A Theology of Climate Change
For some time now, scientists have been sounding the alarm regarding climate change. A large number of scientists and scientific institutions are making dire predictions about the future of mankind on account of the levels of carbon dioxide that human activity is pumping into the atmosphere.
Many conservative Christians, among others, strongly contest these claims. Part of their ideological differences derive from suspicion regarding science: many of the arguments that the scientists make involve claims regarding temperature fluctuations over millions of years, and most conservative Christians do not believe that the earth has been around that long. Furthermore, the same scientific establishment that includes many who actively deny God and which promotes Darwinist evolutionary theory is now promoting this idea of global warming.
Nevertheless, the majority of the difference comes on the basis of the interpretation of Scripture. Many such conservative Christians do not believe that human action can so dramatically impact God’s creation. Appeals are made to Genesis 8:22 that declares that as long as the earth exists there will be seasons, and, therefore, earth will not experience constant summer. Many also speak of 2 Peter 3:10-12, among other passages, to show that human activity will not destroy the earth, but that it will remain until Jesus returns.
It is true that scientists have come out with many radically apocalyptic pictures of the future, and that these pictures do contradict what the Scriptures have said regarding how the earth and mankind will end. Nevertheless, one does not have to accept such futuristic claims to recognize that human activity can cause significant environmental impact, and that it is very possible that the Western world’s consumptive nature is causing environmental degradation. I would like to present an alternative theology that is firmly Biblical and yet takes these possibilities seriously.
I confess without hesitation that I am not a scientist and do not claim to understand everything involved with the scientific arguments. I have no desire to defend Darwinist evolutionary theology, nor do I have any confidence in the idea that the earth is millions or billions of years old. I also cannot answer as to whether the current global warming trends are based only in natural processes or in both natural processes and human activity. I believe, however, that certain principles in Scripture need to be brought forth in terms of the discussion that are currently lacking.
There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding what climate change/global warming entails. From what I understand, scientists do not claim that global warming will always lead to hotter seasons or the eradication of seasons– instead, the cycle of nature becomes more extreme. Seasons exist, but they become more extreme. Summers get colder, hotter, wetter, or drier, based on where you live. The same is true for other seasons. Storms become more powerful. Flooding and drought become more severe and prolonged.
Do I believe that humans can end life as we know it? No, I do not. On the other hand, please note that while the Scriptures do say that the earth and seasons will remain, no comment is ever made about the level of comfort that will exist. There’s no statement in Scripture that says that humans cannot make life miserable for themselves on Earth based on their decisions.
In fact, there are plenty of Scriptures that prove the contrary: human beings, in fact, make life miserable on earth because of their sinful decisions!
Consider the connections between human sin and environmental degradation in Scripture.
And unto Adam [God] said, “Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, ‘Thou shalt not eat of it:’ cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:17-19).
Paul later explains that the creation was subjected to decay and futility (Romans 8:20-22), and it is hard to see how that subjection took place before Adam’s sin. As far as we can tell, all the elements of life that lead to decay and corruption are due to Adam’s sin. Earth has been continually scarred because of the sin of humanity!
And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.
And God said unto Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth…And I, behold, I do bring the flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is in the earth shall die” (Genesis 6:12-13, 17).
The Scriptures nowhere indicate that animals can sin. Therefore, when God speaks of “all flesh,” he refers to all of humanity. Notice that as part of the punishment against mankind, God also kills all the animals too. Humans sin, and the Earth suffers.
Perhaps the most stark demonstration of this is found in Hosea:
Hear the word of the LORD, ye children of Israel; for the LORD hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor goodness, nor knowledge of God in the land. There is nought but swearing and breaking faith, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery; they break out, and blood toucheth blood. Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away (Hosea 4:1-3).
The people are sinful, and who suffers? The land, the sea, and all the creatures within them.
In the face of all this evidence, how can any declare so confidently that human activity cannot impact our planet in any significant way? According to the Bible’s own testimony, the very reason that there is corruption and decay on earth is mankind and its sin. When humans multiply in sin, the Earth suffers.
This, of course, leads to an important question: what is the sin for which the earth is suffering? To answer this question, we must consider an important principle in Scripture:
For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap (Galatians 6:7).
We reap what we sow. If you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. In terms of the way we live on the earth and use its resources, there is a great lesson here for us.
There are many, even within “Christendom,” who believe that our dominion over the earth means that we have the ability to exploit it for all it is worth. There is no indication that such is the case, especially when we consider the virtues of the faith. Search for yourself in Galatians 5:22-24: do you find excess consumption there or self-control? Where do we get the impression, according to the ethical standards within the New Testament, that we have the obligation or even the right to live as excessive consumers of the world’s goods?
This is a difficult message for us who live in the West and enjoy the nice lifestyle that modern progress and technology have allowed. Nevertheless, the message must be said. Our lifestyles are not sustainable. There would need to be at least three earths to contain the resources necessary to provide the rest of the world with the type of lifestyle that we enjoy. As it is, we are hearing more and more warnings regarding peak oil, the finite amount of fossil fuel resources in general, overfishing, and plenty of other signs that the planet cannot sustain our rates of consumption. This does not even begin to take into account how we might be poisoning ourselves with the chemicals that are present within our water and food sources!
What happens if we turn to the popular adage, “what would Jesus do?” Jesus presents for us an even more uncomfortable truth: Jesus did not live like us. Instead, Jesus’ existence was much more like the way that a large number of people live in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Our excess of consumption is more like the great feasting and wastefulness of the Roman nobility!
If we sow this great excess of consumption of the world’s resources in an unsustainable way, what, do you imagine, will we reap? Can we not understand the current climate change as the beginning of our reaping what we have sown? God’s creation shows a wonderful balance, as the Preacher indicates in Ecclesiastes 1:5-7. If human beings pump tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that was not originally there, disturbing the balance of the planet, on what basis do we believe that there will be no consequences?
The Bible indicates that humans will reap what they sow. The Bible indicates that the earth suffers because of man’s sin. By what Biblical principle do we justify our current lifestyles of such vast consumption? In what other arena of life can we live in excess and imbalance and yet expect no consequences for our actions?
Perhaps the changing of our climate is designed to be a warning sign for us, just as the threatened holocaust of locusts was a warning sign for Israel (Joel 1). Let us not be deceived into thinking that our current lifestyle of such excessive consumption is sustainable and not open for negotiation. Let us realize that while it is true that there will be seasons as long as the earth remains, and that the Lord will return before all flesh is destroyed, that the earth can and does suffer because of the transgressions of mankind, and God has indicated that we can make our lives miserable on the earth because of our choices. It is high time for us to consider our lifestyles, to find more sustainable ways to live, and develop self-discipline in the way we live!
Ethan R. Longhenry