This is a guest post from Russell D. Moore (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. You can see the whole series on A God-Centered Worldview here.
Some conservative evangelicals act as though “environmentalism” is by definition “liberal” or just a silly cause movement led by leftover hippies. Witness a lot of the evangelical rhetoric across social media on Earth Day: mostly Al Gore jokes and wisecracks about cutting down trees or eating endangered species as a means of celebration. That’s a shame. Such attitudes betray some things about us that don’t quite reflect the gospel that’s been handed down to us.
Part of the problem is that we often long for simple categories, of a world of wholly good allies and wholly evil enemies. That works on the cosmic level of the “principalities and powers” against whom the Bible says we struggle. Good angels are good; fallen angels are demonic. It doesn’t work as well, though, with flesh and blood.
Do some environmentalists reject the dignity of humanity? Yes. Do some replace the reverence for creation with that due the Creator? Of course. This happens in the same way some misplace reverence for economic profit or any other finite thing. The Communists of the twentieth-century were cunning in presenting capitalism simply in terms of the most extreme Mammon-craving robber barons. Capitalism, though, wasn’t summed up by the caricatures, and the extremes of the market system didn’t commend the soul-crushing evil of Marxism.
Something of the same principle is true when it comes to ecological protection. There’s nothing conservative, and nothing “evangelical,” about dismissing the conservation of the natural environment.
Does God care about endangered species and rock formations and estuaries? I would argue, yes; God cares for the sparrow that falls to the ground (Matt. 10:29). But, even if you disagree with me on that, consider how God loves those who are “of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:30).
The natural world is made for man, not man for the natural world. Humanity is the crowing act of creation, and it is to humanity that God has joined himself, irrevocably, in the person of Jesus Christ. Humanity is made from the dust of the ground, and we are dependent all life long on air, water, the atmosphere around us.
The balance of ecology affects people in ways we never consider or notice, until it’s threatened. God gave his image-bearing humanity dominion over the natural creation (Gen. 1:28). But this isn’t a pharaoh-like dominion; it’s a Christ-like dominion. Humans aren’t made of ether; we’re made of Spirit-enlivened mud. We come from the earth, and we must receive from the earth what we need to survive, in the form of light from the sun, oxygen from plants, and food from the ground.
God knows that we need the natural creation (what we so reductionistically call an “environment”). He exults in it throughout the Psalms and in his speech to Job about his mysterious ways. Jesus continually retreats into the silent places of the mountains and the hills and the deserts, sometimes in the fellowship of only the wild beasts (Mark 1:13). We are built to recognize God in the creation (Rom. 1:18-21), and we need more than just what we can pave over and build in order to flourish.
This is why the Scriptures speak of eternal life in the metaphor of a river that causes the waters to teem with life, with many kind of fish, and vegetation thriving on the banks (Ezek. 47:9-12). This is why one aspect of Jesus’ kingship is to make the waters teem with fish, right in the presence of his commercial fishermen disciples (John 21:3-8). And this is why the Scriptures consider it an apocalypse when the waters are poisoned, and the sea-life is gone (Rev. 8:8-9).
We need the creation around us, including the waters and all they contain, because we are not gods. We are creatures who thrive when we live as we were made to live. We exercise dominion over the creation not only when we use it, but also when we conserve it for the generations who will come after.
In addition, believing that salvation includes the restoration of creation does away with the notion that the earth is irrelevant to the kingdom purposes of God—be they now or not yet—by declaring the place of the creation in the the establishment of the kingdom, from the original creation through the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:8-17) to the final regeneration of the cosmos (Col. 1:20).
We understand that we live in the “already” of an “already/not yet” framework of this restoration. We cannot therefore share an economic libertarian’s purely utilitarian view of the earth and its resources. Nor can we share a radical environmentalist’s apocalyptic scenarios of the complete destruction of the earth. In our care for creation, we must maintain both the necessity and the limits of environmental action, knowing that the ultimate liberation of creation has everything to do with our resurrection and the resumption of human rule through Christ over this universe.
That means that we need to love what God loves: his entire creation. We need to conserve and care for the good earth that God has created. And we need to remember that, ultimately, the curse is rolled back by a bloody cross. The risen Jesus, for his life and death and resurrection, saves us from an ecological catastrophe of the worst kind. And he raises us to newness of life to reign with him in a new creation.