Written by Josh Tiessen
Environmentalism is all the rage. From the United Nations climate change summit held in Paris, to kids movies like Wall•E, or banning drinking straws, we see a clear concern rising for the world around us. But is Christianity hindering the cause of environmentalists or does it provide a unique foundation for the care of nature and animals?
The Creator’s first role for humanity was to cultivate and steward His created world (Genesis 2:15). Throughout the Torah, we read of multiple farming laws safeguarding the sustainability of the land, trees, and animals. A notable proverb states “The righteous care for the needs of their animals,” (Proverbs 12:10 NIV). In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He asks the audience to look at the birds and consider the lilies of the field, for God lovingly watches over them (Matthew 6:26-30).
In contrast to the early church fathers (and mothers) who deeply cherished God’s creation, modern Christianity in the West has largely disregarded nature, influenced by The Enlightenment and an interpretation of Scripture that allows for dominating nature by removing any moral obligation to it. However, according to Steven Bouma-Prediger’s book For The Beauty of The Earth, a proper reading of “ruling over nature” in Genesis 1:28 does not mean exploiting nature but following Jesus’ example of servant-leadership.
When I was in my teens, I remember a friend who, after excessively using paper towel in the church bathroom, said to me, “why care for the earth if it’s all going to be burned up anyways?”
My friend raised a good point, which atheists have to answer as well if the earth truly was a mere random accident. Some Christians believe the physical world is bad and that only what is ‘spiritual’ is good. This fosters the same attitude as my friend’s: trash this world and escape to heaven. The philosophy behind this is called spirit/matter dualism and is closer to Greek Gnostic philosophy and Eastern religions than it is to the Bible, in which God’s creation is repeatedly called “good” and Jesus’ taking on human flesh is the ultimate affirmation that matter is good. But what about the earth being burned up?
A closer look at Scripture reveals that the earth will not be left behind, but actually restored to its original vitality before it was corrupted by human evil. (According to Randy Alcorn’s provocative book called Heaven, we should actually read Isaiah 60 as a commentary on Revelation 21-22).
It’s not enough to just tweet about the environment, we have to act. It starts with small things like recycling, carpooling, buying second-hand, and installing LED lightbulbs, all of which can make a difference. When I was fifteen years old, I was mentored by a famous Canadian wildlife artist, Robert Bateman. He encouraged me to get involved with environmental causes in my area, so I reached out to Friends of the Eramosa Karst, a peaceful activist group that educated the community about the precarious state of a conservation area in Hamilton. I wasn’t a biologist or activist, but as a budding artist, I was able to offer prints of my paintings depicting animals inhabiting this land, which raised thousands of dollars at their annual fundraisers. After years of petitioning the city for the land not to be given over to contractors eager to build more homes, the Eramosa Karst won, based on the fact that the endangered Bobolink bird was found nesting on the land. This natural biosphere with caves and sinkholes is being preserved. I am happy to be on their board, which continues to sustain the land by getting the community involved through tree-planting days, guided hikes and educational programs. The point is that environmental care is not just for experts, but is something that each one of us can get involved in using our own unique gifts and areas of influence. I encourage you to check out Christian organizations such as A Rocha, and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. I’m excited about a new nature documentary called The Riot and The Dance, narrated by a Christian biologist.
The sometimes shrill rhetoric of environmentalists can sound like ‘hell, fire and brimstone’ preaching, scaring people into action. Yet, as Christians we must mourn the horrors of deforestation, oil spills, and rapid species extinction, as the Apostle Paul was clear that all of nature is “groaning” (Romans 8:19-22) as a result of humanity’s sin (Genesis 3:16-18). To be a co-worker with the Creator is to be already involved in rectifying the harm sin has done to nature, but unlike many environmentalists who believe man will be the god-like saviour of the environment, Christians are assured that a broken world can only be ultimately restored by a holy God.