Who hasn’t heard the charge that “God is going to burn it all down, so let’s all drive an SUV”? If you haven’t heard it, you’re not paying attention. Indeed, a statement along those lines is attributed just a few days ago to Evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll. My suspicion that this off-the-cuff comment was more a joke or political commentary than it was a statement of biblical interpretation. At least I hope so, since the latter would be a more serious problem.
It reminds me of the story often told about Martin Luther: When asked, “If Jesus were to return today, what would you do differently?,” the finest theologian of his day and founder of the Protestant Reformation responded, “I’d finish planting this tree.” In other words, he regarded the care of creation and effort to continue striving to bring the world closer to the Kingdom to be our biblical duty and best way to prepare for Christ’s return.
Unfortunately, millions of Christians who believe in a skewed end-times theology are less likely to support policies designed to curb global warming than are other Americans. They are conditioned to look and think short-term, and therefore often are resistant to trade short-term costs for long-term gain. Putting aside Christ’s very clear teaching that we could not know the time of his return, the bigger theological problem with this belief system is that it is based on an obviously flawed belief that we don’t have to do what the Bible commands because He who commanded it will be returning soon.
Alas, this short-term thinking is problematic for a number of reasons of biblical and theological importance:
First, it violates the biblical teaching that human beings are part of the created order with a call to be stewards of the earth: Psalm 24:1, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” One of my favorite quotes is from the Bishop of Canberra, George Browning, who wisely teaches that Christian faith is about more than personal salvation: “Christianity is first and foremost a concern for the whole of the created order — biodiversity and business; politics and pollution; rivers, religion and rainforests. The coming of Jesus brought everything of God into the sphere of time and space, and everything of time and space into the sphere of God.” Hence, it’s pretty obvious — we need to reduce our environmental footprint. And if anything, one would think the obvious response to God’s grace is to do a better — not worse — job of caring for the things God put us in charge of before his return.
Second, there is a temptation to focus on other worlds rather than this one. Matter is associated with the notion of something not lasting or as an illusion. What really counts then, is the spiritual, nonmaterial and otherworldly. This was a heresy of the second century called gnosticism, and condemned by Church councils and our most basic creeds ever since.
Some of this thinking is reflected in twisted interpretations of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ which hold that God will, as Pastor Driscoll puts it, “burn it all down.” Thus why care about creation? Those who think this often quote 2 Peter 3:10 who assume that the Apostle Peter was writing about the utter and complete destruction of the earth: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon will be burned up.” The best interpretation here is that the earth will be “refined,” not destroyed. Otherwise, how does one understand Rev. 11:18 which reads that “the nations raged but thy wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, for rewarding thy servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear thy name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth”? In other words, God will destroy those who destroy the earth!
Finally, it’s worth repeating the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you want done unto you. Big Oil and its friends — who dismiss the impact of the burning of fossil fuels upon the earth – are assuming no responsibility for the increase in the frequency of droughts and floods, heat waves, storms, and fires related to climate change that increase rates of death, disease and injuries for millions around the world. They perhaps forget that the only criteria Christ ever gave for how he would judge us when he returns is in Matthew 25, “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”
Christians must take these realities of climate change seriously. The populations most vulnerable to harsh and extreme living conditions — children, the elderly, and the poor — already are suffering the most from climate change. So please, let’s not be joking about the right to be driving our SUV’s — and dismissing our duty to care for the environment — since Jesus is coming back soon. Personally, I can’t imagine Martin Luther saying, “I’m just going to keep driving my SUV.” Can you? I don’t think so.