My friend and colleague, Kelly Borst, has posted an interesting blog on the subject of creation care. This is a complicated issue that requires theological nuance, spiritual humility, and a willingness to remain in conversation with each other and with Scripture. To that end, I want to offer a few reflections of my own to continue that conversation.
I have to say that I somewhat disagree with Kelly on this one. Emphasis on “somewhat,” because she is absolutely right about one thing. God will accomplish his ultimate plan whether we are faithful stewards or not. Even if we totally wreck the creation, God will still be God and his plans will still be fulfilled.
That puts our conversation about creation care on a different plane than the neopaganism of our day that wants “to save the planet,” as though the planet has some kind of life giving force in it’s own right that we must protect. Only God can save.
That is why we should note that as Christians we talk about “creation” care, and not simply about environmentalism. Creation is a theologically loaded word that says something about where the world came from and where it is going. A creation requires a Creator. For the Christian there is no category called “nature,” because nothing is just “naturally” here. There is, instead, creation – the willful act of a loving God.
By that same token, for the Christian there really is no category called “supernatural.” This is an artificial distinction that resulted from our so-called enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, a distinction that wants to separate the material from the spiritual. In the Scriptures all things – both spiritual and material – are created, for only God is the uncreated One. The Bible doesn’t talk about natural versus supernatural. It just talks about creation – the material and the spiritual, all under the Providence of God.
I say all this as background because it is the context in which the present conversation happens. In modern evangelicalism there is preference for the spiritual over the material. The basic line of thought is that as long as we take care of the spiritual stuff, then we can basically ignore the material. (“Jesus died to save our souls, so who the heck cares about everything else?”) Or, if we don’t ignore it we can at least look upon it with significantly less emphasis. This can lead to some faulty assumptions in regards to creation care.
First, creation care is a matter of justice. It’s not hard to see that human suffering has been exacerbated by the mishandling of the creation. Rainforest depletion, air pollution, extreme drought and/or flooding, famine brought on by historical fluctuations in weather – these and other things have contributed greatly to human suffering, especially among the poor. By caring for creation and managing it’s resources as well as we can, we bear witness to our Lord’s care for justice for the poor and marginalized.
Second, the God’s-gonna-blow-it-all-up-anyway-so-do-what-you-want-in-the-meantime theology represents a school of thought regarding the End Times that I do not embrace. That Jesus will return to consummate the Kingdom is without doubt. It is at the center of the New Testament message. But exactly what will happen at that time is matter of some mystery.
I, for one, believe that the return of Christ will bring about the restoration of the broken creation, not it’s destruction. It is not a coincidence that Revelation ends with an image of Eden restored: a river of life flowing from the throne of God with the tree of life on either side – an image that almost certainly is meant to evoke Genesis 2. Pay special attention to Rev.22:2 – “And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.” Creation to new creation – this is the biblical drama, with Christ as the climax of the plot.
I’ll admit that I don’t know what it means exactly that heaven and earth will be joined together (new heavens and new earth). Nobody knows exactly what that means, but I don’t believe it means the cessation of all material existence. It is central to our faith that Jesus was resurrected in the body, not simply “in spirit.” Resurrection affirms the goodness of physicality. However, that physicality is joined with the spiritual in a new way in the resurrection, for Jesus’ resurrection body was obviously a new kind of body with properties he did not possess before the crucifixion (read the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24).
In the same way, I believe the new creation will be material/physical, but in a fuller sort of way than anything we presently experience – the material and the spiritual joined together in a way we can barely imagine in our present situation. Of course, it stretches the limits of language to try to explain what is beyond human comprehension. Even Scripture strains itself at this point, pointing us to what’s coming with images and metaphors, but never explaining.
It is true that the Apostle Peter speaks of the elements being destroyed upon the return of Christ, but by elements he doesn’t necessarily mean what we think. By “elements” he isn’t talking about the matter out of which creation is made – as though God has it in for the Periodic Table! (“I’ll get you, you evil magnesium!”) Rather, Peter is speaking of those elements of creation which have set themselves up in opposition to God. If you read 2 Peter 2 and the run up to 2 Peter 3:10, this clearly what he is talking about. In other places these are called “principalities and powers” or “elemental spirits.”
Of course, this is no guarantee that in the new heaven and earth there will be an exact replica of the Periodic Table or any of the other aspects of the material world we presently experience. To make such a bold claim is to go beyond what the Scriptures teach. But what the Scriptures do teach is that somehow, someway, Jesus will come back and set things right. Creation will be restored and healed of it’s brokenness. This is the new creation – whatever that means.
In the meantime, our care for creation is a sign and a witness of that coming restoration. It is a way of us “leaning forward” into that day when God in Christ finally gets the world he has always intended to have. We care for creation, not because God needs us to fix things for him, not because it is up to us to make things come out right, but because we believe that God will make all things new. Therefore our efforts on behalf of creation, incomplete though they are, will not be wasted in eternity.
It is much like our ministry to the poor. Jesus himself said that we will always have the poor with us. So long as sin remains in the world, so will poverty. No amount of social engineering will ever change that tragic fact. We cannot end poverty anymore than we can end sin. Only God in Christ can accomplish that. Again, only God can save.
But does that mean that while we wait for the Kingdom to come in it’s fullness that we do nothing about poverty in the meantime? Hardly. Because of what God in Christ accomplished on the cross we serve the poor. For one thing we can make a measurable difference in spite of our limitations. The United Nations has set as one of it’s Millennium Development Goals to cut global poverty in half. This is an effort that Christians should wholeheartedly endorse, even as we have honest disagreements about the best strategies.
But even apart from these practical considerations, we care for the poor as a sign of what is coming. Even though the need presently outreaches our resources, we never the less trust that a day is coming when the world will be set right once and for all, including the end of poverty and the brokenness that leads to it. Therefore we care for the poor as a sign and witness of what is coming, knowing that our efforts will not be wasted in eternity.
Or, for another analogy, think of sexual ethics. Human sexuality is broken. That much is crystal clear. Only when Jesus finally sets things right will the constant temptation to destroy one another with our sexuality be overcome. But that doesn’t mean that in the meantime we say “Oh well, one day God’s gonna burn this ‘ole body up, so I might as well do whatever I feel until then.” (If that sounds far-fetched, it is likely the very form of heresy that Paul was trying to combat in his letter to the Corinthians.) Far from it, we discipline our sexuality within the confines of Biblical marriage as a sign and a witness to that day when Christ and his bride, the Church, will be joined forever.
Having said all this I must confess that in spite of all my high minded talk, the actual practice of creation care doesn’t change much in my day to day living. Much like my friend Kelly, we recycle all our cans and wash all our clothes in cold water. Beyond that, I drive everywhere (with the AC on), run my pool pump 10 hours a day, and plug our I-everythings in each night. My carbon footprint is larger than I would like to admit.
My story only shows that this is a conversation we must continue. How do we balance using the resources of creation to meet our needs (something God clearly gives us the freedom to do), without overconsuming, thereby contributing to the creation’s ongoing brokenness? These are the questions that should continue to drive our discussion.