What do Adventists have to say to the world about environmental stewardship?

Seventh-day Adventists recognize and support the scriptural call to environmental care. They engage creation care in multiple ways and at both individual and corporate levels. Can the Adventist Church do more to promote creation care? The answer is “yes,” and the time to do so is now.

Seventh-day Adventists base their beliefs on the Bible, regarded as the inspired word of God. As such, their understanding of environmental stewardship is rooted in a biblical worldview. This article summarizes, in a series of statements, what Adventists have to say to the world about environmental stewardship, as guided by our understanding of the Bible and informed by current science.1

Our world is a creation, not an accident, and is of value to the Creator.

Because the Bible reveals God as the designer and creator of the universe, including life and life support systems on our planet, Adventists believe that the world is a result of God’s creation, not an accident (Genesis 2:2, 3).2 God repeatedly pronounced as “good” His creative acts before humans were created, which included both living and non-living components of creation (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31), revealing that God cares for all aspects of His creation, not just humans. Furthermore, God bestowed His blessings upon all living things, first blessing non-human creatures on the fifth day of creation (Genesis 1:22), followed by humans on the sixth day (Genesis 1:28). God also blessed the seventh day as the Sabbath, which was to serve as a perpetual reminder that God is the Creator and He cares for all of His creation.3

God’s love and concern for creation are expressed repeatedly throughout the Bible, including Job (40, 41), Jonah (4:10, 11), the Psalms (36, 96, 104, 145, 147, 148), and the words of Jesus (Matthew 6:26; 10:29; Luke 12:6). When threatened by the wickedness of humankind, many living creatures were miraculously preserved by God during the flood (Genesis 6). Through various prophets, God warned about the environmental consequences of sin (Isaiah 24:5, 6; Hosea 4:1-3). Because God loved the world, He sent His Son to redeem it (John 3:16) and promised to eventually restore the original creation, not just humans (Isaiah 11:6-9; Ezekiel 36:33-35; Romans 8:19-23).

The creation is neither sacred nor evil, but a means to achieve the goals of the Creator.

Philosophies associated with ancient Gnosticism found the locus of evil in matter. Those associated with the pantheism of Eastern religions found animate and inanimate objects as being vehicles of the divine and hence good and sacred. In stark contrast, the biblical position is that both animate and inanimate aspects of creation are neither sacred nor evil. Instead, the Bible boldly declares that the Earth and everything on it is not God but instead belongs to God, who is the ruler of His creation (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26). The finely-tuned physical parameters of the universe and ingeniously-designed biogeochemical cycles of our planet result in a biogeochemical homeostasis that perpetually sustains life, revealing God’s intention for the Earth “to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18).4 Thus, the creation is neither sacred nor evil; instead, it is a means to achieve the goals of the Creator, which were to create a planet filled with living creatures and to create a race of intelligent beings made in the image of God who would manage the planet (Genesis 1:26).

The Sabbath is a memorial to creation and a perpetual reminder of our moral obligation to care for it.

Adventists are committed to keeping the fourth commandment: to remember the seventh-day Sabbath, keep it holy, and refrain from work (Exodus 20:8-11).5 The blessings of the Sabbath are extended to all of creation, not just humans, for the Sabbath represents a reminder of God’s provision for the needs of all creatures, including rest from labor for beasts of burden (Exodus 23:12). Freed from daily toil on the Sabbath, Adventists often spend at least part of the day exploring the outdoors and learning about God’s creation, thus nurturing an intimate relationship with the Creator and other created beings. By reinforcing the relationship between the Creator and the creation, commemorating the weekly Sabbath reminds us that our lives depend on the planet’s life support systems and that we must adopt a wholistic approach in our relationship with the creation.

We are a part of the creation, yet intentionally set apart by the Creator to manage the creation responsibly.

Shortly after being created, God gave man “dominion” (KJV) and set him apart to “rule” over all living things and “subdue” the Earth (Genesis 1:26, 28). Because the “dominion” over all living things and permission to “rule” and “subdue” were given before sin entered the planet (Genesis 3), before skins were needed for clothing (Genesis 3:21), and long before humans were allowed to kill animals for food (Genesis 9:3), the “dominion” is clearly a mandate for responsible stewardship of Earth rather than a permit to plunder the planet’s resources.

After being placed in the Garden of Eden, Adam was commanded “to dress it and keep it” (KJV) or “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Later, God commanded His people to take care of the land (Exodus 23:10, 11; Leviticus 25:2-7, 23, 24) and to treat animals humanely (Exodus 23:5, 12; Numbers 22:23-33; Deuteronomy 25:4; Matthew 12:11). These texts clearly reveal God’s desire for us to manage the creation. Not only did God endow us with the intelligence and ability to study and utilize the creation to make our lives more comfortable, He also gave us the freedom to make choices, even if our choices ultimately harm the creation.

The biblical view of stewardship encompasses time, money, possessions, health, and opportunities, as well as natural resources.6 However, the Bible clearly states that none of these is our own; instead, the world and everything in it belongs to God (Leviticus 25:23; Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 6:15-20; 10:26). Because of human greed, God specifically prohibited rulers from accumulating horses, silver, or gold (Deuteronomy 17:16, 17). Instead, God associated royal rulership with benevolence toward the weak and needy (Psalm 72:8-14). Jesus, the Creator (John 1:1-3), was sent to the world to teach, heal, and redeem us, and demonstrated how we should interact with fellow human beings and other cohabitants of the planet.

The Creator values all life forms and tenderly provides for their needs, and expects us to follow His example in the way we regard and treat other species.

God provided for the needs of all creatures, not just humans or those that provide direct benefits to humans (Job 38:19-41; Psalms 36:6, 104:27, 28, 147:9; Jonah 4:11; Matthew 6:26). God repeatedly reminded us of our moral obligation to treat animals humanely by providing them with sufficient rest and food (Exodus 23:5, 12; Deuteronomy 25:4), rescuing them from harm (Matthew 12:11), and never torturing them (Numbers 22:23-33). Although some animals must be sacrificed to sustain human life, any such usage that causes pain, suffering, and death of animals for the benefit of humans or other animals must be morally justified. Because God cares for all of His creation, we should recognize that the non-human creation has moral value. Nevertheless, as exemplified by Noah’s flood and elsewhere in Scripture, God regards animate life as more important than inanimate objects, and human life as more important than non-human life.

Life is a gift from God; therefore, we must respect it and are morally com-pelled to protect and preserve it. Consequently, we should never kill or injure any animal for mere sport or pleasure. We should always strive to nurture and never abuse any animal within our care. We object to inhumane treatment of any animals in the livestock industry, in biomedical and other research, and in the pet industry. Christians who have ready access to a plant-based diet, which was God’s original plan, should refrain from eating animals or at least consume fewer animal products. A vegetarian diet impacts the environment far less than a meat-based diet.7 Nevertheless, some human populations have no choice but to con-sume meat. Although genetic manipulation can help us more effectively meet the needs of the sick and hungry (Matthew 25:34-36), thorough study should be undertaken before adoption of any practice to assure that benefits strongly outweigh any potentially-adverse health or environmental effects.

Wholeness encompasses not just body, mind, and spirit, but also the environment, as healthy ecosystems are essential to sustain human life.

Because our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20), Adventists believe we are to care for them intelligently.8 This view, combined with efforts to relieve suffering, has motivated Adventists to adopt a distinctive emphasis on human health modeled after the healing ministry of Jesus.

The concept of wholeness encompasses diligent care of emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. But these needs are deeply and irrevocably entwined with the environments in which we live. Healthy environments provide natural resources and processes that sustain human life. Collectively, these products are known as ecosystem services. Unhealthy environments provide diminished ecosystem services and can promote disease and infirmity.

Most of us take for granted the abundant ecosystem services that we depend upon daily. These include, among others, provision of food and water; pollination of native and agricultural plants; cycling of nutrients; moderation of extreme weather, including flood and drought mitigation; protection against erosion; regulation of plant pest and human disease organisms; decomposition and detoxifi-cation of wastes; purification of air and water; and maintenance of biodiversity. These services, given to us for free, have been valued globally at US$33 trillion per annum, which reflects their irreplaceable value.9 Without these services, which we are rapidly degrading and cannot readily replace, our quality of life would be fundamentally diminished.

The present state of the creation is blemished, against the desire of the Creator.

Shortly after the fall of Adam and Eve, the consequences of sin increasingly blighted the creation. Change became evident at every level, with death featuring prominently in the cycles that governed the circle of life. When we compare the present-day condition of the natural world with descriptions of Eden before it was cursed (Genesis 1:30) and after its restoration (Isaiah 11:6-9), there can be no doubt that the present state of the creation is blemished. In the words of Paul, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22).

Eventually, God all but wiped the slate clean with the flood. This was neces-sary, in part, because “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight” (Genesis 6:11), which was due at least in part to humankind’s presence, “for the earth is filled with violence because of them” (Genesis 6:13). God intended the ark to perpetuate His created life forms, and after they exited the ark when the floodwaters receded, He vowed, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans ... and never again will I destroy all living creatures” (Genesis 8:21). Clearly, God regretted human’s corruption of Earth.

Today, many scientists believe we are confronted with one of the planet’s greatest extinction events of all time, resulting in an ecological meltdown and biodiversity crisis largely of our own making. Some individuals, including Christians, dismiss the urgency of this concern. Nevertheless, there is over-whelming evidence that humans have, indeed, contributed greatly to the accelerating rate of species extinctions through habitat degradation, introduction of non-native (alien) species, excessive pollution, overexploitation, and the spread of disease.

Responsible management of the creation involves tradeoffs that call for our best judgment.

The reckless footprint of humans on planet Earth has substantially altered much of God’s creation. God provided the immense resources of this planet for our benefit, intending that they enrich our lives and help us meet our needs. He also expects us to share these resources amicably among ourselves and with other created species. But conflict arises at two levels in how best to use these natural resources: decisions made by the individual and decisions made by local or national governments. Inevitably, the decisions we make reflect tradeoffs that call for our best judgments. The extent to which we use resources today may result in profound economic and quality-of-life conse-quences, but may be at the expense of non-human occupants of our planet. Resource use today may also affect the availability of those resources for future generations of humans.

Our values and attitudes greatly influence how we manage the tradeoffs, and this calls for our best efforts in identifying and following biblical principles. At opposite ends of a continuum are those who fully support an environmental agenda and those who deride it, with plenty of middle ground in between. Individuals who identify themselves as political, social, and fiscal conservatives – including many religious people – are more likely than others to dismiss personal responsibility toward the environment and resist government policies intended to protect the environment. Indeed, this group also shows measurably less concern about environmental degradation than the general public.10

Although formal discussion remains elusive, diverse views toward the environment certainly exist among Seventh-day Adventists. Officially, the Church has acknowledged in three formal statements that an ecological crisis exists,11 and that it is “rooted in humankind’s greed and refusal to practice good and faithful stewardship within the divine boundaries of creation.”12 But Church guidance stops here. For the most part, we are left to answer on our own questions regarding personal use of resources and how to respond when governments seek to impose regulations that restrict resource use. The answers do not come easily, but as people of faith, Adventists seek to identify and follow biblical principles.

From Scripture, we can identify three overriding principles that can guide our decision-making.13 First, God values all aspects of His creation, having declared repeatedly that His creation was “good” (Genesis 1:10, 12, 21, 25, 31). Second, God expects us to be good stewards of the creation, as He authorized the first “Environmental Protection Act” (Genesis 2:25) and the first “Endangered Species Act” (Genesis 6:19), and admonished those who exploit and bring harm to His creation (Revelation 7:3; 11:18). Third, God expects us to use resources in ways that are sustainable, having affirmed that “a good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22). In sum, Adventists encourage all to live a simple, wholesome lifestyle, showing respect for creation and exercising restraint in the use of the world’s resources.14

These principles can guide our decisions when it comes to many activities that impact the environment. We can expect to be held responsible for decisions regarding the design of buildings and cities; how we produce, package, and distribute food; the products we purchase and the waste we generate; our choices in travel and entertainment; how we educate students regarding the environment; and how we care for our health. These principles should also inform the way we engage the politics of environmental care. Individual efforts cannot solve all of the challenges faced by our environment, and the political process is how democratic societies agree on solutions. To embrace sustainability, we may need to support policies that could limit natural resource use and may have unpopular economic repercussions. Sitting idly by, doing nothing to halt the accelerating damage to ecosystems, is not an acceptable option.

Good stewardship of the creation encompasses environmental edu-cation, conservation research, and natural resources management that include both individual action and responsible government regulation.

Environmental education generally begins in the home and in the local church, where nature – God’s “second book” – has traditionally been upheld. Reinforcement continues in elementary and secondary school, especially for those who partici-pate in youth programs and summer youth camps, where communion with nature and the study of it are encouraged. In our own childhood, we enjoyed frequent outdoor picnics, nature hikes, and visits to nature centers, zoos, and museums, especially on Sabbath afternoons. We also enjoyed camping on a regular basis. Our growing fascination with nature, nurtured by our parents, deepened our respect for the creation and sheltered us during our formative years from negative influences.

Adventist tertiary education provides further opportunities to become better informed about environmental issues, although the extent of this depends largely on one’s focus of study, the classes taken, and extramural activities chosen. Many Adventist universities sponsor research and conservation programs. These programs encompass a wide range of projects, including studying endangered species, implementing conservation actions, and educating the public about environmental issues.

For the Christian, environmental education must include both evidence-based and faith-informed perspectives. Linkages between human activity and environ-mental consequences should be grounded in solid science, preferably free of cultural distortions. Sensitivity to environmental issues should be enhanced by the call to stewardship expounded by Scripture. Because of the latter perspective, Christians – including Adventists – should become exemplary environmentalists.

We cannot blame “society” for environmental problems, because the problems are caused by individuals. Thus, resolving environmental problems must begin with the individual, but can be enhanced by organizational and even govern-mental support. Given the global nature of modern trade and expanding economies, personal efforts can have a surprisingly distant reach. One useful motto is to “think globally, act locally.”

Although we endeavor to undo the harm we have caused our planet, total restoration will be complete only when God makes all things new.

God has entrusted us to care for His creation, and one day will reclaim it (Isaiah 3:5; 65:17-25; Revelation 21:1-7).15 Our responsibility until then is to care for the portion of creation entrusted to us. If we fail to take care of our planet in this life, should we expect God to give us a renewed one in the next?

At the end of time, God will make all things new. The Eden of the original creation will be restored. Scripture portrays a very different Earth from the one we’ve been given to manage – an Earth in which there will be no death or suffering, where human greed will no longer threaten natural resources, where predators will neither harm nor destroy (Isaiah 35; 65:17-25; Revelation 21:1-7). Until that day, our best efforts cannot fully undo the harm we’ve done, nor can they erase the blight of sin on this planet. We look forward with longing to the day when we will see biodiversity at its richest and ecosystems functioning in their most harmonious state.

Conclusion

Seventh-day Adventists recognize and support the Scriptural call to environmental care. Adventists engage creation care in multiple ways and at both individual and corporate levels. Can the Adventist Church do more to promote creation care? We believe the answer is “yes,” and the time to do so is now. We need to increase discourse among ourselves and with others who share our concerns and goals. We need to support those who undertake worthwhile projects that advance environmental education and conservation management. We need to take advantage of the effective witness creation care can serve, incorporating it more effectively with other Adventist messages, including health, education, and evangelism.

Floyd E. Hayes (Ph.D., Loma Linda University) is professor of biology at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California, and is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Caribbean Ornithology.

William K. Hayes (Ph.D., University of Wyoming) is professor of biology and director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Loma Linda University, Cali­fornia.

This article is a slightly revised version of the original that appeared as the concluding chapter of the newly-released book on Adventist concepts of environmental stewardship, written by leading Adventist thought leaders and scholars. See Entrusted: Adventists and Environmental Care, eds. Stephen G. Dunbar, L. James Gibson, and Humberto M. Rasi (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2013). Used by permission.

REFERENCES

  1. This essay slightly shortens the concluding chapter of the newly-released book on Adventist concepts of environmental stewardship, written by leading Adventist thought leaders and scholars. See Entrusted: Adventists and Environmental Care, eds. Stephen G. Dunbar, L. James Gibson, and Humberto M. Rasi (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2013). We thank the editors of this book for suggesting some of the major themes by which this article is organized.
  2. Genesis 1; see also Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief #6 (http://www.adventist.org/beliefs/fundamental/index.html).
  3. Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief #20.
  4. All Scripture passages unless otherwise stated are from the New International Version.
  5. Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief #20.
  6. Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief #21.
  7. See, for example, H.J. Marlow, W.K. Hayes, S. Soret, R.L. Carter, E.R. Schwab, and J. Sabate, “Diet and the environment: Does what you eat matter?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89 (2009):1699S-1703S.
  8. Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief #22.
  9. R. Costanza, R. d’Arge, R. de Groot, S. Farber, M. Grasso, B. Hannon, K. Limburg, S. Naeem, R.V. O’Neill, J. Paruelo, R.G. Raskin, P. Sutton, and M. van den Belt, “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital,” Nature 387 (1997): 253-260.
  10. J.L. Guth, J.C. Green, L.A. Kellstedt, and C.E. Smidt, “Faith and the environment: Religious beliefs and attitudes on environmental policy,” American Journal of Political Science 39 (1995):364-382; P.W. Schultz, L. Zelezny, and N.J. Dalrymple, “A multinational perspective on the relation between Judeo-Christian religious beliefs and attitudes of environmental concern,” Environment and Behavior 32 (2000):576-591; A.M. McCright and R.E. Dunlap, “Defeating Kyoto: The conservative movement’s impact on U.S. climate change policy,” Social Problems 50 (2003):348-373; R.S. Allen, E. Castano, and P.D. Allen, “Conservatism and concern for the environment,” Quarterly Journal of Ideology 30(3/4) (2007):1-25; D.E. Sherkat and C.G Ellison, “Structuring the religion-environment connection: Identifying religious influences on environmental concern and activism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46 (2007):71-85; D.M. Konisky, J. Milyo, and L.E. Richardson, Jr., “Environmental policy attitudes: Issues, geographic scale, and political trust,” Social Science Quarterly 89 (2008):1066-1085; M.N. Peterson and J. Liu, “Impacts of religion on environmental worldviews: The Teton Valley case,” Society and Natural Resources 21 (2008):704-718.
  11. See the Appendices in Entrusted: Adventists and Environmental Care (endnote 1).
  12. From “A Statement on the Environment,” the 1995 statement in Appendix B in Entrusted: Adventists and Environmental Care (endnote 1).
  13. J.T. Baldwin, “Keepers of the garden: Christians and the environment,” Dialogue 14(1) (2002):8-11; A. von Maur, “How can we build and dwell as stewards of the natural environment?” Chapter 16 of Entrusted: Adventists and Environmental Care (endnote 1).
  14. From “A Statement on the Environment,” Appendix B in Entrusted: Adventists and Environmental Care (endnote 1).
  15. Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief #28.