Stewardship and Sea Levels
Climate Change: seeking a Christian response to a matter of vital concern that the Bible does not specifically address
Posted on July 15, 2017
Tuvalu is a Polynesian island with an extremely low elevation. Most of it is not much more than a meter above sea level. In recent decades, sea levels have been rising by about one inch every 6 years or so. Already it is having an impact on this island. The shoreline is being eroded and there is a shortage of drinking water because of contamination of wells by sea water. The 10,000 island residents are primarily Christian and not surprisingly, climate change is frequently on their list of prayer concerns.
The Bible has nothing explicit to say about climate change. However, Christians are as opinionated on this topic as anyone. And when these questions are asked ...
1.Is climate change happening?
2.If it is happening, is human activity a major contributor?
By a significant margin, evangelical Christians are more likely to answer "no" to both! Why the difference? If scripture is silent, how are those opinions being formed?
- From our political inclinations?
- From the way it affects our pocketbook?
- Is this matter, are we free to "rely on our own understanding"?
II Corinthians 10:5 instructs us to: take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. We properly speak of a Christian worldview, meaning we try to see and understand every matter of our lives through the lens of the whole truth of God, truth that is discoverable in our study of nature, and more importantly the truth God reveals through his Word.
When it comes to a matter like climate change, our task is to look for other pertinent biblical teachings which can guide us in our understanding. Because the scripture is being applied less directly, such a process will also be less precise. So not surprisingly, Christians have not moved quickly to a position of complete agreement.
As we ponder and debate this matter, it is incumbent that we hold convictions humbly and listen to each other graciously and always remain open to further insight through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In this essay, I will not be so bold as to give you "the one correct Christian position" on climate change. Rather, my intention is to set forth a wide range of relevant biblical teachings so that we have a solid basis by which to test our present thoughts and attitudes.
A good place to start is with biblical texts that instruct us in general about how to understand our physical environment. First up is Genesis 2:15: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Right from the start, we are informed that a significant part of our purpose in this world is to work with the resources of the earth. And in all our working, we are also to take care of the earth. And not only the garden where we happen to live. In the Genesis chap.1 story of creation, we learn that man has been given dominion over all living things (i.e. the responsibility to manage well the whole of creation.) The word "to keep" used in Genesis 2:15 includes the idea of preservation or conservation. God declared every part of what he made to be good. Though all of creation has been marred by sin, there remains a goodness about it and we are called to help preserve that.
Do we see signs of deterioration? – we should take steps to restore it; Is there evidence of the wonderful balance of nature being disrupted, for example, by the threatened loss of an animal species or inordinate amounts of carbon dioxide in the air? If it is within our capacity to restore balance, we should take those steps.
Another text that obligates us to be responsible stewards of the physical world: Psalm 24:1 - The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; The principle here: God is the real owner of everything. Whatever we claim to own is really, in fact, something entrusted to us temporarily. We are stewards of all we hold and handle and we will give an account. When using someone else’s property, honorable people do so with care and respect. Our aim is to maintain it in at least as good condition as we received it.
Consider next Psalm 19:1, The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. The physical environment has more than material value. It reveals things about God. When our actions deface and vandalize anything in the physical world made, we are diminishing God’s glory. To put it another way: we are "de-glorifying God".
Romans 8:21 provides a major piece of insight regarding our physical environment: creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. Here we learn that: The physical world is more than temporary packaging of minimal value, more than cardboard and Styrofoam that holds us in place until we are safely delivered to heaven after which it is tossed aside. All of creation will be redeemed. It will take major renovation work by God at the end of time, but in the present, we ought to live in a way that is fully consistent with the long-term plans of God for this world.
Think of it this way: Your backyard is in shambles but you have a vision for some beautiful landscaping, when you have the funds. What do you do in the meantime? Keep trashing it further? No, you do little things that fit with the long-term plan. Even though our actions will never restore the world to Eden like conditions, every bit of good we do for the environment is an opportunity for us to put up a sign that declares: this earth is not due for the trash heap but will someday be redeemed and restored by God who made it.
Our position on climate change will also be defined in part by how we see ourselves in relation to others. Western culture has infused our thinking with a strong sense of individualism – it’s every man for himself. The Bible counters that with the reality that "we are in this together". Proverbs 19:17 is but one example: Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done. The harsh reality is that environmental changes, regardless of the causes, do not affect everyone equally. Generally, it is the poor and marginalized who suffer the most. While we care for the environment because in and of itself it reveals the glory of God, our love for our neighbor is also intertwined with that responsibility.
What is striking about this statement from Proverbs is: God puts himself in the place of the poor when he evaluates our actions towards them. He sees our actions from their angle. What does full obedience to this teaching look like? The larger the world’s population and the more complicated the environmental problems become, the more difficult that becomes. But for those who desire to obey, the Holy Spirit will give guidance beyond our own wisdom.
These are the foundational truths from which we develop our attitudes and convictions about our physical environment. By themselves they do not give a clear answer to the two questions we started with: Is climate change happening and is it due largely to human activity? But at minimum, these teachings do not allow us to treat the matter with indifference. As Christians, we must be able to take our present thoughts and opinions on climate change and run them through the grid of biblical teachings like these and either find them to be consistent or adjust them accordingly.
In my research, I came across some Christian sources that encourage a response of skepticism and passive indifference with regards to climate change. And they draw support for that from scripture. I want to present those now and invite us to prayerfully discern if scripture is being applied properly. The sovereignty of God is sometimes pointed to as a reason for us to be indifferent about our possible role in climate change. The will of God oversees and governs all of creation. He determines the outcome of all things. Therefore, the point is made that climate is properly God’s business, not ours.
There is undeniable truth in that argument. Colossians 1:17 assures us that not only did God create the universe, he holds it all together by his power. There are numerous statements in scripture like Psalm 148:8 that speak of lightning and hail, snow and cloud, and stormy wind executing the commands of the Lord. When Jesus was in a boat with the disciples on a stormy sea, with a single command, Jesus shut it down, demonstrating a power over the forces of nature that we will never attain. But does that necessarily lead to the conclusion as stated by one American Senator: "God’s still up there, and the arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what he is doing in the climate, is to me, outrageous."
We are right to emphasize the greatness of God and the limitations of mankind. But to affirm the sovereignty of God does not mean we obliterate any sense of human responsibility, when it is revealed to us that such responsibility was endorsed to us by God acting according to his sovereign will. It has already been pointed out from Genesis that God gave mankind significant, wide ranging responsibility as caretakers of creation. We assume the responsibility is real and not a game of pretend. It does not diminish God’s sovereignty one iota when we take seriously the responsibility he gave us. But we also know that our responsibility has boundaries. The challenge comes in discerning where that boundary lies.
In the late 18th century, a Christian by the name of William Carey sensed the call of God to bring the gospel to Asia. In words now famous, he was told by church authorities: "If God wants to save the heathen, He’ll do it without your help or ours!" That statement is theoretically true but practically speaking it is a truth wrongly applied. For the sovereign Lord also chose to make us co-workers with him in that task. He has sent us all forcefully to the ends of the earth to share the gospel.
The climate system of our world is such a huge, complicated matter that frankly it does seem presumptuous that humanity could collectively bring about some change. But before we give our final answer, consider the following continuum. I think all of us would agree that when it comes to a backyard or a farm, the occupants of that space determine to a large extent whether that piece of ground will become productive or a wasteland.
Now let’s consider something of much larger scope. Recall the dustbowl of the 1930s when years of drought resulted in millions of tons of topsoil blowing away in the prairies of Canada and the US. But in more recent decades there have been spans of time with a similar shortage of rainfall but without the damage of a dustbowl. What made the difference? Improved farming methods that do a better job of preserving the soil in times of drought. Does stating it that way diminish the sovereignty of God or could we also say that God sovereignly added to our knowledge to help us do better at our responsibility of caring for the land?
From 200 square meters to millions of hectares, man can make a difference for good or for ill. Where do we draw the line and say: this is too large a matter and thus only God’s business with no more responsibility on us? Let’s be careful about drawing the line too quickly just because the challenge is more recent and more complicated.
I have also heard it argued that cataclysmic events in our environment are acts of God’s judgement against sin and therefore it is useless for us to try to fight against it. To be sure, if God is intervening with extraordinary steps to cause the sea level to rise to punish mankind, of course such actions by him are irresistible by us.
But it is also fair to see climate change is but one more example of what Genesis teaches: that every dysfunctional element in our physical environment, in our bodies, and in our relationships, is a lingering consequence of man’s sin. In most cases we do not view efforts to overcome those dysfunctions as resistance to the will of God.
When we encounter disease and sickness, we do not say: leave it alone as God is judging sin. We pursue healing.
When we see weeds growing among our carrots, we do not say: ah, a sign of God’s judgement and walk away? No, we pull every weed you can find!
At a deeper level, sin has made us enemies of God and created all sorts of divisions among mankind. Do we look at that and say: God’s judgement of sin and walk away in despair? No, we vigorously introduce the gospel of glorious reconciliation!
If it is possible that by reducing carbon emissions we can reduce incidence of destructive weather patterns, are we meddling with God’s judgement or are we God’s co-workers in the ministry of reconciliation?
A sovereign God is free to over-rule in matters of weather and climate any time he chooses and use it as in instrument of judgement. But that doesn’t suspend or nullify his ongoing command to us to care for the environment.
I have also heard it said that even if climate change is real, it is a heavenly sign that Jesus return is coming soon. We should welcome it, rather than imagine we can interfere. Let’s blow even more smoke into the environment to hasten the day! Scripture does tell us to "speed the day of the Lord’s coming" but we do that through holy living, not promote calamitous events on earth. (II Peter 3:11-13)
Paul’s teaching in the book of Thessalonians is also relevant here. When the Christians in that city were becoming a little too presumptuous about the end times, Paul’s counsel was: Get back to quietly going about daily business - working, caring, and sharing. That is best practice when none of us no for certain the day of Jesus return.
Besides, how does it make the good news of Jesus more inviting to a skeptical world if we appear pleased over the growing calamity of the world and show an attitude that says: "We’re saved and on our way to heaven, so who cares if the world burns?"
There is also an argument to be made that: Man’s wisdom is foolishness to God. Is it possible that all the experts are simply deluded in their thinking about climate change? It is true that when man in his arrogance denies God’s existence and then, starting from the middle of nowhere, declares himself wise on all sorts of matters, it leads to all sorts of bad outcomes. But as Christians, we need to remain sober-minded here. Yes, we rightly emphasize the limits of man-centered knowledge. But that should never turn into outright scepticism of science. After all, the scientific method emerged historically out of deep biblical convictions. As Christians, we oppose the philosophy of naturalism by which many do their science, but we are not anti-science! If the heavens do declare the glory of God, then scientific inquiry is our friend and ally as its discoveries will more and more reveal his glory and give us data for wise decisions. As Christians, we need to be among the most welcoming of scientific inquiry, and not fear its conclusions, including things like climate change.
At the same time, we need to be the strongest voices in pressing for unbiased data and we need to challenge hasty declarations about "the science being completely settled on a matter". For all the talk about science based policies, we all know there are all sorts of vested interests at play besides the hard facts. We need to be vigilant and cautious and seek a balance of sources. But we need to do that without any hint of being anti-science or being skeptical for selfish reasons rather than knowledge based reasons.
One of the stronger arguments about putting on the brakes with regards to efforts to mitigate climate change is this: So what if we gain the world, if in the process we forget about the desperate need for human souls to be reconciled with God. It would indeed be tragic if we Christians spent all our effort in preserving this present world a little longer and never told anyone the good news about Jesus through whom they can participate in the new earth to come.
But consider Jesus teaching in Matthew 23:23: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. In the kingdom of God, clearly there are some things much more important than others. But notice that Jesus does not set up a completely separate either / or. It is not all one or all the other. Give priority to the large matters but do not neglect the lesser things that also have value. Saving souls and healing the planet are not mutually exclusive.
Now some final thoughts to guide us going forward.
1) Live in hope and not despair – with courage and not with fear.
We may be in for some calamitous times, whether it’s due to rising temperatures and sea levels, shortage of fresh water in large portions of the world, or a new plague unresponsive to any known medical treatment. But the destiny of those who are in Christ is not tied to how well things turn out in this world in the next 30 years. We must show the true colors of our hope, in all circumstances. We will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea. We will remain still and know that he is God. Next...
2) Stay in a constant learning mode.
Proverbs 15:14 says: The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly. It is possible that there is a fear based rush to judgment on the matter of climate change. We must do something before it is too late so let’s hastily declare the matter settled! It is also possible that many Christians have a "head in the sand" attitude that is defaming of the goodness and glory of God. Keep pressing for good research. Read a wide variety of sources. Question biases. Do not fear good data. Next ...
3) Give serious thought to our role in maintaining balance in creation.
Because the earth’s climate is extremely complex and subject to many factors, the notion that higher levels of carbon in the atmosphere leads to global warming may not be convincing to you. But significant imbalances in nature generally create havoc somewhere. There is a simpler, more direct connection between high levels of carbon dioxide in the air and higher acidity in the oceans which can have a calamitous effect on the food chain among sea creatures and on food supply for humans. Next...
4) Pray for those in authority who are putting together public policies that affect us all.
There are so many vested interests and lusts for power and greed that come into play, especially at a multi-national level. There are good arguments to be made that we are better off working to reduce the impact of climate change than investing in attempts to reverse the climate change. Pray that decisions would be made from wisdom and not panic, for clear-headed honesty about the data, and that justice and compassion for the marginalized would remain.
Lots of attention is given to multinational conferences and proclamations like the Paris accord. The more encouraging story are all the things happening in smaller more local initiatives – cities, businesses, and civic organizations going about the business of improving our carbon emissions. God has all sorts of ways to carry out his providential care. Finally ...
5) Personal lifestyle remains foundational – consume less, emit less, restore more
We ought not to think only of how little our personal actions impact the environment. Instead, we should think big picture and the cumulative effect.
In 1980 there were 2 acres of arable land to feed each person. Since then the world’s population has doubled, meaning there is now only one acre to produce food for each person. There is less margin for us all to abuse land and waste food. In 1900 there were about 8000 cars in the entire world. They could all pour out a steady stream of noxious fumes and it would all disappear into thin air. Today there are 1 billion vehicles travelling roads or stuck in traffic and idling. The impact is no longer insignificant. Change will require billions of individuals altering their lifestyle.
We will never bring about utopia even by our collective actions. But as responsible stewards we honor our Lord God, creator, owner, and sustainer of it all. And we add weight to the good news we proclaim that it is in God’s heart to heal and restore.