Biblical Principles of Environmental Stewardship: God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
Last week we examined the fourth principle in biblical environmental stewardship: that God commands humanity to multiply and fill the earth. Today we look at the fifth principle.
Principle 5: Although God allows humanity to suffer the consequences of poor environmental stewardship, the end of history will occur according to God’s sovereign plan.
A society’s view of eschatology – how the world will end – will inform its policies on environmental stewardship. Secular environmentalists, ignoring the creation and providence of God, attribute the end of the world to human action or some natural disaster – an asteroid, a virus, or variation in the sun’s rays, for example. The fate of the planet rests in either the hands of humanity or the whims of chance.
A biblical worldview, however, understands that all of history, including the end of this world, is directed by God. God “created heaven and earth and everything in them” and continually “upholds and rules them by His eternal counsel and providence.”[i] This includes animals, plants, and the physical environment. God upholds His creation in ways we describe as laws of nature (e.g. the law of gravity, the law of thermodynamics, the law of biogenesis, etc.). Indeed, these laws of nature illustrate the covenant faithfulness of God.[ii] Although humanity may mistakenly ascribe these laws of nature to nature itself, Christians know that these laws are issued by a Supreme Lawgiver. Absolutely nothing in creation occurs without God’s direction or permission.
Despite the reality of God’s providence, God also allows humans to suffer the natural consequences of their actions. Adam and Eve’s disobedience and its consequence – the introduction of sin and evil into a good world – profoundly changed creation.[iii] As a consequence of man’s actions, God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”[iv] These thorns and thistles represent how all of creation has been impacted by the Fall. Because of the original human sin, the living creation now naturally experiences suffering, sickness, and death.[v] Romans 8:19-23 also speaks about how “creation was subjected to futility,” is in “bondage to corruption,” and is “groaning together in the pains of childbirth.”
Humanity must continue to grapple with the environmental effects of sin today. Human activity can cause catastrophic environmental damage (e.g. the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or the Exxon-Valdez oil spill). A basic Christian eschatology does not “guarantee that some form of global or cosmic catastrophe [resulting from the actions of humanity] will be averted,” just as we do not believe that any natural catastrophe – a devastating earthquake, hurricane, or volcanic eruption – will be averted because of God’s promise to Noah.[vi] Our belief in human responsibility requires that we must evaluate our actions and respond to their consequences. Christians must never cite their belief in God’s sovereignty as an excuse for inaction, laziness, or a lack of stewardship.[vii]
Although God allows humanity to suffer the environmental consequences of sinful actions or negligence, the fate of the world is in God’s hands, not in human hands. Many prophesy that human activity will cause an environmental apocalypse, while others envision a technological utopia. Christians should reject both visions as unfounded since “Christian eschatology runs counter to both pessimistic and optimistic views of the future”[viii] and “the day of the Lord [the end of the world] will come like a thief in the night.”[ix] In the closing verses of Genesis 8, God promises to “never again curse the ground because of man” or “ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”[x] Although the world will not be destroyed by human actions, humanity cannot usher in an environmental utopia either. Romans 8 speaks into how both the human and non-human creation together eagerly await redemption. Although human care and dominion may contribute to the redemption or reconciliation of creation, only God can ultimately fix the sin and brokenness that afflicts this world.[xi]
[i] Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 26; see also Question and Answer 27 for a definition of providence
[ii] Arnold E. Sikkema, “Laws of Nature and God’s Word for Creation,” Fideles 2 (2007).
[iii] Genesis 3; Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 6
[iv] Genesis 3:17-19
[v] Clarence W. Joldersma, “The Responsibility of Earthlings for the Earth: Graciousness, Lament, and the Call for Justice,” 63–64.
[vi] David Atkinson, “Climate Change and the Gospel: Why We in the Church Need to Treat Climate Change More Urgently” (Operation Noah, 2015), 17–18, http://operationnoah.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Climate-and-Gospel-David-Atkinson-30-01-2015.pdf.
[vii] Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions (New York, New York: FaithWords Hatchette Book Group, 2009), 129.
[viii] David Atkinson, “Climate Change and the Gospel: Why We in the Church Need to Treat Climate Change More Urgently,” 17–18.
[ix] 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and Matthew 24:43
[x] Genesis 9
[xi] Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, 133; David Paul Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun, Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creational Care, 6.