Which is more important for Christians to talk about: the need for action to address climate change? Or the need to repent and believe and receive the gift of life from God? When presented with all such false dichotomies, our first response might be ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here!’
But here is where we are, as highlighted by some important events in the last week. On the one hand, many church leaders have been contributing to the discussion about climate change in the light of the COP26 meeting of international leaders in Glasgow. Some, like the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, appear to have been carried away with the emotion of the moment, and spoken out of turn. He claimed that, if we did not act, we would be ‘cursed’, and compared leaders not taking action with those who failed to oppose Hitler in the 1930s, an ill-considered and offensive parallel that he later had to withdraw and apologise for.
I confess here something of a frustration with the comments of all our church leaders. I have read poems, heard Pause for Thoughts, seen Tweets, and have heard much about justice, action and hard decisions. But I have heard relatively little about God as creator, very little about the problems of consumerism, and nothing at all about the problem of the sinful human heart. If I have missed some of these good comments which are unapologetic about bringing a deeply Christian theological perspective to this issue—if so, do please give me some examples in the comments below.
On the other hand, William Philip of the Tron Church in Glasgow erected a large banner outside the church building, boldly proclaiming:
The world’s most urgent need is churches preaching Christ crucified, not climate change.
For his trouble, the poster was vandalised and then pulled down—a sign of our intolerant times. William justified the approach by noting that it was often the ‘negatives’ in Jesus’ teaching that caused offence.
No-one is offended by Jesus when he says: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…” (John 3:36). But Jesus continues with the necessary negative: “…but whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” There is the offence for which our Lord was crucified, and all his true apostles martyred, because they witnessed publicly to the truth of that offensive gospel.
(It might be worth observing, for those in the Church of England concerned with church growth, that this theologically conservative church, questioning of the priority of the climate crisis, appears to be pretty much full of young people!)
It would be tempting, when confronted with two opposite approaches to an issue, to try and find a via media, a happy medium between the two. But it is actually much more productive to ask questions about how the assumptions behind each position.
In relation to the climate crisis, there are two sets of assumptions we need to explore: What is the world like? And what are people like?
Climate change activism often appears to make a range of assumptions about the nature of the world. On the one hand, it is a power that threatens us, which we have misused, and is now wreaking its revenge on us. Some even talk about humanity as a kind of parasite, which the organism ‘Gaia’ (nature as a kind of divine power) wants to be rid of. Others take this Gaia language in another direction: nature is a divine power which we must respect or even worship.
In sharp contrast, some Christian traditions see the world as nothing more than a tool for our convenience, something we make use of and are passing through, which is of no ultimate consequence. I don’t think this is the view of William Philip, but some of his comments come close to it when he says:
The message of hope we proclaim is not a hope in human endeavour, nor a hope in this world but the hope of the world to come.
This could be interpreted to mean that we should not seek to preserve the natural world, since it is ‘passing away’. Others go further and, by misreading the imagery of 2 Peter 3.10, believe that the created order will disappear, and that our destiny is to live in a non-physical ‘heaven’ with God forever. This is perfectly expressed by someone in a Tweet replying to Justin Welby:
Aside: the main issue with 2 Peter 3.10 arises from the difficulty of the final verb, and textual variants from it found in early manuscripts. The best support in manuscripts is for the verb εὑρεθήσεται, ‘will be found’, but because this is a difficult idea to make sense of, the AV of 1611 follows the reading of Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, one of the four great ‘uncial’ manuscripts (along with Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus) ‘will be burned up’. The NET Bible offers a helpful explanation of how to make sense of the more likely reading from the Word Commentary of Richard Bauckham.
Bauckham puts forth an excellent case that … the meaning of the term is virtually the equivalent of “will be disclosed,” “will be manifested.” (That this meaning is not readily apparent may in fact have been the reason for so many variants and conjectures.) Thus, the force of the clause is that “the earth and the works [done by men] in it will be stripped bare [before God].” In addition, the unusualness of the expression is certainly in keeping with the author’s style throughout this little book. Hence, what looks to be suspect because of its abnormalities, upon closer inspection is actually in keeping with the author’s stylistic idiosyncrasies. The meaning of the text then is that all but the earth and men’s works will be destroyed. Everything will be removed so that humanity will stand naked before God. Textually, then, on both external and internal grounds, εὑρεθήσεται commends itself as the preferred reading.
Biblical theology says something quite different to both of these ideas—of the earth as divine, and the earth as dispensable.
God is immaterial, so that material world is not our master nor our god. Yet this immaterial God chose to create a material cosmos, and to create material humanity, male and female, in his image to exercise authority in his place.
So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1.27–28)
It is striking that, after every ‘day’ of creation in Genesis 1, God declares that he saw all that he had made, and ‘it was good’. On the sixth day, having completed his creation with the forming of humanity, it was ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31). The stuff of this world is intended to be God’s good gift to us.
But it does not belong to us, and we are to cherish and nurture, not exploit and spoil, this good gift. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Psalm 24.1); when humanity was commissioned to ‘subdue and rule over it’ (Get 1.28) this was a command to exercise God’s just and fruitful power over it, that it might be the best it can be.
Aside: We need at this point to comment on the language of ‘have dominion over’ or ‘rule over or subdue it’. The Hebrew term is רדה and in the Greek translation it is κατακυριευω; both can have negative connotations (for example, the use of the verb in Matt 20.25 ‘they lord it over them’), but they need not do so. In its context in Genesis, and within the larger perspective of Scripture, two things are important. First is that we are to exercise authority and rule over creation in place of God as king—we are to act as his vice-regents. Secondly, in a context where the natural world could often be a powerful threat to a pre-modern society (and continues to be a threat in many parts of the world today), God’s desire is that humanity should enjoy authority over the world, and not be intimidated by it.
And as we do this, Scripture repeatedly calls us to ‘act justly, and love mercy’ (Micah 6.8), so that all the blessings and wealth of this remarkable treasure are shared with all humanity. Our destiny is not a disembodied life with God ‘in heaven’, but a bodily resurrection life with God in heaven come down to earth, which John describes in Rev 21 as a ‘New Jerusalem’. The return of Jesus will be, amongst other things, a time of ‘destroying the destroyers of the earth’ (Rev 11.18); our hope is that we will ‘reign with him on earth forever’ (Rev 5.10). Although it is sometimes read as being a text which is negative about the created world (because of the images of violence), in fact creation is a central concern of the narrative. God is praised as creator in Rev 4.11; Jesus is praised for having redeemed God’s people from every people to be a priestly kingdom who will reign on earth; Jesus is introduced at the beginning as the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Rev 1.5); and the worship of God and the lamb is joined by the ‘four living creatures’, who appear to represent the created order. It is a very earthy book!
What of the nature of humanity? Again, climate activism sees humanity as lazy, self-interested or ignorant, so that we need informing, cajoling, and hassling into action from our lethargy. The alternative view sees humanity as sinful in a whole range of ways, cut off from the life of God, and in need of radical change as we receive the gift of salvation. Scripture tells us that these two issues are intricately connected, rather than being quite separate.
When Adam and Eve turned from God, and ate the fruit, one of the first consequences was that the earth was no longer fruitful (Gen 3.17)—and even their life of fruitful childbearing would become a painful struggle (Gen 3.16)—so they would struggle to fulfil the commission to rule over the earth. When Israel fails to keep faith with God, ‘the earth mourns’ Hos 4.3, Jer 12.4). The hope of restoration, when God brings his people back to the land, is that everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree (Micah 4.4). The fruitfulness of the earth marches step in step with our obedient response to God’s call on our lives.
In fact, it is not hard to see how our climate crisis has been caused by the greed of over-consumption, the selfishness of those nations who have exploited the resources of others, often enslaving them in order to do so, and the relentless drive to have more. Jesus described money and wealth as the god Mammon, and the need to possess and consume appears to have a spiritual grip on Western culture.
I think this is part of the reason for my frustration at what we hear in public from church leaders—at least as they are reported in the media. The danger in contributing to the public comments about the climate crisis is that we share in some of the basic assumptions, that our approach to life is essential fine, but that, as autonomous individuals, we just need to make some better choices. In fact, we need to ask some major questions about Western materialism, globalisation, neoliberal economics, and the narratives created by advertising in the media. These are complex questions, but we need to ask them not because to be a Christian is to be a beardy lefty, but because we have a quite different narrative to offer about the problem at the heart of this issue—the problem of the human heart.
So we need to act—but to do so we also need to repent, of sins against God and against our neighbour. It is only when, as a culture, we repent of our greed and selfishness that we will see a lasting solution to the climate crisis. And this will be helped when we preach of God’s goodness, our sin, and his free gift of life.
I hope that these two different issues can actually work in partnerships with one another, rather than in opposition. As we build bridges with those concerned about the climate, we can share our hope of life everlasting. The call to repentance more generally includes a call to repent of our sinful attitudes to the creation God has given us—and the call care for the earth should also lead to a call to turn to God, the creator and giver of life, forgiveness and healing.
(A shorter version of this was previously published at Premier Christianity online.)
How can we make sense of what the Bible says about the end of the world? What are we to make of things like end times prophecies, the ‘rapture’, ‘tribulation’ and ‘millennium’? Are these things important? Come and find out at my Zoom teaching morning on Saturday December 4th!