If God Created the World, do Christians need to worry about the environment?

God blessed them and told them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth; subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves upon the earth.” — Genesis 1:28

On December 26, 1966, Lynn Townsend White jr, a professor of medieval history at the University of California in Los Angeles gave a lecture at the Washington meeting of the AAAS, that was later published (10 March 1967) in the journal Science. In 1967, Lynne, published an article entitled “The historical roots of present-day ecologic crisis.” Lynn was the very first academic to argue that the shift in perspective introduced by Judaeo-Christianity had opened the door to “disenchantment with the world,” materialism and a new matter-spirit dualism with deleterious ecological effects; his conviction then rests on passages of Scripture incriminating in his eyes. The most quoted remains this famous extract from the Book of Genesis where it is understood that Humanity has a distinct and favoured standing compared to the rest of Creation:

“And God said, “Let us make man in our image and likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the wild animals and reptiles that crawl upon the earth.” God created mankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.  God blessed them and told them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth; subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves upon the earth.”” Genesis 1:26-28

This position of Lynn Townsend White jr, has been a reference by an entire generation of ecologists. 

White postulate that these beliefs have led to humanity’s indifference towards nature which continues to impact in an industrial, “post-Christian” world. He concludes that by exerting even more science and technology to the problem that it will be of no use, that it is humanity’s fundamental perceptions about nature that have to be change; we must abandon “superior, contemptuous” attitudes that makes us “willing to use it [the earth] for our slightest whim.” White suggests adopting St. Francis of Assisi as the exemplar in visualising a “democracy” of creation in which all creatures are respected as equals and that man’s rule over creation are delimited.

Not long after White’s publication, Wendell Erdman Berry, a Christian novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer began to examined similar issues. He also traced contemporary environmental attitudes towards medieval Christianity but focused on the teaching of De Contemptu Mundi (contempt for the world). This teaching devalued earthly concerns and life in this world in favour of concentrating on the world to come after the return of Jesus Christ.

Medieval Christian teaching placed little or almost nothing of value on this earth compared to eternity. This idea gave rise to the attitude that creation was provided for no other reason than to serve human needs. From this perspective, the land is simply a means to an end. The world is here to support us, not the other way around; it is a one way street.

If we fast-forward to modern day, we can see that “our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relationship to nature.” Because those “Christian attitudes” did not teach that human beings need to take care of the earth, the way was paved for science and technology to become destructive forces for the environment.

Are these attitudes perhaps a result of biblical teachings, or has Scripture somehow been distorted or completely misunderstood?

Does care for creation matter?

Some Christians hold beliefs —that seem to be embedded within Scriptures— which contribute to humanity’s attitude of indifference or exploitation of the Earth’s resources. One of those beliefs emanates from God’s promise to humanity for the times to come.

Christians tightly hold on to God’s promise of a new earth. In the book of Revelation, the consummation of God’s plan for humanity is described as a new heaven and a new earth. In fact, Paul, one of the New Testament writers, states:

“… Indeed, creation itself eagerly awaits the revelation of the children of God. For creation was subjected to frustration, not of its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it, in the hope that creation itself will be freed from its slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. As we know, the entire creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…

So why is the earth “groaning”? When Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commandment “…you must never eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” the earth bore part of the consequences of that first human sin, the origin of evil. “Cursed be the soil because of you!”  God told Adam. Right from the very beginnings, humans have be a cause for disaster upon the earth. Some have come to the conclusion that because of this, and because of God’s covenant of “a new heavens and a new earth,” current creation needs to be destroyed in order to make way for the new. This pretendedly justifies our soulless approach toward the Earth, plundering and wastefully desecration its resources. So, you may ask, why should I worry about the use of energy, air to breathe, clean water to drink or ensuring that we have clean and fecund soil? Surely God would have provided enough of everything to last until the return of Jesus.

Of course, this thought process assumes that:

  1. the earth is to be exploited for human purposes, 
  2. God’s plans for the earth’s future make it expendable, and 
  3. human beings have no responsibility for the care of the earth and of all of creation. 

However, it ignores the fact that it is God —and not human beings— who determines how long the earth will endure. Humanity whilst we are on earth, have a responsibility to live upon the earth sustainably because we have absolutely no idea as to when the end will come to pass. 

Moreover, the fact that the earth itself is part of what God desires to save through Jesus Christ seems to underline the importance of the earth’s creation —and that destruction is not a part of God’s plan. In fact, biblical Christianity demands of us the care of all of God’s creation, and not —as the capitalist believes— its plunder and devastation.

Creation in Genesis

Although Berry agrees that some of the tenets of the medieval church have contributed toward the plunder and devastation of the environment as civilisation developed, he is equally convinced that these practices have not originate from biblical teaching. From the beginning, the Bible has held us accountable to care for the creation within which we live.

Biblical teaching regarding human beings and creation begins with the simple statement that we are a part of the creation of the earth and not set apart from it. In the Genesis narration, human beings were created on the sixth day, along with everything else that lives upon this earth.

Man —called אָדָם Adam meaning “mankind” [non gender specific]— is formed “of the dust of the ground.” Man is made of the earth —in Hebrew “earth” is אדמה adamah— it means that God literally formed Adam out of the adamah. Even in name, humanity and the earth are connected. And because man is both made from the adamah and inhabits it, it is, therefore, our responsibility to fulfil our future which is connected to a commensurate responsibility on our part to the earth.

However, at some point in Western history, we began to think of ourselves as entirely distinct and separate from the rest of creation, which, increasingly, is known as “nature.” We have ceased to view ourselves as part of the natural world. Perhaps, this is as a result of our separation from God in the Garden of Eden as we also increasingly find ourselves separated from God’s creation as well.

Representatives of God at Creation

According to the Bible, “God created mankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” For generations, mankind and their theologians and scholars have contemplate the profoundness of what that phrase “in his image” actually alludes to.

In context, the expression would imply some form of delegated role for human beings on this planet. In some manner each and every one of us is expected to represent God to the rest of His world; after all, we are each an image of God upon this earth.

In Genesis 1:28, Adam and Eve are told to “subdue” and “rule” the earth, as those who bear the image of God. In Genesis 2:15 we learn that a mankind has been charged by God to “work [in the garden] and care for it.” But our subjugation and rule on earth, equals to being God’s representatives on earth, in the same manner that God —the same God whom proclaimed His creation as being “very good”— would have been enough.

So what exactly is God’s relationship to His own creation? What precisely is it that we should be representing? And what kind of an image should we actually be reflecting?

Not only did God create the world, but he also provides for and cares for the world throughout the biblical narrative. The Psalms recount how God “pities all of His creation.” Frequently, Jesus refers to God’s detailed attention to creation as he “feeds the birds in the sky and clothes the lilies in the field yet they neither labor nor spin.”

I therefore need to ask, how should those who have been chosen to represent God in his creation relate to it?

Stewards of all Creation

The best illustration of how we should relate to the earth is the concept of a steward, which occurs throughout the Bible time and time again. In biblical terms, Stewardship is the “utilisation and management of all the resources God has provided for His own glory and for the improvement of His own creation.” Christian Stewardship regards the obligation of Christians in managing and utilising intelligently the gifts that God has given. Stewardship in the biblical sense defines our practical obedience in the administration of everything that is under our control, everything entrusted to us. It is the consecration of one’s self and possessions into God’s service. Stewardship acknowledges in practice that we do not have the right of control over ourselves or our property—God has that control. It means as stewards of God we are managers of that which belongs to God, and we are under His constant authority as we administer His affairs. Faithful stewardship means that we fully acknowledge we are not our own but belong to God our creator and to His Son Jesus Christ, our saviour and Lord, who gave His life for us.

Psalm 24:1 declares, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.” That verse makes it quite clear that all of creation belongs to God. This means that humans ultimately do not own the land. As such, it is not ours to abuse. The privilege of living here is a gift, graciously given by a loving God. But we are the ones in charge of this place. We are accountable to the Owner for how we care about it.

This is made evident in the laws given to ancient Israel when they entered the promised land. The land was explicitly described as “given” to them by God. It was a gift. It had not been earned by them as a reward nor had it in way been deserved. They did not create it on their own. God gave it to them, with instructions and proviso’s for its care. The Israelites had received extremely detailed instructions on how the land should be cared for. For example, the fields were laid to rest for a year every seven years in order to give the land “one year of rest in honour of the Lord,” at this time no one may sow the field nor prune the vineyard.

Furthermore, Israel was further admonished that their relationship with the land would be entirely dependent on their unwavering faithfulness to the Lord their God. Any unfaithfulness or disobedience whatsoever would bring upon Israel “unrelenting pestilence, droughts and locusts” the land would be made to suffer. However, God, in His infinite mercy, told them that he would also forgive them and heal the land when “my people … humble themselves and pray to me and seek my presence as they turn from their wicked ways”

Here once again, we can witness the interconnectivity between humanity, creation, and their Creator.

How to take care of creation

Although a certain amount of responsibility can be apportioned to Christianity for being complicit in humanity’s defilement, plundering and destruction of God’s creation, such conduct does not originate from the teachings of the Bible. Correct human use of creation requires an attitude of humility, gratitude, affection, and co-responsibility on our part — not destruction and exploitation.

Care for creation can be expressed in a number of practical ways. Simply paying attention to one’s own consumption, waste, lifestyle and helping to take care of the earth. We can grow our own or choose locally produced food, buy items that are in season and that would inflict the least damage upon the land in their production. We can recycle. We can use waste as fertiliser; we can use water responsibly; we can pick up trash and dispose of it properly. We can walk or cycle if its local instead of taking the car. To get a brief idea take a look at the Dialogue Theology & Science website article “Is Sustainability a Christian Imperative?” By Robert S. White, FRS. [https://www.theologie-naturwissenschaften.de/en/dialogue-between-theology-and-science/editorials/is-sustainability-a-christian-imperative]

There are a wide variety of ways to care for the earth. As stewards of God’s creation, it is our duty and privilege to care for the earth. Read “The Stewardship of Creation” by Russell A. Butkus at The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. [You can download a copy in .Pdf format here.]

You may also find “Study Guides for Moral Landscape of Creation” useful. These guides integrate Bible study, prayer, and worship to help us delight in and care for God’s creation. The guides can be used in a series or individually. You may download and reproduce them for personal or group use. [You can download a copy in .Pdf format here.]

Cover photograph credit: Cara Slifka / Stocksy.com.