“The first step is admitting we’re the problem,” remarks columnist Paul Sullivan in the Toronto Metro. “Since 1970, 52 percent of the world’s population of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles—every living creature except people—have vanished….During the same period, the world’s human population nearly doubled, from 4 billion to over 7 billion.” Sullivan’s quoting figures from the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2014. From rampant deforestation, freshwater depletion, to an explosion of carbon emissions and rising global temperatures, humans are “taking over the neighbourhood and pushing everyone else out,” Sullivan writes. According to the report, human beings are now consuming the earth’s resources at a rate of 1.5 planets—an unsustainable and troubling reality. “The earth is defiled by its people,” says the prophet Isaiah, “they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant” (Isa 24:4-5). As Christians, how should we respond to this ethical tragedy?
The Edenic Covenant and Ecological Stewardship
The Bible begins with the miraculous story of creation. After creating the earth’s pristine ecosystems, God creates human beings (in His image) and places them in the Garden of Eden. They are commissioned to “take care” of the garden and to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 2: 15; 1:26). According to Old Testament scholar, James McKeown, the verb “to rule”—in this context of blessing—“should be understood as indicating supremacy that is harmonious and mutually beneficial.” In other words, human beings are to be ecological stewards of the earth – an earth seen as “very good” in the eyes of God (Gen 1:31). Sadly, due to original sin, the current reality of the human-earth relationship has fallen drastically short of the biblical ideal. Instead, economic profit and greed have replaced the biblical ethic of ecological stewardship and sustainability.
The Noahic Covenant and ecological preservation
We remember the circumstances and events surrounding the Noahic covenant. After sin invaded the world, God’s heart became “deeply troubled” because human beings developed a propensity for evil thoughts, wickedness, violence and corruption (Gen 6). Grief stricken and angry, God vocalizes the pain in His heart at the moral regression of His people: “I regret that I have made them” (Gen 6:7). So reluctantly, He decides to “wipe from the face of the earth” both human beings and the creatures they were commissioned to care for; apparently the disease of sin had spread to creation as a whole. But Noah—thankfully—finds favour in God’s eyes. This leads God to strike a covenant with Noah and the earth; a covenant that will preserve human beings and “all living creatures” through the ark (Gen 6:19-20).
We see here that God deeply cares for the creatures of the earth. This is evidenced in the fact that Noah is “to bring into the ark two of all living creatures,” because it is God’s desire that they should be “kept alive” – a phrase that is repeated in v. 19-20 highlighting its importance in the text. So, “while the covenant is communicated to Noah,” says McKeown, “it is made with every living creature and gives assurances about their continued existence.” As a sign of His promise, God hangs a ‘bow’ in the clouds, symbolizing a weapon of war no longer engaged in battle.
The Mosaic Covenant and Agricultural Sabbath
In fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, God then calls His people Israel and creates sacred space for them to be a blessing to the nations (Gen 22). Then, through the Mosaic covenant, God provides Israel with ritual, moral and legal laws to guide their ethics as a nation. One of these laws includes how Israel should manage its agricultural resources. Leviticus 25: 3-5 states:
For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.
At the heart of this agricultural law are the biblical ethics of ecological stewardship and sustainability. Following God’s ecological ethics, the practice of agricultural Sabbath ensures the relationship between human beings and creation is harmonious and mutually beneficial.
The Gospel and Ecological Renewal
First, it has to be said that evangelicals have been hesitant to embrace ecological stewardship in the Church today. This has been most apparent in Canada and the United States where partisan politics and dispensational theology distort the worldview of the gospel. Regardless of the distaste (and suspicion) among some evangelicals surrounding ecological stewardship and the climate crisis of our time, evangelicals in the not-so-distant past have embraced the biblical worldview with vibrant enthusiasm. One historical figure worth mentioning is John Wesley. He embraced an interpretation of the gospel that was holistic – extending God’s love to creation, including animals. Wesley writes: “insignificant as they seem, [animals] are the offspring of one common Father, the creatures of the same God of love.” For him, and many others, the gospel is a message of hope for new creation.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” says John in Revelation 21:1. Through this hermenuetic of hope, Christians are called to live today in a way that allows God’s eschatological promises of renewal to manifest in our world. Jesus teaches that God cares for “the birds of the air” and “the flowers of the field” (Matthew 6). In light of this, God’s people are empowered (through the Spirit) to care for creation by resisting greed, and instead, embracing a life focused on the righteousness of God (Matt 6:33). This means practicing a biblical ethic that opposes injustice, creates conditions for healing and offers hope to a sin-marred planet.
Living in the “now but not yet” is a daunting reality. But there is hope in the Bible. In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright explains: “The Bible is…the story of creation and new creation, and it is itself, through the continuing work of the Spirit who inspired it, an instrument of new creation in human lives and communities.” God cares for the ecosystems of the earth, which includes human and animal communities. Throughout the story of His people, God’s ethic of ecological stewardship remains constant: His people were created, and part of their mandate is to care for the earth and its creatures. We’re called to bless the nations and have been saved to be vessels of hope and renewal in the world, ecosystems and all.