The other day I posted a thought on how excitement about the new creation that the Bible says is coming doesn’t make us careless or abusive with the environment. A friend posted a couple comments that got me thinking about another resource I’ve found helpful for thinking through the issue–Francis Schaeffer’s book Pollution and the Death of Man.
This was the final question posted in response to the original post, and what led to me want to share further thoughts: “The conclusion I came to after reading your response was: just like physicians can serve God by caring for our decaying bodies, environmentalists and conservationists can serve God by caring for the Earth. Is that valid?”
In his book, Schaeffer answers this question with a resounding yes:
When the church puts belief in to practice, in relationship to man and to nature, there is substantial healing… Christians should be able to exhibit individuality and corporately that on the basis of the work of Christ, dealing with things according to the world-view and basic philosophy of the Bible, they can produce something that the world has tried, but failed, to produce. The Christian community should be a living exhibition of the truth that in our present situation it is possible to have substantial sociological healings–healings that humanism longs for, but has not been able to produce. Humanism is not wrong in its cry for sociological healing, but humanism is not producing it. And the same thing is true in regard to a substantial healing where nature is concerned.
So we find that when we begin to deal on a Christian basis things begin to change–not just in theory but in practice.
Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers. We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect. We may cut down a tree to build a house, or to make a fire to keep the family warm. But we should not cut down the tree just to cut down the tree. We may, if necessary, bark the cork tree in order to have the use of the bark. But what we should not do is to bark the tree simply for the sake of doing so, and let it dry and stand there a dead skeleton in the wind. To do so is not to treat the tree with integrity. We have the right to rid our houses of ants; but we have not the right to do is to forget to honor the ant as God made it, in its rightful place in nature. When we meet the ant on the sidewalk, we step over him. He is a creature, like ourselves; not made in the image of God, but equal with man as far as creation is concerned. The ant and the man are both creatures.
If you read the whole book (the part Schaeffer wrote is only like 90 pages–a quick, easy read) you see that he roots these ideas in the Christian doctrine of Creation. In other words, the fact that the world in its present state is not going to last forever does not empty it of meaning or significance. As a creation of God it is valuable because he made it. As a gift of God to us it is valuable because he gave it. As the context he gave us in which to live and glorify him it is valuable because we need it and use it as a theater to show his glory.
Some Christian thinkers (like, for instance, New Testament scholar Douglas Moo) have attempted to root ideas of Christian concern over the environment to eschatology. The thinking goes that, since, in the end God will restore the earth and it will last forever, we should care for it now. Sometimes people who take that view also criticize the eschatology (teaching about the end times) we hold at Calvary (which sees the rapture happening before the tribulation, the second coming happening before the millennium, and the earth being undone and then made anew, rather than simply renewed) as leading to abuse of the environment. But as we’re seeing, it shouldn’t.
There are two problems with using eschatology for our teaching about the environment: First, end-times beliefs are something very much “in play” within Christianity, and it is a shaky thing to tie proper care of the environment to a belief about which Christians may disagree. We’ve got to have a more solid ground than that. Second, as Schaeffer (along with Thomas Oden) shows, our beliefs about creation offer a better grounding for our beliefs about the earth. This becomes clear when we think about the Biblical teaching about the body. Like the earth, it will one day be “destroyed” and then, for those who believe in Christ, be remade new. In some sense it is “the same” body, and in some sense it is a “new” body. So, if you are a Christian, you can think of your body as existing forever. But that isn’t the reason scripture leads us to care for our bodies. We care for them because they are part of the image of God, gifts of God which are necessary for our earthly existence. In fact, the New Testament teaching that we will live forever in resurrected bodies leads us, not to pamper our bodies so that they look good forever, but to risk even bodily injury when necessary for the preaching of the Gospel and the service of Christ–if you lose and arm or a leg or a head in the service of the King, that is a worthwhile thing, because God will remake your body new. Eschatology keeps us from worshipping our bodies, and Creation keeps us from despising them. Both are necessary.
Similarly, eschatology should help keep us from worshipping the earth. It will eventually (whatever your position) be completely remade. Fire is the clear scriptural future prophesied for the earth (2 Peter 3:7). And yet, it is still God’s creation, and His gift to us, even in this fallen condition. So biblical teaching about creation keeps us from despising the earth.
Later in his book, Schaeffer goes on to challenge us about all this with a very incisive word. Check this out:
We who are Christians must be careful. We must confess that we missed our opportunity. We have spoken loudly against materialistic science, but we have done little to show that in practice we ourselves as Christians are not dominated by a technological orientation in regard either to man or nature. We should have been stressing and practicing for a long time that there is a basic reason why we should not do all that with our technology we can do. We have missed the opportunity to help man save his earth.
Not only that, but in our generation we are losing an evangelistic opportunity because when modern people have a real sensitivity to nature, many of them turn to the pantheistic mentality. They have seen that the most Christians simply do not care about nature as such.
It is true that many of us have simply reacted to what we (rightly) see as nature worship (the “pantheism” Schaeffer writes of), but doesn’t he have a great point for us in the Young Adults fellowship? We have so many cultural obstacles to the gospel in our day–things where we must oppose the views of the culture in order to be faithful to the message of Jesus. But with our views of the environment, we have this great opportunity–the Christian teaching about the earth actually shows a proper way to care for the earth and appreciate its sacredness, without becoming its servants. Why not use these things to commend the gospel to people?