Question: The charge has been made that Christianity is anti-environmental. In fact, there are those who blame the current environmental crisis on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Certainly some Christians have used the words of Genesis 1 about subduing the earth and having dominion over it as license to take what we need from it. Other Christians have regarded the earth as just a way station on their journey to heaven and have not felt a responsibility to take care of it. How do you answer these charges?
Updated April 22, 2017
Frank answers: This is a timely question for Earth Day (April 22). It’s a day on which, since its founding in 1970, we have together as a nation, and increasingly as a global community, considered the threats to our environment caused by mismanagement of the earth’s resources and developed ways of addressing the harm that has been done. But dealing with the threats that lie ahead will require massive changes in our attitudes and way of life.
The question contains two somewhat contradictory assertions that level an environmental indictment of Christianity: (1) that the biblically-mandated domination of humanity over creation encourages thoughtless exploitation of the earth’s resources and (2) that the otherworldly orientation of Christianity encourages disregard for the earth.
The first indictment refers to the texts of Genesis 1:26: “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 air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth,” followed by Genesis 1:29: “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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” These “have dominion” texts, it is argued, have encouraged human exploitation of the earth’s resources and creatures.
The second indictment points to Christianity’s otherworldly preoccupation, such as “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth” and “put to death whatever in you is earthly” (Colossians 3:2-5). Otherworldly preoccupation, it is argued, have caused Christians to lack concern about the environmental crisis we face today.
The present environmental crisis cannot be laid at the door of Christianity as such. If anything is to blame, it is the combined technological, industrial, and urban revolutions of the last several centuries—which have been centuries of increasing secularism in the governments and societies of the world. People tended to take better care of the earth when they had a direct connection to it and regarded it as something sacred. This relationship with nature was broken by industrialization and its attendant social and environmental consequences. This occurred in Western countries but also in Eastern countries; in capitalist societies and also in communist societies; in countries with a Christian heritage and also in countries with minimal Christian influence.
Air pollution in China. What species would poison the air it needs to breath in order to live?
As far as the Bible is concerned, the earth doesn’t belong to man. To the question, “Who owns the earth?”, the answer of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is clear: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). Humankind was tasked by the Creator with stewardship—taking care of the place. In that sense, man was put in charge. But this wasn’t a license to pollute the environment. Humankind may be justly accused of poor stewardship, of bad management, and this is a sin against the Creator as well as the creation.
The second creation story in Genesis 2 pictures the Lord creating Adam (the man) from the dust of the earth. Whatever is in the earth is in our bodies. So whatever else might be said about humankind, we are earthly creatures. Our destiny is not some other world, but this one. “We await a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). The Book of Revelation pictures the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, coming down to earth. The earth is our present home and, if Christians took their Bible seriously, it is also our eternal home. We should take delight in the home we have, feel at home in it, explore its wonders great and small, and strive to preserve it for future generations.
The text from Colossians isn’t exactly otherworldly. St. Paul is saying that we should fix our minds on heavenly things as opposed to worldly vices. The list of “earthly things” that should be “put to death” in the Colossians text are social vices, not a love of the natural world. One of those vices is greed, which has certainly contributed to the current environmental crisis, especially in the examples of strip mining and deforestration which are most the visible evidence of a thoughtless use of natural resources.
Deforestration in the Amazon region. What species would eliminate its habitat?
As the earth is polluted and raped, it too looks for redemption. As the Apostles Paul wrote, “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21-22). As the children of God hope in the resurrection, so the whole creation hopes for its renewal.
Responding to the Environmental Disaster
Just as Christian social ethics encourages planting signs in this world of the coming reign of God in our care of one another, so also it encourages planting signs in this world of the renewed earth. Since the first Earth Day recycling has become a way of life, people are making an effort to clean up after themselves, stores are trying to reduce their use of plastic containers, automobile emissions have been reduced, homes and businesses are trying to reduce their use of energy, there is increasing interest in renewable sources of energy, and governments are mandating cleaner ways of extracting coal and oil from the ground. There’s a long list that could be made. But three general principles would seem to be in order.
First, as the psalmist says, “The Lord is King, let the earth rejoice.” There is One who stands over the earth as its Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, and the earth itself is happy and grateful for God’s rule. Christianity rejects any pantheism that regards the earth as divine; the earth cannot save itself any more than we humans can. It depends upon the grace of its Creator for its preservation and renewal. We are summoned to worship the Creator, not the creation. But we can behold God’s glory in the creation. As the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” To spoil the creation is to diminish God’s glory.
Second, the agency most responsible for dealing with the environmental crisis is government because modern technology, industry, and urban life is too big to be regulated by individuals or groups. We may be subjects of a divine King, but we are citizens of worldly states and our voices need to be heard in the political arenas—not because we each have all the answers but because collectively, in our deliberations, we might come up with some solutions to the environmental crisis that can be acted upon.
The late Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin is considered the father of our national Earth Day.got involved because he saw the ecological damage that thoughtless logging in the north woods of his native Wisconsin was inflicting on the land, its people, and their economic well being. He recognized that only the federal government had the resources to create a true national framework for conservation and environmental protection; this was not something that well-funded private enterprise (which lacked the motivation) or well-meaning activism (which lacked the funding) could do on their own. Today we recognize that dealing with the environmental crisis requires the cooperation of all the governments of the world and all the world’s peoples.
The late Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin
Third, in whatever ways possible, we humans need to be reconnected with the earth. We are creatures of the earth, not beings set apart from it. The earth’s fate is our fate. We need to be reconnected with nature of which we are a part. We need to be outdoors enjoying whatever patches of nature, big or little, are available to us, so that we can appreciate the natural world of which we are a part.
Stewardship is what the care of the earth is about—managing what has been entrusted to us. We want to pass on a clean environment to our children. But we also have a responsibility toward our fellow creatures on this planet which is home to all things living—“all creatures great and small.” These creatures are here not just for our use but because God put them here. Therefore we have to value them for their own sake. We have a responsibility to take care of the earth not just for our sake but for sake of all its inhabitants.
Pastor Frank Senn