Gospel and Environment

Gospel and Environment October 14, 2010

I got this question from a reader. An answer could take up a book — or a series of books — or at least a chp in a book, but I’ll give it a few lines.

Does the gospel include somehow not only good news of God renewing all of creation in Jesus, but also in living it out the call to humankind in Jesus to again be stewards of earth?

We begin with a problem. For most people, the gospel means the ABCs, simple basics of how we get saved. So, the gospel means God loves us, Jesus died for us, and we will spend forever with God in heaven. For others the gospel refers to the theological robustness of how we are saved, so it will take on a thorough explanation of thinks like justification by faith and double imputation, or things like sanctification and personal transformation into holiness, and for others it begins to sound like the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts and charisma.

Without denying the vital significance of robust theology of how salvation works, we need to realize that such terms and ideas don’t naturally lead to concern for the world and, more importantly, neither do they lead to the concern the prophets have with an earthly salvation and manifestation of God’s redemptive glory, or to brilliance of the redemption of all creation in Romans 8, and I’m thinking of these lines:

8:18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 8:19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope 8:21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 8:22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 8:23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 8:24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance.

And I’m thinking also of Revelation’s grand and glorious vision at the end of heaven coming down to earth for the new heavens and the new earth.

That is, many times the way we conceive of the gospel as personal salvation from our sins — and limit it to that — does not lead us to the robust way the Bible conceives of what God is doing in this world. And the “gospel,” after all, is the good news that God is doing this work in Christ. Sometimes this is call cast as “spiritual” vs. “earthly” — and that is just too dualistic and hierarchical for the Bible’s message.I’m quite convinced, at the same time, that many get wound up in environmentalism and start to get mushy in their thinking and the next thing we’re staring at something that looks a lot like panentheism or even pantheism. But, their extremes shouldn’t lead us into dualism.

Instead, we need to reframe how the Bible actually teaches the gospel. I want to quote just one text — and much more could be said, and I take this text to be a paradigmatic “gospel” text in the New Testament:

2:6 who though he existed in the form of God

did not regard equality with God

as something to be grasped,

2:7 but emptied himself

by taking on the form of a slave,

by looking like other men,

and by sharing in human nature.

2:8 He humbled himself,

by becoming obedient to the point of death

– even death on a cross!

2:9 As a result God exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

2:10 so that at the name of Jesus

every knee will bow

– in heaven and on earth and under the earth –

2:11 and every tongue confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord

to the glory of God the Father.

At the heart of the gospel itself is the declaration that Jesus Christ, the one born of Mary, the one who emptied himself to the point of the cross, the one who died with us, instead of us and for us, and the one who was exalted, is Lord. This status of Jesus Christ is the consummation of the status designed for humans in Genesis 1:26-27, where humans are made to rule and mediate on God’s behalf in this world.

So, is creation care part of the gospel? Indeed. We are called to rule and mediate, on God’s behalf, but we messed this up and God did just that — rule and mediate — in his Son, and he is now Lord and Mediator over all and for all. He is Lord over all, including creation.

Hence, I would say that creation care is inherent to our central calling: we rule today in Christ.

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  • Randall

    Care of and stewardship of the environment, in which we live, is indeed a part of the Gospel, I beleive, as much as the theme of individual salvation from sin. To disrespect or abuse the creation is to do the same to the creator of that creation. Jesus said something along the same lines with respect to people. As an evangelical, I will say that the soft underbelly of our record is that historically, we’ve lived as if we can’t understand this simple idea that if we kill the earth we kill ourselves and our neighbor. Can you embrace a environmentalism that is basically pagan? Of course you can and people have, but that is no argument to shirk our responsibility to God to rule the earth well.

  • Randall

    And as to the danger of being accused of panentheism, I kinda take the route Jurgen Moltmann takes as his answer when accused of it. When asked if he’s a panentheist, he answers, ‘Of course I am, So What?”. Paul’s writtings are littered with statements that include cosmological concern and hope for what sounds like all creation as if God Himself has entered every part and parcel of it.

  • I don’t think direction on creation care is as obvious in the Bible as many Christian environmentalists want to imagine.

    The Bible seems to assume a historical Adam and Eve. They were not seen as much different people from the biblical authors’ contemporaries. Humans were created a certain way and continued to biblical days without variation. Similarly, the earth was created pretty much as it is and has remained largely the same.

    Yet from science we know that human beings evolved over millions of years and are continuing to evolve. Similarly we know that the earth is not a steady state reality. It is only our very recent presence on the plant that might make it seem so. Environments have evolved and changed greatly over the past 4+ billion years. Yet frequently those Christians who are most willing to embrace human evolution, incompatibly talk about the present state of the environment in ancient terms … as though the environment is a steady state reality that must not be disturbed.

    So yes, we are to rule over all creation … but to what end and by what standard? One person’s enhancement of nature is another person’s destruction. Figuring out what specifically it means to rule over creation isn’t clear.

  • David Himes

    I don’t consider creation care as “part of” the Gospel, but rather, the inevitable consequence of our response to the Gospel. Our response to the Gospel is to love one another the way Jesus loved us (John 15:16).

    One cannot love the way he loved and be completely unconcerned about environmental matters.

  • Michael,

    Let’s start with not dumping poison into lakes and go from there. Creation care may not always be clear, but surely it’s not that hard.

  • But Travis, the question here is whether environmental care is part of the gospel. There are sound economic reasons for not polluting a lake. There are sound aesthetic reasons. But are their clear biblical mandates? Roman cities were human cespools but we see no direction to clean them up or suggest people should return to nature. Deforestation and exhausting the land were well known at the time but any restriction was related to prudence not creation care.

    Don’t mistake my challenge that the Bible gives little direction for a justification for any particular position. Instead I’m arguing that our positions are based far more on extra-biblical concerns and prudence  than anything mandated in the Bible. I believe that too much of Christian environmentalism is an exercise in trying to lay claim to biblical authority for extra-biblical philosophies.

  • Luke B

    I agree this answer could be a book and a series a books. The gospel includes the redemption of all creation, and our response here and now should reflect that comprehensive depth.

    How does this tie into “love God and neighbor”? Is part of loving God, learning to love what God loves (I see God’s love of the non-human creation as a theme of scripture). Even if we assume God doesn’t care about the annihilation of species God said were Good, that God blessed, and that God told to increase in the creation narrative, could loving our neighbor have something to do with depleting/poisoning water, soil and air?

    Michael, I agree it is certainly not straightforward how specifically to rule over creation! Just as it isn’t always clear how to best love our neighbor. There are all kinds of trade-offs involved in both. But that is our task. To what end? Proposal: To glorify God (unspecific? yes – but most principals are) My sense of the use of “Glory of God” in the Bible is that it usually involves the thriving non-human creation, including mountains, rocks, rivers, hills, animals, plants..

  • Luke, I like where you’re headed. I think the complicating factor is that we now know that there have been a variety eco-systems across history that were wiped out, along with vast numbers of species, in coming to our present status.

    The biblical picture is of a static reality while we know our environment to be dynamic. Why privilege the present status over previous states God superintended? In a sense, based on what we know of God through nature, attempts to hold things static is counter to God’s design.

    Again, I’m not arguing for a specific position. Just saying that engaging with the Bible on this at other than the most abstract ethical levels is very difficult.

  • Thanks Scot for posting this, and your position here.

    Michael, Yes, I know a Christian who puts down all environmentalism as worship of Gaia (Gk goddess, tantamount to Mother Earth), and as gnostic and something orthodox Christians must avoid. But surely from scripture we can say that creation is indeed important. That creation groans now. That in Jesus we can not only anticipate in hope creation’s release, but that we also work for its flourishing. Shalom as in wholeness would include all of creation I take it. It is the home of humans. And the language of new heaven and new earth would argue I think for both continuity as well as discontinuity.

    Are you saying we can’t be sure what to do, or even if we should do anything at all? That we should not be against, for example the degradation of nature as we now have it? I don’t think you’re saying that. I would think if the so-called cultural mandate of humanity’s rule is reinstated in Christ, that there should be a concern for animals, trees, water, air, etc. All gifts from God which we are to steward. But all too subject to humankind’s abuse in greed and exploitation.

  • DRT


    Without a question in bold type I am having a difficult time following your post. Would you please tell me what you want?


  • Luke B

    I would call the biblical picture dynamic as well, not static (but not sure I’m understanding).

    It seems to me there is abundant Biblical material to engage us on the fundamental questions of the relationships between God, human creation and non-human creation. The relational narrative of the Bible suggests to me that God values the vast array of creation from fishes and birds to trees and stones. We should too.

    My environmental science textbook acknowledges the complex choices in “ecological restoration” – the main question being “restoration to what?” (i.e. last year? 100 years ago? there is no “steady state”). However, that is not to say that one type of ecology is as good as another, or that because of disagreement over the right metrics, we may as well not worry about ecology. I glean from the Biblical witness that God has an interest in healthy ecology, over and above what is prudent from the standpoint of pure human utility. Many environmentalist’s values are simply this “prudence” and nothing more. Christians should care at least as much about non-human creation as these environmentalists.

    Even if we’re not convinced we should care about bottom-dwelling ocean critters we will never see or have need to exploit, a lack of specific biblical laws/mandates (aside from various sanitation laws and laws about letting the land rest – but these we could call, like all good laws, “prudence laws” i.e. law that makes life better) addressing this care isn’t reason to say the Bible has nothing to say about it. Human relationship to the rest of creation has changed dramatically since the context of the Bible (population and industry have more power to influence the trees, birds, etc., shall we say).

  • Coincidentally Christianity Today’s e-version today has a long article on creation care.

    On my website (wonderofcreation.org) and in other materials, I make the following argument–which takes a different tack from what has been said here previously.

    Christians have spiritual-interpersonal responsibilities that relate to our gospel mission as members of the universal body of Christ—the church; but we also have what I call our material-creational responsibilities, which we share with all mankind (meaning that these responsibilities were given to all mankind in the beginning).

    The material-creational responsibilities that all people have in common are these: being fruitful by having children and then caring for and protecting them [and the reason, according to the Bible, that homosexuality is not “natural”]; working so that we might obtain healthful food to eat and clean water to drink; protecting ourselves and our offspring with adequate shelter and clothing; and being caretakers of the earth and its fruitfulness so that it can continue to provide us with what we need in order to live and remain healthy.

    As Christians, of course, we want to be both health-promoting and healthy servants of God. Our material-creational responsibilities are implicit in the foundational chapters of the Bible’s book of Genesis, and it can be argued convincingly from these Scriptures that these responsibilities come before our spiritual interpersonal ones. The reason is this: if these were ignored, very little evangelism would take place at all–simply because weak, diseased, or dead people are poor evangelists!

    Evangelical Christians commonly hold that evangelism is primarily the preaching, teaching, and sharing of the words of the Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Yet it is not likely that any of us ever spend the bulk of our time doing this. We spend most of our waking hours carrying out our material-creational responsibilities—which is as it should be.

    In fact, when we carry out these responsibilities in a way that demonstrates the love of God for both the world of people and the world of nature that He created, we are “evangelizing.” Living Christianly within the light of the Gospel with its good news about the restoration of the good cosmos when Jesus returns is likely to be just as important to the cause of evangelism as proclaiming the specific words of the Gospel. Can Christians who ignore the basic material-creational mandates implied by our Scriptures—like caring for our families and for the creation—be “evangelicals” in the fullest meaning of that term?

    A quote: “A believer is an evangelist primarily by who he is and how he lives—not by what he says. What he says is important; but unless his speaking tallies with what he is and does, he had better keep quiet.”
    -Joseph Sittler, 1973

  • Two views of the world:

    Ancient biblical world – The world (landscape, flora and fauna, animals, climate, etc.) is now as it was when Adam and Eve left the garden a few thousand years ago. The world was in some pristine state before the fall and will be delivered from its fallen state at the new creation. Some see some marginal human involvement in bringing creation to fullness, but it is not radical alteration.

    Scientific world – 4+ billion year old earth that has been evolving and changing. Environments and their species rose and fell across the most recent hundreds of millions of years. The human era is a very tiny sliver of the earth history and the environment will change over future eons if the past is indicative. There is no “normal” state from which we fell or that we can restore things to.

    Adam’s story as a historical account doesn’t jive with science and therefore creates problems when we try to reason from it as if it were history instead of metaphorical theology. Similarly, when we try to reason from the fixed unchanging view of nature held by biblical authors to the dynamic evolving view of nature we know from science, we can no longer talk in terms of preserving a steady-state world or restoring things to a past that we now know never existed. So what does creation care mean? What does it mean to redeem creation?

    So I think we can say all sorts of things about the importance of biodiversity and not trashing the place. But I think you can draw precious little of this directly from the Bible. And when I said prudence above, I’m referring to it in terms of seeing the material world as both our basic home and the raw material from which we fashion other things. There is the biblical notion that we are tenants but the “book of nature” teaches us that even the owner is not about preservation of some pristine past.

  • Have you seen the news about the new hierarchy of human needs being suggested to replace Maslow’s? The new one, proffered by evolutionary psychologists, replaces the top three tiers with “finding a mate,” “keeping a mate,” and “parenting” at the top. Pretty amazing how the new hierarchy matches God’s natural order as per Genesis 1-3.

    It also adds a bit more emphasis to my contention that material-creational duties are primary for all human beings regardless of their religious inclinations.

    Perpetuating the race is a divine original mandate–one, in fact, that we humans share with the animals.

  • Dean #13

    “The material-creational responsibilities that all people have in common are these: being fruitful by having children and then caring for and protecting them [and the reason, according to the Bible, that homosexuality is not “natural”]; working so that we might obtain healthful food to eat and clean water to drink; protecting ourselves and our offspring with adequate shelter and clothing; and being caretakers of the earth and its fruitfulness so that it can continue to provide us with what we need in order to live and remain healthy.”

    What all this says to me is that our concern about creation is human-centered … that is we are to care about creation because of what it means for human flourishing. I think that is the thrust of Scripture. I think concerns about creation in the Bible apart from this are a lesser, but detectable, theme.

  • I would suggest that Scripture paints a picture of creation that is not so much human centred as God centred – the whole act of creation is an overflow of grace. Therefore, to affirm the goodness of creation is to affirm the goodness of its Creator.

    In regards to the Bible, I think it’s interesting that God declares each group of creatures good in Genesis, and in Job you have a who zoo of the weird and wacky creatures that just seem to exist to give God pleasure.

    On a different level, I think the command to love our neighbour by necessity implies a command to care for the environment. Climate problems are the biggest potential cause of suffering to face the planet in the next 25 years and many of the problems come down to greed and selfishness of the Global North. That alone is a call to repentance and action.

  • David #16

    I think Job points to God’s sovereignty. I’m less certain what it says about the value of the environment. We might be able to make the case that the author of Job believed that these creations were evidence of the majesty of God and should be respected. Yet the author of Job also believed all the and animals were created by God at a fixed point and they have remained unchanged sense. But we know from the geological and biological record that there have been many environments with countless species that were wiped out by volcanoes, asteroids, and other disasters. What does God’s Book of Nature tell us about the importance of the environment?

  • Luke B

    Michael and David #17,16,13
    Totally agree that the main thrust of scripture (and, as it happens, of the secular environmental movement) is about creation as it relates to human flourishing – anthropocentric (even the term ‘the environment’ implies [our] environment, while the more biblical ‘creation’ points to the creator). Agree that care for creation aside from that is a lesser , but symbiotic, theme.

    I don’t think the owner (God) is “about the preservation of some pristine past.” I don’t think the bible conveys that, nor does the book of nature (geo/bio record), nor do most people concerned about creation. Sometimes those types of terms/narrative are used by advocates of the environment, but as my environmental science textbook points out, that is an oversimplification. Agreed. There is no ‘normal’ or steady-state. So what should our goals, m.o. be with respect to creation? (I.e. as you posed, what does creation care mean, what does it mean to redeem creation?). I think the approach to the answer is similar to how we approach the question ‘how do we love our neighbor?’ in response to the Gospel. It’s complicated, and contextual and dynamic, and fundamentally relational.

    I think Job points to God’s relationship to a complex creation that has agency. Sovereignty is a theme, but also the dynamism and action of creation. (I don’t read ‘static’) In the longest God monologue in the entire canon (correct me if I’m wrong), the main Subjects are creatures; the agency of the trees and animals is notable. One example, in ch 40:

    15 “Look at the behemoth, [a]
    which I made along with you
    and which feeds on grass like an ox.
    16 What strength he has in his loins,
    what power in the muscles of his belly!
    20 The hills bring him their produce,
    and all the wild animals play nearby.
    22 The lotuses conceal him in their shadow;
    the poplars by the stream surround him.

    The “which I made along with you” in the first verse puts us next to the other creatures in relation to God. (Brings to mind also a parallel structure in Genesis 1):

    29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” [I provide for humans/I provide for other creatures]

    [In the ending chapters of Job, far too much attention has been paid to questions about what kind of animal this was, and how that fits with fossils, etc., and not enough to what the text presents us regarding God’s relation to creation, creation’s agency, and the relationship between wild nature and human suffering]

    The fact that countless species have gone extinct by various causes, human and non-human speaks to the wildness and creative destruction of the created world. I don’t conclude that God doesn’t think these species matter. Many nations have risen and fallen over the years; many people have been wiped out by all kinds of causes. What does this book of nature say about the importance of humans? Well, I think God loves us. And loves the non-human creation as well. It is messy, but dynamic messiness is consistently conveyed in nature and in the Bible.

  • CJW

    @Michael. Good points, though I have trouble imagining what might count for you as evidence direct enough. E.g. for some people, it is enough to say “the earth is the Lord’s and everything it it” to say that we shouldn’t trash it – you don’t disrespect the property of someone you esteem…

    For me, more specific than that is the theological argument of Genesis 1: from “formless and void” God undertakes a project of “forming and filling”. The Exodus narrative in some ways paints Pharaoh as usurping from God traits of divinity as he attempts to undo both election and creation.
    Air particulate pollution, mass siltification and algal blooms, and increased rates of extinction and loss of biodiversity are no less “de-forming and devoiding” creation.

    Sure, we don’t have public policies or private initiatives spelled out to us. But neither do we in other areas of theological ethics, yet we still say that there are sufficient resources in the biblical narrative to keep us from working against God and his purposes. This is no less true when it comes to ecology.

  • Hebrews 2:5-13 seems to suggest a “second-Adam” typology for Jesus by quoting a section of Psalm 8, which seems itself to be a meditation on Genesis 1:26-28. Bringing “the children whom God has given me” (v. 13) into this inheritance also seems to provide a link to creation. Jesus came to lead the human race back into the opportunities for creational stewardship that humanity messed up through Adam and Eve. Even the creatures are seen as worthy of being included in God’s creational covenant, as suggested by Genesis 9:9-10, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” (NRSV) See also verse 12 about who God makes the covenant with. The creatures are very important to God. I hope they can be to us, as God’s image on earth.

  • AHH

    In terms of “book or series of books”, of course there are people who have looked at this question and related questions, and I strongly recommend these 2 thoughtful (and accessible) efforts:
    R.J. Berry, The Care of Creation
    Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth

    I tend to agree with David #4 that it’s not quite right to phrase it as part of the Gospel itself, any more than we think of reconciliation with our neighbors as part of the Gospel itself. Instead, like seeking reconciliation with our human neighbors, creation care is one of the important consequences of living as Gospel people who are called to image God for the world.