IS SAVING SOULS ALL THAT MATTERS?
Why Christians should be concerned for creation
Too big to fail?
It was once thought that the planet was ‘too big to fail’, but much of the available evidence seems to suggest that it is indeed failing – the climate is changing; icecaps are melting; sea levels are rising; species are vanishing; droughts and famines are increasing; people are dying. One recent scientific study argued that based on our current trajectory, almost all of the world’s coral reefs will be gone by 2050, by which time the ocean may contain (by weight) more plastic than fish. It’s a bleak picture. Apart from a handful of vocal conspiracy theorists, the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments and environmental scientists are in agreement that we, humankind, are the primary cause for this global disaster.
Some are hoping that technology may be our salvation, but while advances here have helped us grasp the extent of the problem, few practical solutions have been forthcoming. Some are looking to our world’s governments for leadership, but a cursory glance at the past few G12 summits indicates that while everyone wants to see change, nobody actually wants to change – particularly if it means upsetting the status quo of prosperity, power and development. It is therefore unsurprising that increasingly people are looking to grassroots movements like Extinction Rebellion for hope. Their message is clear (‘It’s time to act’) and their methods are radical (‘non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience’), resulting in the shutdown of airports, rail routes and motorways. They clearly believe what they preach and aren’t afraid to be made unpopular if it helps raise awareness of the imminent disaster we are facing.
Christian responses to all this have tended to swing like a pendulum towards extremes. Seeing the human impact upon the environment, some denominations have moved creational care to the forefront of the local church’s mission. The danger with such an approach is that it risks taking both focus and resources away from obeying Jesus’ great commission: for us to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). Furthermore, if the gospel a church preaches degrades into one of simply creational concern, then suddenly the salvation of the planet becomes something which rests upon our shoulders, at which point we have very little to offer by way of hope.
But for many evangelicals the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. A cursory reading of 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 20–21 has led some to reason that if Jesus is coming soon to bring in a new creation, then surely it is a waste of time being concerned for this current one. One American pastor famously made this throw-away comment: ‘I know who made the environment. He’s coming back, and he’s going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV!’ But such a view not only does great damage to our credibility among unbelievers we are seeking to witness to, it also lacks coherency with what the Scriptures actually teach about God’s plan to redeem creation.
The story of creation’s redemption
- Creation mandate – God declares of all his creation to be ‘good’ (Genesis 1). This form of speech proclaims his greatness as Creator (Psalm 148). He placed humankind as relational rulers over creation, giving us a mandate to spread his rule and blessing throughout the world (Genesis 1:28–30; Psalm 8). Given this weighty responsibility entrusted to us, creation’s well-being has always been bound up with humankind.
- Creation cursed – At the Fall, creation fell with Adam. Therefore the ground, instead of being an intended blessing, was placed under a curse (Genesis 3:14–19). Since then, creation has been subject to frustration, longing for its redemption together with humankind (Romans 8:18–21).
- Creation’s hope – At first, it is hoped that Noah would be the long-promised offspring of Eve who would bring relief upon the curse on the ground (Genesis 3:15; 5:29). Owing to Noah’s obedient and righteous credentials, God chooses him to redeem not only a remnant of humanity from the flood, but also a remnant of the animal kingdom – both are included with him in the ark (6:18–20). Indeed, when the floodwaters are at their highest, God not only remembers righteous Noah, but also ‘all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him’ (8:1). After the flood, God makes a covenant not just with Noah and his offspring, but also with every living creature with him, including even the inanimate earth (9:12). Sadly, in the end it is revealed that Noah is not the righteous redeemer of creation the world had been longing for (9:20–22), but God remains committed to preserving creation until that redeemer comes (8:22).
- Creation’s redeemer – The rest of the Bible traces Noah’s family tree looking for creation’s promised redeemer – from Abraham, to Israel, to David – but all of them fall short. Borrowing language from God’s covenant with Noah, the prophets looked forward to a future king who would redeem not only God’s people, but also creation with them (Isaiah 11:1–9; Ezekiel 34:23–27; Hosea 2:16–20). All these promises were fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, who as the righteous second Adam obeyed the creation mandate where we could not (1 Corinthians 15:20–28; Hebrews 2:5–9). As the Creator and inheritor of all creation, Jesus promises to ‘reconcile to himself’ not just human souls, but ‘all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross’ (Colossians 1:20; see also 1:15–19).
- Creation’s redemption – When Jesus returns, our expectation is not that this current creation will be annihilated, but that it will be radically renewed. Just like the world in the days of the flood, creation will be purified and cleansed of all evil and harm in order to make ‘a new heaven and earth, where righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3:13; see also 3:5–12). God, not us, is the one who will bring this all about (Revelation 21:1–2), and only then ‘the meek … will inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5).
Christians must be concerned for creation
We must conclude that if our Father is concerned for his creation, then surely we his children must also. While Jesus Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice resulted in the accomplishment of the creation mandate, this does not rule out Christians sacrificially joining with him in its outworking (Romans 12:1). The temporariness of this creation cannot be used as a licence for abuse, in the same way that the temporariness of our bodies cannot be used as a licence for sin (1 Corinthians 6:16–20). To the contrary, if our current bodies are beginning to be transformed now in anticipation of their future resurrection, then why shouldn’t creation also experience something of its future liberation from futility (Romans 8:18–30)? Given the absence of specific New Testament commands regarding creational concern, it would be unwise to lay down commands regarding what exactly Christians should or should not do. But one would hope that seeing God’s heart for creation expressed in Scripture would prompt our Spirit-led consciences, so that we may make wise decisions with regards to recycling, animal welfare and reducing carbon footprints.
Christians must be supremely concerned for humankind
While the great commission doesn’t replace the creation mandate, it certainly does eclipse it. It would be tragically ironic if local churches focussed so heavily on environmental projects that they forgot their charge to proclaim Christ, who is the only hope for creation! Such projects are clearly good things in the eyes of God, but questions should be asked whether they are the best use of resources if they come at the cost of gospel proclamation. Jesus himself made the decision to save one human life from damnation at the cost of the lives of two thousand pigs (Mark 5:11–13), and to curse a fig tree in order to help ready people for judgement (Mark 11:12–25).
The Scriptures testify that just as creation fell with Adam, so it will be redeemed through Christ – the second Adam – for the benefit of all humankind united with him. So it seems the best way for local churches to show their concern for the environment is to win disciples for Christ. The more people brought into a saving knowledge of the Creator, the more people there will be to rightly value the works of the Creator. Diligent recycling will not save anyone from the wrath to come – however, one would hope that the reconciled person, having put their faith in Christ, would then delight in caring for the creation with which they will one day be redeemed. Unlike Extinction Rebellion, we have a message of hope, which we proclaim with grace and love. But perhaps we can learn from them to be willing to be made unpopular if it means people are prepared for the day when Jesus returns to redeem creation.
Andy Palmer - Minister, Christ Church Balham
 https://sojo.net/articles/mark-driscoll-gas-guzzlers-mark-masculinity – accessed 23 February 2020.