Questions of whether and to what extent and in what way and why Christians should be involved in caring for the environment and engaging with issues like climate change are coming increasingly to the foreground in evangelical debate. A lot has been written and the following is not much more than a dipping of the toe in the waters – a review of one recent article – call it a conversation starter…
REVIEW: Jonathan Moo, “Continuity, Discontinuity, and Hope: The Contribution of New Testament Eschatology to a Distinctively Christian Environmental Ethos,” Tyndale Bulletin 61.1 (2010): 21-44.
Jonathan Moo (known in the UK as a very careful Bible scholar and at the same time as a very warm, humble and godly guy) starts his paper by noting “the lack of a strong connection between exegesis and Christian environmental ethics”. In other words, a lot is being written about the need for Christian’s to be involved in environmental issues but the biblical basis is often pretty sketchy. And, wonderfully, what Moo wants to do is find not just a biblical basis but a “distinctively Christian” basis for creation care – i.e. one that goes beyond the generalities of ‘stewardship’ that Jews, Muslims and pretty much anyone could affirm to something which has its eye fixed on Christ and the specific Christian hope.
So Moo looks carefully at Romans 8:18-25, 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21-22, showing how it is possible to reconcile these at first sight rather different accounts of the destiny of creation and drawing out the implications for a Christian engagement with environment in light of that hope. I found a number of things really helpful:
- Moo shows that in all three passages there is both discontinuity and continuity between the old and new creations. “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1) but then we find “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). In some passages a radical rupture and change is stressed but as with the resurrection body there is continuity as well as discontinuity. Moo persuasively argues that 2 Peter 3:10 should be understood as a three step process: “the outer heavens are torn away, the intermediary heavenly bodies are dissolved with fire, and then the earth and all the deeds of human being are laid bare before God, being ‘found’ before him, with nothing to separate them from the testing fire of his judgement.” The NT writers are picking up on apocalyptic imagery which never foresaw a complete annihilation of matter but rather pictured a cleansing fire or a shaking or a flood to remove evil followed by a restoration of the earth. It’s unclear how much of our current creation-work will carry through to the new (cf. the scars on Jesus’ resurrection body?) but at the very least the fact that the creation will endure in some sense through the fire shows that God values creation and matter and has an ongoing purpose for it.
- Revelation 11:18 talks of the judgement of “those who destroy the earth”. I’d never noticed that before. Worth meditating on that one.
- Even though there is degree of continuity, the NT emphasis on “the radical rupture with the past… does represent a challenge to any notion that the new creation emerges slowly in the course of history or through mere human effort… As Allen Verhey has said of the eschatological hope in general, it frees us from ‘the crushing burden of messianic pretentions’, from assuming that in the end it is all up to us… The future of earth… is finally something given by God.”
- The way we are to live in the light of the coming of Christ and the New Creation is in holiness, godliness and love (2 Peter 3:14; 1:5-8) and this love may well have implications in relation to environmental impact: “love must always remain at the centre of Christian social and environmental action.” This is probably the best motivation of all for creation care – we should care about climate change precisely because sea level rise and desertification and water shortage will disproportionally affect those who are already most poor and vulnerable.
- The other thing that the Christian Hope does is to deal with the “fear that often lies behind our acquisitiveness and grasping materialism… “Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus says, “for it your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell all your possessions and give alms” (Luke 12:32-33).’
- Finally there is a humility and joy that comes from encountering Creation “in all its otherness, beauty, and awesomeness”, as a gift from and testimony to its Creator and a foretaste of the even greater creation to come. On humility Moo says, “Christian creation care will not be guilt-driven [cf. much of the environmental movement which has often become a religion driven by guilt] but nor can it be arrogant, for it proceeds from an awareness of our own limitations [cf. Job 38-41] and trusts not in ourselves but in the God who by his grace provides the results.”
I had a couple of quibbles with the article:
- It was assumed at one point that “we are called to love and care for the world as we encounter it” – I’m not sure whether we’re actually called to love the world. Love for neighbour may have environmental implications and love for God may mean that we don’t want to trash what he values but that is slightly different to loving Creation which can turn into loving the environment as an end in itself i.e. idolatry.
- I’m not convinced that we can draw quite as much out of Romans 8 in terms of implications for creation care as Moo does (and many others do much more). Should we expect that as Christians start to live out their identity as God’s children “that the non-human creation ought also to begin to experience something of its future liberation from its subjection to futility and ruin”?
- For one thing, the futility and groaning of the present creation is not really about the current man-made environmental crises. Yes there is obviously a direct link between human sin and greed and the rise in carbon dioxide – non-Christians would agree with that – but Paul is talking about the futility and groaning introduced by the fall of man in Genesis 3. It was not that ground started producing thorns because of Adam’s bad land management or over-consumption, it was his single action of taking a fruit, believing the devil’s lie and rejecting God’s grace. That’s why there is death and decay and disaster and groaning and, yes, sin and all its environmental consequences too. The solution to this groaning and futility is the Second Adam, his one act of obedience, his bearing of the Adamic curse and his rising as the firstfruit of a new creation. The more people are changed by the gospel and start to live less selfish and materialistic lives there will be a positive environmental consequences but real release from this futility and groaning is not going to come about through anything much we do or don’t do.
- Secondly, the timing of all this is crucial. Romans 8 is classic Now-and-Not-Yet stuff. We are adopted and redeemed but we still groan and wait for our full adoption, the redemption of our bodies (v23). Moo rightly points out the correspondence and connection between our bodies and creation. Both groan, both will be renewed, the second as a result of the former. But when? Only when the adoption is complete (v19), only when we enter resurrection glory (v21). Until then we, and creation, wait (Paul stresses this point) for what we do not see (v24-25). Just as we should expect our bodies to continue to age and degenerate and get ill and die in this present age, so we should expect creation to continue to labour under futility and ruin and curse until it’s final release at the coming of Christ. In the meantime perhaps we could build on this analogy between the body and creation and say that just as we need to practice sensible self-care so as not to burn out and, as McCheyne said, ‘kill the horse’, so in a similar way we need to practice creation care.
This said, I really appreciated Moo’s article which has really set me thinking. Let’s start talking about these issues. And as we do that, here’s a short video interview with John Piper on the subject: