Christians have had a mixed record when it comes to concern for the environment. Some have felt the deterioration of planet Earth is a sign of the last days, while a growing number—citing the biblical principle of stewardship—are working hard to care for their created context. The real question is this: How serious is the “crisis” the media speak about? And more crucial, what is an appropriate biblical concern?

We might conclude from news reports that, since the first “Earth Day” in 1970, things have continued to grow worse. Rain forests in Brazil, according to UN estimates, are disappearing at the rate of 50,000 acres a day; tons of topsoil are lost each year in the American Midwest; the movement of the Sahara down into Africa is measured in miles per year.

This last devastation struck me in a personal way recently while living in Kenya. There I often watched Kikuyu women bent under great loads of firewood weighing as much as 50 pounds. My wife, an anthropologist, discovered these women would walk for hours each day to find firewood in order to cook for their families. Looking down from the air, we saw giant, barren circles surrounding villages where women had scraped the ground clean in their frantic effort to eke out a living. There we saw clearly a struggle between human life and care for the Earth. Were we to work to preserve the landscape or to help the people in their struggle for survival?

Since coming back to America we have been struck by the ease with which we can bemoan the population or environmental problems of people in the Third World. Meanwhile, our 8 percent of the world’s population continues to use 40 percent of Earth’s resources, glibly assuming that our technical prowess will somehow solve these global inequities.

Hopeful Signs

More and more, however, these problems are seen as not merely technical, but religious in character. We will not find the answers in our laboratories (though more time should be spent on these issues there), but in the depths of our national soul.

On this score there are hopeful signs. Primary among them is the growing recognition of the seriousness of these issues and the necessity of addressing them on several levels. A 1990 New York Times poll indicated that 84 percent of Americans see these concerns as a serious national problem; 71 percent are willing to increase their taxes to solve them; 56 percent are even willing to see jobs lost (presumably not their own) to address the problem.

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And progress has been made. Since the early 1970s, we have reduced the emission of carbon dioxide (the pollutant mainly at fault for the so-called greenhouse effect) from our cars by 85 percent; we have cleaned up many lakes and rivers as well as many other areas polluted with toxic waste. But what progress have we made in addressing the religious dimension?

Here I find the most cause for encouragement. More and more, ecological concerns are being addressed in the context of values and religious commitments. Unfortunately, many are proposing “new age” types of answers. But at least people are beginning to acknowledge that the underlying problem is a religious one. Christians are more frequently being invited to address these questions. Twice last year, around Earth Day, I was invited to address meetings sponsored by religious coalitions who wanted to find out what the Bible and what evangelicals have to say about ecology.

This is encouraging because Christians have not always been welcome at ecology conferences. In 1967 ecologist Lynn White published a now-famous article blaming the environmental crisis on the Christian view of Creation. Since then, Christians have been on the defensive, hiding out on the fringes of the ecology movement. But with the recent revival of interest in religion, Christian perspectives on these things are being given a new hearing. In what follows, I would like to lay out four biblical principles of Christian concern for the Earth that may win a new hearing in our postsecular era.

God’S Good Creation

The first principle is that the Earth is God’s good creation.

One of the most basic questions the environmental movement faces is why we should care for the Earth. Most discussions assume that care for the Earth is necessary for human and global survival. But the Christian has a far more comprehensive answer: We care for the Earth because its value reflects the goodness of God himself. Its beauty and value are not accidental, but built in by its Creator. In a sense, then, any attack or injury to this goodness reflects on God—it has an overtone of blasphemy to it.

We human beings are put here to “work” and “take care of” this goodness (Gen. 2:15, NIV). Notice that we do not create its fertility, but we can encourage and protect it; and, sadly, we can injure it. So there is a good order, in which humans play a key role, but it is an order that serves a higher purpose: to glorify God.

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Ecologists talk a great deal about this “good order,” but they come at it another way. Holmes Ralston, for example, in his important book Philosophy Gone Wild (1989), argues that we have a duty to the Earth to “stabilize the ecosystem through mutually imposed self-limited growth.” This imperative is based on the assumption that we ought mutually to preserve life. Pioneer conservationist Aldo Leopold put it this way: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and the beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Now this is all good as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough in two directions. On the one hand, sustainability, while a worthy goal, is ultimately unachievable. In his book Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World (1989), Jeremy Rifkin points out that current conservation measures should be seen as a “transitional adaptation” along the road to a far more radical transformation of values. The quest for “stability” or “homeostasis” (and the recycling that supports it) is important, but in the end it is not nearly radical enough.

But there is an even more serious limitation of the “sustainability” thesis. Behind our Western discussion of ecology and natural order lies a massive assumption: Life as it is on the Earth is good and so must be preserved. But what if life is not good, but brutish and mean? Balance is easy for us to endorse after a good dinner in a heated building, but what does it mean to the woman hauling 50 pounds of wood several hours a day?

The problem with our search for stability of the ecosystem is that something has gone dreadfully wrong with the system. It is sick unto death, a sickness that is narrated in the early chapters of Genesis. Adam and Eve’s disobedience had immediate and long-term ecological effects: “Cursed is the ground because of you,” Adam is told (Gen. 3:17). Moreover, the problem, the Bible makes clear, is not only—or even mainly—in the environment, it is in us, all of us. As Isaiah put it: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (53:6, NIV).


It appears we are stuck in a deteriorating situation, desperately in need of the second biblical principle: liberation.

There is a sober realism to the biblical account of human life on the planet. After the Earth is cursed, Adam and Eve are put out of the garden, and soon after, Cain kills his brother Abel. What is wrong with the Earth issues in a loss of paradise and great human disorder.

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To address this disorder God did not use half-measures. When Israel became enslaved to Egypt, he did not merely give them the law with provision for weekly recycling. He smashed the powers that held them in bondage, delivered them from Egypt, and planted them in the fertile Land of Canaan.

In the New Testament, God intervened in a final way in Christ’s life to bind the powers that hold the world in slavery and to deliver the prisoner. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). And Paul elsewhere tells us that “creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed … in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:19, 21, NIV).

If the cosmic disorder is caused by sin, the most important ecological principle is liberation from bondage to sin. What might this mean for the environment? I think it will mean different things for different parts of the world.

For us in the West, it will mean liberation from what Robert Bellah calls our “advanced poverty.” We are in bondage to a way of life that is destructive not only to our environment, but to our families, our friends, our health, even our souls. We need to be set free. And no talk of the environment will make much progress apart from this fundamental recognition.

For the rest of the world, the cry is for liberation from the crushing weight of economic poverty. The World Bank reports that 800 million people live in what it calls “absolute poverty”—that is, having per-capita incomes of less than $200 per year. In our generosity, we are anxious to help them stop their slash-and-burn farming, their having large families, their scouring the land for firewood. What they need is liberation from the poverty that drives them to scrape clean the Earth to survive.

The fundamental liberation for all of us is from our sin, that rebellion against God that keeps us in bondage. But this rescue will lead to transformed lives and communities. Moreover, I believe the transformation called for in the West and in the Third World are profoundly related. Notice that it is precisely that from which we both need liberation—we from our wasteful lifestyles, they from their grinding poverty—that is most destructive to the environment. Could it be that apart from our deliverance from our bondage to affluence they will not be freed from their poverty?

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It is significant that Jesus struck this note of liberation in his first sermon at Capernaum: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19).


In fact, Jesus is quoting from a passage in Isaiah that many believe relates to the third principle of Christian ecology: jubilee.

All the realities we have considered come together in the biblical principle of jubilee. The jubilee is an extension of the sabbath principle, that one in every seven days or years should be set apart for rest and refreshment. Interestingly, the principle applies not only to people but to animals and even the land itself.

Every 50 years Israel was called to celebrate a supersabbath called the jubilee: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family.… [In this year] you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself.… For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you” (Lev. 25:10–12).

As this is explained in Leviticus, there are three components to this event. First, to relieve poverty the land is redistributed and all debt is released. Second, the land is meant to lie fallow so that its fertility can be restored. Finally, the human family and community is celebrated and strengthened.

Jesus announces the presence of this jubilee reality in Luke 4 and when he urges: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). His Earth-shaking work is meant to include the devastation of the environment as part of the ravages of sin in its purview. But the question immediately arises as to what this means for us.

At first blush, such reordering seems either wildly impractical or dangerously revolutionary. Even if we might understand what this means in an agrarian economy—everyone understands something of the benefits of land reform in Central America and the Philippines—what could this mean in a modern industrialized nation?

In the March 1990 issue of Tikkun, Jewish scholar Arthur Waskow proposed that the jubilee model be used to develop strategies for dealing with economic inequality and environmental issues. First, he proposed that through taxation, capital be made available for financing Third World projects. Second, he urged periodic sabbaticals on research and development to assess the impact of projects on economic inequality and the environment. Third, he suggested we make regular and inclusive celebrations of community and family empowerment a high priority of our political life.

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While we may have questions about some of these proposals, they do suggest there may be some industrial equivalent to the biblical “land reform” policies. Land reforms have proven possible and helpful in some places, but other reforms are also necessary. Obviously, much thought and planning must still be done. But if we are to preserve our Earth, this work must be given a high priority.


These momentous changes can only come about if we take our fourth and final principle with sufficient seriousness: repentance.

If the problem is not in creation alone but in us as well, in our abuse of the land and of our neighbors, then things will not change apart from a radical spiritual change in our hearts and our communities. The Bible describes the radical response that is appropriate in a single word: repentance.

We must turn our lives around and inside out. The death and resurrection of Christ put before the world the only chance for real deliverance. To follow Christ, then, is at the same time to respond to the Earth’s ecological crisis.

In the end, it is not only encouraging that Christians have become more concerned about the future of the Earth, it is essential that they continue in this path. For it is finally only the gospel that frees people from their sins and will one day free the Earth.

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