Today is Earth Day, the fortieth anniversary in fact. It’s hard for me to be excited.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible for Christians to celebrate Earth Day in the right way. I’m sure many do. We can thank God for the physical world, enjoy the beauty of creation, and think through ways to steward the earth God has put under our dominion.

But the official Earth Day movement rests on several debatable premises, like “the world is in greater peril than ever” and “climate change is the greatest challenge of our time.” More to the point, there are deep assumptions, unspoken assumptions, that too often provide the foundation for our basic thinking about the environment. And unless Christians are building on the right foundation, we will not think about environmental issues in ways that are most helpful and most biblical.

I’m going to assume that Christians understand the Creator-creation distinction, that they aren’t worshiping the earth or divinizing the creation. I imagine most Christians celebrating Earth Day do so because they believe God gave us the world as a gift and we should take good care of it. I don’t think any Christian would disagree with this motivation.

But there are a few other bricks to lay in the foundation of wise environmental stewardship. Let me mention three.

Brick #1: We must distinguish between theological principles and prudential judgments.

Consider this wise counsel from Jay Richards in the Introduction to Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition:

With respect to the environment, the theological principles are easily stated and uncontroversial. The biblical picture is that human beings, as image bearers of God, are placed as stewards over the created order. We bear a responsibility for how we treat and use it. We are part of the creation, as well as its crowning achievement. God intends for us to use and transform the natural world around us for good purposes. Proper use is not misuse. But as fallen creatures, we can mess things up. No serious thinker in the Judeo-Christian tradition questions these basic principles.

Prudential judgments are another thing entirely. They require careful analysis of the relevant scientific, economic, and political aspects of an issue. They require us to weigh costs and benefits, and to discern where facts leave off and fashion begins. (3)

Richards goes on to use global warming as an example. Before we make definitive pronouncement about the “Christian position” on global warming we should consider a number of questions: 1) Is the planet warming? 2) If so, are humans causing it? 3) If we are, is this warming bad? 4) If it is bad, what are costs and benefits of the proposed solutions? There is legitimate debate about all four questions. But if often feels like to be taken seriously as a person who wants to steward God’s creation you must quickly answer yes, yes, yes to the first three questions and then be in favor of cap and trade, Kyoto, or some other government initiative. Earth Day is steeped in politics, advocacy, and a host of assumed solutions so that it becomes difficult for Christians of a different ideological bent to appreciate what may be good about the modern environmental movement.

Brick #2: People matter most.

I know it’s not the point of the Legion story in the gospels, but I think it is a reasonable conclusion: the life of one man is worth more than 2,000 pigs. Does this mean every desire of men and women should be put before every consideration of the plant and animal world? Of course not. The Bible wants us to care for animals too (Exod. 20:10; Jon. 4:11; Deut. 22:4, 10; 25:4). But human life is more valuable than animal or plant life (see, for example, the sacrificial system). Christians should not be intimidated by the charges of speciesism. The Bible plainly teaches that man is the crown of God’s creation with dominion over it  (Gen. 1:26-28; 9:3).

Similarly, we in the West who, after centuries of increasing affluence, have the time, energy, and resources to pursue new environmental goals should not impose those same sensibilities on people in the developing world still struggling to survive. As Environmental Stewardship puts it:

[F]urther advances in human welfare for the poor are not often threatened by a belief in the West that human enterprise and development are fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection…This false choice not only threatens to prolong widespread poverty, disease, and early death in the developing world, but also undermines the very conditions essential to achieving genuine environmental stewardship. (68)

Brick #3: People are producers, not just polluters.

If there is one biblical insight missing from the modern environmental movement, it is this one. Too often a model is assumed where the earth is a healthy organism and humans are cancerous cells. All we do is pillage, pollute, and destroy. The world would be better off without us. Our goal then is to minimize our “footprint” at all costs. All we do, it is implied, is consume the planet’s valuable resources.

But the Bible also teaches that we are (sub)creators. We are capable of spilling 11 millions of gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska. But we are also capable of turning virtually worthless sand into silicon chips. We can create beauty as well as despoil it. We can actually make a harsh planet more inhabitable, more conducive for human flourishing. Would anyone but the most ardent environmentalists rather live on Earth now or 4000 years ago? By God’s grace, humans have learned to feed more people and help those people live longer, healthier, easier lives.

We must resist the temptation to think of humans as intruders from another world wrecking carnage in a pristine environment. Instead we must see ourselves as stewards, called to subdue, enjoy, protect, use, develop, and make more humane God’s fallen creation. I would argue that Christians should not be seeking a romantic ideal where the earth is untouched by human hands. Rather, we want to think carefully about how we can use our hands to make the earth more hospitable for more people, so that we might enjoy the beauty, grandeur, creativity, and productivity of our Father’s world.

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Comments:


28 thoughts on “Building a Better Earth Day”

  1. Caroline says:

    Thank you so much for this reminder to examine our foundation. I have worked with college and now high schoolers and it is SO easy for them to get wrapped up in the “cause” of climate change and earth-saving endeavors without proper understanding or theological basis for their actions.

    Thank you, again!

  2. Art Arruda says:

    Brick 4: In the final analysis, global warming is unstoppable…

    “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.” – 2 Peter 3:10-12

    Great post Kevin!

  3. Mark Freer says:

    My question is why would you want to celebrate Earth day? This was started by a misguided Senator Gaylord nelson 40 years ago. Today we have the Earth Day network pushing for a climate bill based on the same false information Al Gore sold us in his movie “An Inconvenient truth.” I don’t think you have to be a Christian to see through the global warming fraud, the planet is not warming and human being’s are not causing it. Children are being brainwashed from elementary school through college. The whole day has turned into a field day for the advertising industry so people can feel good about themselves for doing something green. I have really enjoyed your books and your other writings, I have been meaning to get up to your Church for a conference, blessings.

  4. MWalton says:

    Global warming in the scientific world is no longer a debate. It has been proven and backed by many many scientists. It’s only a debate in the political and religious world. Though I agree with many points of this article it fails to miss the point that environmental disasters often affect the poor the most. When we steward the earth and deal with environmental issues, we are also loving the poor. It isn’t about choosing the earth or people, it is about seeing a bigger picture about what it means for us to steward this place in a faithful way.

  5. Justin Lonas says:

    Good reflection on what stewardship is about.

    The works of Wendell Berry (notably What Are People For, Life Is a Miracle, and Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community) are good resources in this area, particularly the concept that conservation is, fundamentally, about people.

  6. Eric says:

    “Global warming in the scientific world is no longer a debate.”

    That’s debatable.

  7. Bill says:

    “…it fails to miss the point…”

    So does that mean it makes the point?

  8. Linda says:

    MWalton – Question for you. Which one does more to hurt poor human lives, our poor environmental choices or our purposeful killing of more than 3000 babies per day? Abortion is a much greater issue that most of those fighting for envoirnmental rights don’t even consider as important.

  9. MWalton says:

    Linda – I don’t claim that abortion is not important, I think it definitely is. But this article wasn’t about abortion. It is about the importance of stewarding the place God has placed us and I was pointing out that that definitely is connected to loving the poor. You can’t assume that just because someone cares about the environment, that they don’t care about abortion or other human rights.

  10. Dave Shoobridge says:

    Linda, abortion, the death penalty, war, greed and bad global stewardship is all sins, how is any of them lesser or greater than the rest?

  11. Mike R says:

    Environmentalism is one of the most popular secular religions in our society today, and every religion needs a holy day. Environmentalism as a religion has all the negative qualities that people accuse Christianity of: pushy evangelism, blowhards calling themselves prophets, unbearable self-righteousness, arrogant meddling in how non-believers live their lives, dogmatic insistence on debatable factual claims, refusal to admit the possibility of error, etc.

  12. CT says:

    Is conservative Christianity hazardous for the environment?

    For too many Christians, “stewardship” seems to mean something like “take care of the toy Daddy bought you.” Don’t just throw it away, or leave it out the rain–but also don’t worry too much if it breaks with wear and tear. After all, it didn’t cost Daddy too much, and he can always fix it or buy you another.

  13. Brittany Immink says:

    This is absolutly great. Love it.

  14. Ed says:

    Interesting thoughts, though the arguments have some (serious) flaws. I have responded in full at http://ourfathersworld.org. Let’s dialogue!

    Ed Brown, Care of Creation Inc.

  15. DLE says:

    Christians need to remember that God has not rescinded the original command in the Garden to steward the creation. As a result, that command is still in play, and we will be held accountable for our success or failure in fulfilling it.

    I am continually disappointed that these kinds of discussions among some Christian sects inevitably attempt to explain away a reason for having a strong commitment to properly stewarding the world God created for us. Chastising environmentalists does not promote a Christian response to the issue of proper care for the environment. Sadly, when some Christians DO attempt to craft a response that is in keeping with God’s original command to man, those folks are routinely hounded as being too liberal, or not concerned enough with doctrine, or somehow deficient in their theology as to worry about things that are “passing away.”

    That’s just wrong.

    I am sickened when I see people in a car loaded full of Christian symbols tossing garbage out their windows. And I see this far too often. Beyond being a terrible witness to the lost, that kind of carelessness sends a message that the litterers have a low view of God and their fellow man.

    Some of you will protest that that description isn’t you. That’s fine. But I would add that few Christians seem to see the environmental movement itself as an opportunity to minister to lost people. Instead, we fail to pray for them (jeering them instead) and we fail to meet them where they are, instead hiding out in our churches rather than joining in environmental cleanups and championing protection of threatened ecologies.

    If Christians, instead of having an “it’s all going to burn and Jesus is going to rapture me out here” mentality, actually led the charge in a Christ-centered environmentalism, perhaps more of the paganistic folks in the present environmental movement would be open to hearing what we have to say.

    And in the end, wouldn’t that bring the most honor to the Lord?

  16. Adolf Quast says:

    Dear DLE It would be helpful as well as bringing “honor to the Lord” if you would not refer to others (non-Christian) as “paganistic folks”. At least I would appreciate it and would be more willing to hear what you have to say.

  17. DLE says:

    Adolf,

    I hear your correction about the term “paganistic.”

    As many in the environmental movement do follow “nature-based religions,” it is entirely historically appropriate to use that terminology. I was using it in reference to those with such practices, not to all non-Christians. If this was not clear in context, then my apologies.

    If there is a newer term that is more PC, please let me know.

  18. Bonnie says:

    Don’t know that I fully agree with this:

    “Would anyone but the most ardent environmentalists rather live on Earth now or 4000 years ago? By God’s grace, humans have learned to feed more people and help those people live longer, healthier, easier lives.”

    It would not take “the most ardent environmentalist” to want to live in a time where no cars polluted the air and walking out of necessity kept our bodies healthier. People were in general much healthier 4000 years ago because food, water, and air were all purer. Electricity and ‘gadgets’ did not exist to suck up our time we could be using for caring for the lost. And I think the story of Joseph clearly shows that feeding many nations of people was possible way back when.

    Not arguing…just some thoughts. Thanks for your article.

  19. Dave says:

    Contra to Mark Free above, according to an article from Christianity Today online – the founder of the name “Earth Day” was not a senator from Wisconsin.

    “The man who originally introduced the name “Earth Day” was a Pentecostal minister, according to the Assemblies of God (AG) Heritage magazine.”

    http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2010/04/earth_days_pent.html

  20. Kris Fernhout says:

    Good post Kevin. My only issue is that you end with ‘Rather, we want to think carefully about how we can use our hands to make the earth more hospitable for more people, so that we might enjoy the beauty, grandeur, creativity, and productivity of our Father’s world.’ As Christians we have a tendancy to spend more time thinking about an issue than we ever spend acting on it.

    You are very correct with your first brick that we must distinguish between theological principles and prudential judgements because prudential judgements are primarily informed by science, economics and politics which can easily distract us from the will of God. But how, especially in America, do we help people make decisions on this issue based on theological principles when it is fairly obvious by the comments left on this post that too many people’s theological principles on this isse are deeply informed by their political, economical and scientific beliefs as well?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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