Caring About Creation for the Right Reasons

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Some people believe creation is something we should worship. Others believe its purpose is to serve mankind’s greater good. Which view is right? Based on God’s Word, neither!

I have loved the outdoors ever since my dad first took me camping with the Cub Scouts. It was the last day of our trip in the Tinkers Falls area of upstate New York. As we left the forest for the car, I distanced myself from the others and began to cry. My father ran over to me and said, “What’s the matter, Tommy; are you homesick? Don’t worry; we will be home soon.” To which I replied as tears poured down my cheeks, “I don’t want to go home! I want to stay!”

That first experience opened a floodgate of natural adventures—canoeing amidst the shroud of morning mists, walking with bears, skiing under the eerie apparitions of Alaska’s northern lights, and being serenaded by Eastern wolves.

In nature, I sensed something “divine” and greater than myself, whether I walked on a lonely beach or listened to the chatter of animals in the forest at night. I felt there was something sacred and spiritual about nature worth saving, even worshipping.

I easily related to the views of pantheists, pagans, indigenous people, and Wiccans. My goal in life was to live away from people and become one with nature.

On television, I watched helicopter hunters chase wolves and shoot them from the air for sport. In moments like this I knew nature was worth protecting, and humans were evil and parasitic. I was horrified by the doomsday scenarios about what mankind is doing to nature. The exponential growth of human population was clearly a cancer threatening our planetary future.

Starting in forestry college, a series of events shook my world. I was confronted with the reality of the one and only God. When I surrendered and fell in love with my Savior Jesus Christ, my affections were completely refocused. This new relationship with the Creator started me on an odyssey to determine whether He really cares about creation and if so, how He wanted me to respond.

A Transition of Affections

I had to rethink everything. Before knowing Christ, my affections had revolved around earth’s beauty and her creatures. I held two views. First, I was biocentric. Because of my background in biology, I saw how all organisms were interrelated. I believed they all had inherent worth because they’ve struggled millions of years just to survive, so all had a right to protection, not just humans.

Second, I was also an ecocentrist. I focused on the interconnectedness of nature and how our survival depends on being in harmony with nature. One of my ecocentric heroes was Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management and champion of the land ethic. In addition, my biological training was in evolutionary naturalism. I “knew” that, if nothing else, spaceship earth was all there was, and we must do all in our power to save her.

As my relationship with the Creator grew, I realized that my belief in the natural world as the source of all value was wrong and a form of idolatry. So I rejected both views. But did I have to accept the opposite view that I had always rejected—that the only purpose of nature is to serve the greater good of mankind?

Most environmentalists hate this anthropocentric view. I was glad when I realized that the anthropocentric view was also wrong for the same reason—it, too, is a form of idolatry!

So what is the right position? The only way to determine God’s perspective on anything is for God Himself to communicate it to us. He has done this by giving us the Bible. Its message centers on the life and redeeming work of Christ (Luke 24:27).

Theologians Mark Liederbach and Seth Bible refer to Christ, the Creator and Savior of the world, as the “True North” for humanity.1 Like a boat floating aimlessly without navigation equipment, our world is morally adrift without Christ, never knowing how to navigate a course that honors God and addresses creation issues in a way that brings glory to Christ.

Putting Christ at the center of our thinking is the first step toward building a wise model of creation care and planetary stewardship.

Christ the Creator

The first biblical basis for creation care is the fact that God is distinct from all creation, including human beings. He is the reason all things exist; without Him nothing exists (Hebrews 11:3). The one God is three Persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. All are involved with the creation, but the Son is the primary agent (John 1:1–3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16). No other gods are before Him. So He is our ultimate measure for what is right and good.

Genesis 1 makes several things clear. God is the subject of the account. Before making man, He declares six times that His creation is good. He takes joy in it, and that implies that the world and the universe have value beyond their value to man, even the playfulness of Leviathan (Psalm 104). It is evident that the primary purpose of this good creation is to direct our worship back to Him (Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 19, 24:1).

Romans 1:18–20 explains that God carefully designed creation as a physical illustration of His invisible qualities so that we would recognize and worship Him for who He is.2 Christ gave flowers and sparrows value and compared them with His Father’s greater love for man (Matthew 6:25–34). When I realized that the sense of the divine was not coming from nature itself but from the Creator behind it, I was awed and refocused.

Christ’s Role for Humanity in Creation

The culmination of God’s handiwork is proclaimed in Genesis 1:31. God looked at all He had made and declared it “very good.” God was pleased with what He had made because it was exactly as He wanted. All creation was aligned and working together, while being dependent upon the Maker.

The apex of God’s creativity is man, a creature different from all others because he is formed in the Maker’s image. Creation is not “very good” because of man alone. Man isn’t the major emphasis but is the crowning jewel of a bigger, integrated picture, which God pronounced “very good.”

What did God mean when He said He created Adam in His “image” and “likeness”? Unlike the rest of the creatures, who were made by verbal declaration, God, as the master potter, took time to form Adam from the dust of the ground and Eve from one of his ribs. The basic meaning of image and likeness is that man was created to represent God. This image-bearing quality is something man is and not what he does.

The difference is important. Some evangelicals turn to Genesis 2:15 to explain man’s role in creation: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (italics added). They point out that tend means “to serve” and keep means “to take care of,” concluding that man’s purpose is to serve the garden (nature) and protect it so that it becomes productive. These definitions for these words are possible, and there is an element of truth in caring for the land because God gave it as a provision for His creatures’ physical needs. Yet there is something much deeper.

The Garden, the Tabernacle, and the Temple have some interesting similarities in the Bible. The Hebrew words for tend and keep were also used for the priests of God in the temple (Numbers 3:7–8). As the priest of creation, Adam was to work and keep the Garden in obedience to God and for His glory. He apparently was to make the Garden a place of continual worship for him personally, and for other image bearers who had not yet come on the scene.

Furthermore, Genesis 1:28 proclaims, “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (italics added). This verse caused a firestorm among environmentalists in the late 1960s. Historian and environmentalist Lynn White Jr. wrote a famous paper arguing that belief in religions like Judaism and Christianity was causing ecological problems because of scriptures like Genesis 1:28.1 He claimed that the verse taught that humans were to conquer and exploit nature. The article became popular with the assumption that the words subdue and have dominion were interpreted properly, within the context and overall themes of God’s character and purpose. They were not.

Man can’t do anything he wants to the Creation. He is a mere steward, or one put in charge of the owner’s possessions while the owner is away.

This verse highlights the authority God gave man to rule the creation. But raping, pillaging, and otherwise destroying the land as man sees fit are not in keeping with God’s character or His original purposes for a creation priest. Nature does not exist to simply satisfy the selfish human appetite. Man can’t do anything he wants to the creation. He is a mere steward, or one put in charge of the owner’s possessions while the owner is away.

We can be good or bad stewards, but woe to those who do not properly manage the precious belongings in a manner reflecting the owner’s heart (Luke 12:43, 16:1–2; 1 Corinthians 4:1). In fact, God encouraged His people not to rule harshly (Leviticus 25:43, 25:46; Ezekiel 34:1–6).

We are called to be priests and shepherd kings, as we reflect the heart of our shepherd God through our worship, obedience, and drawing others into worship of Him (1 Peter 2:9; see Psalm 23:1; John 10:11–16). Genesis 1:28–31 is not focused on ecology or humans being given license to destroy the land. These verses reflect a call to worship the Creator by representing Him well.

Christ the Incarnate Redeemer

Many environmental crises are real, and man has caused a boatload of problems—exterminating many species and carelessly polluting the air, water, and land. When Adam disobeyed God, the results were tragic (Genesis 3:8–19). The health of the creation was somehow tied to Adam’s right standing before God. The ground, formerly declared good, is now cursed! Death (physical and spiritual separation from God), evil, and suffering are rampant on the planet. Humanity’s image bearing and stewardship have been greatly distorted and are often downright evil.

Today’s environmental issues are symptoms of a much more tragic situation. Man no longer trusts or depends on Jesus to navigate his way through life. Instead pantheism, biocentrism, and evolutionary atheism are at the heart of the environmentalism movement. Many “exchange the truth of God for a lie” and worship created things rather than the Creator Christ (Romans 1:25). The injustice is not against the planet; it is against a holy God. As a result, He must pour out His wrath against all of this ungodliness (Romans 1:18).

So God entered His creation in flesh. Christ Jesus lived a perfect life and took upon Himself the full wrath that was pronounced against us. When we trust in Him for salvation, God breaks the power of sin in our lives, reconciles us to the Creator, and restores us for His original purposes of worship and obedience. Humans best fulfill their original design when we become dependent on the Author of life and go about making disciples who will fill the earth with other worshippers who praise and glorify God (Genesis 1:28; Matthew 28:18–20).

People most concerned with creation care should be those who have been reconciled with Christ. Their motivation is to share the gospel, protect human life, and steward and appreciate the creation in a way that realigns us back to worship and obedience to Christ.4

Christ the Consummator

Christ’s followers know that human life is eternal. All people will have to give an account for their actions and beliefs before the Creator. Scripture also speaks of a new heaven and new earth that is coming (2 Peter 3:3–13). Many believers picture the present world being totally annihilated and have no concerns about nature because it’s all going to burn up anyway. But the Greek meaning of “burn up” and a parallel verb in the passage (translated “found” in some versions) may indicate the earth is laid bare or found out, like a refiner’s fire that leaves a purer form.

This is consistent with the comparison to the great Flood (2 Peter 3:5). The Flood purged the world from evil but did not completely replace it. We were made to be physical beings on a physical planet that has been transformed, redeemed, and restored. That is what the resurrection of the redeemed and the new heavens and earth are all about. Satan will not thwart God’s original plan, and God will triumph by bringing to fruition what He initially started “in the beginning.”

Today, I enjoy my long hours in the mountains, woods, and streams more than ever because there I find it easy to worship my Creator and Savior. As a biologist and a teacher, I bring students out into the field with me.5 I can point them to many physical illustrations of God’s qualities, including life, beauty, and provision all around us. If students go back into the field and remember the time we discussed the beauty of a flower or the ecological processes that provide our physical needs, I pray it will lead them into worshipping their Creator God.

Yes, God has given creation worth beyond its usefulness to man. He has designed it so that we can recognize in creation His attributes that refocus our worship back to Him. And He has created us to represent Him. If these things are so, then God does care about His creation, and He wants us to respond accordingly.

May Jesus’ Spirit empower us to represent Him well and make disciples of all nations. As a result, may those whose affections are focused on earth and its creatures be transformed so their love and affection are refocused where they should be—on their Creator and Redeemer.

Climate Change Image
Climate Change

Climate has changed many times in earth history, so no expert argues that climate change is not occurring. Furthermore, the planet naturally produces a “greenhouse” effect that allows life to flourish. The debate centers on the impact of human activities. Do increases in carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations cause significant harm?

Environmentalist Perspective

The burning of fossil fuels like coal may increase concentrations of “greenhouse” gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. The result is a thicker atmospheric blanket that will prevent heat from escaping into space, possibly overheating the planet.

If true, we are in danger of habitat destruction, catastrophic flooding, and destructive droughts. Climate models predict catastrophic temperature increases, and the UN and US are pressuring people to take actions to help save the planet from disaster.

Creation Care Perspective

Environmentalists assume that the planet can’t handle major changes. In fact, the earth was designed with man in mind. God knew that we would reject Him and abuse the planet and its resources. So He designed multiple systems to bring healing to places scarred by human activity and natural disasters. God designed certain plants to grow better when CO2 increases. Increased CO2 also increases plants’ resistance to disease and predators and, taken all together, has increased the health of ecosystems and improved agricultural productivity (see http://www.cornwallalliance.org/category/climate-and-energy/).

The dire computer predictions don’t match reality. Over 95% of climate models predicted greater warming than what was actually observed, so they should not be trusted as the basis for policy. Wind and solar energy are currently inefficient and very expensive. If these inefficient energy sources are mandated, people will be subject to their unreliability, resulting in blackouts and brownouts, and placing millions of people in danger.

Environmentalists assume we are in charge of the planet, so governments declare ownership and regulate the people. In reality, God owns all creation. He calls His people to steward the planet for His glory, while reaching out to the poor, sharing God’s comfort through the gospel, and showing love because they were created in His image.

Habitat Loss Image
Habitat Loss

Habitat is lost in three ways. (1) Habitat degradation disrupts processes that sustain life (as a result of drought, water pollution, or invading species). (2) Habitat fragmentation divides environments (as a result of tornadoes, roads, or neighborhood developments). This is especially hard on migratory species or species that need large, unfragmented territory during their long-distance travels. (3) Habitat destruction removes a habitat (as a result of volcanic eruptions, bulldozers remodeling the landscape, or wetlands being filled in).

Environmentalist Perspective

Spaceship earth is the only place we can call home, and it’s up to us to make sure it is not destroyed. Habitat loss decreases biodiversity (variety of organisms), which is important to the health of all life. Biodiversity gives us different ecosystems that produce oxygen, control flooding, absorb chemicals, provide habitat, and detoxify pollutants.

If humanity’s fate is determined by biodiversity, we must drastically change how we see our place in the natural world. Wildlife well-being should be as important as human survival, if not more so. Therefore, strict laws must force people to ensure planetary survival, no matter what the personal cost.

Creation Care Perspective

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. It was designed with man in mind to sustain both us and other organisms. We were created to steward the planet in a way that it would glorify God. We are to rule in God’s place, the way He would rule it, with the love of a shepherd king. As we better understand the amazing systems He designed, we can develop the land and waterways to benefit both mankind and the creatures that live here.

The challenges of balancing human development while conserving ecological communities are extremely complex, so it is difficult to spell out the solutions for each particular need. Three things are certain. God intended governments to represent Him by restricting evil and promoting good (Romans 13:1–6). Each person has a responsibility to behave with wisdom, love, and compassion (Romans 13:8–14). And, as relational image bearers, we are to steward His creation in a way that maximizes healthy relationships (Genesis 3:15; Exodus 23:4–5; Job 12:7–10; Proverbs 12:10).

Overpopulation Image
Overpopulation

In 1950, Earth’s human population was about 2.6 billion. Today it has nearly tripled to an estimated 7 billion people and growing. The growth of the human population has been connected to many environmental ills, including the wanton destruction of habitats and the spread of pollution.

Environmentalist Perspective

According to many, man is the last “animal” to evolve and the worst scourge on planetary health. Sir David Attenborough, narrator of Life on Earth, spewed that humans “are a plague on the earth” and “behind every threat [to wildlife] is the frightening explosion in human numbers.”

In his influential 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted that unchecked population growth would lead to rapidly increasing crime rates, radical climate change, disease pandemics, rampant habitat destruction, massive extinctions, and insufficient food and water. Although his direst predictions never came true, ever since then, environmentalists have been pushing government programs to limit family sizes, promote abortion, and so on.

Creation Care Perspective

Rather than being just another evolved “animal,” man was the crowning act of a very good creation, different from the other creatures because of whose image we bear. We were created to be fruitful and multiply. The problem is not overpopulation but pride, greed, and mismanagement of resources. We inherited Adam’s sin nature, which corrupts our image bearing and has resulted in much environmental degradation that we need to address.

The environmentalists’ concerns about overpopulation, however, assume humans are in charge of the planet. In fact we are only caretakers, created to represent the owner who is responsible for its origins, sustainment, and future. As we surrender to Christ, we will steward what we were given for His glory, while helping care for the poor and downtrodden.

Our ultimate purpose may differ from environmentalists’: honoring the Creator versus serving the perceived needs of earth. Yet our actions are sometimes consistent with theirs: live modestly, recycle, manage resources wisely, don’t waste, and so on (see 1 Timothy 6:8). Are you consuming to keep up with the Joneses, or to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31)?

Chat Live with the Author

Chat live with the author on Monday, October 19, 7–8 PM/EST. Tom Hennigan looks forward to answering your questions and responding to your comments in a Google Hangout! Visit our Facebook page for more details.

Tom Hennigan is associate professor of biology at Truett- McConnell College, where he teaches organism biology and ecology. He is co-author of the newest edition of the Wonders of Creation series, The Ecology Book.

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Footnotes

  1. M. Liederbach and S. Bible, True North: Christ, the Gospel and Creation Care (B&H Publishing, 2012), 173.
  2. Kurt P. Wise, Devotional Biology: Learning to Worship the Creator of Organisms (Truett-McConnell College Course, 2014), 290.
  3. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crises,” Science 155 (3767): 1203–1207.
  4. Tom Hennigan, “Toward a Biblical Basis for Ecology with Applications in Mycorrhizal Symbiosis in Orchids,” Journal of Creation 23 (1): 78–85.
  5. Tom Hennigan, “Seeing the Forest amid the Trees: The Web of Life,” Answers, July–Sept. 2012.

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