While the issues of climate change and environmental protections are a perennial topic of conversation, it is not a conversation that most evangelical Christians seem terribly engaged with.
In a recent study conducted by Pew, researchers found that evangelicals are among the least likely to be concerned about global warming, with 66% even denying that human activity can have any effect on global climate.
Further, while 64% of evangelicals agree that the earth is sacred, and 86% agree that “God gave humans a duty to protect and care for Earth,” only 52% are willing to “make sacrifices in the way I live today if I knew it would help future generations.” That’s compared to 57% of the general population. And of that 52% who said they’d be willing to make sacrifices, many of them remain apathetic to environmental concerns that could negatively impact future generations.
The reasons for this are complex. While part of the issue is theological in nature, American evangelical views on environmental protections are also heavily influenced by the politics of our day.
Here is a closer look at why many evangelicals tend to be lukewarm at best when it comes to protecting the environment, as well as a breakdown of what wisdom the Bible offers.
The Evangelical Argument Against Environmental Protections
For many evangelicals, their reticence to embrace environmental protections is rooted in the idea that the benefits of such protections do not outweigh the possible ill effects of hindering the free market. In fact, according to Pew, 56% of evangelicals fear that environmental regulations “will cause a gradual loss of individual freedoms” and that the government will “overreact to global climate change by creating unnecessary environmental regulations.”
Though this is mainly an economic argument, it is also somewhat located within theological beliefs that are widely held among evangelicals, particularly with regard to the end times.
For premillennial dispensationalists, they hold to a view of the end times that argues that human society, and the earth along with it, will continue to degrade morally and physically until the return of Christ. Differences in opinion exist regarding the exact details of Christ’s return, but most dispensationalists agree that creation will continue to get worse until it is eventually destroyed and replaced by a new creation.
Some, including pastor and Bible teacher John MacArthur, have gone as far as to say that the earth is “disposable.”
“The environmental movement is consumed with trying to preserve the planet forever. But we know that isn’t in God’s plan,” MacArthur has written. “The earth we inhabit is not a permanent planet. It is, frankly, a disposable planet—it is going to have a very short life. It’s been around six thousand years or so—that’s all—and it may last a few thousand more. And then the Lord is going to destroy it.”
Leaving aside the question of the earth’s age, MacArthur’s argument is that there is no point, as the saying goes, “rearranging chairs on the Titanic.” If the creation and redemption story of humanity is marked by discontinuity, wherein the earth that exists today has no connection with the earth that will exist in eternity, then there is little point in making major sacrifices to keep this earth on life support.
The resulting sentiment is that we shouldn’t hinder the free market to try and save an earth that’s disposable anyway.
While many evangelicals see their views on the end times as definitive, the record of church history shows that this brand of theology was not prominent until the 20th century. Prior to then, many theologians held to an “amillennial” view, wherein the church is seen as representing Christ’s reign on earth, enacting his will, until such a time as he returns.
Nevertheless, the horrors of two world wars began to change the perspective of many, with premillennial dispensationalism taking a much more prominent place among evangelicals. However, other Christian traditions did not make such a marked shift in theology, which is reflective in the fact that mainline protestants and Catholics remain much more open to environmental protections.
This isn’t to say that premillennial theology is necessarily incorrect. However, we would be remiss to not point out how it has resulted in some of us becoming unnecessarily shortsighted in our understanding of what responsibility we have to care for the earth.
Relatedly, a vast number of evangelicals also subscribe to a conservative vision of politics and either lean Republican or are registered members of the party. And in that party, denial of the effects of human activity on the global climate is commonplace, as is the emphasis on personal and economic freedom over robust systems of care for society—or, in this case, the planet.
We can debate the virtues of capitalism and Republican political philosophy and come to very different conclusions than one another—and that’s okay. My point here is that this combination of factors has resulted in apathy toward environmental care among some evangelicals, and even outright suspicion of it among others.
Be that as it may, when we look to the Scriptures, this is not the only picture we can paint of humanity’s relationship to creation. And, in my opinion, it isn’t the best one either.
A Christian Argument for Environmental Protections
In many ways, the conversation about humanity’s relationship with creation ought not to be anchored in what we believe about the end of days, but what we know to be true about the earth’s beginning.
We see the account of that story in the book of Genesis.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 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.” 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. 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. (Genesis 1:27-30)
In the creation account, we see that humans are established as the rulers of creation. We are created in God’s image, and so in a very real sense, the earth belongs to us. While it doesn’t ultimately belong to us, we’re stewards of it and can do with it what we will.
Part of this mandate is that God instructs humanity to be fruitful and multiply. This is certainly a reference to procreation, but that isn’t the whole picture. This is also a command to be fruitful in what we create—what we invent and establish, whether for industry or societal structure. And as we do that, we have dominion over creation. We can subdue it and use its resources to benefit the goal of making humanity be fruitful and multiply.
The question becomes how we can ensure we are using creation appropriately, faithfully stewarding its resources for human benefit while also caring for the earth itself.
Furthermore, there is a strong biblical case to be made that the earth isn’t as disposable a planet as many might think. There will actually be far more continuity between the current creation of today and the new creation of eternity than we tend to realize.
For example, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:4 that as we look to eternity, we “long not to be unclothed” from our physical existence, but to be “more fully clothed.” And in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul talks about how we will be changed in a twinkling of an eye to be like Jesus in his glorified state. Paul ties this hope back to Jesus’ resurrection itself. Jesus resurrected back to the same body he was born with, only it was transformed into something different. And Jesus still exists in that corporeal form, originally born in Bethlehem and still with nail holes in his hands and feet, somewhere in the cosmos.
The upshot of all of this is that this current, physical existence is inexorably tied to the eternal state. That’s why Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:58 that nothing we do in this life is in vain. It echoes into eternity. While there will be a measure of discontinuity, there will also be a considerable amount of continuity.
If all of that is true, then we need to care for the earth like it’s going to be around for a while. We don’t want to desecrate it.
While there is an impulse among certain environmentalists to worship the earth itself, Christians ought to be careful about throwing out the baby with the bathwater when developing a more nuanced and theologically robust approach to creation care.
How To Move Forward
None of this is meant to suggest that the “Christian” view of the environment requires blind allegiance to every measure or proposal aimed at environmental preservation, whether it is the controversial Paris Agreement or the various national, state, or local measures that find their ways onto our ballots or in the mouths of our elected officials.
However, it is to say that Christians are called to give more than mere lip service to the idea that humanity has been tasked not only with tapping the potential of the earth’s resources to bring about human flourishing, but to do so in such a way that does not place heavy bets on the fact that Jesus will return before future generations suffer from the recklessness with which we handle those resources today.
In practice, striking a balance between prioritizing today’s generation without over-leveraging tomorrow’s is exceedingly complex. Creating a plan to decrease our collective use of fossil fuels and transition to more renewable resources such as nuclear power (a debate unto itself), wind, and solar, while also addressing geopolitical concerns of energy independence and the economic and military vulnerabilities that accompany a lack of it, is an open question.
Only, it is my conviction that Christians, rather than unthinkingly reacting to every proposal in line with our partisan politics, ought to come to that discussion table with a set of shared assumptions. These include a commitment to the long-term health of the earth and willingness to make strategic investments and collective sacrifices to ensure it, alongside a desire for commonsense economic policies that do not disproportionately disadvantage the working class or those who struggle with poverty.
Oh, and we should probably recycle, too.