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Originally published in Creation 17, no 4 (september 1995): 20-23.
People today are becoming more and more concerned with the environment and what humans are doing to it. For many, including many Christians, this issue has become very emotional.
For instance, at one of our seminars, I was talking about pre-evangelism — establishing the need for destroying the stumbling block of evolution in people's thinking so they will listen to the Gospel. To illustrate the point, I showed my overhead transparency which depicts trees and rocks (representing the barrier of evolution) being cleared by a bulldozer.
At the end of the session, one young man, in an emotional response, described this overhead as anti-environmental, and insisted I should stop using it! Perhaps you have heard of the environmental group which advocates violent destruction of earth-moving equipment to protect the earth. I don't know if this person was from this evolutionary, New-Age group, but he seemed to have been influenced by them.
I thought of questions I could have asked: 'Is there any wood in the house you live in? Do you drive on roads made after clearing trees? Have you ever heated yourself with a wood fire?' Thankfully, I held my tongue, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my illustration (which used the clearing of land only as an analogy) could tend to offend needlessly those deeply concerned about the environment.
Rather than emotionally responding to environmental issues, we need to develop a Christian environmental ethic. To do this, we must have a foundation on which to build this ethic, and this foundation must be the Word of God. And, as with other issues, we ultimately end up back in the Book of Genesis — the book of beginnings — to build our thinking and to develop a truly Christian viewpoint and plan of action.
'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.' The fact that God created the world means He owns it. In light of this, surely we can hardly claim ownership of anything. Psalm 95:5 states, 'The sea is his, and he made it'. In Psalm 24:1, we read, 'The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof'. Everything we have has come from God, who created all things. Because we don't own the creation, this also means we have no right to exploit it — for example, use it to make a profit for pure greed, without considering the glory of God, the good of the creation, and the needs of our fellow man.
In Genesis 1:28, God told Adam and Eve to 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish [Hebrew: "fill"] the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth'. Genesis 2:15 states, 'And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it'.
God created humans different from the animals, with a superior brain and the ability to communicate information from one generation to the next, that we might subdue the earth and have dominion over it, as commanded. We therefore have a special responsibility, and are expected to care for what has been entrusted to us by our Creator.
In Matthew 6:28-29, God tells us that He clothes the lilies of the field so that 'even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these'. Not even a sparrow falls without God's knowledge and permission. If God is so concerned about living things, surely man, His steward, must be similarly concerned. We should then want to eliminate or minimize needless harm to the world and its occupants.
When God made the world, everything at first was 'very good', or 'perfect' (Genesis 1:31; Deuteronomy 32:4). All living things were in perfect harmony, with a sinless man tending the perfect creation.
However, that is not the situation now. Romans 8:22 tells us 'the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now'. Genesis 3 records the event that led to this sad state of affairs, with all living things and all world systems decaying and dying.
Romans 5:12 explains that man's actions (disobedience to God's command not to eat of the forbidden fruit) led to sin, which resulted in God's cursing the world with death. Genesis 3:17-19 describes some of the ways this sin affected the creation. 'Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee ... In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread ...'.
The whole of creation is now running down and wearing out. 'The earth shall wax old like a garment' (Isaiah 51:6), and man's sinful nature has disrupted the relationship with the environment. The sin of Adam, which we all inherit, was one of rebellion against God's rules, and man, ever since, has made his own rules. This results in selfishness (and therefore exploitation), the refusal to practise love towards our fellow man and other creatures, as well as poor stewardship of God's creation, and man's desire to serve his own personal ends.
Deuteronomy 25:4 states: 'Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn'. In Isaiah 5 and John 15, God shows that even He expects fruit or 'profit' from His work. In other words, there is benefit to be gained from wise stewardship.
But man is not a perfect steward any more. Even though the resources God created are there for our use, man often exploits these resources at the expense of his fellow man, and causes needless loss and destruction of other parts of God's creation. Surely this is wrong!
Conversely, much of the emphasis of the modern conservation movement is evolutionary and pantheistic, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1). This ignores the biblical mandate to rule over the earth and subdue it. The development of energy sources (coal, natural gas, petroleum, atomic power, etc.), the mining of mineral resources, the cutting of timber for building, etc., is not wrong. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 states that there is a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time for war and a time for peace. It is the abuse of these resources — the exploitation, the waste, the greed and the haste — that is wrong.
Proverbs 12:10 says, 'A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel'. Dominion means to rule, to administer, to work, and to take care of the creation — not to lord over it in a tyrannical manner, or to needlessly destroy it.
Some say that Christians can cut down a tree to build a house, or burn timber to keep warm, but must not just destroy it for the sake of cutting down a tree. Some say that Christians can kill animals for food, but should not just slaughter them.
But then, if controlled deer-hunting or kangaroo-killing were not allowed, many more animals would suffer for various and complicated reasons. Because this is no longer a perfect world, there would be harm to their own kind and others. In the right circumstances, if mature timber is harvested properly, there is no net loss, even if the timber is not simply used for housing, for example. If it is not harvested, the forest may become unhealthy and fire-prone without proper forest management. This would all be part of using the earth's resources as God intended in telling man to rule over the earth and subdue it.
It is natural to want to see things in black and white terms. And there certainly are black and white issues. However, some things are so varied and complex, often involving sinful human behaviour and motives, that black and white answers may be risky and hard to find. Sincere, Bible-believing Christians may end up on opposing sides of such issues.
Regarding issues like uranium mining, logging, etc., we usually have more questions than answers. Often we do not have enough information to ask the right questions. We need to gather and carefully assess all the information possible in our attempt to resolve these issues. Sometimes it will be a matter of weighing competing rights and wrongs, which will give rise to different answers for different situations. Use of a resource might be right for one area, circumstance, or time, and wrong for another. Instead of blanket rules applied indiscriminately, we must fall back on principles.
Most of all, we need to continue to adopt and develop a Christian environmental ethic based on the Bible, and we need to practise it. We need to take dominion, ruling over the earth and subduing it, gaining fruit for our labour, all the while understanding that our own sinful nature may blind us, and we must reject wanton and needless exploitation of the creation for selfish gain. There will be no better solution to the environmental crisis until God makes a new heaven and a new earth in which 'righteousness dwells'.