Sunday, April 24, 2005

God's Environmental Rescue Plan

What values should Christians have in relation to nature, ecology, the environment and animals?
  • Should we place no value at all on nature and eschew all material and physical things as evils of the world?
  • Or should we place so much value on nature that we tie ourselves to trees to prevent deforestation, murder animal-killers and destroy companies who test their products on animals?
False Views of Nature
Low View of Nature
Vaughan Roberts writes that many believe that the universe came into existence by accident. Then according to the Darwinian view, the process of evolution took over. There was no Creator, no guiding hand, just chance. The result is a low view of nature. If things exist simply by accident, they have no intrinsic value. If you believe in the survival of the fittest, what is to stop you from imposing your human strength on the rest of nature without regard for any of the consequences, except those that directly affect you?

High View of Nature
Partly as a reaction to this diminished view of the natural world, an alternative pantheistic view, originating from Asia, has become increasing popular in the West in recent years. Nature is regarded as divine. The whole universe is believed to be God, or part of God. It is not distinct from him but rather emanates out of him. We are bound together with everything else in the universe and with God too because God is in everything and is everything.

The opening words of the Bible challenge both these views: the first is too low and the other is too high.

Nature is neither an accident nor divine. Everything that exists was created by God (Genesis 1:1). He is the transcendant God, above and beyond all that he has made. The earth is distinct from God and lower than him, but it has great value. He created a good, ordered and beautiful world.

Creation is Good
Many Eastern philosophies and religions are dualistic: dividing the spiritual and the material. The material and physical is seen as either evil or illusory. God is believed to be concerned exclusively with the spiritual. That is not so with Christianity. We are not to cut ourselves off from the material world and deny ourselves physical pleasures. We are not holy if we remain celibate and live on bread and water. That would be a clear denial of the clear teaching of the Bible, that everything God created is good. Genesis 1 stresses the point repeatedly.

Creation is Ordered
At first, "the earth was formless and empty" (Genesis 1:2). God had created matter but he had not yet arranged or organised it. Then, he brought order to that chaos: separating light from darkness, waters of the heavens from waters of the seas, forming the universe, the earth, the sky and the seas and he filled them with vegetation, seed-bearing plants and animals "according to their various kinds". In these separations and different categories, we see the order of God's creation. Everything has its place.

Creation is Beautiful
God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground and they were pleasing to the eye and good for food. God was not just concerned to make a functional creation that worked but it wanted it to be beautiful. He also created us with an aesthetic sense and made things of beauty for us to enjoy. We must be sure to show proper gratitude by stopping to enjoy and admire the beautiful world that God has created and appreciating it.

Some Christians are such activists that we feel guilty if we're not busy trying to achieve something. We may even imply that those who make time to walk in God's creation, or to appreciate a work of art, a good book, or a piece of music, are wasting their time. But we are not machines. God has made a beautiful world. We should be grateful and enjoy it.

Creation Glorifies God
God's creation speaks of his great qualities: his power, goodness and splendour. This is the supreme goal of all that exists: to praise and glorify its Creator. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Psalm 19:1) says the psalmist. The apostle Paul goes so far as to say that atheism and idolatry are inexcusable. We should all know from the world around us that there is a great Creator, above and beyond all that he has made, who demands our gratitude and worship.

Creation is Unfinished
All that God made was undoubtedly good from the very begining, but it was not designed to fulfil its potential on its own. There were elements that God designed for humans to subdue. God's instruction to man to subdue the earth was not just to benefit humans, but to bring creation to greater maturity and thus lead to more glory for its Creator.

The Earth was Entrusted to Human Beings
God's servant-kings
A right understanding of the earth must begin with the truth that it was created by God. But there is another fundamental truth that we also need to grasp: God entrusted the world he made to human beings. Straight after his creation of man and woman, he gave them a clear commant:"Be fruitful and increase in number; 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 along the ground" (Genesis 1:28).

Some think this command in Genesis 1:28 has produced a contemptuous attitude to the environment that has contributed to the current ecological crisis. They believe it sanctions exploitation without restraint.

But it is a serious misreading of God's command in Genesis 1:28 to understand it as a charter for abuse. Throughout Genesis 1, we are reminded that God has created a good world. He can hardly be giving human beings permission to destroy it in the very same chapter.

Human beings are part of the created order and yet, as those uniquely made in the image of God, we have been place over the rest of the created order. We are commanded to "rule" over the rest of God's creatures (Genesis 1:26,28). This is the language, not simply of stewardship but of kingship.

As those made in God's image, our dominion over creation should be modelled on the way God exercises his rule as King of the universe. He is a loving King, deeply concerned for the best interests of his subjects (Psalm 45). He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. This gracious rule of God is exhibited supremely in his Son Jesus, who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The same attitude of service should govern our attitude to creation as we fulfil our responsibilities as God's rulers over it.

As the Creator, God continues to be the owner of all that he has made (Psalm 24:1-2). Just as the Israelite kings were accountable to God for how they exercised their rule, so all human beings, as God's kings over creation, will be accountable to him for how they fulfil that task. We have no liberty to do what we like with our natural environment; it is not ours to treat as we please. "Dominion" is not a synonym for "domination", let alone "destruction". Since we hold it in trust, we have to manage it responsibly and productively.

Two Tasks: "work" the earth and "take care" of it
Our responsibility as God's kings over the earth consists of 2 tasks:
to work it and take care of it (Genesis 2:15).

"Work" the earth
More than just cultivating the soil, this command points to a much broader encouragement to develop the resources God has placed in the world so that we can put them to use. It is not long before we find human beings forging tools out of bronze (Genesis 4:22), and after the flood God gives explicit permission for us to eat meat and fish (Genesis 9:2-3). We are encouraged to work and develop the land.

"Take care" of it
But we are also to "take care" of the earth. God is not giving us a free hand to do what we want with his creation. We are to exercise a responsible dominion, ensuring that we do not just develop the earth and its resources, but also conserve it.

The earth will be redeemed by Christ
Conservation attempts to preserve what nature we have left. But what can we do about the depleted forests, the melting ice-caps, the animals hunted to extinction, the fatally polluted water-tables, the exhausted earth? What can we do about that? It seems that nothing we can do can reinstate the whole of nature to its original state. Everything seems irreversibly contaminated.

But we should not fear. The whole of nature will be redeemed by Christ.

Many Christians have a sub-biblical view of their own salvation. They imagine that it is limited to our "souls" or "spirits". Their vision of heaven is of an insubstantial place inhabited by immaterial souls. But the God who made not just our souls, but out bodies and the whole material world as well, could never be satisfied with that.

The fall of humanity had disastrous consequences for the whole of creation. When humanity fell, the whole of creation fell with us. Just as our relationship with God was broken, so our relationship with the rest of creation was shattered. We abuse the environment and the animals. Animals no longer submit to us. The ground no longer obeys us and when we work it, and our labour is wasted. There are earthquakes and tsunamis. The whole of nature rebels against our God-given rule just as we rebelled against God's righteous rule.

But just as Jesus will redeem us materially in the flesh when he comes again, so the whole of creation will be redeemed materially at the second coming of Christ.

The Groans of Creation
For now, just as we long for the day when Christ will return in glory, so the whole of creation longs for that day (Romans 8:9). At the moment, like us, it is subject to frustration (Romans 8:20). It has not fulfilled its destiny. That is why the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8:22).

But that pain will cease one day when it is "liberated from its bondage to decay" and will be redeemed together with the children of God (Romans 8:21). God will create a new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). Then, there will be harmony within creation: the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them…the infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest (Isaiah 11:9; 65:24). And there will be intimacy with God: the dwelling of God will be with men, he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 21:3-4).

How should Christians live now?
Our ultimate home as Christians is this new creation. We are strangers in the world (1 Peter 1:1) and our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). But, until Christ returns, we must live here on earth. How should we live in the meantime? Should we be concerned for this present world or for the world to come?

The answer must be both, but it isn't easy to work that out in practice.

Some Christians imply that we should not really bother with this world, as it will pass away as soon as Christ returns. To get involved in environmental issues or to train to be a vet is seen as a waste of time (like arranging the deckchairs on a sinking Titanic). But this cannot be right. Our Redeemer is also our Creator. This material world has value, not because it is valuable intrinsically, but because God made it and is concerned for it. He demonstrated his concern for creation in the most powerful way possible: by sending his Son to redeem all of it. God's work of salvation is not a rejection of the material world; it is a renewal of it, as proclaimed by Christ's resurrection. It is our responsibility as Christ's disciples to be concerned for it too and seek to make it as good a place to live as we possibly can. The "creation mandate" of Genesis 1:28 still applies. We still have the responsibility to fill the earth and subdue it; to both work the land and take care of it.

But as we exercise our God-given stewardship of the world, we must be realistic. This fallen world will always bear the marks of sin until Christ returns. Only he can save the earth. Our Creator is also our Redeemer. While we wait for the glorious day when he appears to complete his redemptive work, we are also to work the land and take care of it in this way: to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19), calling on people everywhere to turn from their sin and trust in Jesus.

One day, it could even be the day after tomorrow, there will be a disaster more terrible than any film can portray. The whole world will be destroyed as God acts in judgement. But that will not be the end; it will lead to a new world, perfect in every way.

It is now our privilege and responsibility to warn others of this coming judgement and tell them the good news that, despite their sin, they can have a place in God's new creation if they turn and trust in Christ. The new creation is worth waiting for. All God's people will be there, not just as souls, but with physical bodies in a physical place.

In that day, says the prophet Isaiah, "You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst out in song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands" (Isaiah 52:12), as the whole creation joins in the worship of God, its great Creator and Redeemer.

"God's Big Design: Life as he intended it to be" by Vaughan Roberts

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