The Bible and the contemporary environmental situation
Discuss the statement: The Bible has nothing relevant to say about the contemporary environmental situation?
As early as 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius had predicted that human activities would interfere with the way the sun interacts with the earth, resulting in global warming and climate change. His prediction has become true and climate change is now disrupting global environmental stability. The last few decades have seen many treaties, conventions, and protocols for the cause of global environmental protection.1
“Green Ideas” writes Jonathan Porritt, Director of Friends of the Earth, “have moved decisively from the fringes of society… into the mainstream”, so that now “there really is no area of social or political concern”, at least in Britain, “that hasn’t been touched in one way or another by the coming of the Greens”.2 Global warming, ozone layer depletion and loss of biodiversity all share a common characteristics, that is, it affects us all on a global scale without regard to any particular country, region, or race.
Some scientist have prophesied a doomed future for future generations with Paul Macready the founder of AeroVironment saying “your grand children will likely find it incredible - or even sinful - that you burned up a gallon of gasoline to fetch a pack of cigarettes.”3
This careless attitude towards the environment some have blamed on the Judeo-Christian ethos arguing that Christianity is one of the root causes of environmental degradation. In a famous address to the American Society for the Advancement of Science, in December 1966, Lynn White, delivered a diagnosis of what he called the “Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” in which he quite clearly placed the blame on Christianity. Lynn says “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.” Many in the environmentalist movement today shares White’s outlook with many environmentalist laying the blame for today’s environmental problems at the Judeo-Christian teaching that man has “dominion” over creation. In assuming dominion they interpret that man has felt free to use nature solely for his own benefit without regard to the long-term effects. The environmentalist’s solution is to reject all biblical teachings.4
It is necessary for Christianity to say something in reply in its own defence about the contemporary environmental situation. In one sense writes Adrian Armstrong and et al in their essay titled Is God Green that “Lynn White was right, in recognising that our present crisis, whether it be real or imagined, whether it be the latest of many, or the unique final apocalypse, has a religious dimension. The will to deal with our environmental problems cannot be generated from anything except a religious understanding. The roots of our ecological crisis rest in the way we look at our environment, how we see our place in the scheme of this world. Lynn White may have got it wrong by setting up a simplistic caricature of Christianity, but he touched a real raw nerve when he made the link between our current state and our spiritual viewpoint.”
The rest of this essay will look at how the Bible commands Christians to view their environment.
Whatever the Bible has to say about the contemporary environmental situation and how Christians should view their environment must first begin with the Bible. We must search its pages and see if the bible has anything relevant to say or perhaps as it is generally acknowledged, that mere understanding is not enough, and that there is an ethical dimension to these problems which require fuller explanations other than the scientific dimensions of these problems which are generally understood.5 Some environmentalists have already laid the problem at the Judeo-Christian ethic of mankind’s unfettered dominion over nature. This arises from their dubious interpretation of Genesis 1:26-28 as Ian L. McHarg writes on the Genesis story, “in its insistence upon dominion and subjugation of nature, it encourages the most exploitative and destructive instincts in man rather than those that are differential and creative. Indeed, if one seeks licence for those who would increase radioactivity, create canals and harbour with atomic bombs, employ poisons without constraints, or give consent to the bulldozer mentality, there could be no better injunction than this text Genesis 1:26-28.”6
Is it true that this text encourages the most exploitative and destructive instincts in man? Or as one author explains, the ecological problem is not first a problem concerning the environment. It is a problem concerning the way we think. We have thought wrongly about this text therefore Christians are as guilty as secularist.7 Or as Dewitt argues, “it is not the Judeo-Christian scriptures which lie at the root of this crisis, rather it is what these scriptures warn against: arrogance, ignorance, and greed”.8 The problem thus may not be with what the scripture says but with not being true to what it says.
What does the bible say about how we should treat our planet?
I will answer this question by quoting a scripture and then explain it sometimes inferring from the text on what it means.
1. Gen 1:26-28 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
John Stott says that we can legitimately make three affirmations from this biblical material. First, God has given us dominion over the earth. Secondly, our dominion is a co-operative dominion and thirdly, our dominion is a delegated, and therefore a responsible dominion.9 Man is to rule over God’s creation but does this mean that man is to enslave the earth bringing it into subjection as some environmentalist have erroneous charged the bible with? No. For a careful interpretation will show that firstly, the earth does not belong to Man but to God (psalm 24:1) and that dominion is not ownership but it is the idea of stewardship. As Stott writes, “the dominion God has given us is delegated, responsible and co-operative; that it is intended to express the same sustaining care of the environment as its Creator’s; and that is far from exploiting the earth and its creatures, we are to use them in such a way as to be accountable to God and to serve others.”10
2. Gen 2:15 “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
The command to look after the environment is clear, Adam is to work in the garden to keep it. That is, Adam is not to mismanage his environment by allowing the plants to degenerate and grow wild. Adam is to love, care and sustain his environment and not to damage it and enslave it. This principle is transferred to all mankind as Adam is our representative. We are to look after our environment today - we are not to loot it to destroy it but to keep it. We are to prevent any danger which could cause it damage or at least minimize its effect. The bible thus speak considerably with a powerful force on contemporary environmental situation that we are not to have an apathetic view but to be practical in taking to the plough by keeping it. In order to keep it we are to work on maintaining it.
3. Revelations 11:18 “The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
This passage shows that man will be held accountable for his use of the earth and that the judgement of God will come on those who used up all the fields for development which leads to the long-term destruction of the planet. This passage acts as a warning for mankind, that there is a God who takes into account the earth and its environment and will judge those who destroy it, therefore the bible speaks with great ethical concerns for us to look after our environment lest we be judged for our evil.
Our task as Christians is not to counter Lynn White's arguments, but rather to show that Christianity has something real and positive to offer the environmental movement. The problem is not the Judeo-Christian scriptures which lie at the root of this crisis, rather it is what these scriptures warn against: arrogance, ignorance, and greed. As Christians we are to follow the mandate of scripture which calls us to care for our environment and to take heed that we are not among those who will be judged because they are destroyer of the earth.
1 Global Environmental concerns: http://www.em-ea.org/Guide%20Books/Book-1/1.9%20Global%20Environmental%20Concerns.pdf
2 Quote taken from Issues Facing Christians Today by John Stott pg 113
3 Quote by Paul MacCready Jr - no specific source reference of the quotation but it is attributed to Paul MacCready Jr from the article Green Living Certification. http://www.expertrating.com/courseware/GreenCourse/Green-Introduction-1.asp
5 New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, pg 349.
6 Quote taken from Issues Facing Christians Today by John Stott pg 123
7 Quote taken from Saving the creation: Christian Environmentalism in the United States by Laurel Kearns
9 Issues Facing Christians Today by John Stott
10 Ibid.. p.124