The environment: Should Christians care?
When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, she could not have known she was unleashing a force that has endured to our day. The environmental movement has evoked enthusiasm as well as calumny, and generated much controversy. Human greed opposes environmentalism and many conservative Christians remain indifferent.
Fortunately, a positive Christian response to environmental needs is slowly emerging,1 but it still appears to be a minority position. How did it happen that the church withdrew from so seemingly positive an endeavor? Do Christians have a legitimate interest in environmentalism, or might it be a distraction from the real work of the gospel?
A brief history
Before Silent Spring, Christian writers had relatively little to say about our responsibility toward nature. Immediately after Silent Spring, there was a slight bump, but output still remained low. Then, in 1967, science historian Lynn White published a paper that largely blamed the West's Judeo-Christian roots for the ecological crisis.2 He saw as the root cause of the problem the doctrines of the creation of humankind in God's image and His granting to them dominion over nature. White's article caught the attention of Christian writers in a big way.3 Responses varied, with some writers being incensed, while others were contrite. But White's allegations seemed to bypass a bloc of believers who continued to affirm what he accused them of saying that creation was “explicitly for man's benefit and rule… [and] that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”4
At about the same time, atmospheric scientist James Lovelock, while studying Mars' atmosphere, concluded that it could not support life. But he also noted Earth's life-supporting atmosphere and deduced that it was maintained by the very life it supports. The concept of a global feedback system eventually led some to propose the controversial “Gaia Hypothesis,” which was embraced by followers of the neo-pagan New Age movement. They, in turn, embraced environmentalism to protect “Mother Earth.” In response, conservative Christians in particular turned away from creation care, fearing it would constitute Earth-worship. This is where we are today.
This history and several theological interpretations (misinterpretations?) underlie numerous impediments to Christian creation care. We will examine and briefly analyze them.
Impediments to creation-care
1. Subduing and having dominion along with tending and keeping creation. Many Christian believers insist that God mandated environmental exploitation. An example of this came to my attention several years ago when I received an account of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The article contrasted ANWR lands with adjacent oil fields. After I shared the account, a Christian pastor surprised me. Skipping over the drama of ANWR, he insisted that oil companies would never despoil land. Moreover, unconsciously echoing White's critique, he dismissively declared: “Didn't God give us dominion over creatures?”
I believe this pastor and others like him misunderstand and misapply the biblical concept of “dominion.” Thus, it may be helpful to examine this issue more closely. What we think of God and creation greatly influences how we live. Consider Genesis 1:27, 28 and 2:15 together: “So God created man in His own image…Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth'…. Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend it and keep it” (NKJV).
How should we understand “subdue” and “have dominion” in context with “tend and keep”? Some commentators suggest that “subdue” and “have dominion” could have referred to the future, after the disobedience of Adam and Eve. In fact, some speak of the “dominion mandate.” But since God called creation good, celebrated creation, instructed humans to tend and keep creation, and repeatedly defines Himself as the one and only Creator, reckless exploitation appears out of character, unsatisfactory, and out of context.
As presented, “subdue” and “have dominion” appear to qualify the “image of God.” Moreover, filling the Earth qualifies “subdue.” Genesis 2 suggests that the Earth was not full when God created Eden. Eden in the east implies an exact location. And after sinning, Eve and Adam were ousted from Eden, additionally suggesting a real but restricted place.
What was outside? We know little, but evidently the Earth was unfilled. This makes me wonder if Eden had not only been created as home for our first parents, but also as a model and resource for expansion to other parts of the planet. In order to enlarge Eden, humans were given authority (dominion).
In My Life Today Ellen White described renewed earth, “that garden of delight [Eden]…untouched by the curse of sin–a sample of what the whole earth would have become had man but fulfilled the Creator's glorious plan.”5 She also wrote elsewhere: “The home of our first parents was to be a pattern for other homes as their children should go forth to occupy the earth.”6
What was the dominion relationship? Isaiah describes human association with animals in the future restored earth: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6, RSV). If the future reflects the past, then dominion appears to have been more a willing rather than a coerced response to human interaction.
We conclude, then, that “subdue” and “have dominion” are not the same as “tend and keep;” but neither are they in opposition. They are in harmony when correctly understood and followed. Dominion is not a license to destroy.
2. New Age and neo-pagan environmentalism. Novelist William Golding suggested that James Lovelock name his global feedback hypothesis for maintaining Earth's atmosphere, “Gaia” after the Greek earth goddess. When the Gaia hypothesis caught the attention of New Agers, they adopted Gaia wholeheartedly. Thus, the New Age movement became associated with environmentalism. Christians, seemingly unable to distinguish between the two, rejected both.
The church was alerted to “New Age environmentalism” in 19837 through the writings of Cumbey8 and Hunt, which opened a wide gap between conservative Christianity and environmentalism. While the background to the New Age movement is doubtless satanic, condemning Christian environmentalists as heretics is quite another thing. Sheldon wrote: “The New Age movement is a real threat to the church ... But Cumbey is incorrect to suggest that the Lord is not interested in His Creation and has not placed us in a position of authority for its care.”9
3. Misunderstanding the nature of life, death, and future existence. In his critique, Lynn White suggested that the environmental crisis was largely a religious problem, so it would take religion to solve it. Francis Schaeffer added that for Christianity to do the job, it would have to be the right kind. He cautioned: “Any Christianity that rests upon a dichotomy–some sort of platonic concept–simply does not have an answer.”
To understand how the platonic concept affected Christian environmental perspective, we need to go back to the early church. As the church developed after the second century, opposing Greek philosophies influenced Christian doctrine and beliefs. Christian theology, for example, assimilated Greek dualism along with Gnostic ideas. Gnostics believed a lesser God created Earth, which, in turn, was correspondingly devalued. Nevertheless, a divine spirit that could be reintegrated with divinity endowed the human.
Greek philosophies permeated popular Christianity, demeaning both the process and the product of creation, and even the Creator Himself. This led to theological aberrations, such as the concept of an immortal soul, the ascent of a conscious spirit at death, an eternally burning hell, the inherent evil nature of human flesh, a reduced value placed on celebrating Creator and creation through Sabbath-keeping, and now, anti-environmentalism. Christians have lost much.
Even though corrupted by sin, our world is still God's gift that must be cherished. Earth will be restored as our eternal home (Revelation 20, 21), not a lesser place to leave behind. It will be a real world with real people and real animals and plants. Moreover, what we do with Earth now says much about our understanding of God, the creation, and our future life. Clearly, God expects us to care for His creation.
4. Suspicion of science. Many conservative Christians distrust science. Victoria Schlesinger wrote: “Science remains the principal foe of the belief that God created the world.... Consequently, many conservative evangelicals dismiss science as part of the liberal agenda.”10
Just as conservative Christians may have difficulty distinguishing between environmentalism and New Age pantheism, so they may find science and atheism indistinguishable. When scientific evidence seemingly disagrees with biblical teachings, science may be too easily rejected. Instead, we need to make sure that both Scripture and science are correctly understood.
Adventists, like other conservative Christians, are concerned about issues relating to creation and evolution. Adventist enthusiasm for health sciences also promotes strong basic science education programs, in the understanding that “true science and Inspiration are in perfect harmony.”11 The expression “true science,” suggests the alternative, “false science.” Thus, Paul's advice about sifting truth from error is appropriate, whether referring to science or Scripture: “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, NKJV). Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we must evaluate and intelligently decide. Environmentalism cannot be so simply dismissed because some scientific theories are distrusted.
5. Environmentalism and eschatology. However much we may wish to justify creation-care, Peter notes: “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10, NKJV). Where does this leave us?
Some conservative Christians, anticipating Jesus' return, ignore creation-care, and excuse exploiting resources without regard for the future. Greed may even taint their eschatology, as long-range global warming threats go unheeded, forests are thoughtlessly exploited and poorly managed, and resources generally wasted. Contrary to greedy exploitation, however, Isaiah anticipates the great oppressor's death when even forest trees and Lebanon's cedars figuratively rejoice: “'No one will come now to cut us down now!” (Isaiah 14:8, NLT).
Ever since Jesus ascended, many have hoped and thought the Advent near. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “Don't be so easily shaken or alarmed by those who say the day of the Lord has already begun” (2 Thessalonians 2:2, NLT). We believe the Advent near for increasingly valid reasons, but in the parable of the talents, the master instructed his servants to continue in business until he returned (Luke 19:13). What does this say about tending and keeping now?
We conclude that both the renewed Earth and its people will be real, physical, and tangible. This concept is important for servicing a doomed and devastated creation. Linking the Advent with environmental needs, we may choose to focus hopelessly on doomsday or alternatively look eagerly ahead to Earth's restoration. Attitudes toward creation now will color attitudes we take toward the new creation. If we treat creation recklessly now, could we be expected to treat the renewed Earth differently? No wonder, Revelation 11:18 says those who destroy Earth will themselves be destroyed.
Why then should we look after a doomed creation? We do it because it's God's and He told us to keep it. Moreover, living now as we will live in the renewed Earth makes additional and ultimate sense. Environmental abuse offers no hope; the Advent promises a bright future as we practice creation-care now.
6. Christian leaders' pressure against positive environmental action. Many conservative believers fail to participate in creation care because of these understandings. Christian environmentalism alarms old guard leaders who often resist creation-care12 as they themselves, with these opposing attitudes, constitute yet another impediment. Mainline churches are more receptive to environmentalism, but recently the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) almost backed pro-environment action. A few, especially younger believers educated in and more comfortable with science, don't see science as the threat others fear. These promoted Christian environmentalism to the NAE, but unfortunately, church leaders blocked the effort, unreasonably fearing environmentalism in the church as tantamount to “earth worship.” Later reports indicate that under this pressure, the NAE backed down. Still, a group of 86 Christian leaders is commendably pressing on.13
Practicing Christian environmentalism
At the beginning of this essay, we asked if environmentalism might constitute a distraction from the real work of the church, or might it be part of what we're actually about. We have examined several apparent impediments to positive environmental action by Christians, analyzed them, and I hope, put them to rest. I interpret biblical teachings, together with science, to say that when Christian environmentalism is correctly understood, these impediments should not stand in our way; environmentalism is not only something we may, but actually must, be part of. In the beginning we were indeed given a mandate–not a mandate to exploit, but a mandate to be responsible and caring.
We often think of environmentalism in negative terms, like pollution, global warming, ozone depletion, mass species extinction, erosion, with resulting economic loss, and so on. But there is a positive side as well. Howard Frumkin, makes this point:14 “Contact with the natural world may be directly beneficial to health.” Thus, caring for creation benefits us now.15 Richard Louv also shows how nature positively impacts children in the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.16
A healthy environment enables the gospel. Ellen White observed that “medical missionary work…is the gospel in practice.17 She referred to the “Gospel of health”18 and indicated that a healthy environment is health inducing. “Nature is God's physician,” White wrote, referring to pure air, sunshine, beautiful flowers and trees.19 “The things of nature are God's blessings, provided to give health to body, mind, and soul.”20
In an essay, Larry Boughman21 refers to Mavis Batey, who wrote about the gardens of Oxford and Cambridge. She thought those gardens embodied the philosophy of simplicity and excellence so necessary for both students and professors to flourish in their intellectual endeavors. Natural environments promote and enhance spirituality, health, and learning.
Two roads branch before us, one popular and easy, but leading to devastation, while the other more challenging, leading to life. We have seen that the church, when considering environmental action, has experienced difficulty deciding which road and what role to take. Proclaiming the Gospel of salvation is the first work of the church. Caring for creation is the second. Romans 8:21 tells us, moreover, that nature will also be liberated when Jesus returns. The good news is also for creation. And in the end, as we tend and keep creation now, so we will continue to care for Eden restored.
Consequently, how should we live? Caring for creation, with seriousness and simplicity, should be a way of life. The cost of environmental neglect and abuse is high; the payoff for caring is indeed generous–and eternally ongoing.
Henry Zuill (Ph.D., Loma Linda University) has taught biology and conducted research in ecology for many years. Now actively retired, he resides in Norman, Arkansas, U.S.A. His email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay is based on a paper he presented at the Third Symposium on the Bible and Adventist Scholarship in March 2006, sponsored by The Foundation for Adventist Education. The full text is accessible at http://fae.adventist.org.
- Articles positive to Christian environmentalism may be found in Christianity Today.
- Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (March 10, 1967), pp.1203–1207.
- See Joseph K. Sheldon, “Twenty-One Years After ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis': How Has The Church Responded?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 41 (September 1989), pp.152– 58.
- White, p. 1205.
- Ellen G. White, My Life Today (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1952), p. 340. Italics supplied.
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1890), p. 49.
- See Sheldon, op. cit.
- Described as raised Adventist but converted to the Baptist faith in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constance_E._Cumbey.
- Sheldon, op. cit.
- See http://www.vschlesinger.com/StewardshipWars.html.
- Ellen G.White, Messages to Young People (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1930), p. 190.
- See Alan Coopman, Washington Post (February 2, 2006), p. A8.
- See Frank James, The Olympian, February 11, 2006, Olympia, Washington. Front page.
- Howard Frumkin, “Beyond Toxicity: Human Health and the Natural Environment,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine; 20:3 (2001), pp. 234-240.
- For other examples of the environment enhancing life see Jane Essman, Conservationist, 47 (February 1993) 4:47; “Fighting Crime With Leaves,” Christian Science Monitor (August 28, 1997); “Petunias in the Playground,” Economist 320 (1991)17, p. 56.
- Published by Algonquin Books (April 15, 2005) ISBN:1565123913.
- Ellen G. White. Counsels on Health (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1957), p. 532.
- _____, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1963), p. 259.
- _____, My Life Today, p. 135.
- _____, Counsels on Health, p. 169.
- Larry W. Boughman, “Campus Beautification: A Factor in Integration of Faith and Learning,” Christ in the Classroom: Adventist Approaches to the Integration of Faith and Learning, vol. 14, (1994).