Mother Earth, Heavenly Father, and How the Bible Counsels Our Views on Environmentalism

President Obama’s administration is expected this week to announce its rejection of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.  Environmentalists are naturally against the installation of the 1,700 mile crude oil pipeline that would reportedly transport nearly a million barrels of crude oil a day to refineries in the Gulf Coast as well as create thousands of potential jobs and provide for greater U.S. energy security.

While questions about environmental preservation have been popular for years, coming to a head at the release of Al Gore’s 2007 Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, this specific pipeline project seems to have taken on a particular level of importance, as it potentially symbolizes the future of U.S. energy policy.

It also happened to tie together well with an interesting statement in my devotional reading for today, from Deuteronomy 20:19-20.  In this section, God is telling the Israelites what they are to do to the lands that they conquer en route to claiming the land that he had promised to them and their ancestors.  Upon telling the Israelites to destroy everything that breathes when they enter into a foreign city, so that they will not become corrupted by the godlessness, God then says, “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?  20 However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.”

There are two very interesting points that God seems to be making here, and they both help us understand mankind’s relationship with nature. I’m going to treat the second point first.

In verse 20, God says that trees that are not bearing fruit may be cut down for the very practical purpose of making the equipment necessary for defeating the enemies that God told the Israelites to destroy.  This is tremendously consistent with God’s statement in Genesis 1, that mankind has been given the earth as a gift to rule over and that man may use the earth to accomplish some of the purposes for which God created him – “fill the earth and subdue it….I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” (Gen. 1:28-29)

However, in verse 19, God makes a fascinating statement of environmental conservation.  He encourages the Israelite army to NOT cut down the other trees in the cities that they siege.  Now, the normal custom of ancient armed forces in full military mode would be to completely and thoroughly destroy and plunder the cities they conquered.  But God tells the Israelites to show restraint in the way they treat his creation.  After all, the trees are God’s creation and they never did anything to warrant destruction. This, by the way, is tremendously consistent with what God says to Noah after the Great Flood.  Look at what God says in Genesis 9: “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Gen. 9:12-16)  Now, throughout the Bible we see God entering into covenants (e.g. Abraham, Moses, David).  A covenant is a promise that God makes to save someone.  What’s so interesting here is that God says he enters into a covenant with “the earth.” (vs. 13)  The earth has not sinned, so why does it need saving?  It needs God’s help to save it from humanity’s sin!  God seems to be suggesting here that he is going to save the earth from the wickedness of humans.  Therefore, as Christians, if we are going to be on God’s side of this argument about environmentalism, we also have to be on a side against the outright exploitation of the earth.

Environmentalism is generally seen as a hot political issue.  But do you see that the Bible presents a much more beautiful understanding of our relationship with God’s creation than any political affiliation can?  This view is way too Christian for most liberals, but it’s way too environmentalist for most conservatives.  The Bible perfectly balances respect for all creatures, while still appropriately understanding where the earth and the creatures in it stand in relation to humans – the crown of God’s creation.

If this entire issue seems a bit cliché, I’d suggest it’s still tremendously relevant and needs to be addressed because, despite being a nominally Christian country, Americans routinely evidence that they are wildly unaware of God’s direction on dealing with nature.  For instance, just take popular American cinema, which generally mirrors the thoughts of society.  The blatant subtext of the 2009 film Avatar (the most commercially successful film of all time to date) is that there is really no difference between God as Creator and his creation.  This has historically been the understanding of Eastern religion, not Christianity.  Similarly, in 2008, M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Happening revolved around the idea that after humans had been mistreating the earth for years, the earth itself was finally rising up to defend itself.  Countless other examples are available.  The point is, our (potentially imbalanced) relationship with the earth is on the minds of people today.  What are we as Christians going to say about it?  And, is what we say consistent with what God says in his Word?

So how is Jesus different from the other religions of the world when it comes to a view of creation?  Consider this: most religions of the world speak about dying and going to another place, recognizing the fallen state of this world.  The goal and reward are simply to get out.  This is true, to an extent, in Christianity.  But it’s not ultimately true.  In the end, the Bible says that Jesus will come back to bring a new heaven and a new earth – restoration.  Jesus loved matter so much that he became matter so that he could save matter (which includes us).  And that leads us to proportionately love matter too.

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3 thoughts on “Mother Earth, Heavenly Father, and How the Bible Counsels Our Views on Environmentalism

  1. Dave Kaiser says:

    So where do you stand on the pipeline issue (since you started off with that)? Are you saying Christians should be against it because it would “harm” the earth? How is this pipeline going against God’s concern for the earth? Your reference in Deuteronomy concerns fruit trees that provide food vs. trees that do not provide food. The trees that do not provide food seem to be OK to cut down to use for “war” or other purposes, such as building homes or to be burned for warmth.
    You never really say what your stance is. I am a Christian (as well as a member of the WELS) and I am in favor of this pipeline. Are you saying that my stance is wrong? You never really say. I agree that we should not exploit the earth and that we are to be concerned with how we treat God’s resources. But are you saying that installing this pipeline will harm the earth? Hmmmm.
    I enjoy reading your posts but I do not like posts that are not clear on what your stance is as a Christian.
    Please clarify.

  2. Dave,
    I intentionally didn’t make an official “stance” on the pipeline issue. My point in the post was not to declare a stance on it. Stances on environmental issues generally get very political. My encouragement is for Christians to not wholeheartedly hop into one political camp on the issue, as I’ve seen both sides of the political spectrum make statements on environmental issues that suggest their opinion is not tantamount to God’s opinion (given via Scripture).

    My point in the post was to encourage Christians to divorce themselves from the either/or environmental thinking that’s often found in politics, and replace it with biblical guidance. Ultimately, I’d hope a Christian would wrestle with these points on this (and other) environmental issues:

    1) Does this seem to demonstrate a healthy respect for the earth and its creatures as owned by God? Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” If our planet truly is God’s property, am I treating it with the proper respect or using it however I please for my own personal desires.

    The original route for the pipeline crossed the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest reserves of fresh water in the world, which spans eight states and provides drinking water for two million people, and supports $20 billion in agriculture. A major leak could ruin drinking water and devastate the mid-western U.S. economy. TransCanada saw this and agreed to change the route. I don’t know that you can make an authoritative right or wrong about all this, but I think Christians will naturally want to consider stuff like this – affects that our decisions have on the health of humans and the health of the earth.

    2) Does this seem to demonstrate an understanding for the role that God ordained for the earth and the animals in it in relation to humans. Activist groups like PETA clearly don’t seem to understand this. I think Christians will want to consider stuff like this as well – that God handed over his creation to humans to both manage it and to benefit from it.

    To blindly jump into a political camp about this (or frankly, any other issue) would be irresponsible.

    Ultimately, I could see two thoughtful Christians, seeking God’s direction in Scripture, allowing their consciences to guide them, praying about a topic, and still coming down on opposite sides of this issue, all to God’s glory.

    As for me, as a Christian, I’m still thinking about it….

  3. Paul Hein says:

    James,

    Couple things that I wanted to put out there after reading your blog post.

    1) Completely agree with your assertion that you need to take political absolutism out of the equation when dealing with the environment. That stance should be taken on most decisions in life.

    2) I humbly put forward that you didn’t go far enough by not talking about the difference between being a good steward (conservationism) and environmentalism (basically secular Buddhism). Many of todays “activists” are nothing more than idolators that put a rock or a fuzzy bunny ahead of God’s children. Good intentions, as good as they may be, are still misguided when relying on the wisdom of man.

    3) I like your example from Deuteronomy. The Old Testament is full of great practical examples to running a successful society. After reading, and re-reading that section of scripture, I was left with a bit of a brow furl. I’m not sure I come away with the same conclusions. To me it says more “don’t destroy the food that is already there.”

    eh.

    It’s an interesting time in which we live. Anything with an environmentalist tag seems to touch people in different ways. Not being one to enjoy forced opinions, I find the constantly changing science of “warming” this, and “danger” that, tiresome. Why can’t we just focus on using the gifts God has given us to the best of our abilities, all the while picking up after ourselves like adults.

    Just some thoughts on this after midnight – would enjoy conversing more on the matter.

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