In 1967, Lynn Townsend White, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, published an article titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” White pointed out that by the Middle Ages, Christianity had begun teaching a radical separation of human beings and the natural world.
Not long after White’s publication, Christian environmentalist, farmer, and writer Wendell Berry examined similar issues. He also traced contemporary environmental attitudes back to medieval Christianity but focused on its teaching of contemptus mundi (contempt for the world). This teaching devalued earthly concerns and life in this world in favor of focusing on the world to come after Jesus’ return.1
Medieval Christian teaching placed little to no value on this earth when compared to eternity. This idea led to the attitude that creation was provided for no reason other than to serve human needs. From this perspective, the earth is simply a means to an end. The world is here to sustain us, not the other way around; it’s a one-way street.
If we fast-forward to modern times, we can see that “our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature.”2 Because those “Christian attitudes” did not teach that humans needed to care for the earth, the way was paved for science and technology to develop into environmentally destructive forces.
Is this attitude part of biblical teaching? Or have the Scriptures been misunderstood or misrepresented?
Does Creation Care Matter?
Some Christians hold beliefs—which appear to be rooted in Scripture—that contribute to an indifferent or exploitive approach to the earth. One such belief is founded on God’s promise for our future.
Christians hold to God’s promise of a renewed earth.3 In the book of Revelation, the consummation of God’s plan for humanity is described as a renewed heaven and a renewed earth. In fact, Paul, one of the writers of the New Testament, declared:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.4
Why is the earth “groaning”? When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, the land bore part of the consequences of human sinfulness. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God said to Adam.5 From the beginning, humans have brought disaster on the land.
Some believe that because of this and because of the promise of “new heavens and a new earth,” this present creation is to be destroyed to make way for the new.6 This seems to justify a utilitarian approach to Earth and its resources. Why worry about energy supplies, clean air, water, or topsoil? God must have provided enough to last until Jesus returns.
Of course, this thought process assumes that 1) the earth is to be exploited for human ends, 2) God’s future plans for the earth make it expendable, and 3) human beings bear no responsibility for the care of creation. However, it ignores the fact that God, not humans, determines how long this earth will survive. Humans bear the responsibility of living on it sustainably as long as we are here, since we do not know when the end will come.
Furthermore, the fact that earth itself is part of what God intends to redeem through Christ seems to underscore the importance of creation—and that the earth’s destruction is not part of the plan. Indeed, biblical Christianity appears to call for the care of creation, not its exploitation.
Creation in Genesis
Although Berry agrees that some doctrines of the medieval church contributed to environmental destruction as civilization developed, he is equally certain that these practices did not derive from biblical teaching.7 From the beginning, the Bible charges human beings with care of the creation in which they live.
Biblical teaching regarding human beings and creation begins with the simple affirmation that we are part of the created earth, not separate from it. In the Genesis story, humans are created on the sixth day, along with everything else that lives on land.8
Man—named Adam, which means “mankind”—is formed from “the dust of the ground.”9 Man is made from the earth. In Hebrew, “ground” is adamah. This means that God literally formed Adam from the adamah. Even in name, mankind and the earth are connected.
Yet at some point in Western history, we began to think of ourselves as separate from creation, which we increasingly referred to as “nature.” We ceased to see ourselves as part of the natural world. Perhaps as a result of our separation from God in the Garden, we find ourselves increasingly separated from his creation as well.
God’s Representatives to Creation
According to the Bible, “God created mankind in his own image.”10 For centuries, theologians and scholars have pondered the depth of meaning in that phrase—“in his own image.”
In its context, the expression implies some kind of representational role for human beings on the planet. In some fashion we are expected to represent God to the rest of God’s world; after all, we are each an image of God on this earth.
In Genesis 1:28, Adam and Eve are told to “subdue” and “rule over” the earth, as those who bear God’s image. In Genesis 2:15 we learn that man’s responsibility is “to work [the Garden] and take care of it." But human subjection of and ruling over the earth is to be done as God’s representatives, the way God—the God who declared his creation “very good”—would have it done.11
Well, what is God’s relationship to his creation? What should we be representing? What kind of image should we be reflecting?
Not only does God create the world, he also provides and cares for the world throughout the biblical narrative. The psalms recount God’s “compassion on all he has made.”12 Jesus often refers to God’s detailed care for creation as he feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies in the field.13
How then should those chosen to represent God in his creation relate to it?
Stewards of Creation
The best illustration of how we should relate to the earth is the concept of a steward, which appears throughout the Bible. A steward is a person who manages, protects, and is responsible for the property of another person.
Psalm 24:1 declares, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. ”That verse makes it pretty clear that all of creation belongs to God. This means that humans do not ultimately own any of the earth. As such, it’s not ours to mistreat. The privilege of living here is a gift, graciously given by a loving God. But we are stewards of this place. We are accountable to the Owner for how we care for it.
This is made clear in the laws given to ancient Israel when they entered the Promised Land. The land was explicitly described as being “given” to them by God.14 It was a gift. They did not earn it as a reward or deserve it in any way. They did not create it on their own. God gave it to them, complete with guidelines for its care. The Israelites were given detailed instructions about how to attend to the land. For example, fields were to lie fallow for one year every seven years in order to give the land “a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord.”15
Moreover, Israel was told that their relationship to the land would be entirely dependent upon their faithfulness to God. Their unfaithfulness or disobedience would bring plagues and droughts and the land would suffer.16However, if the people would “humble themselves and pray and seek [God’s] face and turn from their wicked ways,” then God would heal the land.17
Once again, we see the interrelatedness of humanity, creation, and Creator.
How to Care for Creation
Although charges may be leveled at Christianity for complicity in human mistreatment of creation, such behavior does not originate from teachings in the Bible. Proper human use of creation requires a posture of gratitude, humility, affection, and stewardship—not destruction and exploitation.
Creation care can be expressed in several practical ways. Simply paying attention to one’s own consumption, waste, and lifestyle help us care for the earth. We can choose locally produced food, purchasing items that inflict minimal damage on the land in their production. We can recycle. We can compost waste. We can use water responsibly. We can pick up litter and properly dispose of it.
There is a vast array of ways to care for the earth. As stewards of God’s creation, caring for the earth is our responsibility and privilege.
- Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002), 294.
- Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1206.
- See The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Isaiah 65:17–25 and Revelation 21:1–4.
- The Holy Bible, Romans 8:19–22.
- Ibid., Genesis 3:17.
- Ibid., Isaiah 65:17.
- Berry, 294.
- See The Holy Bible, Genesis 1:24–31.
- The Holy Bible, Genesis 2:7.
- Ibid., Genesis 1:27.
- Ibid., Genesis 1:31.
- Ibid., Psalm 145:9.
- See The Holy Bible, Matthew 6:25–30.
- The Holy Bible, Deuteronomy 8:10.
- Ibid., Leviticus 25:4.
- Ibid., 2 Chronicles 7:13.
- Ibid., 2 Chronicles 7:14.
- Photo Credit: Cara Slifka / Stocksy.com.