Scientists warn that parts of our planet may become uninhabitable within 30 to 50 years. How should we respond to this global environmental crisis? Scripture shows us how we can heal our environment now, and how God will guide it in the future.
An environmental crisis of global proportions is threatening the continued existence of life on this earth. New laws, new technologies and international treaties will not solve the problem. While governments dither, mankind is running out of precious time to make the necessary changes. Experts estimate that, if present trends continue, we have only 30 to 50 years before major areas of the world could become uninhabitable!
Sadly, the true cause of our environmental crisis is either ignored or unrecognized, and the real solutions are overlooked. We need to understand why this global environmental crisis has developed, how it will be resolved, and the role we can play in restoring the earth.
Cries of an environmental crisis have echoed through our modern societies for the last 50 years--yet life goes on. While skeptics like to believe warnings of an eco-crisis are generated by alarmist fanatics and tree-hugging "eco-freaks," this is not the case. Major environmental trends are building inexorably toward a dramatic climax. These trends have steadily worsened in the last 50 years, and serious disruptions in our current lifestyles lie just ahead.
The world's population continues to explode. It took from the beginning of human history until 1940 for the world population to reach two billion. However it took only 35 years to add another two billion, and only 25 years to add yet another two billion! At the present doubling rate (40 years) the world could have 12 billion people by 2040ad--twice as many people as we have on earth today! Considering that most of this growth will occur in developing countries that are already and suffering the effects of environmental degradation, the world of the next several decades will be a "world without: without sufficient food to eat, without clean water to drink, without adequate shelter, without sanitation, without education, without the basic necessities of life" (Redeeming Creation, van Dyke, 1996, p. 17). Robert McNamara, former president of the World Bank, commented that "rampant population growth more certainly threatens humanity than has any catastrophe the world has yet endured" (Environmental Science, Cunningham & Saiga, 1995, p. 126).
This burgeoning population will have a devastating impact on the environment. As populations grow, so does the rate of consumption of natural resources. Strategic planners estimate that, in the next century, per person consumption rates will increase between 400 and 800 percent (Laboratory Earth, Schneider, 1996, p. 123). This only spells trouble when we realize that currently, "a third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil at a rate that is undermining its long-term productivity… 50 percent of the world's rangeland is overgrazed… two-thirds of oceanic fisheries are being fished at or beyond their capacity" (The Ecologist, November 2001, p. 37). Additionally, fresh water supplies around the world are dwindling, and "by 2050, fully two-thirds of the world's population could be living in regions with chronic, widespread shortages of water. Water wars, predicted for more than a decade are becoming an imminent threat" (The Futurist, Jan-Feb 2001, p. 41). It is a sobering picture.
For the last several centuries, we have burned fossil fuels--coal, oil and gasoline--to meet the energy needs of our industrial and automobile-based societies. This has released into the atmosphere increasing amounts of greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide and methane), which have contributed to global warming and violent weather changes. Glaciers around the world are melting, and polar icecaps are thinning and shrinking. In the last 40 years, the earth has lost 10 percent of its snow cover. Scientists predict that rising sea levels will inundate large areas of America's Atlantic and Gulf coasts, coastal Mediterranean areas and much of Holland, Denmark and eastern Britain. Many islands will disappear. Prime agricultural land will be lost, and large-scale population displacements will occur, as two-thirds of the world's largest cities lie in vulnerable coastal locations.
Add to this the thinning ozone layer that shields the earth from dangerous ultraviolet radiation, damage to forests and freshwater systems from acid rain, polluted air and water, growing mountains of solid waste from our throw-away society and rising rates of species extinctions, and it should be obvious to even the most casual observer that we are facing a real eco-crisis of global proportions. Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, recently stated that "we would be irresponsible to treat these predictions as scare mongering. They are the considered opinions of some of the world's best scientists. We cannot afford to ignore them" (The Futurist, July-Aug 2001, p. 7).
To solve any problem, we must identify and address the cause. Overpopulation, overgrazing, overfishing, soil erosion, deforestation, pollution, habitat destruction and extinctions all contribute to the eco-crisis. But the real cause is much more fundamental, involving our value system and our attitudes toward the natural world--the creation. Attitudes and actions stem from our values, which are largely determined by religion and our philosophy of life.
Historian Lynn White, Jr. made this point in 1966, in a landmark lecture to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. White asserted that: Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny--that is by religion… more science and technology will not get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one" (The Care of Creation, Berry, 2000, pp. 40-41). According to White, "our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man's relation to nature" and as a result "Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt" (ibid). White wrongly blamed God's instruction to "subdue the earth and have dominion over it" (Genesis 1:28) as giving mankind a prerogative to exploit the earth's resources. He then reasoned that "we shall have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man" (ibid, p. 42).
White's scriptural understanding was flawed, but his conclusion was on target (although not in the sense that he intended) when he said that "since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious… we must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny" (ibid, p. 42). In essence, what is needed today is an environmental ethic that will provide human societies with a belief system that provides guidelines to help preserve the earth and its resources. That ethic should promote human activities that function in harmony with the ecological laws that sustain life on this earth.
Regrettably, as a result of White's widely circulated paper, many are probing the depths of pagan religions and Eastern philosophies for guidelines to build an ecologically sustainable civilization, even though such belief systems have not prevented massive environmental destruction in their native lands. These individuals fail to realize they have been prejudiced against looking into the Bible for guidelines that the Creator has revealed, which show mankind how to relate to the environment. However, the guidelines have been there for thousands of years!
In stark contrast to the religions of this world, the Bible contains the framework of a comprehensive environmental ethic that would enable mankind to live in an ecologically sustainable society. Scripture reveals that the earth belongs to God (Psalm 24:1), and what He created He views as very good (see Genesis 1). God's instruction in Genesis 1:28 does not give mankind the right to ruthlessly exploit the natural environment. The Hebrew word translated subdue actually means "to tread upon" and implies having "sovereignty, control, and direction over nature" (KJV Bible Commentary, 1994). The Hebrew word translated "dominion" means "to rule, manage, make useful, develop or beautify." But how does God intend human beings to rule the earth?
God instructed mankind to "dress and keep" the environment (Genesis 2:15, KJV). These words carry the connotation of "working and cultivating" or "serving and preserving" the environment. Human beings are given the awesome responsibility of being wise managers and careful stewards of God's creation. They are to rule as God would rule, according to His instructions. Moses admonished the kings of Israel not to greedily amass possessions for themselves, but spend time studying and learning how to apply the laws of God (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). Jesus told His disciples that anyone who aspired to a position of leadership must first learn how to serve others (Matthew 20:25-28). But what guidelines does God provide in His Word that would enable human rulers to serve and to wisely develop the creation?
The first task that God gave to Adam, in the context of dressing and keeping the garden, was to name the animals (Genesis 2:19). To be a wise manager or steward, Adam was required to conduct an environmental inventory of his new domain. As he talked with God about the different plants and animals, Adam would come to understand that God created different habitats for different creatures (Psalm 104:5-26), and that God designed the earth to function according to definite laws and cycles (see Proverbs 3:19; Ecclesiastes 1:5-7). To manage the earth wisely we must understand, and learn to live in harmony with, the physical laws that God designed to sustain life on this earth.
Scripture provides basic guidelines revealing how human beings should manage the earth's resources and function in harmony with its ecological laws. The Bible promotes the wise use and conservation of forest resources (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). God's instructions on wildlife management permit us to harvest animal populations but not ruinously exploit these renewable biologic resources (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Animals entrusted to human care were to be treated humanely (Deuteronomy 22:4; 25:4; Luke 14:5). This would discourage the cruel caging of birds and animals that occurs in many factory farm operations today. Biodegradable waste was to be disposed of in a sanitary manner, in harmony with natural cycles of decomposition (Deuteronomy 23:12-14). This would prevent polluting the environment and the spread of disease. To harvest timber, fish and wildlife populations above their capacity to replace themselves--or to use up non-renewable resources and thus deprive future generations the use of that resource--is to break the spirit of the commandment: "Thou shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15). Agricultural lands were to be rested every seven years to help restore fertility (Leviticus 25:1-4). Human settlements were not to be crowded and unsanitary (Isaiah 5:8), but were to allow space for gardens (Micah 4:4) and contact with the natural world (Genesis 2:15) to provide enjoyment and inspiration (Psalm 23:1-2). Parents were not to have more children than they could support (1 Timothy 5:8) or adequately train (Proverbs 22:6).
But how did our modern, enlightened world lose sight of such important guidelines that are capable of molding fundamental attitudes toward the environment? Why have theologians not understood or explained how to apply these God-given laws? Why are these practical guidelines not followed by most who call themselves Christian today? Part of the answer is that civil and religious leaders in ancient Israel chose to reject God's instructions, and followed instead the greedy, self-centered, exploitive and environmentally destructive ways of their pagan neighbors. The ancient Greeks deforested and destroyed the topsoil of much of their country. The voracious appetite of the Roman Empire ravaged the resources of much of North Africa, and large animal species were nearly destroyed to supply beasts to fight in arenas. Other empires around the world inflicted similar damage on the earth's environment.
The influential ideas of pagan Greek philosophers like Plato did little to promote wise stewardship of the earth. For Plato, the supreme good and major focus was on the mind and the intellect. The physical and material (including the natural world) were purely secondary--an abstraction--a necessary evil. It is from Plato that we get the idea that the soul is imprisoned in a physical body. These ideas had a powerful influence on intellectuals in the early Roman Catholic Church, and explain why medieval theologians spent so much time debating intellectual issues--the nature of God, the Trinity and how many angels could sit on the head of a pin--but ignored the practical aspects of Scripture. Anti-Jewish sentiments in the early centuries of the Roman Catholic Church also led to a rejection of the Old Testament and its vitally important environmental guidelines.
Modern theologians have been influenced heavily by this anti-biblical baggage. As a result, what most today call "Christianity" often reflects Greek philosophy more than it does the thoughts of God. For many today, religion has become a self-centered quest for personal salvation instead of a way of life focused on learning to live "by every world that proceeds out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). In addition, "many people have the mistaken idea that the Bible is only concerned with spiritual things, by which they mean things that are either sentimental or unreal" (van Dyke, p. 125). As one biologist wrote: "We have so personalized the Christian experience… so described the commitment to Christ as a state of mental introspection… so defined faith as a quality of the intellect, that we have created one-dimensional Christians" (ibid, pp. 36-37).
The modern world has lost vitally important, divinely revealed information, because theologians have not been prepared by their training to explain the environmental dimensions of Scripture. They simply do not know what is actually in the Bible! Studies also reveal that "people who claim to know the Lord well often have little knowledge or concern for the creatures He made" and "those with the highest [church] attendance… had the lowest knowledge of environmental concerns" (van Dyke, pp. 112, 132). This is tragic considering the first instructions God gave to mankind had to do with the care of the environment. Because of theologians' failure to faithfully explain our responsibilities as stewards of God's creation, modern environmentalists are left to comb through pagan religions in search of an environmental ethic in their efforts to save the earth. New Age heresies and the worship of the earth as our "sacred mother goddess" have developed in "the vacuum left by the church's failure to address the creation" (ibid, p. 133).
But does it really matter whether or not we follow Old Testament guidelines that tell us how to use the environment, if Christianity is about love and grace and praising Jesus? The Bible indicates plainly that Jesus Christ will return to this earth (John 14:3; Acts 1:11). While it is commonly assumed that everyone who loves the Lord will be taken off to heaven, the Bible reveals that Jesus will come back to judge the nations (1 Chronicles 16:33; Matthew 25:31-46). As part of that judgment, the returning Messiah will "reward [His] servants the prophets and… destroy those who destroy the earth" (Revelation 11:18). Scripture indicates clearly that God does not take lightly the environmental devastation human beings have wrought on the earth. God's instruction that we are to be wise stewards of His creation carries heavy responsibilities. We will be held accountable. Those rejected by Christ at His coming will be the ones who did not follow the instructions they were given (Matthew 7:21-23)--including instructions about caring for God's creation. That is the importance of understanding and learning how to apply these biblical guidelines. But what about the future? Will all life eventually perish? Is there anything we can do to rectify the environmental crisis that threatens our planet? Is there a role we can play in restoring the earth?
Bible prophecy indicates that God will intervene before human activities destroy all life on this planet (Matthew 24:22). When Jesus Christ returns, He will reward the saints with the opportunity to rule on this earth as kings and priests (Revelation 1:6; 5:10; Daniel 7:18, 27). As the civil and religious leaders in the kingdom of God, the saints will explain the laws of God--including the environmental dimension of Scripture--to all mankind (Isaiah 2:2-4). As a result, the whole world will come to understand the way of life God has outlined in His word (Isaiah 11:9).
In this coming kingdom of God, vital missing dimensions of knowledge will be restored in all fields of human endeavor: religion, science, education and the arts. People will see their teachers who will clearly and carefully explain God's way of life--including biblical guidelines of environmental stewardship (Isaiah 30:20-21). Cities will be rebuilt in a manner that blends with the environment (Isaiah 11:6-9; 61:4), and the ecosystems of the earth will be restored (Isaiah 35:1-6). The New Covenant to which many Christians look forward will also include the creatures of this earth (Hosea 2:18).
The Bible refers to this exciting future, when Jesus Christ returns to earth to establish the kingdom of God, as "times of refreshing" and "the times of restoration of all things" (Acts 3:19-21). When we consider the environmental destruction and extinction of species carried out by human beings, perhaps we can more fully understand the Apostle Paul's comments that "the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now… the creation eagerly awaits for the revealing of the sons of God" (Romans 8:22, 19). What must we do? Learn what is causing the environmental problems facing mankind. Become familiar with the ecological laws by which God designed the earth to operate. Study and learn how to apply the biblical guidelines that God has given to mankind to govern our relationship to the earth, its creatures and its resources. We can become the sons and daughters of God, and have the opportunity to reign on this earth as kings and priests in the kingdom of God, if we take seriously what is revealed in Scripture.