I didn’t have much time for Earth Day growing up. That kind of thing was for tree-hugging, left-wing hippie types who couldn’t tell the difference between creation and its creator. I was a Christian. I believed the world was going to burn someday, and I would be evacuated along with the faithful few to a disembodied realm. In the meantime, I needn’t worry about what my consumption was doing to the planet.
It turns out that was a pretty terrible way to read the biblical story. Here are four reasons why I’ve come to believe that being a tree-hugging, climate-change-fighting environmentalist is a vital part of every Christian’s calling…
1. Because our story starts in a garden. (And it ends in a city with the ultimate urban garden.)
The phrase “as God originally intended” gets thrown around a lot, often to contrast the creation story with some hot-button social issue like gender equality or same-sex marriage.
But if the first story in the Bible shows creation “as God originally intended,” then the real shame is that more of us aren’t gardeners.
In the Bible, location matters. The biblical narrative is covered in the soil from which it sprung. And the very first story — the creation story — is set in a garden.
It’s not a wild, uninhabited space, untouched by humans. It’s cultivated, shaped, and tended carefully. It turns out that groundskeeper is humanity’s first occupation. But to be a gardener is to work with the land, not to ride roughshod over it.
To be sure, the biblical drama doesn’t end in a garden. It ends in a city, the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21-22, Yet this city looks nothing like the industrial cities of the American Rust Belt. In fact, two of the city’s most prominent features harken back to the original garden: a crystal-clear river flowing along the main thoroughfare and a great tree bearing life-giving fruit.
The calling of every Christian is to bring a little bit of heaven to earth where we can now. Caring for planet’s natural resources is a great way to do just that.
2. Because the disciples weren’t Jesus’ only companions.
A couple years ago, my priest pointed out a commonly overlooked feature of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus’ temptation in the desert, but only Mark mentions that Jesus “was with the wild animals.”
Given the other narrative features — a harsh environment, the devil for company — it’s understandable to interpret the presence of wild animals as yet another a foreboding element of the story, another threat to Jesus’ well-being. But it’s not. The wild animals are mentioned in the same breath as the angels who attended Jesus. Mark depicts Jesus dwelling in harmony with the animals. He is, after all, the one who made them.
The wilderness narrative points to the whole-earth implications of the gospel Jesus came to announce. Jesus did not come simply to “save souls.” He came to rescue all of creation. As my priest once said, “There is no getting right with the world without getting right with God. But there is also no getting right with God without getting right with the world.”
3. Because this world IS our home; we are NOT “just passing through.”
Left Behind’s fanciful depiction of people being raptured right out of this world (and out of their clothes) made for more than just bad filmmaking; it made for some pretty bad eschatology, too. And bad eschatology has consequences.
The idea that God will dispose of this world and evacuate the faithful to a disembodied spiritual realm is a relatively recent innovation, thought up by Christians who had largely detached themselves from the world already. But this is not the story the Bible tells. In fact, this view is rooted in one of the earliest heresies to confront the church.
Gnosticism taught that the material world is bad, that everything physical will perish and only spirit will endure. Whole books of the Bible (such as 1 John) were written against Gnosticism, yet its influence is still felt. Just read this post on 8 Gnostic myths that pervade the modern evangelical church.
One of these 8 myths: the material world isn’t important. This was the explanation I heard as a kid whenever the environment came up. The world was just going to get worse and worse, we reasoned, until God finally destroyed it. Our heavenly, disembodied home awaited.
Again: that’s not the story Scripture tells. The Bible ends with God coming to earth, not with a few lucky souls escaping this world. If this world matters enough to God that he would come back to save it, then it should matter to us too.
4. Because when you damage the earth, you damage God’s dwelling place.
Our failure to care for the planet is part of a larger failure to understand our true place in creation.
There are not one but two creation stories in Genesis. The first follows a deliberate pattern; elements of the story are introduced in increasing order of importance. What happens on day five is more important than what happens on day four (and so on). At the end of Genesis 1, God summons humanity into existence — the apex of creation.
Except, that’s not where the first creation story ends. The first story actually continues into the first few verses of chapter 2, which depict the final “day” of creation. (If you ever needed a reason to ditch chapter and verse divisions in your Bible, this is it. The very first chapter break in Scripture obscures the natural literary flow.)
If the first creation story progresses in order of importance, then the events of day 7 are the culmination, not those of day 6. In other words, God’s act of resting on the seventh day is the high point, not the creation of humanity on day 6. We are not the apex of the story. It’s not about us. We are not all that.
Why does it matter that the story ends with God resting? Because in ancient Near Eastern literature (like Genesis), deities didn’t just rest anywhere. Deities rested in temples. In most cases, deities rested in temples built for them; but in Genesis, God does the building himself. The whole world is his temple, and at the end of the first creation story, he takes up residence in his creation.
This world — with is rolling meadows and nuclear power plants, its billowing seas and floating garbage patches the size of Texas — is God’s dwelling place. “The earth is the Lord’s,” as it says in Psalm 24. Heaven is God’s throne and the earth is his footstool, as it says near the end of Isaiah.
Human sin broke the connection between God and his earthly dwelling, but the rest of the story is about God coming home. In the gospels, God incarnates himself in human flesh and makes “his dwelling among us,” just as he did in Genesis. And at renewal of all things, heaven comes down to earth, and a voice cries out, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people!”
The earth is not ours to use as we see fit. It’s not ours to exploit. The earth is not first and foremost our dwelling place. It’s God’s. When he invites the first humans to “subdue” the earth, it’s really an invitation to tend it on his behalf. We are caretakers, tenets, stewards. Not owners.
So this Earth Day, a good question for Christians to ask is: when God comes home, will he be happy with how we’ve cared for it?