The Christian and the Environment
In recent years Christians have been accused of being largely responsible for many of the ecological problems facing the world. Problems such as pollution of air and water, devastation of woodland, destruction of agricultural land, annihilation of many species of plants and animals and the despoliation of the countryside are claimed to stem from the Christian’s misinterpretation of Genesis 1: 28. It has been said that Christians have taken the command in this chapter “to have dominion over” as a charter to despoil and exploit nature for their own selfish interests. In the light of such criticism the Christian has a clear responsibility to examine carefully what the Bible has to say concerning his responsibility for the world in which he has been placed.
The Nature of the Environment
The word “environment” means “surroundings” and is used to refer to that which affects the lives of plants and animals, such as temperature, light, air, water, soil, other plants and animals including man. In the beginning God created all things, including the environment (Genesis ch. 1). At the end of each stage of creation God saw what He had made and it was “good”. He surveyed it also at the end of the creation period and pronounced the whole creation “very good”. Every plant was in perfect harmony with every other plant, all perfectly formed. There was nothing out of order, no pain, no suffering, no disease, no struggle for existence and no disharmony. Such a situation, however, did not last. Man sought to be like God and, as a consequence, committed sin. The resultant curse upon man and upon the whole earth affected the environment including plants and animals. The very ground itself was cursed and, since it is from the ‘dust of the earth’ that all things are made, these in turn were brought under the bondage of decay and disintegration. No longer was the creation in perfect harmony but it had become degraded. An indication of this degradation can be seen in factors such as inclement weather, disease, predation, parasitism, weed growth and such like.
However the world will not remain like this and the Christian can look forward to a time when nature will be restored; all natural and imposed imbalances and disorders rectified and transformed into something new (Rev. 21: 1-7). Col. 1: 19 and 20 states that this reconciliation will be achieved through the blood of Christ “For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross”. Not only did Christ create nature (Col. 1: 16), but through Him it will be redeemed. This theme is enlarged on in Romans 8: 19 – 22. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subject to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”.
Man’s Role in Nature as Laid Down by God
To understand man’s role in nature it is necessary to appreciate two important facts.
(a) Man is an integral part of nature.
This is seen in three ways
(i) Man has a similar chemical make up to other creatures.
General composition of the animal body %
Gen. 3: 19 states that “dust you are and unto dust you will return” and John 3: 31 declares “the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth.”
This creatureliness should be a humbling fact, particularly when it is realised that in 300 years time, if Christ has not come, there may be little difference physically between the people today and the pews on which they sit each Sabbath. By then both will have gone the way of all the earth.
(ii) There are certain organs in man’s body which resemble those in other animals. Francis Schaeffer points out (for example) that man shares a common lung system with dogs and cats. He states that this should not surprise anyone since both man and the other creatures were made to fit a common environment.
(iii) God Himself regarded mankind as part of creation. In Genesis 1 : 31 God is portrayed as seeing “all that He had made and it was very good”. No distinction is suggested between man and the rest of creation.
(b) Man is distinct from nature.
While man is an integral part of nature it must be emphasised also that he is distinct from it. Genesis 1: 27 states that man was created in the image of God. This made him unique. No other animal shared this privilege. By ‘image of God’ is meant those attributes which are peculiar to man amongst all created beings. Morris lists these as a moral consciousness, the ability to think abstractly, an understanding of beauty and emotion and above all the capacity for worshipping and loving God.
Not only did God make man in His image but He also gave him a special role in nature by making him responsible for it. In Genesis 1: 28 God told Adam to “subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that. moveth upon the earth”. The key word here is subdue. It is claimed that Christians have taken this to mean ‘exploit’ and as a result have been mainly to blame for the present environmental abuse. A careful study of the derivation of this word will show however that it means to ‘bring into subjection’. This does not imply the necessity to conquer as this meaning could not be applicable to the earth before the Fall — rather it means to bring into service. Berry in his book on Ecology and Ethics has suggested that this mandate from God means that man has to work with the natural world in the role of a manager or steward.3 This authority was delegated by God and was not to be exercised independently or arbitrarily by man to satisfy his own greed or lust for pleasure, although since the fall this is precisely what man has sought to do.
As a steward man is required to
(i) Treat the resources with respect and restraint. He must not waste or squander the resources for which he is responsible, because they are not his. They are still the Lord’s (Ps. 24: 1). In every day life people are required to treat the property of others with respect and when such property gets damaged the person responsible usually feels a sense of shame because it belonged to someone else. Inadvertently harming or misusing any of God’s resources should produce a similar feeling in God’s people. Time and again the Bible emphasises the need to exercise a caring and loving stewardship over creation, recognising that it is not man’s but the Lord’s. For example Leviticus 25: 1 – 5 highlights the requirement for land to have a rest from production, while Deuteronomy 25: 4 enjoins man to treat his domestic animals well. Likewise Deuteronomy 22: 6 requires a respect for wildlife. Christians love God and this should mean having respect for the things He has made and endeavouring to treat them in the way He treats them. Schaeffer points out that the value of things is not in themselves but in the fact that God made them.4 For example a tree is to be treated with respect because God made it, but it is not to be romanticised. If it has to be cut down for firewood then it can be cut down.
(ii) Put the resources to wise use. When God placed Adam in the garden He gave him specific instructions to “dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2: 15). In other words he was to be active in managing it for his needs and to keep it beautiful and orderly. Calvin puts it like this “The earth was given to man with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation . . . The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that, being content with a frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what remains. Let him who possesses a field so partake of its yearly fruits that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavour to hand it down to posterity as he received it or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits that he neither dissipates it by luxury nor permits it to be marred or ruined by neglect.”5 A study of Genesis 1: 29 and 30 and Genesis 2: 15 gives guidance concerning the uses to which God meant nature to be put. These are
(a) To satisfy man’s material needs.
These verses and othersmake it clear that plants and animals were given to man for food. With these privileges came responsibility. Man has been given, as it were, the key to a well-stocked larder and his corresponding duty is to see to its fair and sensible distribution. God in His wisdom has made provision for man’s material need—not his greed.
(b) To satisfy his need for pleasure and enjoyment.
Not only did (God plant a garden with food producing plants but He also catered for man’s aesthetic needs by planting trees which were good to look at. This is seen in Genesis 2: 9 where it is recorded that “out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight.” Let there be no doubt that Eden was a beautiful place before the Fall, and man was meant to enjoy it.
The wise use of the resources which God has given to mankind is emphasised elsewhere in Scripture. In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25: 26, 27) Jesus condemned the man who failed to make use of what he had been given.
(c)To try to understand the nature of the resources given.
In order to fulfil the cultural mandate given by God to dress and keep the garden, it was and still is necessary for man to have a knowledge of the needs and requirements of the other living things. For example, a farmer must have an understanding of the needs of his animals if he is to look after them properly. It is clear that Adam had a considerable knowledge of the rest of nature. In Genesis 2: 19
God brought the animals to Adam to name and each animal kept the name which Adam gave it. The fact that the name given to each animal was appropriate implies that these were not given rashly but from a certain knowledge gained from the exercise of his intelligence and the use of his critical and perceptive faculties. Clearly therefore the development of an understanding of nature is necessary to enable man to fulfil his responsibilities to God for the natural world. This is the basis for true scientific research. Man can therefore use the results of such research and technical innovation to satisfy his needs from nature without impinging any Biblical prohibition. For example he can use fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides to increase agricultural production but in doing so he has an obligation to understand fully the detrimental effects which the misuse of such chemicals can have on nature. He must always use them wisely, not simply to satisfy his own demands but in a way which will protect other parts of God’s creation.
The Misuse of the Environment
To survive and perpetuate, all organisms, be they plants or animals, require 3 basic things. These are:
A source of food including water.
Shelter to provide rest.
The conditions necessary for and the ability to reproduce.
From these three requirements two basic principles emerge
(a) No organism, including man, can live wholly alone and be totally independent of other organisms. For example man’s food consists of vegetable matter in the form of grain, potatoes etc. and/or animal protein such as milk, beef, mutton, chicken, fish etc. The living things from which these are derived depend for their food on other organisms, which in turn depend on yet other organisms and so on.
(b) Depriving a species of any of the three basic essentials for life will lead to the decline and ultimately the elimination of that species. When this happens there is a ‘knock-on’ effect which affects other organisms. This is seen when a herbicide is used to kill nettles. Not only will it eliminate the nettles but also the various species of butterfly which depend on the nettles for survival.
Man lives in a world with a vast number of other organisms, varying in size from tiny microscopic viruses to the blue whale. These animals and plants relate one to another in some way. Too many of one species leads to a decline in another and upsets the balance of nature. It is generally recognised that the most stable systems are those which are most diverse. In recent years, due mainly to improvement in agricultural technology, as well as other factors such as an increase in pollution, there has been a reduction in the species diversity throughout the world. This has caused many organisations, including the Food and Agricultural organisation of the United Nations and UNESCO, to express concern and alarm that such human activities were progressively reducing the earth’s life support capacity at a time when human numbers and consumption are making increasingly heavy demands.
This is the so-called ecological crisis. Not only are many species of plants and animals being eliminated, thus making the system less stable, but the natural resources on which man depends are being depleted or despoiled by the activities of man. This is nothing new as man commenced to misuse the environment at the Fall and has continued ever since, as can be seen from a study of Biblical and secular history. Nowhere is this more graphically illustrated than in the history of God’s chosen people Israel. They were given a good land to enjoy—a land flowing with milk and honey, as Deuteronomy 11 : 9 makes clear. They were also given a set of guidelines for its use (Lev. 25) and were warned what would happen if they did not obey these rules. Despite the warnings they did not obey and by Isaiah’s time the land had become derelict and lay waste (Isaiah 33: 9). It had become barren, the tree cover had disappeared and the soil was eroded away. The damage which was done to ancient Israel should be a cautionary lesson. God’s promises about the land flowing with milk and honey were conditional on Israel keeping His commandments “If you walk in my commandments . . . then the land shall yield its increase and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit (Lev. 25: 3 – 4).” It is important to recognise that God’s commandments regarding nature are still operative.
Another clear example of the misuse of the environment concerns the famous grain growing areas of the Middle East which supported the great Babylonian empires of a bygone day, but have now become desert as a result of man’s mismanagement. Overgrazing, intensive hill farming and deforestation of the highlands of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys resulted in large quantities of soil being eroded and deposited in the Persian Gulf. The result is that the mouth of these rivers is now 180 miles further out to sea than it was when these empires were at their peak.
Has the situation improved? The answer is NO. In fact most people consider that the rate at which the destruction of the environment is taking place has increased much more rapidly in recent times as the tools and machinery available to man for such work increase in capacity and sophistication. This is illustrated by the following examples:
Water — Pure water is essential for life. In this country every person uses about 38 gallons per day or, to put it another way, a family of 3 uses more than half a ton of water per day. The national consumption is about 14 thousand million gallons daily and it is expected that this will increase substantially. Despite the fact that water is essential to man’s survival, rivers and lakes continue to be polluted. In Britain, for example, some 20% of the rivers are now regarded as seriously polluted.8 Some of this pollution is deliberate, while some can be attributed to present agricultural practices. For example the use of fertilisers inevitably leads to run-off which will affect water supplies either by direct poisoning or by enriching the water to such an extent that the growth of algae is encouraged and its subsequent decay depletes the water of oxygen. In Northern Ireland, Lough Neagh has had its algal blooms which have resulted from nutrient enrichment of the lake from both agricultural and urban sources.
Like water, food crops are renewable resources. With proper management these can be maintained indefinitely. However there are major problems. For a start the world’s population is increasing rapidly and consequently there are more mouths to feed. This is illustrated by the fact that at the time of Christ it is estimated that the world’s population was only 300 million. By 1830 it had risen to I billion; one hundred years later in 1930 it had increased to 2 billion, 30 years later 3 billion, 15 years later 4 billion and it is expected that by 1986 it will have reached 5 billion. Many people are forecasting that by the turn of the century it will reach 6 billion.9 At present 450 million people are either starving or are severely under-nourished.10 Each year some 10-20 million people die of starvation and many more through a lack of a clean water supply.11 Horrific statistics, and yet the affluent nations continue to consume far more than their fair share of these scarce resources. It is estimated that the per capita consumption of the earth’s resources is 40 times greater in Switzerland than in Somalia.12 What should the Christian’s response be to this, bearing in mind the command of Christ that man is to love his neighbour as himself? One essential response is to increase food production, but besides the political, economical and social problems associated with distribution, there are technical limits to what is possible. For a start, suitable land is scarce with only about 11% of the world’s land area offering no serious limitations to agriculture. Despite this, large chunks of good agricultural land are taken out of agriculture each year to build roads, houses and factories on. For example in developing countries alone it is estimated that about 3,000 sq. kilometres of land (i.e. an area approximately the size of Co. Antrim) is submerged under sprawl each year. Japan alone lost 7.3% of its agricultural land to buildings and roads in the 10 year period between 1960 and 1970.13 Even in Northern Ireland about 27 sq. kilometres per year are taken out of agriculture, although in recent years this has been reduced considerably due to the depressed state of the economy.
At the other end of the scale considerable areas of land have been rendered useless to agriculture due to erosion and the onset of desert conditions. For example the Sahara Desert is extending its boundaries year by year at an alarming rate.14 More than half of India suffers from some form of soil degradation.15 Unwise decisions such as bringing unsuitable land into cultivation have turned part of the Southern States of U.S.A. into a ‘dust bowl’, as has happened to 50 million acres in the U.S.S.R.16 Recent programmes on television (Jan. 1984) have shown how large areas of the Amazon forests are being destroyed and the land allowed to go to waste. The present situation is that, while the world’s population is increasing at an alarming rate, the land available to feed them is decreasing.
Another factor which must be taken into consideration is that agriculture is now heavily mechanised and uses large quantities of chemicals in the form of fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides to sustain production. All this depends on fossil fuel, the supplies of which are finite. Indeed it is estimated that the world’s proven oil reserves will last only 29 years at the present rates of consumption.17 In addition supplies of essential nutrients such as phosphate and potash are also limited, although of longer duration. Moreover the economic reserves of lead, zinc, tin and uranium in the earth’s crust will have been extracted by the turn of the century.18 Besides the problem of reduced area of land coupled with the gradual depletion of our non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and metals there is a reduction in the genetic material available for crop and animal improvement. This has arisen through the extinction of many plant and animal species, ironically brought about in the main by improvements in agriculture. The loss of such will impose limitations on the further improvements possible. Yet despite this and the loss of many species of wildlife through, in some cases, the needless destruction of habitats, mankind goes on as if there were no problems at all. Indeed some of the species which are becoming extinct could be useful to man in the future. A recent estimate suggested that 25,000 plant species and more than 1,000 vertebrate (animals with a backbone) species and sub species of animals are threatened with extinction. If invertebrates (animals without a backbone) are included it is estimated that from half a million to 1 million species will have been made extinct by the end of the century – such have been the effects of man’s stewardship.
Man’s Future Responsibility in the Light of Biblical Teaching
The Bible makes it clear that God requires man to act as a steward in relation to the environment, but that because of sin man has failed to discharge his duties properly. Indeed it is impossible for him to discharge these duties fully until he enters into a right relationship with God. In the light of this certain important principles arise which have clear implications for mankind in general and Christians in particular.
(1) The environmental crisis can only begin to be solved when men and women are brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only when man gets right with God is he in a position to understand, appreciate and relate to the environment in which God has placed him. It follows from this that Christians have a great responsibility. They should not be destroyers of nature but should treat it with respect. Their standards must be in accordance with God’s Word, and their activities must always be viewed in relation to these standards. If they abuse the environment and disobey God’s Word they will be called to answer for this at the day of judgement. The solution of the world’s ecological problems is therefore first and foremost a moral one. Professor Rowland Moss puts it like this “Man holds his brother, his crops and his animals and his land and its resources in trust or on lease from God who requires responsible, wise and conservative use and care of all that He has provided. I am my bother’s keeper—and I am also responsible for my land, and its resources, not only for the present but also for future generations.
(2) Christians have some responsibility for those other members of the human race who are starving. Is it right for affluent Christians to take to themselves such large and unequitable amounts of the world’s resources to satisfy their desires? Many have homes bigger than they need, and a number have two or more cars. While the Lord has undoubtedly blessed this nation it would seem that many now regard all such blessings as their right. Statements from Trade Unions and Employers alike would appear to confirm this. Perhaps this nation is like the Israelites of old when the Psalmist was moved to write “The Lord gave them the desires of their heart, but sent leanness to their souls”.
(3) Christians should try to appreciate more the wonder of the creation in which God has placed them. Every time they look at it, knowing that it was God who created it, they should feel a greater sense of awe and wonder concerning the power and glory of God.
(4) Christians should raise their voices in protest when the environment is treated in a way which is contrary to God’s command. For example, polluting the environment, whether through a farmer discharging slurry into a watercourse or someone dropping rubbish on the road, indicates a disregard for God’s Law. Moreover Christians should think seriously about their attitudes to hunting and fishing for sport. Are such activities consistent with man’s God given role as a steward?
(5) It is the Christian’s duty to bring the good news of salvation to sinful men. Only when people are in a right relationship to God can they appreciate the full meaning of life and its environs.
It is to be remembered, however, that the curse which God placed upon the ground has not been lifted and that, until that happens, the creation remains subject to decay. Furthermore, since this curse was the direct result of sin, man should never presume that by his own efforts he can restore the earth to its former glory.
There is, nevertheless, the promise that “the creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom. 8: 21). This can come only through Christ, in that this bondage is bondage to sin. And it will come. Man can be sure of a restored creation, in that part of that creation has been restored already: “. . . if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5: 17).