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.