Since 1970, April 22 has been dubbed Earth Day, a day of global emphasis and celebration of environmental stewardship. Many Christians participate in Earth Day festivities, but many others aren’t sure how to think Christianly about this issue and whether or not environmental concern is, as it is often portrayed, a “liberal” or “progressive” concern.
Despite how the topic is usually used by the Right and Left sides of our American political spectrum, there is much that confessional, Christian theology speaks to the issue of creation care. In fact, it is only the Christian account of the world and human history that makes a desire to preserve the physical order a rational one.
The New Testament affirms that the meaning of all reality is encoded in something the apostle Paul called “the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). This mystery is that in Christ there is a “summing up” of everything—not simply the aggregate of all individual souls but “things in the heavens and things on earth” (Eph 1:10) in the Person of the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. The order and harmony of the universe are described in the Genesis account of, for instance, the regularity of times and seasons. The order of the physical creation is attributed to and a reflection of the manifold wisdom and goodness of God.
In other words, the physical creation is important because it is part of God’s communication of his attributes and his redemptive plan for the cosmos. Just as our physical bodies serve as temples of the Holy Spirit and are therefore worthy of our care and preservation, so the earth is the permanent dwelling place for the reigning Christ Jesus, and is likewise deserving of care and preservation.
This care and preservation for the creation is not, as some believe, incompatible with the biblical doctrine of dominion. Some Christians and non-Christian environmentalists unfortunately end up agreeing with one another that it’s one or the other; either mankind is in the image of God and therefore in dominion over the earth, or mankind has a responsibility to take care of the planet.
This is a false dilemma. Christian dominion is not, in Carl Henry’s words, “pharaoh-like,” but instead is Christlike. We see a picture of true dominion in the True Man, Jesus Christ, who did not come to serve his own appetites but to serve others. Christ’s example of pouring Himself out for others is a graphic illustration of how true biblical dominion is done for the sake of others. This principle is also made clear in God’s command to cultivate the earth and “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), communicating that creation care is done for the sake of future generations.
Because human dominion is grounded in the image of God, this dominion reflects God’s dominion, which is not predatory. God, in the biblical narrative, creates the raw materials of the universe, he shapes these materials, and he cultivates and conserves them. God’s dominion is seen not only in his dynamic creative activity, but also in his Sabbath rest, withdrawing from such activity. God commands human cultivation of agriculture, but also specifies rest for the land. Exercising dominion over the created order is not contrary to exercising care over it; on the contrary, only a dominion-capable humanity is capable of caring for the environment at all.
Misguided teaching about “population control” misses this crucial point as well. The rearing of children is, at the most primal level, the same impulse that drives humanity to check a reckless, selfish form of dominion in order to cultivate an other-directed, limited, future-oriented dominion, one that preserves and protects ecosystems and cultures for generations to come. If human beings are God’s appointed means of caring for His earth as the Bible teaches, then what is needed is humanity’s redemption, not elimination. Procreation is pro-creation.
Christian theology is consonant with protection of the earth precisely because Christianity maintains the uniqueness of humanity as image-bearer. Thus, while human beings have dominion over the creation, we have no dominion over one another, or indeed over our createdness itself. What is often called environmental protection is simply the outworking of neighbor-love.
So should Christians care about Earth Day? Yes.The contemporary environmentalist movement has often been flawed and clumsy and sometimes evil, as any movement made up of fallen sinners tends to be. But, at the core of it, is a concept Christians ought to recognize. It is that of creatureliness, and dependence, and longing for the permanent things. And in the face of an earth often ravaged by human sin and rapaciousness, Christian creation-care can be a call to the kind of ultimate accountability that only makes sense in a Christian story of the universe.