I was asked to speak on the ‘theology of action on climate change’ at an event a few days ago. In preparing, I realised that’s quite a big remit! I narrowed the question down to focus on what our relationship to the rest of creation should look like from a Biblical perspective. This can guide us on what our attitude and approach to the rest of creation should be, but obviously doesn’t touch on our ethics (for example, thinking what it means to ‘love our neighbour’ in this context), and what our heart response or outward actions should look like.
Here are my thoughts on three Biblical principles that can help us understand ourselves and our relationship with creation:
A lot of Christian responses to climate change and ecology speak about ‘stewardship’. Whilst I don’t think that’s wrong necessarily, and I do recognise that that teaching has real value, I think it doesn’t go quite as far as the Bible does in terms of spelling out how closely linked to the rest of creation we are, and how responsible we are for it. Let’s start with Gen 1:26-31. The earth was not made for us. It is not merely a resource for us to wisely steward – it was made for God’s pleasure and worship. It belongs to God, and has goodness and value in itself, not merely in the resources it provides. We are made in a unique position in the likeness of God, which means (amongst other things) that our species has a unique potential for creation, destruction and moral choice. By our very nature, whatever we do shapes the world around us for good or for bad, and we have a choice to make in all of our actions what we want that to look like.* We therefore as a species have the position of ‘lord’ over the earth. The word ‘dominion’ (or ‘rule’, ‘lord’ etc) can be problematic for us. Our human experience is full of associations between authority and abuse and exploitation, and we have been guilty of using the words of Genesis to excuse behaving that way towards the rest of creation, so understandably we shy away from claiming rulership over it. But what does ‘dominion’ look like in the Bible, done properly? A quick search gives me: Phil 2:5-11, Eph 5:23-30, Isaiah’s suffering servant (Isa 53), Jesus’ foot washing John 13:3-5 & 12-16, Mark 10:45, and supremely, the cross. Jesus gives us an incredible example of how to rule with self-sacrificial love. In light of this, what is the most worshipful way for us to behave towards the earth?
2. ‘New heaven and new earth’
You can draw out several different narratives for the end times from the Bible – it isn’t clear exactly what is predicted to happen (which to me indicates that that is not their primary reason for being in the text; perhaps one or more of the Biblical end-times narratives is there as ‘myth’ in the sense that whilst not ‘true’ in a strict historical sense, is given to teach profound truths that would be hard to express another way). Without wanting to state what *will* happen, a possibility from the text is the joining of a new heaven and new earth (eg, Rev 21:1-5, Isa 65:17-25). I sometimes come across the objection from some Christians that there will be a rapture, and that this world will be destroyed, leaving the saved to go to heaven – so why concern ourselves with saving the world rather than saving souls? There are many possible responses to this, which I’m not going to go into, but one is that alongside this as a possible ‘end’ is the possibility of the ‘new heaven and new earth’ ‘end’. That ‘end’ would suggest that the rest of creation *does* matter eternally, and will share in the resurrection somehow, and that rather than us going to heaven, heaven will effectively come to us. God’s dwelling will no longer be separate from ours. It remains a possibility from the texts.
3. ‘All things’
Finally(?), the Bible actually teaches that salvation and restoration to relationship with God is not just for humans. It isn’t even just extended to other animals – it is for the ‘cosmos’! This is the word in John 3:16 translated ‘world’, and often understood as ‘humanity’, but it means just what it means to us in English! This concept is treated a little more fully in Romans 8 (especially 19-28) and Col 1:15-20. There’s a deep and humbling mystery in it, but the implication of these texts is that God means for ‘all things’ to be restored to relationship with Him, and that our fallenness is preventing this from being at present. Everything effectively groans in pain from the brokenness and the waiting. It’s waiting for our salvation. It’s waiting for humanity to be its salvation! The Holy Spirit is working in us, as we grow closer to God, to sensitise us to both the groan of the earth and the broken heart of God for the world, and working in and through us to make all things well. There’s a vivid birth metaphor running through both passages, which I haven’t managed to shift from my mind’s eye since it was first pointed out to me. Whilst the earth groans with labour pains, Christ is the first proof that resurrection is on its way – He is the head of the body, already reborn, and if the Head is through, the body has to follow – and we will pull the rest through!
This is mind bending stuff, and I can’t do it justice, so it’s worth spending time with the passages and letting them sink in to their full extent. God is saving the whole of creation, through Christ, through us.