President Joe Biden opened a two-day virtual climate summit on Earth Day by committing the United States, the world’s second largest greenhouse-gas producer after China, to reducing emissions 50–52 percent below 2005 levels. It’s an ambitious goal, one that the US is not on track to come close to meeting. Emissions this past year were projected to be down more than 20 percent, mostly due to the pandemic’s impact on human activity. But with restrictions easing, pressure mounts on the world to return to normal, which is bad news for the atmosphere since this means releasing carbon to levels higher than has ever happened naturally in over 20,000 years.
Jesus foretold environmental demise on a cosmic scale while standing in the temple courts, symbolic of creation itself as the abode of the Almighty. Jesus cited ancient apocalyptic language about the darkening sun and moon, famines, earthquakes, and war (Mark 13:5–25).
Jesus’ grim forecast nevertheless provides solace in God’s sovereignty and concern for his people (13:13). The Lord will watch over human life (Ps. 121:7–8). Unfortunately, this solace sometimes mixes in nationalist politics and laissez-faire economics alongside long-held suspicions of science as a secular displacement for faith. Christians have expressed skepticism over government rules restricting economic activity, and skepticism over scientific predictions of the future given past inaccuracies. Currently, over a third of evangelicals say there is “no solid evidence” that climate change is happening.
If only this were true. Instead, an overwhelming body of evidence starting in the mid-1800s aboard ships and progressing to recent tracking from satellites, geologic data, and computational analysis all converge to affirm the earth is getting hotter. More than 90 percent of earth scientists concur and point to humans as the primary cause. Rising tides, extreme weather, and hotter temperatures notwithstanding, climate change unheeded threatens to destroy economies, render parts of the world uninhabitable, and exacerbate disparities between rich and poor. Exactly what this may look like remains to be seen—consensus on warming isn’t consensus on its future effects—but the worries are real.
My adolescent daughter regularly bemoans being born whenever she hears catastrophic outlooks: “Why did you bring me into such a world?”
According to Robin Globus Veldman, assistant professor of religious studies at Texas A&M University, some evangelicals resist dire prognostications on climate and policies in part because of an anticipation of Christ’s return. The world is the abode of evil, destined for extinction by the triumphant return of Jesus (Rev. 19:11–21). Add to eventual triumph the inherent temporality of earthly life, and you end up with less concern for preserving the planet.
From our inception, God granted humans dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28), implying how, as image-bearers, our care for creation should reflect his own (Gen. 2:15; Lev. 25:3–5). This ordained responsibility and power should encourage creativity in developing climate solutions and motivate lifestyle modifications. Still, sinful human nature being what it is, we are prone to abuse power and serve ourselves, perverting the duty of dominion into domination, with the aftermath being detrimental outcomes for ourselves, our communities, and potentially our planet.
Jesus’ resurrection and return are God’s final answers to all depravity and destruction. The Son of Man comes “in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” (Mark 13:26–27). Jesus ascribes Daniel 7, a pinnacle vision of Old Testament prophecy, to himself. Daniel saw “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. … He was given authority, glory and sovereign power” (vv. 13–14).
Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man” throughout the gospels, by which he meant more than a normal human being. As we know from Christmas, Jesus was the son of no man but was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thus endued with divine right to judge human sin. New Testament scholar Elizabeth Shively further notes that the darkening sun and shaking heavens represent Jesus’ judgment against demonic powers too.
Yet this assurance of future divine triumph and all things made new is not grounds for leaving the present to ruin. Jesus’ return is no release from responsibility. On the contrary, our care and concern for the earth and its inhabitants is a basis on which our own faithfulness will be judged (Matt. 25:14–30; Mark 13:33–34; Luke 18:8).
For Christians who view creation as God’s handiwork (Ps. 19:1), our faith compels us to praise, give thanks, and participate as wise stewards. I try in small ways to do my part. I keep bees, eschew herbicides, drive an electric hybrid, and installed solar panels. But given the magnitude of the warnings, my tiny efforts likely do more to assuage my conscience and impress my liberal neighbors than mitigate global catastrophe.
Worldwide systemic reordering is needed, an enormous task demanding immense political will, especially from richer countries that emit greenhouse gases at the highest levels. Roughly 40 percent of US electricity came from renewables and nuclear power in 2020. We will need that number to rise to 80 percent by 2030 to get halfway toward Biden’s overall goal of 50 percent reductions.
Individuals and churches can showcase loving dominion as well as advocate for political action. Such action along conservationist and preservationist lines can help unleash nature’s own resources for recovery—a testimony to creation’s power endued by God—but also a necessity for human survival. There is a fundamental solidarity between creatures made in God’s image and creation in which God’s image dwells, a fundamental continuity between creation and new creation, with our new birth igniting its new birth (Rom. 8:20–23).
Scripture’s promise of new creation specifically includes a new heaven and earth (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1), a new world but not necessarily so different. The fundamental continuity between creation and new creation suggests a new earth modeled after our own. Ours, therefore, is not a throwaway planet, any more than our bodies are mere jars of clay to be carelessly tossed aside. Christians confess the resurrection of the body patterned after Jesus’ own resurrected body, and similarly an emergence of a new habitation patterned after new heaven itself (Rev. 21:2). Eternal life is not lived by ethereal beings floating on clouds, but by the newly embodied within a new city where God’s glory provides all the light (v. 23).
Christians hold that the created and cursed is the very stuff that gets redeemed and glorified. Though all things die and return to dust, it is out of that same dust that resurrection happens. Just as we experience foretastes of our future salvation in the present—in worship, in community, in beauty, and in love—so should we experience foretastes of our reconciliation with our environment. Our anticipated reconciliation should affect the ways we interact with the earth—the energy we burn, the gardens we tend, the food we eat, the water we use, the restraints we impose regarding consumerism and waste, the policies for which we advocate. As redeemed people, dominion invites us to live aspects of eternal life now, on earth as it will be in heaven.
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief at Christianity Today.
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