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The Livestock and Every Creeping Thing: Environmentalism II

January 23, 2012

Occasionally I write two-part articles where one can read the second part without having read the first. This is not such an article. I will be drawing heavily on the discussion and definitions from the first article and so if you haven’t read that one you should.

What remains to be covered in this article is God’s intent for Creation and some summary statements. God’s intent for Creation can be seen at three points in salvation history: the beginning of Genesis, the end of Revelation, and the time in between where we live. Drawing a line that connects these points is ultimately more convincing than picking a verse here or there without a connection to the larger whole.

Genesis makes at least one clear statement about God’s intent for Creation: He intends for humanity to rule over it. This particular verse has been used to justify opposite views and so it’s worth asking whether the word has any particular connotations. Does it, perhaps, mean “rule, in a kindly, stewarding manner” or something more like “rule, crush, destroy, and then light on fire”? Unfortunately, it means rule as in “rule”. For instance, 1 Kings 4:24 uses the same word to describe Solomon’s rule over his lands. That’s not actually helpful. Should we focus on the authority aspect of kingship or on God’s will for all to use their power for the good of others (Mark 10:41-43, John 13:1-20)? This requires additional information, namely, how God Himself thinks of Creation.

The narrative thread of Genesis 1 is more useful. It culminates in two events: the creation of humans and the divine Sabbath. The question of why God creates what He creates is fundamentally unanswerable but the narrative arc is such that it makes sense to believe that God is preparing the world for humanity. At the same time, God has a lot of comments on the world. Each phase of creation follows a set formula which involves the words “and God saw that it was good”. When God makes the plants, the fish, the birds, and the beasts of the land, all of these are good. Notably, at least one of these groups of creatures, the sea monsters, are decidedly scary. This isn’t God creating bunnies and ducks and inoffensive turtles, calling them good, and then, post-Fall, adding in some sharks, lions, bears, and vipers. God is declaring everything He makes good.

This is an important point. It’s become common for Christians to slip into a very non-Christian dualism where the spirit is better than the material world. (This is possibly not a distinction that really has much to do with how the Bible uses the word ‘spirit’.) This inevitably leads to denying the goodness of Creation since that is a clearly material thing. However, God is quite willing to call all He has made good and I suggest that we take that seriously.

One reason we should take it seriously is that this dualism is unbiblical. It draws its primary support from the idea (sometimes expressed by those who think Christians shouldn’t give a rip about the environment) that one day our disembodied souls will go to heaven and all material things will cease to be. Unfortunately, that’s got almost nothing to do with the Bible and quite a lot to do with ancient Greek philosophical ideas. The Biblical hope is, throughout the New Testament, the resurrection of the dead. That’s resurrection, the dead living again, not the souls of the dead ascending into heaven. Moreover, the great scene in Revelation 21 where everything finally comes together for God’s people happens on earth. Not this earth, but the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to a new earth. Earth does not get sifted for good people and then thrown out while the elect go to heaven. Instead, heaven comes down to earth.

Perhaps even more importantly, Revelation 21 and 22 are full of Genesis language. It seems that the garden in Genesis (which was, we should point out, a gan, a walled palace garden, never really a wild thing) was always aimed at the heavenly city. But the heavenly city is meant to come to earth. At the end of Revelation the created order is not done away with but set right. There is a continuous thread connecting Genesis and Revelation in which the things that God made good are not good for a time but good for all time.

This is something that is, at least occasionally, echoed in the prophets. Most of us are familiar with Isaiah 11:6-9 where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. I suspect that few of us ever asked why the wolf should lie down with lamb rather than simply being forever absent from the kingdom of peace. Again, this seems to be tied into the goodness of Creation. In Ezekiel’s vision of the new Temple (Ezekiel 47) a river flows from the Temple. The river is full of living things and causes trees to grow on its banks. God’s blessing seems to be one that brings abundant life (and it’s no surprise that this river seems to be referenced in Revelation 22:1-2). Paul tells us that Creation itself is “groaning in pains of childbirth” as it awaits its freedom from the bondage of corruption (Romans 8:21-23). It would be rather odd, then, if Creation’s freedom was its dissolution.

But what is Creation good for? I hope I’ve made the case that God’s intent for Creation is rather large in scope. But what’s the point of it all? Why have mountains and waterfalls, cedars and sagebrush, rabbits and rattlesnakes? Some of these things rather obviously aid us in living. However, David tells us in the Psalms that “The heavens declare the glory of God, the expanse above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Psalm 148 envisions all creation praising God, with even the great sea monsters rising from the depths to praise the Lord. However, the longest section of the Bible that deals with the natural world is Job 38-41.

The book of Job up until this point has been an extended discussion between Job and his friends about whether Job is righteous and whether or not he has a complaint against God for the way he has been treated. In Chapter 38 God shows up and addresses Job. The four chapters of poetry that follow describe the gulf between God’s power and Job’s. Interestingly, these chapters focus on the natural world. Can Job send forth lightning? Can he hunt prey for lions? Can he lead out the constellations in their seasons? Has he seen the storehouses of snow? Walked the recesses of the deep? Commanded the morning? Did he give the horse its strength? Did he set the wild donkey free? (It is not entirely without irony that although the wild oxen will not consent to serve Job there are no wild oxen anymore. The great aurochs, almost certainly the beast referred to here, is now extinct, hunted into the eternal darkness by men who were unwilling to let it remain unbowed before them.)

In fact, the point God seems to be making with Creation within the book of Job is that Job should know that he is small and powerless. Even though humanity has dominion over all that lives, our dominion is still contested. Only God has complete rule and we should look at the universe that we don’t control and praise God. Psalm 8 brings these ideas together – God’s works declare that He is better than humans, but He has also seen fit to appoint them to a place higher than those works.

Creation seems to be, at the very least, of artistic value. God, Who is beyond all things, has seen fit to give us a world with zebras and elk, bamboo and oaks, mountains and canyons, and, until not all that long ago, dodos and running crocodiles, immense flightless moas and the awesome Haast’s eagle. To simply destroy all this seems at best ungrateful. We might understand why an earthly father would be displeased with us if he bought us a nice piece of expensive artwork and we used it to mop up spills. Some of the attitudes towards God’s Creation are functionally identical. In fact, Creation’s artistic value might be in the things we find least useful and most threatening. The death and terror of a great white shark striking prey does not seem to be part of God’s final grand design but I believe that the awesome power of a twenty-foot shark hurling itself from the water in a breaching attack is, even now, a reminder of the wonder that God has wrought.

So how should Christians view environmental issues? We should certainly not applaud greed or carelessness. We should strive to see that what we do to our world does not hurt our fellow humans. And, I think, we should remember that when God made the world he did not say anything like, “All that I have made is good, except wolves, which are probably a mistake.” Given this, I don’t think it’s really our place to go about getting rid of the bits of Creation that we can’t see the purpose of. The earth is the Lord’s. It seems simply Christian to act like that is true.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 27, 2012 8:50 pm

    LOL sorry about the glove. I just picked up The Genesis Enigma:

    Also, course reading is Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, and River of the Mother of God. Can’t complain :)

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