A major study recently published in the journal Science analyzed immense amounts of population data of more than 500 species of birds since 1970. The bottom line is very disturbing. Based on this study, there are almost 3 billion fewer birds in the United States and Canada. How should Christians exercise wise dominion without being swept up in the hype and hysteria of climate extremists and eco-zealots? When “science” tells me what happened in the unobserved past or predicts what will “most certainly” happen in the unobserved future, I rightly get squinty-eyed and take it with a grain of salt. However, when a study is carried out by biologists dealing with real data in real time about bird decline, I am apt to take their conclusions a bit more seriously. The latter is one of those cases.
Since many secular biologists are liberal on many political issues, it’s all too easy for politically conservative Christians to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, we disregard everything they say because they have a Darwinian worldview. It can be a big mistake when their scientific conclusions are empirically based: not wild speculations of the distant past or future founded on a false worldview.
Weighing Against Scripture
So what should we think; what should we do? First things first: birds are good.
And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day (Genesis 1:20–23).
A couple of things to note in this passage pertaining to the current bird decline. Birds were created on day five, and God saw that it was good. God blessed them, telling them to multiply and fill the earth. Assuming this scientific study is valid, it appears that birds are diminishing, which is simply not in keeping with God’s game plan (Genesis 1:22b).Wise dominion should result in animals (both wild and domesticated) multiplying, filling, and thriving. They are our responsibility, and, in light of the current bird decline, something’s amiss.
Adam and Eve were blessed by God and told to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth . . . And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Genesis 1:28, 31, my emphasis). In this passage, we find that people are also to fill the earth, but this command doesn’t negate the earlier “let the birds multiply” command. This verse is called the dominion mandate by Bible scholars. In this very important verse, God is charging us with wildlife management on a global scale. It is an enormous responsibility. Wise dominion1 should result in animals (both wild and domesticated) multiplying, filling, and thriving. They are our responsibility, and, in light of the current bird decline, something’s amiss.
Even if we can agree with secular environmentalists about the reality of a problem, their approach is usually entirely different. They tend to use hyperbolic language to sensationalize and exaggerate the problem. This is an attempt to get the public worked up to a frenzy to vote in a particular candidate and change things through political coercion (they are trying to make the state our savior). If you love nature, you may be tempted to hitch your wagon to their cause because often many Christians don’t seem to care or don’t want to be associated with any spittle-flecked eco-tyrant.
Most of the environmental problems, including species decline and extinction, can be traced to sin directly or indirectly. Several bird species have been rubbed out (Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Great Auk, Giant Moa, Dodo, etc.) often due to our ignoble motivations. Often greed for land, food, or feathers resulted in habitat destruction or wanton slaughter. But some ecological crises are more indirect. Who would think that lying, murder, stealing, and adultery have anything to do with the extinction of wildlife? Although the Old Testament is rife with examples, Hosea 4:1–3 is very revealing:
Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel,
for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
and no knowledge of God in the land;
there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field
and the birds of the heavens,
and even the fish of the sea are taken away.
It’s clear that God either curses the land and sea due to the sinfulness of the children of Israel (c.f. Deuteronomy 28:15-18) or allowed things to deteriorate due to their sin. The sins of Israel may have also actively contributed to the situation, as they are accused of faithlessness, lack of love, no knowledge of God, swearing, lying, murder, stealing and bloodthirstiness, which may imply deliberately and wastefully mismanaging livestock, over-killing, and over-fishing—and they probably were guilty of neglecting a fallow year which God said would be detrimental to animals (Exodus 23:11). It is clear they were not judged for their carbon footprint. God judges the nation of Israel by bringing about or allowing a widespread environmental crisis. What is taken away? Beasts, birds, and fish. Even if you don’t think that God blesses and curses in the same way today, the solution to these problems is the solution to sin. And the solution to sin is the gospel. This may seem to miss the point, but it is right on point. Francis Schaeffer, in “Pollution and the Death of Man,” talks of several separations that occur because of sin. These are between the following: God and man, man and man, man and nature, and nature and nature. The gospel reconciles us to God, and when that happens, the other dislocations begin to be healed.
Environmental legislation and enforcement by state and federal agencies have their God-given role (Romans 13:1–5). Not everyone obeys laws because of conscience; some need policing to keep them in line. But it’s always much more effective when people are governed by conscience, not coercion. When people are saved by grace and reconciled to God, they begin to appreciate the diversity God made. When they learn of practical ways to restore bird or other populations, they should begin to implement them of their own accord. Also, when there is widespread repentance, God may bless the land and sea and restore the dwindling populations of animals in ways that may not seem related to our ecological efforts. We are all familiar with the biblical phrase, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” God heals and blesses the land in tangible ways when people repent and obey Him. We also see this in the repentance of the people of Nineveh during Jonah’s time. Even the animals were affected during the city-wide repentance (Jonah 3:7-9) and were in God’s mind for deliverance (Jonah 4:11). This biblical plan is so much more effective (and pleasant) than having strict environmental regulations imposed on a chafing public who don’t fear God or love his creation.
So what can you do? Love God and his creation. Proclaim the gospel in word and deed. Learn about his creatures while seeing this bird decline. If you like birds, start birding. Get binoculars and a regional field guide. Learn about your local birds from books, websites, and through your own observations. Install birdhouses, put up bird feeders, and implement other practical ways to help them thrive locally or regionally. Even consider joining a local Audubon chapter. It would do them good to see Christians enjoying and participating in the creation—not worshiping it. Just make sure not to imbibe their worldview or politics. But whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.
“Pollution and the Death of Man” by Francis Schaeffer
“A Different Shade of Green” by Gordon Wilson