"tar sands, Alberta"by howlmontreal is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Note: This article is written primarily for Christians. However, non-Christian climate activists may find the arguments here useful in confronting those (mostly conservative) Christians who, despite all the evidence, deny that climate change is real, or who don’t think they need to be concerned about it.
Bible commentators in the past, interpreting Revelation 11:17-18, have recognized that there is a class of rulers who have abused humanity; who have caused unnecessary wars and suffering; who have exploited the earth for riches and left devastation and ruin behind. But it is only now, in our time, that humans have developed the capacity to completely destroy life on earth. It is only in our time that this prophecy could be fulfilled.
There are enough modern nuclear weapons that, if ever used, would render the earth mostly uninhabitable. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was just a small taste of what would happen today on a global scale, if ever these advanced weapon systems were used.
But it is climate change, caused by humans burning fossil fuels, that is an exponentially increasing threat now. NASA's website reported that, "Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.” Climate change has been causing more frequent and more powerful storms, droughts, forest fires, and floods (because the ground is too dry to absorb the rain water). Climate change is causing the loss of habitat for land and ocean species, species extinction (150-200 per day), food and water shortages, and mass migrations. This is bad enough, but now we have entered the acceleration phase of global warming and it is truly frightening.
The conservative IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), made up of the world’s leading climate scientists, has just released its 2023 report and it is dire. The Guardian (March 20, 2023) reports that, “Scientists have delivered a “final warning” on the climate crisis, as rising greenhouse gas emissions push the world to the brink of irrevocable damage that only swift and drastic action can avert.” And now we have an El Niño forming in the Pacific Ocean which will add to global warming over the next few years. According to Politico (June 14, 2023), “the Pacific Ocean phenomenon risks causing floods in some parts of the world, drought in others while breaking global temperature records, affecting food production and potentially causing trillions in economic costs.” Considering the curse of Revelation 11:17-18, it is imperative that all people, but especially Christians—who claim to follow biblical teachings—understand what their responsibility is with respect to the earth.
In Genesis 1:26-28, humans are commanded to "rule" (Hebrew, rada) and "subdue", (kabash) creation. This has led some to rationalize the exploitation of creation for profit. However, in Genesis 2:15, the Hebrew words abad, "to serve", and shamar, "preserve" are used. Serving and preserving creation obviously disqualifies ruining it in the course of business. If we put all these commands together, we can see that God intended humans to manage creation wisely, not exploit it for profit. Humans, because of their brain capacity and being made in the image of God, were delegated this authority and responsibility (Ge 1:27). "Rule" and "subdue" can be understood in things like controlling growth of an invasive plant species, or protecting farm animals from predators. Humans were expected to intervene in nature where necessary, to keep an ecological balance and to maintain the health, abundance, and variety of plant and animal life.
Sadly, we have utterly failed. The Arctic is melting, and once it is ice free—which can happen any year now—the North will heat up quickly and take the rest of the planet with it. In 2020, for the first time since records were kept, new Arctic sea ice was not forming in October. This is a major red flag. Antarctica is not far behind: scientists are alarmed at the rate glaciers are melting there. Wildfires in California will likely only get worse going forward. The Colorado River, which supplies water to seven states, is drying up. Species are collapsing around the world: we are losing about 150-200 species every single day. Floods and storms are increasing in magnitude and frequency. Oceans are becoming too acidic and warm to support life. Diseases are on the increase as humans encroach on and exploit natural habitat. In Brazil, the neo-fascist government of Bolsonaro had opened up the rainforest to unprecedented exploitation and ruin. Fires, set by greedy farmers and miners, are still burning across Brazil's forests, killing animals, pushing out indigenous peoples, and destroying the environment. Why? So grass can be planted and beef can be raised to feed the ravenous appetite for steaks and hamburgers. Or so miners can get access to minerals to sell. After the land has been used for grazing or mining, it is ruined and more land must be burned for next year. Considering Brazil's rainforest is called "earth's lungs"--a reference to its exceptional capacity to create oxygen from carbon dioxide--wiping it out for hamburgers and steaks or to mine minerals is arguably a crime against humanity. Those of us who enjoy eating beef should think carefully about the costs to the environment.
"GP1SU5A8"by Tropical Forest Fires Watch is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The pollution of air, oceans, lakes, streams, and land is well known. Greedy corporations pay off politicians to deregulate their industries to increase profit. In many cases, after the wealth has been extracted, the companies move on, leaving the government and its peoples to clean up and pay for the mess. The Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, is a case in point (see the image above). The oil is contained in bitumen, and is mined in open pit fashion, leaving huge swaths of territory ecologically ruined. It is then mixed with benzene to dilute it, and pushed through pipelines to the West Coast of British Columbia, where it is pumped onto ships and sent to market. The Canadian Federal Government of Justin Trudeau intends to expand this pipeline, significantly increasing the risk of spillage at sea or pipeline failure. And diluted bitumen is very difficult to clean up—it will ruin British Columbia's pristine coastline and the ecological systems that rely on it. And there are many, many more examples of ecological destruction caused by human greed and corrupt or incompetent governments. There is also a major issue of fairness and justice: the Global North, because of its advanced industrial base, has done most of the damage to earth’s climate, but the Global South is experiencing the worst effects—including projected temperatures that will make human life impossible in some places.
Some Christians rationalize the ruining of the earth with their eschatology; that is, their views on the so-called end times. These Christians argue that 2 Peter 3:10 and Revelation 21:1 teach that God will burn up the earth and create a new one, so why care? Even if this was true, it sounds cavalier and does not take away from the fact that we are commanded to care for the earth. If we ruin it, we still fall under the curse of Revelation 11:17-18. But God is not going to burn up the earth. "The earth remains forever" (Eccl 1:4). These Christians will counter with: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed" (2 Pet 3:10). Some translations say "burned up" but the earliest manuscripts say "exposed" or "uncovered". Fire in Scripture is often used symbolically to refer to a refining or judgmental work of God (Mal 3:2; Is 4:4; Zech 13:9). The purpose of the symbolic judgmental fire is to expose the wicked works, not to destroy the planet. The exposing or uncovering of these wicked works is for the purpose of judgement upon those whose works these are. The reference to the heavens and heavenly bodies being burned up is a reference to the current wicked powers that the Apostle Paul said would be done away with:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. - Ephesians 6:12
It is these satanic spiritual forces that will be done away with, and their wicked works revealed, including the wicked works of those people who are deceived and manipulated by them here on earth.
A curious defense of climate change denial among some Christians is to examine the Greek word for earth, in “God will destroy those destroying the earth” : gē, and claim that it refers to humanity only, not earth itself. According to BDAG Third Edition, the authoritative lexicon of the New Testament, gē has the primary meaning of, “surface of the earth as the habitation of humanity, earth,” and a secondary meaning of, “the inhabitants of the earth, people, humanity.” It is argued that John must have meant the secondary meaning, not the primary. But John could have used other words here if he had humanity itself in mind exclusively. The Greek word laos, “the people”, or anthropoi, “human beings”, would have sufficed. However, it should be obvious that if you destroy earth’s ability to support life by promoting, selling, and burning fossil fuels, and then lying about the impacts on climate, as some oil companies have done, you are also destroying the life that depends on a healthy planet! So quibbling about the meaning of gē in this passage is really just a diversion and no substantial argument at all. If John had meant both meanings: the earth and the people on it, then those destroyed in God’s judgment would also include those that killed people— whether in war, by pollution, through organized violence, or some other means.
In Revelation 21:1-5, the New Jerusalem, representing God's Kingdom rulership, descends from heaven to the earth where it remains, so God will be with his people forever. World renowned bible scholars like N.T. Wright, convincingly argue that the earth will be renewed, just like our bodies will be renewed, in the resurrection. Romans 8:21 speaks of all creation groaning in its corruption, waiting for the "revealing of the sons of God"; that is, the return of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of humans, and the renewal of the cosmos. The earth is not going to be burned up; it's going to be wonderfully and gloriously renewed! Our responsibility to be good stewards of God's creation will continue on into the next age—the age of Christ’s rule over this earth, also known as the Kingdom of God.
So what should Christians do? Given our responsibility to care for the earth, and the dire curse against those who refuse, we must make creation care a top priority Christian project. In our preaching and teaching work, it is imperative to include the responsibility to care for creation as a non-negotiable priority for believers. For those pastors who are afraid to offend those with climate change denying views in their congregation, think carefully. If you are silent, you are complicit.
See the Rebel Jesus Band's music video: Creation Cries