God will Destroy Those Destroying the Earth - Revelation 11:17-18
Updated: Oct 8
Disclaimer: Bible prophecy interpretation is complex, and as Sir Isaac Newton noted, generally not well understood until fulfillment. Yet Jesus told his disciples to "keep on the watch" and to "lift up your heads" when they see significant events--that deliverance is near. It is in this spirit that this is written: to help Christians make sense of today's events in the context of prophecy. There is no claim to inspiration or special insight. All errors are mine.
Bible commentators in the past, interpreting this passage, have recognized that there is a class of rulers that have abused humanity; that have caused unnecessary wars and suffering; that 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 organized human society. 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 reports 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." Considering the curse of Revelation 11:17-18, it is imperative that all people, but especially Christians, 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 for profit. If we put these two commands together, we can see that God intended humans to rule and subdue creation for the purpose of serving and preserving it. Humans, because of their brain capacity and being made in the image of God, were delegated the authority and responsibility for maintaining God's creation on earth. "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 there are ice free winters--which can happen any year now--the North will heat up quickly and take the rest of the planet with it. In this year of 2020, for the first time since records were kept, Arctic sea ice is not forming in October. This is a major red flag. Antarctica is not far behind: scientists are alarmed at the rate ice sheets are melting there. Wildfires in California will likely only get worse going forward. Species are collapsing around the world. Floods and storms are increasing in magnitude and frequency. Diseases are on the increase as humans encroach on and exploit natural habitat. In Brazil, the neo-fascist government of Bolsonaro has opened up the rainforest to unprecedented exploitation and ruin. Fires, set by greedy farmers and miners, are 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. After the land has been used for grazing, 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 is arguably a crime against humanity. Those of us who enjoy eating beef should think carefully about the costs to the environment.
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. 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 the oil, and pushed through pipes to the West Coast of British Columbia, where it is pumped onto ships and sent to market. The Federal Government of Justin Trudeau intends to expand this pipeline, significantly increasing the risk of spillage at sea or pipeline failure. And bitumen cannot be cleaned up. When it spills, it will sink to the bottom of the ocean, ruining 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 governments.
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 the bible says God will burn up the earth and create a new one, so why care? Even if this was true, it 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). But these Christians will counter with 2 Peter 3:10: "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." Some translations say "burned up" but the earliest manuscripts say "exposed" or "uncovered". The purpose of the 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 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. - Eph 6:12
It is these satanic spiritual forces that will be done away with, in order to reveal their wicked works on earth, including the wicked works of those people who are deceived and manipulated by them.
In Revelation 21:1-5, the New Jerusalem 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 and the glorious 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.
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.