Duty of Care? What Is a Christian's Responsibility Toward the Rest of Creation?
Although he does not realize it, the outstanding British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough inspired this article. It was something he said in an interview earlier this year.
He spoke of “the influence of the Bible’s book of Genesis, which says the Lord God said ‘go forth and multiply’ to Adam and Eve and ‘the natural world is there for you to dominate, you have dominion of the animals and plants of the world.’ That basic notion — that the world is there for us, and if it doesn’t serve our purposes it’s dispensable — has produced the devastation of vast areas. We have assumed that we can build a house on it, dig it up, put tarmac over it; that’s OK because it’s there for us.” The interview was printed in the February 19 issue of Nature, the most prestigious scientific magazine in the United Kingdom.
The viewpoint that Sir David was paraphrasing was based on a highly influential paper published in Science, the U.S. equivalent of Nature, by UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) historian Lynn White in March 1967. Titled “The historical roots of our ecologic crisis,” White asserted that “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” for environmental damage since the Middle Ages.
In his paper, White admitted that humans have affected nature in the communities where they lived throughout history. In many hunter-gatherer societies, the damage may have been relatively mild, but even pre-industrial humans significantly altered the environment through the use of fire and even caused the extinction of large animals, as on Mediterranean islands, the Great Plains of America and in New Zealand.
But White’s focus was on the European West. He noted how modern science and technology originated in the West, and he linked that development, in part, to the Judeo-Christian victory over paganism — that is, since God is Creator, nature should not be worshiped and does not need to be feared. White referred to Genesis when wrote, “Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature; he is made in God’s image.”
White noted that in ancient times, every tree, spring, stream and hill had its guardian spirit. Before anyone cut a tree, mined a mountain or dammed a brook, it was important to make the spirit happy. However, “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” People no longer cared about the environmental results of what they did, and this attitude toward nature has continued, argued White. Therefore, “We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”
In the decades since the publication of the Science paper, hundreds of books and articles used White’s ideas as a focal point. His ideas can be seen in the popular press, in a very diverse range of periodicals such as Time, Horizon, The New York Times, The Boy Scout Handbook and The Sierra Club Bulletin. Eventually, American writer Wendell Berry observed that people assume that Christianity is to blame, and it is powerless to do anything about the problem: “The culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world, and uselessness of Christianity in any effort to correct that destruction, are now established clichés of the conservation movement.”
Was White right?
Since 1967, there have been numerous rebuttals of his controversial thesis. The most obvious is that ecological abuses have been done by almost every civilization in history, not just Christian ones. Humans never needed the book of Genesis to justify ruining their environment. Moreover, such a reading of Genesis seriously misinterprets what the book means.
|“If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young.” -Deuteronomy 22:6–7|
The 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible that generations of Christians grew up with translates the grossly misunderstood verses of Genesis 1:26–28 like this:
“And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
To understand this passage, we must read it in two ways — exegetically and christologically. That is, what does it mean in context, and how are we to understand it in light of the incarnation of God in Christ? Contextually, “dominion” represents the right to rule, in this case a transferred right, given to men and women. They bear the image of God, and must therefore rule on behalf of God. They do not rule in their own right — they must reflect the attitude that God has toward his creation.
And what is that? Verse 31: “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” His creation pleases him — and he still owns it.
Look after it — it is good
God plainly declares: “all the earth is mine” (Exodus 19:5), “all the land is mine” (Leviticus 22:9), “every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills…for the world is mine and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 50:10–12).
That means the redwoods of California do not belong to the government of California, the Amazonian rainforest does not belong to Brazil, and the oceans and fishes do not belong to the coastal nations and fishers of the world. They are all God’s, and he likes them, and he cares about them.
This explains the command of Genesis 2:15: “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” — to improve it and maintain it. This is a stewardship role, and the principle extends beyond the Garden to the rest of creation. Dominion does not mean domination — it means royal servanthood, which was the way of life shown to us by Jesus. Although we humans have failed miserably to conform to the image of God, Jesus, the only true Imago Dei, was a perfect success.
To the disciples he explained: “Kings like to throw their weight around…. It’s not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant” (Luke 22:25–36, The Message).
This approach to ruling people — an expression of the command to love fellow human beings as ourselves—applies to the nonhuman creation as well. We are to help the creation, not abuse it by throwing our weight around. Though we may farm and use animals to supply our food, for example, we must not treat them cruelly or cause them unnecessary stress (see Proverbs 12:10: “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal”).
On a larger scale, we should consider the health of our entire environment, and follow the example of the Father in keeping track of animal populations (Matthew 10:29) and ensuring their survival. Plant-eating and meat-eating animals depend on their Creator (Psalm 104:14, 21), and so do the birds (Matthew 6:26).
In one command, the Bible gives an excellent ecological principle: “If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 22:6–7).
The law against harming a mother bird is not some quirky idea inserted by an eccentric bird lover. The idea is that the mother bird will then have a chance to have more baby birds. In that way the people will not destroy the source of life, but will be living in the land in a way that can be sustained for centuries. Humans are to live on earth in a way that can be sustained. We should not destroy so much habitat that various animals can no longer survive and reproduce.
This passage from Deuteronomy makes plain that sustainable environmental management is important for our own well-being — we need the “goods and services” our environment provides, too! As Time magazine recently pointed out, we are in danger of being the last generation to see some major species alive.
Rooted in our beliefs
Lynn White was right about one thing — our attitudes toward nature are rooted in our religious beliefs: “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny — that is, by religion.”
Why is there an ecological crisis? At heart, the problem is sin.
It is helpful to notice the differences between Genesis 1 and 2. Whereas the Bible’s first chapter proclaims the one true God of Israel as the powerful Creator of everything that is, Genesis 2 is more pastoral and relational. This chapter focuses on relationships at three levels, with God, fellow humans, and the rest of creation. Then Genesis 3 shows how all of those relationships were fractured, with “thorns and thistles” being a poetic expression of the environmental results of a flawed relationship with God. God intended humanity and nature to be in harmony, but sin has disrupted the relationship.
Since Christians are part of God’s solution for the
planet, we should be setting an example of “creation care.”
Human sin is part of the wider context of spiritual opposition to God. Happily, the environmental distress experienced by creation was resolved by the death and crucifixion of Jesus, but the age to come has not yet fully arrived. So, for now, the creation “waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19- 21). But do we understand the implications of our current status?
The fact is, we Christians are already the children of God, and although the age to come is still in the future, we are privileged to participate in it as we live and share the gospel. Since Christians are part of God’s solution for the planet, we should be setting an example of “creation care.” Thankfully, many Christian biologists, writers, pastors and churches have been and are taking this responsibility seriously. Denominational statements expressing a theology of the environment have been issued within Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Evangelicalism (see box on page 7). Do an Internet search on “creation care” and you will see how active Christian environmental concern now is.
But what about the “end times”?
Some wonder, why bother with the environment? Doesn’t the book of Revelation predict that it’s all going to go up in smoke anyway? And if so, aren’t our conservation efforts pointless? Some Christians seem to think so. A Baptist church in Boise, Idaho, prints and distributes a bumper sticker that says “Forget ‘Save the Earth’—What about your soul? The earth is going to burn, What about you?”
Revelation is a special kind of literature — apocalyptic — that uses highly symbolic, exaggerated language to communicate a theological message. The whole point of the book is that God will bring to an end the sinful, destructive ways of humanity that have polluted all of the Edenic relationships God established in Genesis 2. Let us not overlook the warning in Revelation 11:18, “the time has come…for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
Contrary to some popular ideas, God is not planning to destroy the earth after whisking the faithful out of harm’s way. Far from destroying the earth, God says he will transform it. It will literally be a heavenly earth when “God dwells with man” (Revelation 21:3).
In small but positive ways, we can participate in that transformation in advance in the good things we do now and in the years ahead to be faithful stewards and take care of the world that God has created and assigned us to maintain. A balanced, responsible care for the creation that has been entrusted to us is not a waste of time. It is an important step in the right direction.
Dennis Gordon is a professional biologist and has been an ordained minister for 28 years.
Statement on Christian Stewardship
from the National Association of Evangelicals
We labor to protect God’s creation.
As we embrace our responsibility to care for God’s earth, we reaffirm the important truth that we worship only the Creator and not the creation. God gave the care of his earth and its species to our first parents. That responsibility has passed into our hands. We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part. We are not the owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to “watch over and care for it” (Gen. 2:15). This implies the principle of sustainability: our uses of the Earth must be designed to conserve and renew the Earth rather than to deplete or destroy it.
The Bible teaches us that God is not only redeeming his people, but is also restoring the whole creation (Rom. 8:18-23). Just as we show our love for the Savior by reaching out to the lost, we believe that we show our love for the Creator by caring for his creation. Because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation. This involves the urgent need to relieve human suffering caused by bad environmental practice. Because natural systems are extremely complex, human actions can have unexpected side effects. We must therefore approach our stewardship of creation with humility and caution.
Human beings have responsibility for creation in a variety of ways. We urge Christians to shape their personal lives in creation-friendly ways: practicing effective recycling, conserving resources, and experiencing the joy of contact with nature. We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats.