Why should Christians practice environmental stewardship if the world will be destroyed?
To uplift God faithfully so that all are drawn to Him, is to proclaim and cherish the preciousness of His creation, the grace of His redemption, the constancy of His ongoing care, and the joy of His consummation.
Christian theology broadly agrees with the Adventist affirmation that “the emergency plan to save the human family should they sin” meant that “the active Creator, – God the Son – would become humanity’s Saviour.”1 However, since not all believers adopt the same theological emphases as Adventists do, some Christians can escape the creative tension Adventists experience between First Things and Last Things – specifically, between the Christ of Creation and the Christ of Consummation.2
Eschatology and the Christ of Consummation
The message proclaimed by William Miller (1782-1849) and perhaps fifteen hundred clergy and public lecturers3 initiated a millenarian movement that spread widely in North America before the seismic shock of its Great Disappointment in 1844, when their proclamation of Christ’s Second Coming did not come to pass. While Millerism was related to revivalism, restorationism, and other impulses that were its contemporaries, its distinctive pre-millennialist emphasis sought to ready the planet for an imminent Second Coming.4 The key texts of the eschatological movement were many, and one such described the Advent people as those who were literally “looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:14, KJV).5
What is eschatology? The word comes from the Greek eschatos, (last) and logos, (word, reason, or discourse): focus on “last things.” Eschatology may “refer either to the fate of individuals (death, resurrection, judgment and afterlife) or to events surrounding the end of the world.”6 The latter meaning carries most significance for this study. The Millerites were Advent believers par excellence, so their Sabbatarian descendants developed their new Seventh-day Adventist movement with minds crowded by vivid biblical passages that included descriptors like “flaming fire” and “fervent heat.”7
“When the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints” (2 Thess. 1:7-10).
“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10).
Adventists reapplied the Old Testament prophecies about “the day of Lord” to the consummation of this earth’s history, Christ’s return, and the creation of “new [atmospheric] heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13). They fed avidly upon the apocalyptic portions of both the Old Testament and the New, especially the Book of Daniel, Christ’s Olivet sermon (Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21), 2 Thessalonians, and the Book of Revelation. The Millerites had emphasized the cleansing of Earth by the fires of the last day; the Adventists could find no way of being faithful to Scripture that did not include an apocalyptic end for the planet and all the finally impenitent.8 However, in their teaching and preaching they highlighted the theme of hope that climaxed in the restored Eden of Revelation 21 and 22.9
The experience of 1844 and its aftermath posed the crucial question for Adventists: what does it really mean to believe in the Second Advent? Within half a century, a major debate in the developing movement posed a parallel question: What does it really mean to believe in the First Advent? 10 Adventists slowly came to grips with the pervasive concept that all Scripture orbits the two comings of Christ. “In every page, whether history, or precept, or prophecy, the Old Testament Scriptures are irradiated with the glory of the Son of God,” Ellen White, one of the primary founders of Adventism, wrote in 1898.11 If this is true of the first major portion of the Bible, it is even more evident in the New Testament further promise that He will consummate the plan of salvation with “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:20, 21). Therefore, by the time of Ellen White’s death (1915), Adventists were aware that her challenge to “be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world”12 was indeed substantive, embracing as it did the Christ who saves from sin (soteriology), the Christ who makes all things new (eschatology), and more.
Cosmology and the Christ of Creation
One of the formative thinkers in Millerism who laid a foundation for Adventism wrote, on 25 January 1844, about his newly-acquired hope that “we shall have a clean universe.”13 That Adventists came to speak much of Eden restored implied the importance of the original Eden, the one that was lost. The more explicitly they settled on Revelation 14:6-12 as their unique commission from Heaven to deliver “to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (v. 6), the more they were confronted by the language of verse 7 – them to “worship him that made heaven and earth, the sea, and the fountains of waters.” At the time Seventh Day Baptists were praying earnestly that God would enable them to be more effective in sharing their conviction about a Saturday Sabbath, it seemed providential when they were able to spur Adventists to explore the biblical significance of the seventh day. As soon as Adventists linked the concept of a Saturday Sabbath with biblical prophecy, the idea gained momentum. The emphasis on the fourth commandment gave Adventism one of its most distinctive doctrines: “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work” (Ex. 20:9, 10).
Once they began seriously seeking to understand Creation – and the Sabbath as its memorial – Adventists were exposed to a plethora of biblical concerns. What was the ideal diet for humans in the original Eden? How might Scripture facilitate a wise selection from the numerous and confounding claims made by the health reform movement? In what ways might they prepare for Eden restored by making their lifestyles compatible with the principles of the first Eden? What might the answers to these questions say about related matters – even including the placement of Adventist homes in a “country” atmosphere?14
It took Adventists a hundred years to add, to their initial emphasis on Saturday as the day of worship, a broadly-based theology on the way of worship. Under the impetus of younger members who were earning doctorates in biblical studies and theology, this process seemed natural, even inevitable. Little by little, the Adventist teaching about the Christ of Creation matured in similar ways, as did their understanding of Christ and the Eschaton. And, as the wider society began to realize more acutely the finiteness of the earth’s resources and the problems posed for the environment by human activity, Adventists began more effectively to apply their convictions about First Things and Last Things as they contemplated the “dominion” God gave the first humans (Gen. 1:26).15
“All things were made by Him,” yet “All these things shall be dissolved”
For Adventists, Creation is the gift of a loving God who “formed [the earth] to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18). In the beginning, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). In the teachings of Jesus, the fowls of the air are fed by the same heavenly Father who cares for human beings. God values the beauty of lilies and the grass of the field (Matt. 6:25-34). Not only were “all things made” by the Word who is divine, but also “all things consist” in the “dear Son” by whom all things were created (John 1:3; Col. 1:13-18).
Therefore, to deal recklessly with Creation is to unite deliberately with the anti-God forces “which destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:18). It is to work at variance with the creating, giving, sustaining God whose glory is declared in His handiwork and who entrusts the works of His hands to humans (Ps.19:8). Whereas God “sowed good seed in his field,” “his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat” (Matt.13:24, 25). In this vale of sin and suffering, “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain,” and “even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:22, 23). Until this mortal puts on immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-53), we are co-workers with God in the work of redemption, sharing His values and goals as Christ did when He was incarnate on Earth.
Hence, it is not a deliberate action of a vindictive God that destroys His handiwork; rather, it is the final, divine act in a salvific process that consummates the restoration of a rebellious planet. The “strange work” of executive judgment precedes and facilitates the making new of all things (Isa. 28:21). The God of Scripture is a God of fresh beginnings: after the Flood; after the Babylonian captivity; when He sent His Son; and ultimately in the “new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (Gen. 6-9; Isa. 40; Gal. 4:4; 2 Pet. 3:13).
To articulate this scenario is to separate Adventism from universalism. God extends mercy; His grace is abundant, but His justice requires that the guilty be held accountable. To fail to nurture the environment because we know “all these things shall be dissolved” and even “the elements will melt with fervent heat” is to be as irresponsible as a medical doctor who is able to sustain viable life but chooses instead to wilfully destroy it. Assuredly, “the living know that they shall die,” but it is not for God’s people to disregard the divine gift of life because they know that “in Adam all die” (Eccl. 9:5; 1 Cor.15:22). Nor are they at liberty to act carelessly because “the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10).
“Occupy till I come”
Jesus enjoins His followers, in His graphic parable of the pounds, to “occupy” until their Master’s return (Luke 19:12-28). The world in which Adventism was birthed abounded in reforms regarding slavery, health, education, and more. For a time, the expectation of Christ’s immediate return swallowed up most other concerns, but gradually Adventists began to engage in a succession of reforms that enhanced their waiting for, and their witness about, the Lord’s return. Respect for nature can be traced far back in Christian history, at least to the stances of Irenaeus (130-200 AD), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), and Saint Francis of Assisi in medieval Italy. However, the modern form of Christian environmentalism is largely a product of changed circumstances of the twentieth century. Historian Geoffrey Blainey aptly contextualizes the impact of such publishing milestones as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Professor Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968).16 We shall now observe representative ways that, knowing this world will be destroyed, Adventists enjoin environmental stewardship.
Geographer Howard J. Fisher, in his post-doctoral lecturing, has characteristically emphasized the link between the doctrine of creation and environmental responsibility. Fisher has underscored three interlocking ideas: humans are created in the image of God; therefore they should develop economic systems that reflect responsible care for creation, and an eschatology that embraces a consummation of creation.
In a 2004 article, Fisher wrestled with two issues: finding motivation for practical concern about the natural world in the face of an expectation of an imminent and fiery termination of life on the planet,17 and the discontinuity produced by that cataclysm between the present apparently-doomed natural world and the new creation that includes reconciliation to God of all created things through Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15-20). He suggested that some Seventh-day Adventists may view environmental care as a test of stewardship, in line with Christ’s injunction to “occupy” until He comes; some may make a connection between environmental health and personal health – an issue much-emphasized by Adventists; and for others, a lessening sense of immediacy relating to the Second Advent may offer another reason to care for the natural environment.18 Fisher is apt to remark that if we fail to look after this world, we shouldn’t expect God to give us a new one.
Warren Trenchard, in a landmark article, offers a “theology of ecology,” observing: “About 1970, Seventh-day authors began to address the issue of Christian responsibility for the conservation and renewal of the earth. Their writings include discussions of the growing ecologic crisis, efforts at developing an environmental conscience among Adventists, and insights into the relationship between theology and ecology.”19
The lectures and writings of Fisher and Trenchard are merely two illustrations of the way in which, increasingly in the recent past, Adventist thinkers have addressed the issue of environmental stewardship.20 But it is important to note that Adventism is a worldwide denomination with over seventeen million baptized adult adherents, many of whom live in developing nations where the struggle to survive is a daily priority. Many influences need to coalesce in a sterling attempt to move a sometimes indifferent, reluctant, or otherwise-engaged membership to better appreciate such issues and invest their energies more responsibly. The Seventh-day Adventist Periodical Index conveniently indexes articles in Adventist Review, Ministry, Dialogue, Message, Journal of Adventist Education and regional magazines that give clarity and substance to this endeavor.21 Clearly, the ongoing “dialogue and dialectic” that is often vigorous in Adventism must include the difficult but essential matter of how Christian stewardship mandates the effective care of the physical earth.22
In essence: It is all about Christ and God
It is a source of surprise to non-Adventist and Adventist authors that Adventism as a millennialist movement is increasingly concerned with the quality of life on earth.23 However, from a theological standpoint, this concern is readily explicable. In the creative work of Christ, the Trinity gifted humanity a pristine earth. In Christ’s saving work, all that was lost by the Fall will be gifted again to the redeemed. There can be no eternal co-existence of good and evil; all things will be restored to their original beauty. Hence, the Adventist is drawn by four compelling truths about Jesus: He is at once Creator, Savior, Sustainer, and Consummator. To uplift Him faithfully so that all are drawn to Him (John 12:32) is to proclaim and cherish the preciousness of His creation, the grace of His redemption, the constancy of His ongoing care, and the joy of His consummation.
Arthur N. Patrick (Ph.D., University of Newcastle, Australia) is an honorary senior research fellow at Avondale College of Higher Education in Australia. He has served in New Zealand and the United States. His writings have focused on Adventist studies.
- Frank Holbrook, “The Great Controversy,” in Raoul Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald, 2000), 972.
- However, Adventists have much to learn from other Christians as they struggle with the issues of environmental stewardship. See, for instance, Douglas Moo, “Nature in the New Creation: New Testament Eschatology and the Environment,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49 (2006):449-488.
- The Midnight Cry (24 March 1844), 282, suggested from 1,500 to 2,000 lecturers were “proclaiming the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
- For a reliable introduction to Millerism, see R. Numbers and J. Butler, The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century (Indianapolis, Indiana: University Press, 1987). A recent, substantive account of Miller is that by David Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008).
- Since this chapter engages with the historical development of Adventism, it cites only the King James Version – the common Bible of Adventists until the middle of the twentieth century – except where otherwise stated.
- See T.W. Weber, “Eschatology,” in D. Reid, ed., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 397-401.
- Observe the stark contrast between premillennialism and postmillennialism. The former envisions a world in which “evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse” (2 Tim. 3:13) prior to a cataclysmic end that introduces a thousand years of “justice, peace and righteousness on earth.” The latter maintains that Christ’s coming will climax a thousand years of increasing “peace, prosperity and righteousness.” See R. Clouse, “Premillennialism” and “Postmillennialism,” in Reid, ed., Dictionary of Christianity in America, 919, 929. But note the distinctive stance of Adventists well described by K. Newport, “The Heavenly Millennium of Seventh--day Adventism,” in S. Hunt, ed., Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco (London: Hurst, 2001), 131-148.
- See Richard Lehmann, “The Second Coming of Jesus,” in Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, 893-926.
- For a longitudinal view of the way Adventist millennialism has been attenuated and transformed over time, see D. Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 2001). For an overview of the rapidly-growing discipline of Adventist studies, see A. Patrick, A Brief, Annotated Introduction to the Field of Adventist Studies for Higher Degree Students (Cooranbong, Australia: Avondale College, 2009); also available on the Avondale College website, www.avondale.edu.au/research.
- Cf. the fuller expression of similar ideas in G. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald, 2000).
- Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press, 1898), 211.
- Ellen White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1946), I 56.
- Charles Fitch to “Dear Brother [George] Storrs,” 25 January 1844, cited in Knight, compiler and editor, 1844 and the Rise of Sabbatarian Adventism (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald, 1994), 163, 164.
- Ellen White, Country Living: An Aid to Moral and Social Security (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1946).
- Michael Pearson, Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas: Seventh-day Adventism and Contemporary Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), acknowledged the need to address environmental concerns, but they were not part of his otherwise illuminating study of ethics.
- “The green movement, barely discernible in 1930, was highly influential half a century later.” G. Blainey, A Short History of the 20th Century (New York: Penguin, 2005), 503, 409-415.
- Hebry Zuill, in the paper “Christians and the Environment: A Biblical Perspective,” presented at the 3rd Symposium on the Bible and Adventist Scholarship, Akumal, Riviera Maya, Estado Quintana Roo, Mexico, March 19-25, 2006, noted: “Since 1980, the church has made four official statements regarding environmentalism,” available on http://www.Adventist.org/beliefs/statements/index.html. In his paper, Zuill argues: “Why then should we look after a doomed creation? We do it because God made it and told us to keep it. It is His; He created it.” See the entire paper with its extensive footnotes at http://fae.adventist.org/essays/34B_Zuill_H.pdf.
- Howard Fisher, “The Fate of Nature,” Christian Spirituality and Science 4 (2004), 5-16. See also Fisher’s article, “Green Light: The Christian response to environmental concerns,” Adventist Professional 6, no. I (1994), 11-13.
- Warren Trenchard, “For the Beauty of the Earth: An Adventist Theology of Ecology,” Spectrum 31, no. 3 (Summer 2003), 34-45.
- Note, for instance, how David Trim, now the General Conference archivist, argues “The Biblical Basis for Civic and Ecological Activism among Adventist Christians” in his article “Proclaim Liberty or Submit to Authority?” Spectrum 37, no. 3 (Summer 2009) 10-15, 64.
- See also such websites as http://www.sdaenvironmentalism.wordpress.com/.
- For intimations of the dialogic process, its challenges and possibilities, see A. Patrick, “Contextualising Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism: ‘A Constant Process of Struggle and Rebirth’?” Journal of Religious History 34. no. 3 (September 2010), 272-288.
- For instance: “The SDA church therefore provides the rare example of a sect that is millenarian in orientation, but one which also concerns itself with improving the world as it is.” S. Hunt, Alternative Religions: A Sociological Investigation (Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2003), 53.