Biblical worldview: Environment

Our concern is the biblical worldview, and the Bible does have something to say about it. Scripture does have something to offer regarding our relationship with and responsibility to God’s creation.

Today, we will consider what the Bible has to say about the environment. Upon hearing that, many of us may immediately think of climate change, global warming, veganism, deforestation, or any one of the many politically charged issues surrounding humanity’s relationship to natural creation. And because these issues are so politicized and, frankly, complicated, many of us probably avoid them. We may not talk about them. We may not even think about them.

The environment, however, is a worldview issue. It may be politicized, but we’re not interested in the conservative worldview or the liberal worldview. As the Lord’s church, our concern is the biblical worldview, and the Bible does have something to say about it. Scripture does have something to offer regarding our relationship with and responsibility to God’s creation.

The Bible versus politics

I fear that many in the church allow politics to shape their worldviews in this area more than the Bible. I’ve been thinking back to a conversation I had with a Christian brother several years ago. He stopped by the church one afternoon and was clearly irritated by something he heard on talk radio. He railed for several minutes about what he called the global warming conspiracy that was destroying the livelihoods of hard-working Americans, raising gas prices, and putting unnecessary obstacles in the path of progress.

Right or wrong, I tried to insert some brevity into the conversation. I said, Brother, you can’t possibly deny global warming. That’s what the Bible teaches.”

It does not,” he said. Where does the Bible teach that?”

So, I cited 2 Peter 3:10 from the King James Version, which says:

The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (2 Peter 3:10 KJV)

While my joke did lighten the mood a bit, he wasn’t quite ready to move on to other subjects. In fact, he went to say that 2 Peter 3:10 actually makes his point. And what was his point? He expressed to me a quasi-Gnostic view of the earth. In case you’re not familiar with ancient Gnosticism, a significant part of Gnostic belief was that everything material is inherently evil and, therefore, worthless. Frankly, there was just enough truth in that worldview to influence some members of the early church. The material world is corrupted. The earth is under the curse of sin, but it’s not accurate or appropriate to go as far as to say the earth is worthless.

This gentleman, however, came pretty close. Obviously, he believed there are limits to how we use the earth. I don’t think he would want someone dumping chemicals into his drinking water, for instance, but when confronted the polarizing subject of global warming, his response was to adopt somewhat extreme rhetoric from the other end of the spectrum. He hears people say, Man is destroying the earth,” and he reacts by essentially saying, So what if we are? God intends to destroy the earth anyhow. We may as well get as much use out of it as possible while we still can.”

I suppose that’s the dilemma we face. No one questions whether we should make use of the earth and its resources. The question is, where do we draw the line between using the earth and abusing it? What exactly is our relationship and responsibilities to natural creation?

Heaven and earth

Since we are trying to develop a biblical worldview regarding the environment, I want to begin by considering not the relationship between humanity and the earth, but the relationship between earth and heaven. Believe it or not, the relationship between heaven and earth is a theme that runs throughout the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. In some respects, it is the story of the Bible. It is a fundamental part of the story of redemption.

Imagine heaven and earth are two circles. One circle represents heaven, the domain of God, while the other circle represents earth, the domain of man. Typically, we think of these circles as entirely distinct and separate, but that’s not how it was in the beginning. When God created the heavens and the earth, the circles overlapped one another (Ge 1:1). As far as Adam and Eve were concerned, they were one circle. God was with man, and man was with God. The two domains were one and the same.

Adam’s sin, however, changed all that. His disobedience caused a complete and utter separation of heaven and earth. Sin can have no place in heaven, so the two were divided. God went so far as to place cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the entrance back into the garden, which is to say sinful man would not be permitted to enter paradise ever again on his own (Ge 3:24).

In Genesis 12, God chooses a seemingly random man by the name of Abraham and promises to bless all the families of the earth through him and his descendants (Ge 12:3). What that meant wasn’t abundantly clear at the time, but as Old Testament history progressed, the promise began to gain clarity. Before we reach the end of Genesis, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, sees a ladder that connects heaven and earth. He sees angels moving up and down the ladder. He sees God at the top. For the first time, Abraham’s family is given a sneak preview of what’s to come. It would seem that heaven and earth may not be divided forever.

The prospect of heaven and earth being reunited is brought into even greater focus when God instructs Israel to build the tabernacle. The tabernacle, later replaced by Solomon’s temple, would be a place God promised to dwell with the people. His presence would live in the tabernacle, creating this tiny overlap between heaven and earth. It may have been in only one place for the benefit of only some people, but it was undeniable progress. The relationship between heaven and earth was one step closer to reconciliation.

Sadly, sinners are good at only one thing, which is making a mess of things. Eventually, Israel broke their covenant with God, and he left the temple. In fact, he let the Babylonians destroy the temple. That small overlap between heaven and earth was gone.

Thankfully, though, God is faithful. He always keeps his promises. Even before the destruction of the temple, he sends prophets to speak about a coming day when he will create new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17). Just as he created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, he promises to recreate the heavens and the earth (Ge 1:1).

Jumping ahead in the Bible, consider the first advent of Christ. This is what Paul says about Jesus in Colossians: For in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:19, 20).

You’ll notice two significant points Paul makes in that passage. First, he describes God as dwelling in Jesus. That’s the same language used in the Old Testament when the tabernacle and temple were constructed. What made the tabernacle and temple so extraordinary was that God’s presence would take up residence inside. He would dwell in those places. Though heaven and earth remained separated, God would live on this earth among sinners in those distinct places. Here, God does the same thing only he’s taking up residence not in a building, but in the person of Jesus Christ. Wherever Jesus goes, God goes.

Second, Paul describes God’s purpose this way: Through Jesus God will reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Col 1:20). What is God reconciling, or reuniting? The short answer is all things. More to the point, he’s reconciling all things on earth and in heaven. I’ll even go as far as to say he’s reconciling earth and heaven, which are now separated by sin. Through Christ his Son, he’s bringing them back together.

With the incarnation of Jesus, heaven was breaking through onto the earth in a massive way. It was heaven invading earth through Christ, which is a substantial turning point in redemptive history. Jesus not only restores the overlap, but he also promises to finally bring reconciliation to heaven and earth. He’s not here just to create a small overlap. He will bring the two together as one.

Jumping ahead again, Ephesians 2 says:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

What are God’s people becoming? God’s people grow into a holy temple, a dwelling place for God (Eph 2:21, 22).

Suddenly, the circle that represents earth contains a multitude of tiny pieces of heaven. Anywhere on earth we find believers, we see little pieces of heaven penetrating this sinful world. The kingdom is growing with every new conversion. Heaven is permeating the world. Light is breaking through the darkness all over the place. Little by little, heaven is coming down, and God’s dwelling place on earth is expanding.

You can probably guess where all of this is leading.

Listen as I read another passage from Romans 8. Paul writes:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:18-22)

Typically, when we think about salvation, we think about the salvation of people. We think about God redeeming his children. According to Paul, however, God’s plan of redemption doesn’t stop with people. Paul personifies natural creation in Romans 8 to show that creation also longs to be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Ro 8:21). In other words, creation itself will be saved, redeemed, and perfected in the end.

Let’s look now at Revelation 21.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

We’ve come to the end of the story. Christ has returned to finish salvation. He has raised the dead, judged the wicked, gathered all of his disciples, and transformed their bodies into glorified bodies like his own.

Notice what is happening here in Revelation 21. God’s people aren’t leaving the earth for heaven at the end of time. Instead, the earth is remade, just as Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets said it would be, then heaven comes down. We don’t go up. Heaven comes down. Better yet, the earth once again becomes the dwelling place of God (Rev 21:3). As heaven descends, so does God. He will dwell with mankind, and they will be his people. In an instant, heaven and earth are reunited once again.

We don’t have time to read through it all, but if we were to continue reading this chapter and the next—you could also go back to places in the Old Testament such as Isaiah 65—we would see a series of physical descriptions of the new earth. We’d read about a new Jerusalem, and we are even given exact dimensions of the city. In the next chapter of Revelation, we’d read about:

The river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life. (Revelation 22:1, 2)

Does that sound familiar? It sounds like the Garden of Eden, only it now has a city in the middle of it.

God designed and created human beings to live on the earth. That was always his plan. It is still his plan. Sin may have ruined the earth for what seems like a long time, but a day is coming when God will finish fixing the mess we made. Then, things will go back to the way he intended. The earth will be perfect. We will be without sin. We will live on the earth. And God will live with us. Heaven and earth will be one and the same—one circle.

Even before we read the first commandment in Scripture regarding our responsibilities to the earth, we can see the material world is not worthless. In fact, it has eternal significance by God’s design. He made this place for us. Better yet, he made this place for us and him, which he intends to share with his redeemed people for all eternity.

Yes, Peter does say, The elements will be burned up and dissolved,” but that doesn’t mean complete annihilation (2Pe 3:10). I believe Peter is describing a process of refinement and purification. Again, Paul says, The creation itself longs to be set free from its bondage to corruption (Ro 8:21). The earth is looking forward to a day not of annihilation, but of freedom. Similar to a child of God who hopes for a day when he will no longer have to wrestle with his flesh, the earth longs for a day when it will be free from the curse of sin.

Authority and responsibility

With this foundation in mind, let’s consider what God explicitly says regarding our relationship to the rest of his creation, starting at the very beginning. In Genesis 1, we read:

Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:26-30)

By the way, have you noticed how many of the worldview issues we’ve discussed have taken us back to Genesis? It makes sense when you think about it. If we want to understand the world, we need to understand its origins. That’s what Genesis 1 and 2 give us while Genesis 3 explains its fallen condition.

Here, God creates man in his own image, and as his image-bearers, he delegates to us a level of authority over his creation (Ge 1:27). Let them have dominion, he says (Ge 26). Let them rule over the rest of creation from the animals to the plants.” Of course, authority implies responsibility, which we’ll come to in just a moment.

This authority also implies that natural creation, which is subject to us as its authority, is for our use. Food, for example, is one of its uses, according to this text (Ge 1:29). The earth supplies us with sustenance, and we have the authority to use it for that purpose.

Let me also point out something that’s easy to overlook. In his abundant wisdom and gracious provision, God made this earth with our well-being in mind. Notice he expresses his plan to give us dominion before he even creates the first man (Ge 1:26). It isn’t a stretch to say he designed and built this world the way he did for the distinct purpose of benefiting humanity. He made this world for us to use and enjoy. Furthermore, he made exceedingly more than was necessary for Adam and Eve, which is why he says, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it (Ge 1:28).

Getting back to the matter of responsibility, this command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth implies a level of responsibility (Ge 1:28). Even if it were obvious to Adam and Eve that they needed to take care of the garden for their own well-being, this command to be fruitful and multiply suggests they’re responsible for ensuring that the benefits of the garden extend to future generations. Keep in mind, families can multiply very quickly. I just read of a 99-year-old woman who has welcomed her 100th great-grandchild into the world. She had eleven children, who had fifty-six children, who now have one-hundred children.

To be clear, God did not merely imply this responsibility. The very next chapter says, The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it (Ge 2:15). I believe the NIV says, To work it and take care of it.” To work means precisely what we think it means. It refers to labor. Anyone who has ever kept a garden knows that work is required to have a fruitful harvest.

What does it mean to keep the garden? (Ge 2:15). It means to watch over it, to guard it, to protect it. On the one hand, God’s creation is quite resilient. I think of its resilience every time I see a flower growing through concrete. On the other hand, it can also be fragile, so God says, You have to protect it.” Again, if you’ve ever kept a garden, you know what I mean.

Even from the beginning, we see a kind of tension between using the earth and abusing it. Clearly, God gives us the earth to use, but with this authority comes responsibility. We are responsible for working his creation. We are responsible for guarding his creation. We are responsible for preserving his creation to the benefit of our posterity.

Briefly, let me address how sin has changed things. So far, we’ve read about life before the fall. How are things different now that the world is under the curse of sin? In short, working, keeping, and preserving the earth is significantly more difficult, but our responsibilities remain the same. We are still obligated to be fruitful and multiply, but according to God’s judgment in Genesis 3, women will now experience multiplied pain in childbearing (Ge 1:28; 3:16). We still have to work and keep God’s creation, but now we do so by the sweat of our faces (Ge 2:15; 3:19).

This curse is quite appropriate when you think about it. God has authority over man, yet man rebelled against him. Man has authority over the earth, and now the earth is rebelling against man. Whereas God’s creation once served us with total devotion, it now works against us in many ways.

To summarize things so far, the earth is not meaningless. It has eternal significance because it is the place God has always meant for us to dwell and to dwell with him. When he created humanity, he placed us here—perhaps I should say he placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden—for the distinct purpose of working and keeping the environment. In other words, he made us to labor that we might reap benefits from his creation while also being careful to never abuse it. And our responsibilities remain the same even in a fallen world.

Our Master’s property

While I want to show you some of the practical instructions we find in Scripture, let me briefly address one more underlying principle that helps us to think about our relationship to the environment.

God may have given us authority over the earth, but this world still belongs to him. We are stewards of the earth, which means we are taking care of our Master’s property. He’s given us a land grant, if you will, which he retains the right to revoke. We see this principle even in the garden of Eden. Adam’s disobedience caused God to banish him from the garden. When God gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites, he says through Moses:

You shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 4:40)

God gave them the land, and if they wanted to stay in the land, they must obey him. Granted, his commandments were not about taking care of the environment, not exclusively anyhow. Even so, he asserts his sovereign ownership of the land. And in case I haven’t made this point clear already, God cares about the earth. He cares enough to redeem at the end of time. He cares enough to make a covenant with the earth after the flood.

Have you ever noticed the wording of God’s covenant with Noah? In Genesis 9, he promises:

Behold, I establish my covenant with you—that is, Noah—and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:9-11)

When I say God cares about the earth, that includes the animals as well. What is true of the earth is true of the animals. Like the land, God asserts sovereign ownership of them as well, which is why God instructs the Israelites, All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the LORD your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock (Dt 15:19). God required the Israelites to sacrifice any personal benefits of the firstborn males, in part, as a reminder that every animal and their benefits are gifts from him. We are merely stewards of his property.

We also see in that an example of God restricting man’s use of his creation. He has not given us the liberty to use the earth however we want. There are limitations, and to be clear, these limitations are not arbitrary. They are actually designed for our own good, not to the mention the good of future generations.

Practical laws

Keep in mind, the Bible—God’s law, in particular—contains a lot of commandments that provide very practical benefits when followed, but those benefits may not always be immediately evident. It’s always interesting to hear modern experts in one field or another point to some of God’s laws and say, Though the Bible doesn’t expressly tell us why this is a good idea, science now tells us it is a good idea.” In other words, God issues these various commandments according to his infinite wisdom, knowing they are good for us.

Consider Exodus 23:10, 11. God says:

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, or uncultivated, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

Obviously, this particular commandment is a benefit to the poor as well as the animals. I believe God also intended for the Israelites to learn to trust his provision during that Sabbath year. But we also know about an additional benefit this commandment doesn’t explicitly express, which is that giving the land rest has a renewing effect. By sacrificing short-term gains, farmers would get even greater long-term yields.

Let me give you another practical commandment in the law. Deuteronomy 25 says, You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain (Dt 25:4). That’s fairly straightforward. If you want your animals to be useful, you have to feed them. But this commandment is more than feed your animals just enough to keep them alive and working.” I’ve read that an ox can eat somewhere between five and thirty pounds of grain in a single day. That was a significant sacrifice for a relatively poor farmer in Israel. So, God’s wisdom, not to mention his love for the animals, we need to show an abundance of care for his creation, and common sense agrees. The better you take care of a car, for instance, the longer it will likely run.

Let provide one more practical example. If there is ever a time to disregard the rules, it’s during a time of war. Yet, listen to Deuteronomy 20:

When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20)

Why is God concerned with preserving trees that are good for food? First of all, during and after the war, people will need that food. Second, it would be reckless and wasteful—terrible stewardship—to destroy perfectly good fruit trees.

We could examine several more examples, but in the end, we would still be left to make judgment calls in an infinite number of situations. Is it right or wrong to throw trash out of your car window? Is it right or wrong to buy chicken from a company that pumps them full of hormones and raises them in harsh conditions? Is it right or wrong to support the coal industry? If we’re honest with ourselves about what the Bible teaches, some of the answers may be fairly obvious, even if they are challenging. Other answers, however, may be quite elusive. Some issues aren’t as black or white as we’d like them to be.

Perhaps the best we can do is keep in mind the basic principles I’ve tried to outline and pray that God gives us wisdom as we strive to be good stewards of his creation. Meanwhile, and this has become increasingly important in our time, God gave us this earth to use and enjoy. It is not to be worshiped, and its preservation is not to be elevated above the welfare of humanity.

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