In recent decades, the environment has become a contentious issue. We argue about whether the climate is changing and how much it matters. We argue about the need for environmental regulations. Are the ones we have too harsh on industry or too lenient?
In all this controversy, we tend to forget that God made the heavens and the earth. He has expressed his own thoughts on the environment throughout Scripture. We find some of them in well-known passages. Or, we would find them if we didn’t focus so much on the other issues in the same passages.
Others come in parts of the Bible we seldom read, parts devotional and teaching literature seldom quote.
Therefore, I would like to take a look at at least some of what the Bible says about environmental stewardship and what God expects us to do about it.
The creation of nature and humanity
In the second chapter of Genesis, we read that God formed a man from the dust of the ground (v. 7). As most translations render verse 8, he planted a garden and then placed the man in it. In other words, the man saw the earth before the garden existed and watched it grow. It was his task to take care of it.
God introduced the beasts in the garden to the man one at a time and the man named them. He also discerned that none of them made a suitable companion for him. So when God presented the man with a woman, he went right to work and named her. Just look at his excitement when he recognized her as a suitable companion!
The man named the woman Eve, but in Genesis 5:2 we learn that God created man as male and female and named them man. The Hebrew for “man” is adam, the generic word for human. In other words, God’s name for both the man and the woman––and all men and women since––is Adam. Remember that for the rest of this post. Adam does not mean the man in the garden, but all of humanity.
Then God left that first man and woman alone for a while and the devil came to entice them. Remember, the man had walked with God long enough to see the garden grow from bare ground and become familiar with all the animals. The woman lacked that experience. So if you wanted to entice such a couple to act against their own interest, which one would you approach?
So Satan attacked the woman—not because women are inherently weaker than men, but because this woman was inherently weaker than this man.
The fall of humanity and nature
God had told Adam not to eat the fruit of one tree. In Genesis 3, the devil told Adam to go ahead and eat it. But not directly. He essentially called God a liar and implied that God was withholding something good. The woman ate the fruit first. The man, who should have recognized a trespasser and ordered him to leave the garden, went along.
It was an act of high treason. Having conflicting commandments from both God and the devil, Adam chose to obey the devil. The devil sought only to steal, kill, and destroy what God had made. God had given Adam dominion over the earth. In obedience to the devil, Adam turned to domination instead.
God protected the garden by evicting Adam from it and cursing the ground for Adam’s sake. In other words, God cursed the ground because of Adam and for Adam’s benefit. We are Adam.
And God won’t relinquish us to the devil’s control. The curse is supposed to have the effect of reminding us of where we have fallen from. It often takes the form of God allowing us to behave according to our basest instincts and reaping the consequences.
Here are some Old Testament passages, quoted from the Modern English Version, that describe how it works out (emphasis added):
Now the Lord makes the earth empty,
and makes it waste,
and turns it upside down,
and scatters its inhabitants abroad.
It shall be:
as with the people, so with the priest;
as with the servant, so with his master;
as with the maid, so with her mistress;
as with the buyer, so with the seller;
as with the lender, so with the borrower;
as with the creditor, so with the debtor.
The land shall be utterly emptied,
and utterly despoiled,
for the Lord has spoken this word.
The earth mourns and fades away,
the world languishes and fades away,
the haughty people of the earth languish.
The earth also is defiled by its inhabitants
because they have transgressed the laws,
violated the ordinances,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore, the curse devours the earth,
and those who dwell in it are held guilty.
Therefore, the inhabitants of the earth are burned,
and few men are left.
This passage begins what many commentators call Isaiah’s apocalypse. It doesn’t use standard apocalyptic symbolism, but it does look to the end times. Among other sins, people haven’t practiced environmental stewardship.
What iniquity have your fathers found in Me,
that they have gone far from Me,
and have walked after vanity
and have become vain?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up out of the land of Egypt,
who led us through the wilderness,
through a land of deserts and of pits,
through a land of drought and of the shadow of death,
through a land that no man passed through and where no man lived?”
And I brought you into a plentiful country
to eat its fruit and its goodness.
But when you entered, you defiled My land
and made My heritage an abomination.
Here, Jeremiah addresses his own people and reminds them of their history. They entered the promised land and promptly defiled it by copying the sin of the nations they should have destroyed. Our worldly church is starting to act the same way. The Israelites’ defilement of the land turned a “land flowing with milk and honey” into one that experienced frequent famines.
As for you, O My flock, thus says the Lord God: I will judge between sheep and cattle, between the rams and the male goats. Does it seem a small thing to you to have eaten up the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pastures? Or that you should drink of the clear waters, that you must foul the rest with your feet? And as for My flock, they eat that which you have trodden with your feet, and they drink that which you have fouled with your feet.
Therefore thus says the Lord God to them: I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and between the lean sheep. Because you have thrust with side and with shoulder, and pushed all the diseased with your horns until you have scattered them abroad, therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no more be a prey. And I will judge between one sheep and another.
The flock here is an allegory for the behavior of people. They take what they want from the land without regard for anyone who comes later. The powerful oppress the weak. Such callousness also pollutes the environment.
Humanity hasn’t changed
We are quite capable of doing right. Many of us don’t want to. Even the best of us can’t do it consistently. Consider:
- We can make many wonderful tools that benefit everyone. And then we turn them into instruments of war, opportunities for thievery, or otherwise use them to harm.
- The process of farming, mining minerals, and manufacturing—even in ancient times––polluted the land.
- Polluters care little about how their actions affect the air, water, and ground.
- Most of us want honorable work. Others prefer to steal, and often leave a path of destruction behind them.
- Even prehistoric humans hunted some species to extinction. Now that we have learned to appreciate biodiversity, some people still, overfish, poach, and destroy habitats.
- The most vocal environmental activists too often use private jets for travel, which adds lots of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
- Especially in times of crisis, most of us tend to act on what we perceive as our own interests, regardless of harm we might do to others. Stress can make us neglect principles we would otherwise live by.
- People of goodwill can have very different ideas of what it means to protect the environment. So they act at cross purposes.
- There are so many separate environmental issues that no one person can devote their full energy to all of them.
Here are a couple of New Testament passages that describe people in the end times:
2 Timothy 3:1-5
Know this: In the last days perilous times will come. Men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, slanderers, unrestrained, fierce, despisers of those who are good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying its power. Turn away from such people.
Do you know of anyone like that? Probably no one acts in all of those ways, but everyone has a tendency to do some of them. Even the best of us don’t successfully curb it all the time. I doubt if any generation or society has not lived like that.
We can read that in the end times, people will act as they have always acted, but with even less restraint on their worst impulses.
2 Peter 3:3-7, 10-14
Know this first, that there shall come scoffers in the last days who walk after their own lusts, and say, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were since the beginning of the creation.” For they willingly ignore that, by the word of God the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed standing out of the water and in the water, by which the world that then existed was flooded with water and perished. But by the same word, the heavens and the earth that now exist are being reserved for fire, kept for the Day of Judgment and destruction of the ungodly. . .
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat. The earth also and the works that are in it will be burned up.
Seeing then that all these things are to be destroyed, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, while you are waiting for and desiring the coming of the day of God, in which the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will be consumed by intense heat? But, according to His promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these things, be diligent that you may be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless.
Peter counsels us to wait and desire the coming of the day of God. Just as God destroyed the first world with a flood and renewed it, he will renew the one he destroys with fire. Therefore, believers can be at peace while everything falls apart around us.
Redemption in the end times
What do the end times have to do with environmental stewardship?
For nearly two millennia, the book of Revelation has confused and frightened many Christians. In the past fifty years or so, however, the symbolism may be less confusing. We now have the technology to destroy the earth. We never did before.
- At the opening of the sixth seal, “Then the heavens receded like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place” (Revelation 6:14). That’s what a nuclear war may look like.
- In the first four trumpet judgments (Revelation 8:6-12), a third of the earth burns up, a third of the trees, and all the grass. A third of the sea turns to blood, and a third of all sea life dies. A third of fresh water becomes so bitter that many people die from drinking it. The sun, moon, and stars go partially dark. That sounds like the worst nightmares of those who use fear to motivate green living. Light pollution has already obscured most of the stars that used to be visible.
- At the sixth trumpet, a third of the population dies from fire, smoke, and sulfur (Revelation 9:18).
Need I go on to describe the bowls of God’s wrath in Revelation 16? As I have already said, God often carries out his curse by allowing people to follow their basest instincts. The plagues in Revelation can easily follow from the ways we pollute our environment.
I don’t have any faith in the ability of humankind to behave any differently. But suppose, somehow, we manage to learn to live so that we can reverse the harm we’ve done to the environment. The curse will continue to its foreordained conclusion another way.
How should we live, then?
As Peter wrote, we should desire the day of the Lord and wait for it living peaceful, blameless, spotless lives. After all, we have only two choices: to be part of the problem or part of the solution.
Being part of living spotless lives means living the eco-friendliest life we know how—and continually learn more best practices. It means encouraging others by word and deed to practice environmental stewardship.
After all, when God created the world and put humans in charge, he expected us to take good care of his world. He still does.
Burning waste dump. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Deforestation by criminals. Some rights reserved by Daniel Beilinson
Car exhaust. Some rights reserved by eutrophication&hypoxia.
Sheep grazing on reclaimed wetlands. Public domain from geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Sin. Some rights reserved by Corey Balazowich.
Men arguing. Some rights reserved by o5com (Link to Flickr no longer works)
Second coming of Christ. Source unknown