Given that most of the Bible was written in the Ancient Near East and Palestine from 3,000 to 2,000 years ago no-one would expect the writers of the Bible to have forseen the full impact on the planet of today’s human population of 7.2 billion, multiplied by the effects of industrialization and consumerism. Nevertheless the Bible does contain warnings against the abuse of God’s creation.
“Subdue the earth…”
The initial relationship between man and the earth is established as an integral account of the creation of man in Genesis 1:
28 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.” 29 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. 30 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. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:28-31 ESV)
The key word here is “subdue” the earth – a word which here is equivalent to taming the earth, and implies the clearing of land and planting crops. The word “subdue” here though does not mean “despoil”, “destroy”, but bringing appropriate parts of the earth under agriculture, while still maintaining a respectful relationship with the other inhabitants of nature – the animals.
“Not like the land of Egypt…”
The relationship between man and the earth is typified by the special relationship God established between the Israelites brought out of Egypt and the “promised land” of Canaan which he gave to them:
8 “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, 9 and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables. 11 But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven,12 a land that the Lord your God cares for. The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Deuteronomy 11:8-12 ESV)
In summary what that passages tells the Israelites is that the new “promised” land, although fertile, would make them more not less dependent on the goodwill of God. It was a land which would be fertile if God permitted, not one like the Nile plain where the Egyptians were largely guaranteed good and reliable harvests. The warning follows that should the Israelites turn away from their God, then God would quickly turn their new promised land against them:
13 “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. 15 And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. 16 Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; 17 then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you. (Deuteronomy 11:13-16 ESV)
As part of the need to respect God in this new land, the Law of Moses also established many detailed regulations for husbandry of the land. The most important being related to crop rotation and ‘sabbath’ (or fallow) years for the land. This is not to claim that the regulations for agriculture in the Law of Moses are primarily about protection of the environment, for they were not. Instead the regulations for agriculture are mainly about the same themes of separation, holiness and fairness to the poor, which are found elsewhere in the Law. All the same following these laws did as a byproduct help to respect and protect the environment as the land was seen as a treasure given to Israel on trust by God.
The Christian and the environment
The above sections have been about the environment in the context of Bible times. Although it might appear that the principles of 3,000-2,000 years ago have little to tell us about the much more serious environmental problems today – with proven global warming, emissions, climate change, plastics pollution, the extinction of multiple species, damage to the oceans – in one way the principles of 3,000-2,000 years ago are highly relevant – because in Bible times man was less insulated from damage to the environment man is today.
Perhaps if we were to take one verse that is often misread, Paul’s famous comment “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” (1st Corinthians 9:9) that verse should shows the Bible’s approach to the environment is based on a love for one’s neighbour which brings with it also love of animals and the ground.
Paul evidently is well aware that the original context of the verse he cites “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” (Deuteronomy 25:4) is about God’s concern for animals. Paul’s point is that the concern for animals is a part of a law primarily concerned with people. The same set of laws also allows widows and orphans to harvest free in the corners of the field. So concern for the ox is not different from concern for the widow and orphan, these laws come as a whole.
Care for animals goes with care for people
Paul’s point about oxen is prefigured by many similar connections between care for animals and care for people in the Bible:
“Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10)
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (Matthew 10:29)
“And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5)
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? (Luke 15:4) – compare “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds.” (Proverbs 27:23)
“For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.” (Psalm 50:10-11)
Each of these verses could be developed, but simply listing some of them should show the Bible does teach care for animals. As animals are the visible living part of the non-human natural environment, those teachings also cover the animals’ habitat.
What does the Bible say about environmentalism and climate change?
So we have seen that the Bible doesn’t directly treat with science, but deals with principles. So what principles are relevant to environmentalism in general? We have seen 2 principles – 1. that God asked man to be a steward of the land, not to simply despoil it. 2. that God’s concern for the poor is not opposed to his teachings about care for animals.
So that really answers most environmental questions. We know that plastics are harmful, we know that poisoning rivers and oceans is harmful, we know that pushing species to extinction is not right, we know that slash-and-burn destruction of rain forests is bad. All of these issues may be difficult to solve, but there is no one who doesn’t admit that they need to be addressed.
That typically only leaves one area where – opinion surveys show – a significant number of people, including Christians, don’t believe the scientists, and that is climate change. It is difficult to understand exactly why this is, and perhaps the question of why this is does not matter.
Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14)
This is rightly a famous verse, partly because it is stated in Proverbs with slight variation three times (Proverbs 15:22, Proverbs 24:6). What that is saying, and saying three times, is that in the consensus of informed and qualified -(note that counselors is not just anyone) – opinion there is “safety”. There may be Christians who cite “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (1 Corinthians 3:19) against these Proverbs verses, but that’s clearly taking 1 Corinthians 3 – which is about the foolishness of the cross to Greeks and Jews – out of context. It has no bearing on technical matters. Even when special gifts and visions are in evidence in the Bible, generally expertise was respected. For example Solomon did not consult just anyone about the load-bearing beams of the temple, And Paul did not generally ignore the expertise of ship captains and boat pilots on his journeys. The attitude of sensible believers in Old and New Testament was that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety“. (Proverbs 11:14)
There is no reason for the Christian to think that greenhouse gases and other emissions are somehow an area of God’s natural world where the principle of “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14) does not apply to the environmental commands for careful husbandry and stewardship given to man.
“Christ will come and destroy the world anyway”
Something needs to be said about anti-environmental views among Christians. The first is related to the extreme versions of rapture theology – such as found in the Left Behind novels – which sees Christ coming back to cause an apocalypse on earth and take the righteous to heaven. A church with that teaching typically will have little care for the environment. Such views are often supported by a misreading of the last day gathering passages (Mark 13:27, 1 Thessalonians 4:17) to be to a destination in heaven rather than Jerusalem (see related questions on this website), but also by passages such as 2 Peter 3:10:
But 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. (2 Peter 3:10)
This is not meant to taken literally, Peter is using figurative language drawn from the prophets, such as “new heavens and new earth” (Isaiah 65:17-25). If it was meant literally then Christ would be responsible for the extermination of the human race, and not as the angels promised when Jesus was born, be bringing “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14).
Fortunately however this teaching is found less and less in modern churches. Many, perhaps most Protestant, churches now have returned to teaching the idea of Christ ruling as king on earth and restoring the earth rather than destroying it. Perhaps as a result more of these churches now see the need to steward carefully the earth even while believing that Christ will return and make the earth like Eden again (Isaiah 51:3, Ezekiel 36:35). But again a large part of Christian concern with the earth is not about the state in which Christ will find it, or doubting Christ’s ability to remedy man’s damage, but respect of the Old Testament instruction to care for the earth and the effect of environmental degradation on the poorer countries before Christ returns. (see Robert Booth Fowler’s book The Greening of Protestant Thought – 2000 – which “traces the increasing influence of environmentalism on American Protestantism since the first Earth Day, which took place in 1970.”)
Environment and protest
So the basic question – What does the Bible say about environmentalism and climate change? We have answered; The Bible says respect the earth and care for it. The Bible also teaches that when weighing difficult issues “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14)
So since the Bible does say that damage to God’s earth is a bad thing, then one question could easily lead to another question; should the Christian take part in protest about the environment? We clearly are involved, since we are all consumers (of energy, resources, goods), and as consumers therefore we are part of the environmental problem. But how far do we take action or speech?
That next question is more complex.
Firstly, because the New Testament limits the Christian in regard to acts of disobedience against any government – including unjust and environmentally irresponsible ones. But even here there are decisions the Christian can take part in which are in no way protests against “the king“, but are responsible expression of involvement in the Genesis 1:28 instruction. It is not protest to sign a petition against whaling or real fur. This doesn’t mean however that every environmental issue is black and white. For example, should a Christian join a local residents action group against fracking? Depending on the exact project that might or might not be question of Genesis 1:28 husbandry. Is this really for the good of the whole planet – which is the perspective God takes – or is it a less commendable reason, such as “not in my back yard” (…. instead continue with open-cast coal mining in the developing world”) ? This, unfortunately, often requires listening to the bigger picture found from the consensus of multiple independent experts rather than local emotion and self-interest. Again we go back to “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
Secondly, because the Christian’s primary activism is against the root cause of man’s problems – which is sin, not plastics or hydrofluorocarbons – and that means a Christian’s limited time and resources should ideally be directed in the same areas that Christ and his apostles time and resources were. This goes back to Paul’s comment “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” (1st Corinthians 9:9). God’s primary concern was the poor. Likewise Christians’ primary concern should be their fellow men – and the urgent need for all men to hear about Christ and be saved. But again, just as with Paul’s “Is it for oxen” statement – the Christian who doesn’t personally bother with recycling, or dolphin-friendly-tuna, or who scoffs at environmental initiatives isn’t displaying an attractive face of Christ to his neighbours.
This brief answer can’t cover every aspect of this difficult set of questions. But it is hoped that it has show that the Bible does teach care for the environment, and also respect for independent qualified consensus on environmental science.