Recently, the world celebrated Earth Day (22 April) to demonstrate support for the idea that humans have a serious responsibility to protect the natural environment. Christianity has a poor reputation regarding its attitude towards the environment. According to David Runcorn, there are four ways in which Christianity is held to be destructive in its assumptions about the natural world:
- Christianity is an anthropocentric religion that regards humans as being at the top of the natural order and promotes the view that nature is only valuable when it is somehow useful to humanity.
- The wording of Genesis 1:26 is used to prove that humans seek to exploit natural resources: according to this verse, humans are commanded by God to have ‘power over’ and ‘dominion’ over the environment.
- Christians emphasise the importance of the spiritual over the material and therefore the material world is regarded as an irrelevance, an inferior thing and a distraction to the higher purpose of attaining entry into heaven.
- As humans have fallen into sin, so has the natural order been corrupted and therefore it is not to be valued1.
For many environmentalists and ecological activists, Christian theology is at best out of touch with nature and at its worst has given nations that have Christian roots a view that nature is there to be exploited by humans with the result that the earth now faces a serious ecological crisis. On the contrary, I shall argue that Christianity provides Christians with a robust theology of care for the environment. Let us look at each of the four points above in the order they have been presented and see the evidence for my claim.
- It is true that Christianity is humanity-focused, though not exclusively so, in that it is deeply concerned about solving the problem of the alienation of humanity from God because of sin. One of those sins is mistreatment of the environment. Every person is sinful by his/her volition (Romans 3:23) and one of the many sins humans commit is the destruction of the natural world. An essential part of the process of transforming human behaviour towards the environment is therefore to proclaim the personally transmogrifying Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection (3:24, 25; 6:7-14) so that people can find reconciliation with God and be transformed in their attitude and conduct.
- The wording of Genesis 1:26 does require careful handling if it is not to be interpreted as a licence for exploitation. It is poor exegesis if doctrine is created from one verse in isolation of the whole of the biblical witness on any issue. Admittedly, the command to exercise dominion over the world does connote the idea of mastery; but equally, many commentators read this verse to mean benign stewardship if read within the context of what else the Bible teaches about the relationship of humans to the environment and what ecology teaches us about the place of humans within the natural order. Many things can be said about this, so for the sake of concision, I shall examine two significant points.First, it has been pointed out by theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann that the climax of the creation narrative is not the creation of humans but the day of rest or the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3)2. On that day, the world and its Creator rejoice in the harmony of creation. That harmony is an analogy for and a work of the glory of God. To despoil the natural world, as much human activity does, disrupts creation’s harmony and is an offence against the glory of the one whose creation it is. Environmental damage is a sacrilege.
Second, biological and environmental science demonstrate the kinship of humanity with the rest of creation. Humans, for example, have a 98% genetic similarity to chimpanzees. Our welfare is inextricably bound up with the preservation of the environment. For example, increasing global temperatures, caused by human activities, are raising sea levels which threaten societies living on low lying islands and coastlands. From a scientific and an ethical point of view, it therefore makes sense for humans to be environmentalists not exploiters. Revisionist theologies of the environment support the conclusions of science and ethics by placing an emphasis back upon the fact that though exclusively we humans are made in the image of God (1:26), we are also made from the dust of the earth (2:7). Though intended ultimately to be dwellers in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2-4), we are also part of creation which has been shaped by God to be a community also3. Within a community, the constituent members depend on each other for their survival and the community’s continuation. Humans are part of the world and both we and the flora and fauna that inhabit it are mutually dependent for our existence and flourishing.
- It is a calumny to claim that Christianity asserts the primacy of spirit over matter. This prioritisation of categories comes from Platonism and Gnosticism rather than from orthodox Christianity. The body as a material entity is no less important than the spirit within the divine economy. We see this in many ways within Christian doctrines, most notably within the orthodox understanding of Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. Christianity is a way of life that honours embodiment. As the carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ declares so gustily, Jesus is ‘God of God’ and ‘Light of Light’ and yet ‘he abhors not the Virgin’s womb’. If there were something inherently wrong about matter, God who is holy would not have clothed himself in flesh and entered the creation he had made (John 1:14). When Jesus rose from the dead, his body came back to life also in a glorified state. We see in two of the Gospel accounts that Jesus not only wished to prove he was alive, but he also wished to prove that his body was alive once more and that he was not a ghost. According to Luke, Jesus invited his disciples to touch him, showed them his nail-scarred hands and feet and ate a piece of broiled fish and some honeycomb in front of them (24:39-43). John backs up Luke’s assertion of a physical resurrection. He records how Jesus told Thomas to examine his hands and his side for evidence of the crucifixion (20:27) and narrates Jesus preparing a meal of fish and bread for the disciples and eating with them on the beach at the Sea of Tiberias (21:9-15). Christ was not therefore an ethereal phantom wafting around Jerusalem and Galilee haunting his disciples and glad to be liberated from his body, but an amalgam of the divine with the human that includes a body which is the ‘first fruits’ (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23) of a new kind of human life: a life in which human bodies will be made perfect, no longer subject to weakness, ageing or death, but able to live eternally (15:35-49).
- It does not follow necessarily that as creation has been corrupted by sin it ought not therefore to be valued. On the contrary, ancient Jewish and Pauline theologies have presented the view that the natural world will be rescued from its fallen state. According to the ancient Jews, the sins of humans and fallen angels have defiled the earth and caused parts of nature to malfunction. God holds humans and fallen angels accountable for this. Nature is therefore a victim and cries out for rescue, a cry that will be satisfied when it is redeemed and changed into a state of glory. In Romans 8:19-23, the Apostle Paul perpetuates this tradition of Jewish concern for creation. He anticipates with joy the transformation of creation when Christ returns. Sin’s damage will be reversed, and nature will be perfected so that it shares in the glory of God’s resurrected people. The environment is therefore of everlasting value because it is an essential part of God’s covenant of redemption.
In conclusion, it is clear that we Christians have much to be confident about when it comes to the environment. We have a theology of the natural world which clearly obliges us to show concern for our local, national and global environments. Perhaps the challenge is therefore not so much defending our theology as living up to it. Are we living lives in which we do our best to minimise out carbon footprint? If not, we undermine our witness to a world that has become increasingly more concerned to protect the earth. If we are doing our part, we can rejoice that we are participating in God’s cosmic mission.