by Dr David c. Hartnett
The Bible helps us to know God, to understand his desire for our relationship to him, and our relationships with one another. Indeed, the greatest commandment (to love God and to love others, Matt. 22:36-39) and the great commission (to make disciples, Matt. 28:19) both focus on these two relationships, so it is appropriate that these are the focus of our teaching and preaching in the Christian church. But what about the Bible’s teaching about the rest of God’s creation and our relationship to it? Is this relevant or important? Is the earth simply the platform upon which God’s plan for his people is played out? Is its primary purpose to simply provide us the resources we need (e.g. food, water, energy)? Teachings about creation permeate both the old and new testaments from the beginning of Genesis (Gen. 1 and 2) to Revelation (e.g. Rev. 21:1, 11:18).
Here let me summarise some key Bible passages and four key principles about creation that emerge from God’s word. These are truths that should guide our relationship to the earth.
- God created all of it, its flora, fauna and ecosystems, as well as all natural processes such as plant growth and seed bearing, cycles of day and night, cycles of rain and drying, etc. (Gen: 1:1-2; Prov. 3:19-20; John 1:1-3)
God declared each part of his creation good and blessed each (e.g. fish and birds), expressing his will that they flourish (Gen. 1:22; Psalm 104:24-25; Hebrews 1:2). God also is the sustainer of all creation and He is sovereign over all He has made (Psalm 104, 145; Coll. 1:17; Hebrews 1:3; Rev. 4:11). All three key relationships mentioned above (our relationship to God, to one another, and to creation) were marred by the fall. God’s covenant and his redemptive plan includes not only his people, but all of his creation as well (Romans 8:18-21; Psalm 96:11-13).
- It all belongs to him, not to us. God is the owner and sustainer of the earth and everything in it. All that we have and all that we receive from the earth belongs to God
We are stewards, not owners, and our care of creation is a role delegated to us by him. Thus, our relationship to the earth should be God-centred rather than self-centred. (I much prefer the term “creation stewardship” rather than “environmental conservation” because it properly emphasises that the earth is his creation rather than our environment.). Part of the respect we show to others is in the way we treat their possessions. We show honour and respect to God in the way we treat his earth.
- The earth was created for him, not for us (I Col. 1:16, Rev. 4:11). The primary purpose of all of creation is to glorify God, not to sustain us. Although the Lord has blessed us abundantly by providing, through the earth, water to drink and animals and plants for food, trees to shade us etc., the primary purpose of the earth and all its creatures is to glorify God.
- God’s creation is an important part of his revelation to us (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19:1-2). God reveals his character and his will, and guides and teaches us through both his written Word and his created world. His majesty, power, beauty and goodness are clearly displayed through all that he has made. Throughout the scriptures we are instructed to observe his creatures, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, and even ants! (Prov. 6:6-8; 30:24-30). He frequently points us to features of his creation to teach us (e.g. the life and behaviour of animals, the water cycle, the beauty of the mountains, the life cycle of plants, the features of trees, vines, branches, roots, soil). Each time we cause the extinction of one of God’s creatures, pollute or tarnish one of the ecosystems he formed, or otherwise mar these aspects of his revelation to us, it is like removing or tarnishing pages of the Bible.
So, what do we conclude? How then shall we relate to the earth and the rest of creation in light of these Biblical teachings? One clear take-away is that our relationship to the earth and all that is in it should be one of steward, not simply consumer. The Biblical principle of stewardship (caring for that which belongs to another) applies broadly to correctly handling money entrusted to us (e.g. Luke 16:11-12), to correctly handling Gods’ word (II Tim. 2:15), correctly handling God’s creation, and being good stewards of God’s spiritual gifts to us (I Peter 4:10).
One fundamental difference between our relationship to money or property and our relationship to the natural world is that we are an integral part of the latter. We ourselves are a key component of the ecosystems in which we live. Unlike other components of the earth that were created ex nihlo (out of nothing), humans were formed from the dust of the earth. We were fashioned by God out of the earth, are an integral part of the earth, and our bodies return to the earth upon our death. Thus, by being good stewards of creation we also care for ourselves and cause human life to flourish. Because we have largely failed in our stewardship of the earth, the number of human deaths due to an unhealthy environment has been estimated at nearly 15 million annually and increasing, as are the number of environmental refugees. When we affirm, enhance and protect the life of natural ecosystems, we do the same to human life. Creation stewardship is clearly a pro-life endeavour.
In what is often termed “the creation mandate” in the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are instructed to maintain a Godly “dominion” over creation, looking out for its good, helping it to flourish, and to (abad) care for it and (shamar) protect it. The language used in Genesis connotes the kind of dominion that a shepherd has over his sheep, caring for them and protecting them, and doing all he can to help the flock to flourish, not self-serving domination. In Genesis 1:28, the seemingly harsh words kabash (subdue) and radah (rule or have dominion over [KJV]) are set in the context of God’s will of blessing and fruitfulness of all the creatures he has made. Because we are delegated by God to have dominion over creation and put it in under our subjection, we should model after God in our undertaking of this task and rule the earth in a manner that promotes its flourishing, not its depletion and degradation. Psalm 145 provides a clear description of God’s model for dominion over his creation.
The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made (vs. 9). The Lord is faithful to his promises and loving toward all he has made (vs. 13). You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing (vs. 16).
God’s desire is that we affirm and protect life, not only for humans He made in his image, but for all the earth. One clear way we as Christians can honour God is to be good stewards of his creation, so that it will continue to flourish and that it will continue to declare his glory and continue to clearly reveal his nature and character to us. God has absolute authority, power and sovereignty over his creation. But this does not mean that we should be dismissive of the condition of his earth and creatures, or that our actions have no effect on God’s earth. Just as our attitudes and actions can have profound effects on our relationship to others and our relationship to God, they can influence his created world. God’s desire is that our influence be positive, life-giving and honouring and respectful of his handiwork. At several points in the history of Israel, God spoke against his people for their abuse of the land, and in Revelation, God declares his wrath against, among others, “those who destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:18).
Our stewardship of creation is a task delegated to us by God. As we are made in his image, we should use our God-given creativity and wisdom to promote earth’s flourishing, not to degrade it. For example, the Bible notes that God causes grass to grow for the cattle (Deut. 11:15; Psalm 104:14). We know through science that the underlying process of photosynthesis explains how grass growth occurs. Humans have used their ingenuity to enhance grass growth through increasing photosynthesis and plant breeding, greatly increasing the productivity and flourishing of many crops. Humans have also had the opposite effects through actions such as over-grazing of grasslands which hinders grass growth and degrades grassland and savanna ecosystems. The latter has been motivated by a desire for maximum consumption rather that sound stewardship. We should promote the flourishing, not the depletion of the natural resources God provides through his creation.
Stewardship of creation is also an important, but overlooked way we can demonstrate love to others, particularly to our own children and grandchildren. My wife Barbara and I have four young grandchildren. We are deeply concerned about the world they will face as they grow up, given the trajectory of both our secular culture and of the earth they inhabit. We pray that God would intervene in both our society, such that thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and in his creation and our relationship to it, for the good of our children and grandchildren and the good of others. Many Christians are not fully aware of the seriousness of the current and projected changes in the earth we inhabit, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, etc.
I have been a natural scientist in the field of environmental biology and global environmental change for four decades. I have been blessed to have been called to a vocation that has allowed me to gain a deeper look into God’s revelation through what he has made, and to study and understand many of the intricacies and complexities of his creation. My studies have also enabled me to clearly sort out what is true, what is uncertain, what is speculation, and what are clearly false claims regarding these issues in popular media. One important truth is the reality of human-caused climate change and its serious consequences. The scientific evidence is unequivocal. Climate change is likely a greater threat to our well-being than anything that has occurred since we first occupied the earth. A second thing I know to be true is that unless God intervenes in a miraculous way, if we as God’s people do not change our relationship to God’s creation, and we continue to relate to the earth as consumers rather than stewards, that our children and grandchildren will suffer, and the poor and oppressed throughout the world will suffer even more.
As our actions are causing climate change and other major consequences at the global scale, our children and their children will face a very difficult future, one characterised by at least six major global changes, including:
1) greater frequency and intensity of fires, floods, hurricanes, deadly heat waves and other severe-weather events. With these come their associated losses of human lives and economic and other social costs such as increasing numbers of climate refugees.
2) diminished productivity and nutrition of crops and greater outbreaks of insect and fungal pests. This will result in greater food costs and food insecurity for everyone, and greater hunger and famine-related deaths for many.
3) greater frequency and severity of disease epidemics, geographical expansion of disease-causing vectors such as malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, and significant decline in overall public health.
4) greater international conflict and a great weakening of national security due to the political and economic effects of increasingly limited resources.
5) greatly reduced benefits of medicines as the biodiversity of plants, animals and microbes that provide the bio-chemicals necessary for new drug discovery are diminished, and
6) reduced ability to experience an un-marred creation and thus reduced opportunity to clearly experience God’s revelation and to know him through all he has made.
For example, we have had a poor track record at the stewardship of the oceans. At current rates of disposal, by the time our 1-year-old grandson Caleb turns 21 there will be a larger total mass of plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. God’s sea creatures that were previously “teeming in great numbers” will be outweighed by all the plastic trash we produce. As we have been displacing God’s creatures with our trash, the result is that more that 70% of the world’s fisheries are being depleted, populations of some ocean species have collapsed, and a major part of God’s revelation to us has been marred. Closer to home, due to our insatiable appetite for energy, our per-capita consumption of fossil fuels in the U.S. and resultant per-capita carbon emissions are several-fold higher than the global average and even several-fold higher than other developed countries. As a result, here in my home state of Colorado, the increasing frequency of floods, fires, and other severe and damaging weather events are causing increased human suffering as well as economic costs (e.g. costs of home-owners insurance in Colorado has increased by more than 75% over the past nine years due to these effects of climate change). These are not speculative doomsday scenarios. All of these trends are real, all are results of our poor stewardship of the earth, and all are based on abundant scientific data.
God’s earth and his creatures are far from flourishing and are clearly on an accelerated trajectory of decline. The principles of ecological thresholds and positive feedbacks explain why almost every time a projection of future change is revised, the revised projection is more severe and more rapid. We are degrading God’s earth at such an accelerated pace that more than 11,000 scientists world-wide have recently declared climate change a “global emergency”1.
Being a good steward of God’s earth is a significant way we can love our children and grandchildren, as well as others throughout the world who are already suffering from the effects of climate change and other human-caused changes to the earth.
The poor suffer most from the effects of climate change and other global environmental changes because they depend most directly on resources from their local ecosystems for their livelihoods and they have the lowest capacity to cope and to mitigate these effects. Thus, we help the poor and therefore honour God by being good creation stewards (Prov. 14:31; 19:17).
Others adversely affected by climate change include our military men and women. The U.S. Department of Defense has identified climate change as the greatest threat to international stability and to our national security. Thus, as we support our military men and women through our prayers, we can also love and support them by reducing our carbon footprint. Likewise, as we provide relief to those suffering from floods and hurricanes through various ministries, we can also love these people by being good stewards by reducing our use of fossil fuel energy and shifting to sustainable renewable energy sources, by reducing our consumption of single-use plastics and other non-renewable resources, by reducing our consumption of water resources, reducing food wastes, and in general by improving our care for God’s earth and his creatures, and by praying for God’s intervention both in healing his creation and in changing our hearts to transform our relationship to his creation as He transforms our relationship to him and to others.
Finally, I will mention that being committed to care of creation is one of many ways we can be a positive witness to God. Not long ago I was sitting along the river outside a local coffee shop and commented to a woman sitting near me on the beauty of the river and the sunlit golden colour of the aspen leaves. This started a conversation about nature and the environment, and the woman shared her concerns about how we as humans have become so disconnected from nature, buried in our cell-phones and other technology, and have done so much damage to the earth. As this provided a great opportunity, I was able to share my views about nature conservation and my perspective as a Christian that I am thankful for all that God has created and that my motivation for being an environmental conservationist is to honour and thank God. Conversations about environmental issues and nature conservation can provide great opportunities to share our beliefs with tree-huggers, mother-earth worshippers and others who have very different world views and need to hear the Gospel message. Discussion of environmental conservation can provide an excellent entry point for us to give testimony to our creator.
This is not about “saving the planet”. It is not about putting a higher priority on saving seals than saving souls. It is not about worshipping the creation. It is not denying the sovereignty of God over his earth. It is about honouring God by being good stewards of the earth He created for his glory and his good pleasure, and it is about loving others by exerting Godly dominion and caring for God’s earth and sharing all he has provided through his earth with our children and their children. Our dedication to care for creation is loving, compassionate, pro-human life, and God-honouring, and it can provide great opportunities for sharing our faith with others.
Dr David C. Hartnett recently retired from Kansas State University, where he was a Professor of Plant Biology. He is a plant ecologist specialising in grasslands and savannas. He served as Director of Konza Prairie Biological Station, held a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Botswana and conducted research across the plains of southern Africa and North America. He has served on editorial boards and review panels for the African Journal of Ecology, the Journal of Rangeland Ecology and Management, the Congressional Subcommittee on National Parks and the National Science Foundation, amongst others.
1 Ripple, W. J. et al. 2019. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. Bioscience http://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/biosci/biz088/5610806