The astute reader of my blog posts will know that I rarely post on theological or ecclesiastical matters, even though I am an Anglican clergyman, a role that consumes much of my time. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, most of my church-based output is in the form of sermons, which, being delivered to specific congregations at specific times and places, do not lend themselves to a written blog post format. For those interested in that sort of thing, some videos of my sermons, particularly from the lockdown period, can however be found here, along with those of others. But my main reason for not posting much in this area, is something of a feeling of inadequacy. Whilst I consider myself to be more or less on top of the recent literature and developments in my technical fields discussed on other pages on this site, and also to have a good grasp of the local history issues that I study, I really do not feel the same degree of comfort when considering biblical or theological sources – where my knowledge and reading barely scrapes the surface of what is after all a two thousand year old body of literature. There are however perhaps areas where I can contribute something to theological or ecclesiastical discussions. One of these is in the field of environmental issues, and it is that area with which this post is concerned.
In this post I will argue that a consideration of the overarching story of scripture of creation / fall / redemption / new creation, and in particular the eschatological aspects, has considerable implications for how Christians should regard environmental issues such as biodiversity and climate change, and, at least for a portion of our society, is a potentially useful tool for evangelism. In what follows I thus look at the big picture of the biblical narrative, come to what can only be a limited and provisional view about the overall purpose of God in creation, and discuss the implications for environmentalism and evangelism.
The big picture – the scriptural narrative
Although not often emphasized in ordinary church sermons and teaching, scripture as we have it presents a coherent overall narrative, through its multiplicity of literary forms. It begins with the creation of all that there is by God, culminating in the creation of humanity.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters… So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1,1-2,27, NIV)
This is followed by the narrative of the fall and, throughout the Old Testament, the unveiling of God’s “rescue plan” as Tom Wright would put it, through the covenant with Israel, the giving of the law and the message of the prophets. This plan finds its fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as outlined in the gospels and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit onto the church. The narrative culminates in the eschatological visions of Paul and in particular of John of Patmos, the writer of the book of Revelation, and his vision of the new heaven and the new earth.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Revelation 21, 1-3, NIV)
Clearly the core of this narrative is in the events that surround the life of Jesus. Different parts of the New Testament focus on these events in different ways. The earliest gospel, that of Mark, simply concentrates on Jesus’ life and death, his teachings and healings, and of the miracles that accompanied these. For him and the writers of the other synoptic gospels, this teaching is summed up in Jesus’ summary of the law.
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12,29-31, NIV)
In Matthew and Luke, the field of vision is wider with the story of his birth and resurrection from the dead. Luke expands this a little more in Acts to describe the Ascension of Jesus to heaven, the coming of the Spirit and the outworking of that in the life of the early church. In John’s gospel the field of view becomes markedly wider. At the opening of the gospel we read
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1,1-3, NIV)
which takes the Jesus story back to the creation itself. Later in the gospel we read how Jesus is described as coming from heaven, to where he will return.
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. (John 3.13)
This broader vision is further elaborated by Paul who gives little emphasis to the earthly life of Jesus, but rather views him as the eternal son of God, through him all things were made, who is now exalted with his Father in heaven, and through whom all things will be made new. He writes the following in the majestic words of the letter to the church at Colossae.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1.15-20, NIV)
In talking of God reconciling all things to himself through Jesus, Paul implies that Jesus’ death and resurrection were not just concerned with the salvation of individuals. He also writes in his letter to the Roman church, words that are of considerable importance for the discussion of environmental issues, explicitly including the whole of creation in the redemptive work of Jesus.
For 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. (Romans 8.19-21, NIV)
Finally, John of Patmos, in the visions of the book of Revelation, describes Jesus at the culmination of the biblical narrative.
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. (Revelation 22.12-13, NIV)
This overall narrative is a stirring one indeed – but the story stops at the description of the new creation, heaven on earth. Perhaps that is all we are meant to contemplate. But I am left with a nagging question. Put simply, why was the created order, both physical and biological, so important to God that it merited the extreme intervention of the incarnation, death and resurrection of God himself as revealed in Jesus? And this is my starting point on the reflections that follow in this post.
Now I freely admit that my perspective on all this is not the divine one, but it seems to me utterly unsatisfactory that the narrative of scripture should be an end in itself, leaving us with the rather static picture of humanity and God together in the new creation into eternity. I am reminded of my least favourite carol which describes the fate of the redeemed in the words “where like stars His children crowned, all in white shall wait around”. There must be something better than that! I am thus led to conclude that the purpose of God in creation is to bring it, in its entirety, to a point of perfection, as outlined in the visions of Revelation, where it is fit for whatever purpose might follow – not as an end in itself. I am unable to suggest anything further as to what that purpose might be, but it does seem to me to suggest that there is something very, very special about the created order – something that cannot be achieved in any other way than through the physical and biological processes inherent within it.
Following on from this, I would suggest that the uniqueness of creation lies in its complexity and diversity, and that this could not be achieved in any other way than through what we know as the evolutionary processes. The laws that govern the physical creation are both deterministic and stochastic, and it is this inherent stochastic component that leads to the observed complexity that we see around us in our physical world and its geological, atmospheric and oceanic processes. The stochastic element arises from the essential element of chaos that lies at the heart of creation, chaos being used here in its scientific sense where it refers to the sensitivity of physical processes to small changes in the initial conditions, rather than its theological sense. This same mixture of deterministic and stochastic processes is found in the biological creation, with the main mechanism of its outworking being through the genetic / sexual reproduction process, resulting in the massively wide variety of plants and animals (including humanity) that comprise our biosphere. Taking this further, from the biological genetic variation in humans flows the immense variety of intellectual and cultural achievements that make our society what it is. My suggestion is that it is this very variability and complexity that is important to God – and the created order has been specifically designed to have this characteristic for some future purpose that is yet to be revealed.
Now, however one interprets the story of the fall, it is clear that in some way, the creation has been marred and become less than perfect. How this occurred is a matter for further speculation – through external agency or simply because this was always a possibility through the operation of the stochastic processes within it. The effects of the fall show themselves in what theologically is described as sin – the tendency to selfishness and self-interest, both individually and corporately, that mars our humanity and makes it incompatible with its continued existence beyond the grave. As such, Jesus, through his death and resurrection, can be thought of as removing this incompatibility in some way, through taking the human condition in its imperfect state, into the Godhead (perhaps here I am verging on one of the old heresies!). In doing so it was made possible for humanity to pass through death and to play whatever future role it might have in God’s ongoing purposes.
Sin also of course has wider effects and injures the wider human community and the whole of the created order. The injuries caused to society and to creation at any one place and at any one time, then spread throughout the physical and biological creations through the normal evolutionary and stochastic processes within the physical, biological and social creations. However, through Jesus’ earthly life we were given an example and the moral resources to live the sort of life that is a true reflection of our humanity, based on the love of God and neighbour as outlined in Jesus’s summary of the law. The giving of the Holy Spirit to his disciples was the act by which we are enabled to live the eternal life of our restored humanity in the present. In the verses from Colossians and Romans quoted above, there is the strong suggestion that one aspect of living this restored life is to take the needs of God’s creation seriously and work for its restoration in all its forms. Creation has been badly degraded by the actions of humanity and it is our responsibility to reverse that process – to begin the process of restoring creation in a specific time and at a specific place, that this restoration might then spread more widely, again through the stochastic evolutionary processes, so that the wider creation too might become fit for whatever future purposes God has for it.
A model for evangelism?
I wrote above that the scriptural big picture of creation / redemption / new creation is not often presented in traditional church teaching. However, I am struck how many of the younger generations are quite happy with such “big picture approaches”. Overarching narratives occur time and time again in fantasy fiction (many tracing back to Tolkien’s work of course) and many TV series will have a “series” arc that connects individual episodes. There is also an increasing environmental consciousness of the young, as has been evidenced by their approach to the recent COP talks and to other environmental issues.
Now Christianity has perhaps the greatest and most exciting narrative arc of all, and one in which care for our created world is of the utmost importance. If the argument I made above is accepted, then the physical and biological creations are of vital importance to God for his future purposes and need to be preserved and enhanced in all their amazing diversity. I would suggest that not really using these concepts in our apologetics, evangelism and overall mission is a quite significant omission. Properly presented, they could provide a way into the church for a wide sector of the currently unchurched society in which we live – with environmental concern and activism being used as a way to bring them to Christ, and thus to personal transformation and discipleship. Some would say of course that this is the wrong way round – and that personal transformation should come first, and then lead to service and mission. To counter this, I would simply argue that there are many ways of reaching the same end – and is the disciple who prioritises service to his community and world over his individual experience of God, eternally any less well off than those who experience an inner conversion and transformation that never fully finds its way into a life of discipleship and service?