World Environment Day (Extract)

Simon Smart and Justine Toh discuss the Bible's message about caring for the environment, and how some Christians have misunderstood this.

(This is an extract from a 2012 episode of CPX’s Life & Faith podcast. Listen to the full episode here.)

JUSTINE TOH: Simon, what light does the Bible shed on what it means to care for the environment or how we should treat it?

SIMON SMART: Well, broadly speaking, the Bible says that we ought to look after creation. To give you some background, the Genesis account (in Genesis 1 and 2) paints a picture of a world that’s teeming with life in all its forms, and that God brings this into being by the power of his words – the famous “let there be light”, “let the water teem with living creatures”, and that sort of thing. And we refer to this as creation. And then God creates men and women to be his representatives on earth. Humans are the high point of creation. And he puts them in this creation and tells them to fill and subdue the earth and to rule over it.

JUSTINE TOH: I’ve got to stop you there, because when I hear these terms “fill and subdue and rule over the earth”, I get really awkward when I hear it put that way because these words seemed to convey the impression that we can do whatever we like. It’s up to us to rule over and use as we wish. We can do that with the environment. Is that right?

SIMON SMART: The text here is really establishing the place of humanity in the creation where humans are to fill the earth, but to rule it as benevolent kings, there’s very much that sense of a caring thing. It’s not granting permission to trash and burn; it’s anything but that. And then if we move to the second chapter of Genesis, that really spells out what this ruling over the creation might look like. In the garden they are to work and to take care of it. And so, if you’re attending and caring for something, you’re not going to just get all you can from it and exploit it, you’re going to work within its limits so that it can flourish along with yourself. It’s a long term and sustainable approach, if we can put it that way.

And of course, a few chapters later in Genesis, you get the story of Noah and the ark, and we get this sense of the responsibility of humans to care for and preserve animals. So in the story, you get this picture of God acting in a way to ensure that the earth and the creatures within it are sustained and preserved. It’s a key part of the story. And so there’s this obligation on the part of God’s key representatives on the earth to be part of that, to be in harmony with what God’s about, not the opposite.

JUSTINE TOH: Yeah, so there’s a sense here that we are to be earth’s stewards or caretakers, you know, we’re renting the earth from God, we’re looking after his animals basically. So if there are solid biblical reasons for why Christians should care for and look after the planet, then, you know, why aren’t Christians the leaders of the environmental movement?

SIMON SMART: Partly, I think it’s from what I would say is a misleading theology that would have the earth destroyed at the end, and so, why care for it if it’s all going up in flames? We can come back to that later. But there might also be, I suspect, a reaction against the fact that there are plenty of people in the environmental movement who are closer to New Age spirituality than Christianity. So you often get people who believe things that are contrary to Christian beliefs, like one of them might be that everything is one, all is sort of divine, and we’re all part of that – eternally part of this divine energy. Now of course, Christianity sees people and all creation as separate from and distinct from the Creator. I think it’s an important theological difference. But sometimes Christians, in reacting to this, tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that’s changing now, especially with the rise of younger Christians who are caring about a wide variety of issues that includes environmental care, and people who see now see that creation-care is an important part of what it means to follow Christ.

We fail to love our neighbour when we drag our feet when it comes to reining in climate change.

And I think more and more Christians are seeing that there is a human cost as well to environmental damage, and that’s forming an important part of the way they approach these issues. A few years ago, we did an interview with the Christian environmentalist Bill McKibben from the States, and he said that we fail to love our neighbour when we drag our feet when it comes to reining in climate change. When you see the human costs of environmental damage, I think it’s a compelling point.

JUSTINE TOH: So Simon, in light of all this [climate change, environmental degradation], is there any hope? Does the Bible tell us that there’s anything that can be done about this?

SIMON SMART: Yes, there is. The Bible speaks of a redeemed creation. This is a really important point. So in the letter to the Roman church, the Apostle Paul writes (this is a famous part of the Bible), “all of creation is groaning as if in the pains of childbirth, eagerly awaiting its release from bondage to ruin and decay.” So at the Fall, it’s not just humans who have suffered, but creation itself. But it’s not to be left to its misery though. God’s in the business of redeeming that; he promises to make things new. He talks about a new heaven and a new earth. It’s a redeeming aspect of the earth as it is – heaven coming to earth. So God is not going to scrap the Earth and start again. He promises to redeem it. I think that has profound implications for how we view the earth and our place in it.

JUSTINE TOH: Yeah, I can imagine that if God were to just do away with the world, we could develop this attitude that said that it didn’t matter what we did with the world (and you mentioned this before) – because we would end up getting a shiny new earth one day. And that would be a really dangerous idea.

SIMON SMART: That has been a bit of a problem. It’s much more like: If God is in the business of redeeming this creation, then we ought to be on board with that, and fitting in with that, and being part of that. It’s a privilege to be part of what he’s doing. So in a tiny way, we can all be part of that in our corner of the globe.

JUSTINE TOH: What can we do then, to look after the environment?

SIMON SMART: I don’t feel like I’m the right person to be the expert on that. Of course, there’s lots of practical everyday things like using energy more efficiently, and recycling and reusing more, and basically living more simply. But we also need to develop an awareness of the interconnectedness of life on our planet. I think that’s becoming clearer: the way I live my life – including the energy I consume, the car I drive, the choices I make, the things I buy – these decisions don’t just stop with me, but they have ramifications for people all over the place and sometimes on the other side of the planet. So making decisions with a view to loving our neighbour is really important. We have to have a big vision of that. It’s not just the person living next door to us, but we’re connected with people all over the world. And this means, in my view, Christians ought to be leading the way in creation care, not lagging behind everyone else.