you do believe that Jesus died for your sins to make you right with God, do you realize that Jesus’ death has huge ramifications, not just for your private life, but for the whole world?
The true Image of God (Colossians 1:15-20)
Let’s look now at Colossians, chapter 1, verses 15-20
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
You see, why did Jesus die on the cross? To pay for our sins, to make us right with God, to bring us everlasting life. They’re all correct answers. But what does that last sentence, verse 20, say about why Jesus died on the cross?
Do you see it?
Jesus died on the cross to reconcile all things to God. To make peace between God and everything. Every … thing. Not just you, not just me. Everything. That’s why the gospel is preached to every creature in verse 23!
Did Jesus die for chickens? For bunny rabbits? For trees? Well that’s what the Bible says!
That’s bizarre, isn’t it?
But think about it; in verse 15 we see that Jesus is the image of God, the firstborn over all creation (that means the heir, the ruler). The image of God, remember, is the one who is in a special relationship with God. The one who rules the creation, God’s way. And if the whole creation fell under a curse, then it makes perfect sense that the image of God is the one who’s going to do something about it.
Now does this mean that Jesus died to pay for the sins of chickens and bunny rabbits? Did he die to take the place of trees on the cross? Will all the trees and rabbits and people have eternal life? No, that’s not what it says – it says that his death on the cross reconciles all things. Reconciliation means, ‘making things right’. Putting things back into their proper place. Putting the order back together. It’s not the same as salvation. Only humans who believe in Jesus will be saved. But Jesus’ death reconciles all things to God. It puts everything back into its proper relationship with God.
How does it do that? Well Jesus’ death (and his resurrection) means that there’s a whole new group of human beings who are right with God. Saved people, people who’ve had their sin forgiven, who can call God their loving Father, whose curse has been cancelled. That group of human beings is called, in verse 18, ‘the church’. And by the word ‘church’, I don’t mean the institution or a bunch of people in funny looking clothes. It’s the universal community of saved people, gathered around Jesus. People whose curse has been lifted by his death, people who have been given new resurrection life in him, trusting him, waiting for his return.
The church is a new humanity. Does that describe you? I hope so. Because when there is a new humanity, a new living people, no longer under the curse of death, no longer shaking our fists at God, but back in relationship with God, with our sin forgiven, then, and only then, is there hope for the world. Because now, the image of God is back in action. Now the rulers are here, ruling under the one ruler who is the ruler of all rulers. Jesus is the only hope for our world. In Jesus’ death, the world is reconciled to God
The renewed Image of God (Colossians 3)
What does that mean for you and me? What are supposed to do with that fact?
The first thing we’re supposed to do is to trust and to wait for Jesus.
Looking at Colossians chapter 3, verses 1-4:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Christ has reconciled the world to God. We are saved, we have life and it’s real! But this reality hasn’t yet been translated into things we can see and touch. We are still waiting for Jesus to appear. The world still looks like it’s under a curse, doesn’t it? Physically, there is still sin, and death and decay.
There will be a day when Jesus appears to all, when the reconciliation of the world will appear for all to see. When our environment will be restored to rights. A new creation! We’ll be looking at that in the next article in more detail. But while we wait for it to happen, we are to set our hearts on the future. We trust Jesus and hope in him. We remember that our life is caught up with him. We set our minds on things above, not on earthly things.
But does this mean we are ‘so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use’? Are we just to sit around twiddling our thumbs, or gazing at our belly buttons? Well no, we are to get very busy. We’re supposed to act according to who we are.
There’s a movie called the Princess Diaries. The movie is about this high school girl called Mia, who’s shy and unpopular. But Mia learns that she’s actually the biological heir to the throne of a kingdom called Genovia. She is the great hope for the kingdom, she’s their heir apparent. The plot of the movie is all about how Mia learns to act like a real princess. She doesn’t actually start reigning in Genovia right away; instead (for some reason) she’s still going to school in the USA. But while she’s still living in the USa she has to practice walking with plates on her head, learning good manners, learning how to talk proper. Princessy things! Mia really is the heir to Genovia. So she has to act that way, even before she gets to Genovia.
We are really heirs to the throne. We are God’s new humanity. We’ve been saved by Christ, the image of God. And our job is to rule his new world. So we have to start living that way, even now as we live our daily lives before his return.
Colossians chapter 3, verse 5
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
Our job is to put to death our old way of life. Do you think that will also make a difference to our world?
Take greed. Greed is about loving, desiring, lusting after the things of this world, rather than loving God himself. That’s why greed is ‘idolatry’. It’s loving things more than God. Greed makes you very busy, too. Because to feed your greed you need money, and to get money you have to work hard, to get a bigger car, or a better house, or a nicer computer or mobile phone. Greedy people think of their own pleasure first, and are very busy Are you very busy? Are you a busy person? Are you too busy to think of the effects of your everyday actions on other people and on the world? To take a moment when you’re in the bathroom, in the kitchen, in the car, on the way to work? Are you thinking only of yourself all the time?
If you start living as God’s new humanity, if you start putting greed to death, won’t you start thinking more about how God wants you to act towards the people and world he has made, rather than what you can get out of it?
If you know Christ, then every day, in the little things, you should be putting greed to death. As you get up, switch on lights, turn on heaters, use your car, get busy at work it is right to think about how your actions will affect other people and the world they live in. But don’t do it just because it’s a good thing to do!
Do it because you are acting as somebody in the image of God. If you are a Christian, then Colossians 3 verse 10 says you have
put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
If you have trusted in Jesus, then you have clothed yourself with a whole new image. The renewed Image of God! Remember that the Image of God is the ruler of God’s creation, and that is who you are. You are waiting for Jesus to appear, longing, for the new heavens and the new earth!
But in the meantime you are putting greed to death. You are living in love for others. You are thinking and acting, not for yourself, but for the people around you.
Will that make a difference to the world? Of course it will! You can’t save the world—that’s Jesus’ job. But you can make a difference, because you can live as an heir of this world, rescued from death, renewed in God’s image, ruling under God.
This article is part 2 in a 3-part series, adapted from a talk given at the Wollongong ECU Reload Conference in 2009.