In a 2003 speech entitled “Environmentalism as Religion,” the late author Michael Crichton—no friend of biblical Christianity—labelled environmentalism “one of the most powerful religions in the Western World” and “the religion of choice for urban atheists.”
It may sound strange to label environmentalism as a “religion,” but in many respects Crichton hit the nail on the head. Environmentalists have a deity (most often the earth itself), a heavenly state (the earth in its natural state before humans came along), a fall into sin (when man began to destroy the earth through industrialisation), sinners (human beings), a curse (pollution, climate change, etc.), and redemption (a return to the earth’s heavenly or natural state when man finally gets it right or is eradicated). It has its leaders and sages (e.g. Al Gore), demands full adherence and scorns those who disagree. It has fast become a worldview unto itself—one built upon an evolutionary understanding of the world’s origins. In short, it is a religion and, like all false religions, an idolatrous one. But, as Crichton rightly observed, it is “the religion of choice” for many (and perhaps even most) people in our culture today.
Environmentalists believe that humans are the greatest problem on earth today (and, in fact, they are right in this basic assumption!) and that the best solution for the survival of the planet is the complete eradication of humankind. (As someone has rightly said, it is odd that few environmentalists have proven to be trailblazers for this ideology!) But although they claim to be doing nothing more than trying to protect the earth, they have in fact bowed down and worshipped it.
Many Christians, on the other hand, seem to have taken a drastically opposing view of environmental issues. In typical kneejerk reaction fashion, many Christians have denied that there is a problem at all. After all, did God not give humans authority to subdue the earth and dominate creation (Genesis 1:26-28)?
Or is there a middle ground—a biblical approach that both calls for careful conservation of God’s creation and bold subjection of it? What does God say about human responsibility to the planet on which we live?
We should recognise, in the first place, that God made Earth as a habitat for humanity. Earth is our home. As far as the biblical evidence seems to suggest, it is a permanent home. To be sure, heaven is home for the intermediary state between a believer’s death and the return of Christ, but the evidence seems to suggest that, once God has lifted the curse and restored the world to its created state, Earth will be humanity’s home for eternity. God has placed us on this planet, “giving [us] rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying [our] hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).
Not only did God put humans on earth, but he also told us to make ourselves at home. It is certainly true to say that, in Genesis 1:26-28 (and again in Genesis 9:1-3), God gave us permission to use animals and plants for our benefit. Human beings have the right to use (but not necessarily use up) all the world’s resources.
But, to quote Spider-man’s uncle, with great power comes great responsibility. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). God instructed man to “keep” or “take care of” (NIV) the earth. This means that we answer to God for every use and abuse of the world that he has made.
Humans are indeed the world’s greatest problem. Specifically, human sin is the world’s greatest problem. Because of human sin, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). So-called “natural disasters”—hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, mudslides—are the result of human sin. But so are the deforestation of the Amazon and the extinction of entire species due to greed and negligence. Creation suffers the sad consequences of human sin.
Thankfully, God in his grace will not leave Earth in this condition. When Christ returns and human sin is forever vanquished, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
But in the meantime we have been placed here to work and take care of God’s creation. And although much of contemporary environmentalism is wrongheaded in its approach, we must not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
We do not believe that it is our responsibility to “save the planet.” Jesus Christ will do that. If sin is the problem then salvation is the solution, and salvation is found in Christ alone. God’s plan of redemption is cosmic in its scope. Christians should understand this and behave appropriately. As Russell Moore as wittily commented, “Let’s remember that the world is not ultimately rescued by politicians or musicians or filmmakers or scientists. The world is saved by blood, not Gore.”
Although this is typically not the case, Christians really ought to lead the way in caring for and keeping God’s creation. This involves practical things like not littering; helping plants and animals to grow and flourish; and not squandering food, water or energy. And we should lead the way in these things not because we are running out of natural resources or because it is unfair for us to use more than our share, but because God’s creation is precious. To waste is to disrespect our Creator. Taking care of the earth is good, practical, biblical Christianity.