Several years ago a group of French farmers staged a protest against the European Union. In the middle of the night they transplanted an entire wheat field in the most famous boulevard in Paris, the Champs Elysees. The field came complete with cows and sheep. When Parisians awoke the next morning, rather than getting angry, they began to frolic in the field. Whatever else the protest may have accomplished, it succeeded in reminding the city that humanity’s first habitat was a garden.
Yesterday was Earth Day 2000, a day to remember that our responsibility to care for our planet goes all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Yet I wonder how many Christians marked the occasion in any significant way. Although caring for the environment is high on the secular agenda, it does not get very much attention in the evangelical church. In fact, many Christians get suspicious when politicians when start talking about the environment.
There are some good reasons for this. The way we respond to the universe always says something about our ultimate religious commitment, and many approaches to the environment are hostile to biblical Christianity. Evolutionists generally minimize the unique status of human beings as creatures made in the image of God. The New Age movement honors the Earth as our Mother. Similarly, the “Gaia Hypothesis” treats our planet like a female deity. The problem with these worldviews is that they mistake the creation for the Creator. Rather than trying simply to protect the earth, they bow down and worship it.
Given all this neo-paganism, it is not surprising that most Christians have little in common with people for whom environmentalism is a way of life. Nevertheless, environmentalists have the right impulse: They recognize that the world is precious, and that human beings have a responsibility to preserve it. The noted evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson argues that we must “see humanity as part of the biosphere and its faithful steward, not just the resident master and economic maximizer” (TIME, Earth Day 2000, p. 34). That is a surprisingly Christian approach to the environment. It places our life on this planet under the category of stewardship. We are part of the biosphere; thus, we share something in common with every other creature. But there is also something special about us, something that requires us not simply to use the planet, but to care for it.
Without getting into scientific disputes over global warming or the depletion of the ozone layer, it is safe to say that the earth is in more urgent need of care now than at any time since the days of Noah. In a few months the United Nations will release its Analysis of Global Ecosystems. The study is the most sweeping report of its kind, analyzing the stability of the world’s coastal, agricultural, fresh water, grassland, and forest ecosystems. Needless to say, the news on Earth Day 2000 is not encouraging. By any objective measure, human beings are doing unprecedented damage to planet earth.
This calls for theological comment. The first thing to recognize is that the earth is our home—not our permanent home, but our home nonetheless. God has settled us on this good earth. As Paul said to the people of Lystra, “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17).
When God planted us on planet earth, he told us to make ourselves at home. We have divine permission to make use of every animal and every plant. God said to Adam and Eve, “fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground… . I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” (Gen. 1:28b-29a). This is what theologians call the Creation Mandate. It means that human beings have the right to use all of the world’s resources.
With that right goes the weighty responsibility to cherish what God has made. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). We are called to be earth-keepers, and thus we answer to God for our use and abuse of the world that he has made.
The problem, of course, is that our world is spoiled by sin. One thinks of the deforestation of the Amazon and the destruction of cod fisheries in the North Atlantic. One laments the plight of battery hens that are forced to lay eggs day and night, and the loss of countless species through pollution. Surely these examples of greed and negligence are part of what the Bible means when it describes the “whole creation… groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22). Creation itself suffers the sad consequences of human sin.
If sin is the problem, then ultimately salvation is the answer. The whole universe shares a common destiny with us, for the plan of redemption is cosmic in its scope. To challenge the popular slogan, there is no need for us to “Save Planet Earth” because God himself will save the world in his own good time. The day will come when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
In the meantime, we are commanded to be faithful stewards of the world and everything in it. Keep your neighborhood beautiful. Help plants and animals grow and flourish. Do not squander food, water, or energy. I say this not simply because we are running out of natural resources, or because it is unfair for us to use more than our fair share, but because everything that God has made is precious. To be wasteful is to be disrespectful to your Creator. Wherever you go, remember that this is your Father’s world, and that he has called you to care for it.
Yesterday a family from this church put some of these principles into practice. They celebrated Earth Day 2000 by participating in the community cleanup of a stream near their house. As they joined their neighbors in picking up trash and clearing away debris, they were doing something that was not only environmentally sound, but also spiritually sound. Taking care of planet earth is good, practical, biblical Christianity.
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