Westmont Magazine Environmentalism and the Evangelical
Just the Bible for those justly concerned
By Sandra Richter, Robert Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies
As I have travelled, written and spoken on environmental stewardship in Christian circles for the last decade— from college students to seminarians, professors to cattle farmers, Californians to Kentuckians—I have seen a church continue to wrestle with how best to address this topic. Three years ago, while still at Wheaton College, biology professor Kristen Page and I launched a first-ever course, “Environmental Concern for the Christian: The Bible and Biology.” We opened with a seemingly innocent ice breaker: Introduce yourself to the class by telling us your name, major and why you took this course. Each student voiced the same testimony: “I’ve always loved the outdoors/the way the prairie seems to stretch forever/bird watching/gardening/the wild ponies on Asateague/watching the common dolphins play in the Channel Island sound. I felt God’s presence and pleasure when I pursued those loves. But as a Christian, I didn’t think I was allowed to incorporate that love or advocacy for those loves into my Christian identity. So I was really excited when you offered this course.”
Where does such a testimony come from? Or better put, why has the church, the historic moral compass of our society, misplaced its focus on this topic? One reason is clearly politics. The traditional political allies of the church do not align with traditional political allies of environmental concern. If you are pro-life, you supposedly cannot be pro-environment. If you are a patriot, supposedly you cannot also be a conservationist. But as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, we know that holiness isn’t about American politics. Rather, as God’s chosen race, a royal priesthood, a people of God’s own inheritance, only one set of politics should concern us.
A second reason is, as with so many issues of social justice, we, the western majority voice, the Southern California elite, have been largely sheltered from the impact of environmental degradation on the global community. We don’t see how unregulated use of land and water by big business decimates the lives of the marginalized. We have not witnessed the sterilization of fertile fields of Punjab, India, at the hands of unrestrained industrial agriculture. We have not encountered the impact of untreated industrial chemicals and raw sewage on the Ganges River system. We have not been in Madagascar where 88 percent deforestation has left the marginalized without recourse. So we struggle to understand the issue of creation care as an expression of concern for “the widow and the orphan.”
A third reason is that many in the church have been taught that the created order is bound only for destruction. So using the Earth’s resources as aggressively as possible becomes ethically appropriate to accomplish what really matters: the conversion of souls. As a result, the church, and particularly its evangelical wing, has inadvertently dismissed the issue of environmental stewardship as peripheral—or even alien—to the theological concerns of the Bible.
But I am convinced that the stewardship of this planet is not alien or peripheral to the message of the Gospel. Rather, as a professional exegete, a professor of biblical studies, and a theologian, I find that our rule of faith and praxis, our Bible, has a great deal to say about this topic. And rather than being peripheral to our faith, creation care is, in fact, an expression of the character of our God.
In the Book of Job, God asks his servant Job, “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, or caused the dawn to know its place? ... Who gave the horse his might; who sent out the wild donkey free?” ... Is it by your command that the eagle mounts up, and makes his nest on high?” (Job 38:12, 39:5, 39:27).
When I hear these questions, I echo Job’s response: surely not I. I am incapable of such astounding feats. I can hardly understand these things let alone mimic or duplicate them. Only the master of the universe can do such marvels. I, as a daughter of Eve, respond to creation with praise for the creator. When I stand at the ocean’s edge and feel the spray of its raging force on my face, when the wind silences me, when I am privileged to hold a wild creature in my hands, my heart cries out with the psalmist: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1).
Why is my heart moved to worship by the splendor of the sunset, the staggering realities of life in all its complex forms? Why do I sit in front of my television set watching “March of the Penguins” with my 7-year-old and find myself in awe of a God who could instill in the heart of a penguin a level of self-sacrificial obedience that puts this believer to shame? Because the cosmos in all its beauty and complexity reflects the God who made it. The creation makes an impact on us because we are made in the image of the God who crafted it. We are designed to respond to the creation with worship. But how do we get from worship to stewardship?
As with all matters of faith and praxis, we must submit the issue to a survey of biblical theology. We must ask the question: Do I see this particular value systematically represented in the text as an aspect of the character of God—or is it limited to a marginal representation via the particularities of situational ethics?
In the first chapter of Genesis, God reveals his ideal plan for his creation, laying out the interdependence of the cosmos within the literary framework of a perfect “week.”
On the seventh day, God sits enthroned above his creation, communicating that the perfect balance of God’s ideal plan is dependent on the creator’s sovereignty. On the sixth day, a steward is enthroned—under the creator but over the creation: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule’” (Genesis 1:26). Thus we see that the outworking of God’s ideal design depends on the sovereignty of the creator—and the creator’s stewards (us) have the privilege and responsibility to facilitate it by living our lives as a reflection of God’s image.
Genesis 2:15 specifies the role of God’s human stewards in this perfect plan. “Then Yahweh Elohim took the human and put him into the Garden of Eden to tend it (lĕ‘obdāh) and to guard it (lĕšomrāh).” The garden belongs to Yahweh, but he gives humanity the privilege to rule and the responsibility to care for it under his sovereignty. In the ideal plan, ‘ādām would succeed in constructing human civilization by directing and harnessing the planet’s amazing resources under the wise direction of their creator. In this world, there would always be enough, progress would not necessitate pollution, expansion would not demand extinction. The privilege of the strong would not require the deprivation of the weak. And humanity would succeed in these goals because of the guiding wisdom of their God.
But we all know the story. Humanity rejected this perfect plan and chose autonomy instead. Because of the authority of their God-given position, the entire cosmos was cast into disarray. Because of Adam, even “creation was subjected to futility (literally to “frustration”; unable to attain the purpose for which it was created, Romans 8:20). We readily recognize the results of ‘ādām’s choice in the arena of human relation- ships: violence, poverty, greed, unbelief. And we recognize our role as the redeemed community to stand in opposition to those societal norms. But rarely do we reflect upon the impact of our rebellion on the garden or consider how the reality of redemption in our lives should redirect our attitude toward it.
Israel stands as the first model of God’s relationship with a redeemed and landed citizenry in a fallen world. Like Adam, Israel receives a land grant. Although the citizens of this Kingdom of God are invited to live on this good land with joy and productivity, their constitution and bylaws, the Book of Deuteronomy, make it clear that the land will never truly be theirs.
The Mosaic covenant regularly states that the land belongs to Yahweh. If Israel fails to steward it according to his instructions, they will lose the land—which they did. Even the produce of their land belongs to Yahweh, as demonstrated in the laws of the first fruits, the firstborn, the tithe and gleaning.
Moreover, Yahweh commands that Israel reserve a portion of the produce for the marginalized among them. Charity is required. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap the corners of your field; the remnant of the harvest you will not gather. But you will leave what remains for the needy and the immigrant. I am Yahweh your God” (Leviticus 23:22).
Yahweh made provision for the longevity of his land and the sustainability of agriculture in Israel’s earliest law codes. He commands that the land itself be given a Sabbath to replenish itself. “You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as the immigrant, may refresh themselves” (Exodus 23:10-12).
Just like us, Israel was tempted to ignore these limits in the quest for personal financial security, and we have good evidence they did ignore it. But the law makes it clear that in God’s government, it was not OK to take from the land everything that a populace could. Rather, Israel was commanded to leave enough so the land could replenish itself. Why? “Because I am the Lord, says Yahweh, and the land is mine” (Leviticus 25:23). In other words, “I intend that it be as fertile when you leave it as it was when you received it. I have future generations to think about.” In Israel’s world, economic security and growth and even national security were not viable excuses for abusing the land, the wild or domestic creature, or the poor. Israel was commanded to honor the resources God had given her as his property, even when it cut into short-term profits. And in response, he gives them his oath that he will care for them.
This idea of limited productivity and consumption is foreign to our American value system. From a tender age, we learn that the American dream is producing as much as we can as often as we can. We consider it a moral good to lean in until we’ve squeezed every hour out of our work week, allocated every penny in our budgets, gotten the best deal for every purchase. Although difficult to admit, excess is the American dream. And although I am proud and grateful to be an American, I must admit that we struggle with the sort of restraint commanded in Israelite law.
What of the creatures Yahweh entrusted to Adam? In the elegant verse of Psalm 104, we learn that God rejoices in the beauty and balance of his creation. He designed the created order so his wild creatures will have the food, water and habitat they need to survive and prosper. “He is the one who sends forth the springs into the wadis; between the mountains they flow; giving drink to each of his wild creatures (verse 10). Yet the single greatest cause of the extinction of animal species is the reckless destruction of habitat, and in America we are currently devouring more than 2 million acres a year in the noble quest for urban sprawl. As a result, we are experiencing an extinction rate as much as a thousand times the historical loss ratio. The fact that God designed the wild animals’ habitat and gave it to them should give us pause.
Consider Deuteronomy 22:6-7: “If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.” In other words, if Israel killed off the wild creatures of the Promised Land without allowing them the opportunity to replenish their populations, it would not be well with them in the land. I think the same may apply to us.
A number of wisdom sayings demand kindness to domes- tic animals, and the Sabbath ordinance requires Israelites to honor their beasts with rest. Deuteronomy 25:4 adds that “You shall not muzzle the ox while he threshes the wheat.” Wheat and barley were the backbone of the Israelite food supply, and in Israel’s subsistence economy the average Israelite village experienced a significant annual shortfall of calories—a “hungry season” of approximately 60 days for the typical family. As my research has demonstrated, not muzzling would result in each working ox consuming 15-21 pounds of grain during each harvest season. Yet Deuteronomy commands the farmer facing such severe economic realities not to muzzle his ox.
How would this biblical mandate reflect on the current agricultural norm of high-density, mass-confinement animal husbandry? In this practice, the farm operates essentially as a factory producing protein units. Confined animals burn fewer calories, their excrement is mass-managed, and their fertility and gestation fully controlled. In other words, factory farming is cheaper. Cattle, pigs, and chick- ens sustained in such crowded and filthy conditions have difficulty moving, cannot behave naturally and depend on antibiotics to control infection. As Matthew Scully illustrates in his 2002 exposé of the industry, “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,” the factory farm has taken the “live” out of livestock and the “farmer” out of farming. We eat more meat, more cheaply, than any other generation in history. And, as a result, domestic animals are routinely subjected to abuses nearly too horrific to report. I find it difficult to believe Yahweh intended this for the creatures he entrusted to ’ādām.
Complex Levitical legal structures also govern the slaughtering of animals. Israel was obviously allowed to kill and eat the animals they raised, but they had to take the animal before the priest first to ensure that the life of the animal had been considered and it was slaughtered humanely. The method of slaughter required in the Talmud rendered the animal immediately unconscious and ensured a minimum of suffering. In contrast, animals raised and slaughtered in the U.S. have almost no legal protection. Scully reports that whereas in 1990 the typical American slaughter plant operated at 50 kills per hour, by 2002 these same plants had been reconfigured to run at 300 to 400 per hour—and the results are grim indeed.
All the Old Testament laws of land, tree and creature communicate the same principle: the land and its creatures belong to God, not us. God cares for them, and he expects his people to do the same.
Some argue that this divine concern cannot be found in the New Covenant. Doesn’t 2 Peter 3:10 state that “the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up”? Indeed, if the created order is bound only for destruction, it would seem logical to use the earth’s resources as aggressively as possible to bring as many souls to faith as possible.
If it were indeed true that the created order was bound only for destruction, yes. But a host of New Testament scholars disagree. Colin Gunton, G. K. Beale, Ben Witherington III and Douglas Moo all concur that 2 Peter must be read according to its intended Old Testament lexicon, which renders the images fire and thunder as standard Old Testament depictions of judgment—not annihilation. There- fore, these passages communicate transformation within continuity in the New Heavens and New Earth to come, not annihilation. The New Testament continues to confirm the message of the old: “For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). In the New Covenant, the garden still belongs to God, and he wants it used for his purposes. And according to Romans 8:19-21, his purpose is to redeem it. All the created order “anxiously awaits the revealing of the sons of God.” For with the return of the Last Adam, creation itself will finally be freed from the chaos of the first ’ādām’s rebellion. The curse will be lifted, the cosmos liberated, and the earth healed from the effects of humanity’s sin. God’s ideal design for creation, as detailed in Genesis 1, will be restored. John tells us in Revelation 21 that “the new heaven and new earth” is in fact this very earth healed of its scars and washed clean of its diseases—just like the resurrected children of Adam. In other words, this planet and its creatures are not simply disposable.
So where should we as Christians position ourselves with regard to environmental concern? This topic is politically charged for many of us. But putting aside the politics of this world for a moment and focusing on the politics of the kingdom, I believe there is one voice every Christian wants to hear: that of Scripture. And of all the messages shouting for our attention, one seems incontrovertible to me: The garden and its creatures are not ours, they are his.
Our God-ordained task before the fall was to care for his garden. Instead, our fallen race has chosen to use its superior gifts to exploit and abuse. In our greed, we have taken what we wanted with no concern—and often with no thought— about the consequences for God’s good gift. The statistics are staggering: countless waterways poisoned, tens of thousands of species lost, millions of acres decimated, unfathomable quantities of trash and waste. Humanity was created and commanded to serve and to protect, yet humanity has instead ravaged the garden.
In this fallen world, the role of the redeemed community is to live our lives as an expression of that other kingdom, reorienting our values to those of our heavenly Father and living as Adam and Eve should have, as Jesus Christ has, demonstrating “what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
What is the will of God regarding creation? “Then Yahweh Elohim took the human and put him into the Garden of Eden to tend it (lĕ‘obdāh) and to guard it” (lĕšomrāh; Genesis 2:15).
Can a Christian be an environmentalist? How could a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve, redeemed and transformed by the Second Adam to live eternally in the resurrected cosmos, be anything else?