So what does all this mean about climate change, environmentalism, population growth, agriculture and all the problems that our world faces? Our trusty friend in this conversation, N.T. Wright, puts the question this way,
We might begin by asking, What view of the world is sustained, even legitimized, by the Left Behind ideology? How might it be confronted and subverted by genuinely biblical thinking? For a start, is not the Left Behind mentality in thrall to a dualistic view of reality that allows people to pollute God’s world on the grounds that it’s all going to be destroyed soon? Wouldn’t this be overturned if we recaptured Paul’s wholistic vision of God’s whole creation? (Farewell to the Rapture)
If the earth is part of God’s work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then it is intimately bound up with our own salvation. I don’t mean that we are “saved” or not based on how we care for the earth. I mean that we participate in the ongoing work of redemption when we care for the earth. It is not a marginal part of kingdom work, but central to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection (according to Paul).
If heaven is not going to be in some other realm and the earth is not going to simply be done away with, then our treatment of this planet must have some bearing on how the whole judgment scene might play out. Again, I don’t mean that whether or not we “make it to heaven” depends on whether or not we recycled. I mean that
If even the rapture scenario favored among many evangelicals is actually Jesus being welcomed to the earth to usher in the new creation, then we have to ask to what kind of place we will be welcoming him. I don’t mean that everything depends entirely on us to fix the world’s problems. I do believe that God can do what is beyond us, but I don’t claim to know how that works.
I think a question N.T. Wright poses serves as a good framework for thinking about the implications of all this.
How can we respond to the heavenly dimension of the world without lapsing into an anti-earth attitude? (Apocalypse Now?)
The kingdom is already present and the way we live in relationship to the earth can reflect our participation in this kingdom here and now, even though it is still coming in its perfection. Just as with possessions, the way we treat the earth reveals our relationship with God. Genesis clearly places the natural world within our responsibility. Even the most conservative interpretation of “dominion” means that we will have to answer for what has been entrusted to us someday. It also seems that in our current predicament, science has a lot to tell us about what it means to live out this mandate.
I don’t pretend to know exactly what it means that there will be a new heaven and new earth. We can only speculate about what the nature of this final transformation will be. We should not, however, claim as certain or biblical an idea that has no support in the text. What’s more, we should be more careful about a concept of heaven or earth that leads directly to the destruction, degradation and exploitation of the earth that, according to the text, is our dominion.
How, after all, can we begin to describe the full significance of what we are doing, when we plant a tree in a devastated landscape, dig a well in a desert, give hope and love to an abandoned child, or campaign for an end to war? Only poetry, art and music can begin to do justice to such things; …We need to rediscover, for our own age, how to write today’s equivalent of truly apocalyptic language: language that will speak of earth and resonate with the music of heaven. (Apocalypse Now?)
What specific actions or steps we should take as individuals, communities, societies or nations is an open discussion. While I believe that the Bible does give us some directions concerning our relationship to the land, it is a far cry from prescribing how to deal with climate change or the Farm Bill. This is left to the Holy Spirit as it leads the people of God into all truth and guides our actions in this particular time and place. It seems appropriate to conclude with a prayer.
God of creation, who holds the seas in the hollow of your hand, you have given us the privilege and responsibility of being the stewards of Your creation. Remind us in this task that we are but creatures dependent on the very creation we till and keep. Help us to listen to both science and the Spirit as we discern what the task of caring for the earth means at this time and in our particular lives and places. May we be found your faithful servants at that glorious day when the Holy City comes down from heaven, when we meet you in the air and welcome your reign over the new creation.