The world is facing a crisis in the warming of the planet due to greenhouse gas emissions, which threatens the very future existence of humanity. What does the Bible tell us about the environment and ecology in general? What bearing does that have on the current pressure by young people to respond, led by Greta Thunberg? What should Christians make of her work and how should we view the environment?
Genesis records that God created the whole of reality from nothing, from the stars to the earth, the seas and all the animals and plants and finally humanity. As the Psalmist wrote “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it, for He founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters”. (Psalm 24:1). And Isaiah speaking of God “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?” (Isaiah 40:12).
God’s care for his creation apart from humanity is widely apparent in Scripture. “And to all the beasts of the earth, and all the birds of the air, and all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:30) “Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no man lives a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?” (Job 38:26-27). “He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches..He makes grass to grow for the cattle…There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number… These all look to you to give them food at the proper time. When you give it to them they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things” (Psalm 104:10,11,12,14,25,27,28).
On the creation of humanity, It is written “Then God said “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”” (Genesis 1:26). The so-called creation mandate goes on to say “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it”” (Genesis 1:28). So what does it mean “image”? Being in God’s image should mean that we maintain his benevolent care for his creation that he showed in its provision. We should act as his stewards given care of his good creation. Equally, “rule” and “subdue” surely means maintain and not destroy. This is clear in the light of God’s provision for man as “ Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth, and every tree that has fruit with seed in it, they will be yours for food.”” (Genesis 1:29). His generosity requires a response of care for what he has given to us. This is underlined by “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Again the operative concept is that we are stewards, we are to take care of the creation for God and for future generations.
Scripture records a number of points where God mandates protection of nature against humanity’s exploitation. For example “For the Scripture says, do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain” (I Timothy 5:18). “The seventh day is the sabbath to the Lord your God: on it you shall not do any work… nor your animals” (Exodus 20:10). “For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather your crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath to the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:3,4).
There are explicit warnings of punishment for humanity if exploitation of nature goes too far “The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great – and for destroying those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18). That said, we are also warned to worship God and not his creation itself “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal men, and birds and animals and reptiles…they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creation more than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)
In light of the above, what should a Christian make of the world wide movement, especially among the young people, for better care for the environment and action against global warming. Especially how should we see the role of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old who began the movement by striking from school in front of the Swedish parliament. It is not evident that she is a Christian and hard to predict how her work shall develop. But for the present I suggest she has many of the characteristics of a Biblical Prophet such as Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel. I quote from her recent speech at the UN.
She is a reluctant messenger as “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean” even as Jeremiah’s (1:6) commission he claims “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” The ministry of Jeremiah alone tells us not to disregard Greta’s message because she is young. Mary is generally assumed to have been in her early teens when she gave birth to the Son of God, while Paul had to remind Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because of his youth (1 Timothy 4:12).
Her message is urgent “How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight”. Even as Jeremiah 6:8 “Take warning, Jerusalem, or I will turn away from you and make your land desolate so no one can live in it.”
She bears a message that others have developed rather than from herself as “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear” even as the prophets spoke the word of God as Ezekiel 23:28 “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to deliver you into the hands of those you hate, to those you turned away from in disgust.” While we draw no parallel between the findings of science and God’s inspiration, it is worth noting that development of science itself was widely inspired by scripture as in the creation mandate above and passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:33 “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” and “The one who gets wisdom loves life; the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper.” (Proverbs 19:8).
She has brought her message to the powerful such as President Trump and indeed the UN but is widely criticised and disdained, even as King Jeroiachim tore up Jeremiah’s scroll and burnt it on the fire (Jeremiah 36:23).
She uses forthright language as at the UN general assembly “And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” But so did the prophets as for example Isaiah 57:4 “But you—come here, you children of a sorceress, you offspring of adulterers and prostitutes!” and Jesus himself in Matthew 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”
She was willing to undertake discomfort to make a prophetic point, as in sitting alone outside the Swedish parliament and enduring the discomfort of sailing across the Atlantic to avoid flying and contributing to global warming. Even as Ezekiel lay down on his side to bear the sin of the people of Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 4).
And most important, her message is consistent with the care of creation that God requires of humanity in the passages above, to care for the garden. In an interesting article from a Jesuit standpoint (https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/09/24/greta-thunberg-and-trouble-changing-world), Nathan Schneider says “I think of Ms. Thunberg’s ethic as following the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, or healing the world. To heal means focusing first of all on protecting what one loves, what we know to be good. If doing so requires drastic change, as Thomas Aquinas would put it, that is that. To be a healer means your motivation begins like this: What do you love, what do you protect, what do you refuse to harm? What is worth more than the illusions we cling to? As Greta said “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth?”
We need to pray for Greta, for her protection and also that she comes to know the Lord Jesus Christ as her saviour and Lord. What an evangelist she would be! But can Christian faith be consistent with her vision of creation care and healing and the need for drastic change to achieve them? I believe it can.
The challenge to the Christian is to see that the teachings and resurrection of Jesus also draw us to care for the creation. For he is creator and is their keeper “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, whether thrones of power or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him or for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). The resurrection of Jesus and resultant coming of the Holy Spirit has key implications for the mission of Jesus’ followers as set out in Romans 8 19-21 “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.”.
To give an example of the need for freeing the creation, it is estimated that rising sea levels will create over 18 million climate refugees in Bangladesh alone in the coming decades. As followers of Jesus, who came to “bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), it is clear that we cannot afford to remain indifferent to such crises and it is better to offset the cause (CO2 emissions) and not just the consequence (disaster relief).
Scripture suggests that the new heaven and the new earth are redeemed and not recreated. While “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13), Colossians 1:19-20 says all things will be redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus “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”. Hence the need for all generations to put in the effort to prevent global warming, to redeem and reconcile!
A Christian approach to global warming should inspire hope and be based on love for God and gratitude for his creation. It should thus have less of the anger and fear that pervade some of the secular debate. That said, the challenge of changing lifestyles cannot be underestimated. Are people in rich countries such as the UK willing to minimise or abandon meat intake, avoid unnecessary flights and make ethical purchases? Despite it being clear that’s what is needed to prevent global warming, to redeem and reconcile….?
Among acts for Christlike redemption of the creation, besides getting carbon emissions under control, one of the most important things is to reconcile also the generations. The younger generation has a growing sense of betrayal, notably in terms of the environment as voiced by Greta. But also, to give the example of the UK, in respect of Brexit, poor pensions, university fees and high house prices, from the choices and behaviour of the older generation. This passage at the end of the Old Testament, is a salutary warning in that regard:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6).
While Greta may not be Elijah, her words still evoke this passage powerfully. “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are
 There remains an interpretation of 2 Peter 3 that the current earth will be destroyed before the new heaven and new earth: “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly….The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare”. If so, then there is no use for creation care. However, the context suggests that the passage may rather refer to the fire of judgement (as in the water of Noah’s flood) and not the destruction of the creation itself.