Why a Christian conservation organisation?

Towards A Biblical Approach to Creation

by Rev Dave Bookless

In a secular world, many people do not see the relevance of Christian belief. This article gives clear reasons why Christianity is a superb basis for fuelling care for God's world.

The Crisis

It is has almost become commonplace to say that the major issue facing the world in the 21st century will be the ecological crisis that is overwhelming the planet. And this is no mere scare mongering. Scientists are united in believing that the world’s population cannot carry on living the way it has been. In Britain we are running out of space to deal with the waste we create - each of us, man, woman and child throws out 2lbs (0.9kg) of waste every day - making a colossal 18m tonnes per year. In some other western nations the statistics are even more worrying. Global warming is no madcap theory - it is a fact that six out of the seven warmest years on record have been since 1980.

Sir John Houghton, ex head of the British Meteorological Office (and a committed Christian) has chaired the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change. He speaks of the unanimity that scientists around the world share in the face of the evidence. He also speaks of the difficulty in persuading governments to act. Sir John tells of a meeting briefing Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister and of later leaving Downing Street with one of her Cabinet who said bluntly - these issues are too long term for me to bother about. Why? Because the voters - you and I - have not made long term care of the environment a vote-winning issue.

So how should Christians react?

Most of us have heard the rhetoric many times about pollution, deforestation, holes in the ozone layer and so on. I don’t want to cover the same ground again. Instead I want to ask how Christians are to react to these issues. The problem is that Christians have been divided about how to react. I can think of at least four main reactions I have encountered in recent years. Some would say that the whole Green Movement is insidious - it is closely tied to the New Age, to paganism and the occult. Christians should keep well clear.

A second view is that such concerns are not so much insidious as irrelevant - they don’t really concern us - and are a distraction from the central issues of evangelism, revival, church planting or whatever. After all, as the old song says, This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through. A third group say environmental concerns are legitimate and some Christians are called to work in that area but it’s not something that we all need to be concerned about - it’s incidental - but important enough that somebody (as long as its not me) does something. It’s a special interest thing - Christians in Conservation, a bit like Christians in Sport. So three views - green issues are either invidious, irrelevant, or {incidental.

A different view

I want to put forward a different view - that concern for the environment is integral to Christian faith. It is not incidental but fundamental to the God of the Bible, and to his purposes for human beings. I have not always believed this. It is something that I have gradually grown into over the last few years. It began back in the late 1980s when the media in Britain was making much of green issues and of the damage we are doing to the world. For me the personal turning point was a family holiday on the tiny island of St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall. There the only forms of waste disposal were either to burn it, or throw it over a cliff. One cliff at the end of the island was dedicated to non-flammable rubbish - cans, plastics, old cars, televisions. It struck me there that this is what we in the West all do all the time, but that usually it is hidden from us by garbage cans, regular waste collections and carefully obscured landfill sites.

In the stillness and beauty of that place, but faced with the mess our lifestyles were doing to it, I sensed God’s Spirit speaking to me about the pain he felt at the mess we make of his world. After that holiday I began to read the Bible with new eyes - and began to be amazed at all the references of God’s care for the earth and our human responsibility. I also discovered I was not alone. In fact what had happened to me was happening to Christians in many places. I discovered A Rocha - Christians in Conservation - at that time a small group putting the call for creation-care into practice in a threatened habitat in Portugal - I’ll say more of A Rocha later. In fact, I found God’s Holy Spirit is convicting and calling Christians from all over the world to repent for the damage we have done, and to care for God’s earth.

Well! I’ve made a fairly big claim - that to care about the environment is integral to Christian faith - and not merely an optional extra, so let me try to defend that claim, and make an even bigger one! I want to show that the link between Christian faith and practical conservation is at the heart of each of the major themes running through Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I want to be scriptural, practical - and life-changing. What God has taught me about his care for all that he has made has changed my attitudes, and is changing my lifestyle - and I pray it will for you.

The theologian Tom Wright has helpfully described the Bible as a play in five acts - creation, the fall, Israel, Jesus, and finally Pentecost onwards. The author of the play is God Himself, with the whole Trinity involved in the production and direction. Because the Bible is written for human beings we play a central role as the main actors in the story - we are in turn the crown of creation, the cause of the fall, there is the people of Israel, the person of Jesus, and the community of persons in the post Pentecost church.

The relationship of human beings to God is undoubtedly centre stage in the drama of the Bible - but let us never be so arrogant as to think we are the only ones that matter. As we shall see, the rest of the created order is far more than merely the backdrop - the stage on which we act. Throughout each act of the story we see that there is a three way relationship that parallels that within the Godhead. Before the world was created the Trinity already existed - Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a community of loving relationship. This can be pictured simply as a triangle.

Father - Son - Holy Spirit

1 CREATION

If we move to the first act of the story - namely creation itself - we find the love of the Trinity overflowing. Sometimes the Trinity is described as Creator, Saviour and Life-giver - but actually that is not the Biblical view. The Father created, the Son created, and the Holy Spirit created. We are told that before the world was created the Word - logos, Jesus, already existed, and we know it was by his word of command that God created. Colossians 1:16 says through Christ God created everything in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen things, including spiritual powers, lords, rulers and authorities. God created the whole universe through him and for him. And it was not only the Son but the Spirit too who was involved with the Father in loving the world into being. In Genesis 1:2 we read of the Spirit or Power or Wind of God moving over the face of the waters. In Genesis 2, God creates man from the earth and then breathes his breath or Spirit into him - with echoes that are picked up in Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones that only come to life when God breathes the wind of his Spirit into them. The early Church father, Irenaeus said of the world that God crafted it with the two hands of his Son and his Spirit.

Let us also never forget that God’s relationship with creation did not stop after six days, when he rested. God continues to uphold, to sustain and to renew his creation. Again the early Church knew this well. They spoke of creatio originalis, creatio continua, and creatio nova - the original creation of Genesis, God’s continuing creative work seen in the fruitfulness of the earth, in the balance between species, in the seasons, and finally God’s new creation - the new heaven and new earth. And the Holy Spirit, as God’s agent of life and breath, sustains and renews, and as we shall see later, even groans in creation longing for the day of fulfilment. We must never cut the Holy Spirit down to our size. Let us never domesticate him. He is the mighty Spirit of the Creator God. He is at work in churches, in individual lives, in bringing renewal and revival - but the Holy Spirit’s agenda is so much wider than this. He is also the Spirit who holds the universe together.

But I’m digressing slightly from the first act of our story - the original creation. It tells us several crucial things that we forget at our peril. First, after every day of creation God said 'And it is very good' or God was pleased with what he saw. This is so obvious it is astonishing how often it is overlooked. Creation is something good. It reflects the goodness and character of God. He made it. He loves it and ... that settles it - we should love it too. Next, the relationship of humanity to God starts with creation - not with the cross of Christ. That’s where the Bible starts, and it should be where Christian preaching and teaching start too. We may live in a post-Christian society where many people have no idea of traditional biblical Christian concepts - but there is one thing that most people still do understand. All the polls show that the vast majority still believe in a Creator God. They only have to look at the awesome variety, the staggering beauty, the amazing complexity of creation to know that Somebody or Something is behind it. That is where the Apostle Paul’s started in preaching to the people of Athens (Acts 17) - I see that you worship an unknown God , your poets have written about him, well now, let me introduce him to you. Christians should never despise people’s instinctive reaching out to the Creator - but rather build on it.

Of course there is much more in Genesis 1 & 2. These passages clearly confound the pantheism of eastern religions and the New Age. God is seen as above creation, not as part of it. God is transcendent and creation is not part of God - although it does reveal his character and glory - he is immanent within it. And our position as human beings is also clear. We have a special role - made in the image of God, inspired with his breath. Yet we are also made from clay, from the earth. Let’s return to the triangle of relationships we had earlier - Father, Son and Spirit. In creation we have another triangle:

God - humans - rest of creation

As humans we have both a relationship with God and with the rest of creation. Adam and Eve are mandated to name the creatures, to tend the garden - to steward, cultivate, conserve and care for God’s very good creation. It’s an enormous privilege and a huge responsibility. Our first duty as God’s image-bearers is to help the created order give its proper glory to God. As we manage and conserve God’s earth we enable it to give glory back to God. Our role was compared by the 17th century clergyman and poet George Herbert to that of the Old Testament priest who offered the people’s sacrifices to God. We are the priests of God’s creation - expressing the silent song of the earth to its Creator. if you think about it - that’s just what some of the Psalms are about - read Ps 19:1-6 or Ps 104. The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written in the praise of creation the human being sings the cosmic liturgy, and through him the cosmos sings before its Creator the eternal song of creation.

The command human beings are given to steward or manage the earth is both a huge privilege and a great responsibility. It carries with it immense power for good or evil. But like all managers, we are responsible to the owner for all that we do. God does not give us the earth to treat as we wish. It is God’s and remains his. Psalm 24:1 states the earth is the Lord’s,. In the New Testament, Colossians 1:16 says that creation was made through Christ and for him - not for us. As human begins we are accountable to God for our use or misuse of the earth. This is so important that I want to stay with it for as moment. There is a big debate going on in the environmental movement as to who is to blame for the ecological crisis we are in. Back in 1966-7 the American scientific historian Dr Lynn White placed the blame squarely at the door of Christianity in a seminal article in the journal Science. He argued that Christianity has put humanity at the centre of the universe - that it is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen because, nature is seen as there for humans to use and exploit as they wish. By destroying the fear of spirits in inanimate objects, Christianity allowed humans to exploit and destroy the earth. White pointed out that the industrial revolution which has been responsible for so much destruction, began in Christian countries. If you speak to people in the Green movement today, many will have accepted this view wholesale. Many blame Christianity for the mess the world is in. I have to say they have a point. Too often churches have colluded with the forces of destruction. Too often Christians have been so other-worldly as to be of no earthly use. One of the things I believe the Spirit is calling Christians to is to repent of this.

However, I also believe Lynn White got it badly wrong in his thesis. It has not only been Christian countries that have caused the disasters we face. In 1996 I visited Siberia. We went to an oil-rich area north of the city of Surgut. What we saw from the plane and the car was complete environmental devastation. Here, Marxist Communism not Christianity had put human beings on such a pedestal that they could exploit and destroy wantonly. But there is a more fundamental way in which Lynn White was wrong. The creation story in Genesis is not anthropocentric. The creation is not for humanity - it is for God. Christians should have a theocentric view. We are not even the climax of creation - that’s another myth that has grown up. It is the Sabbath - God’s enjoyment of the harmony of all creation - that is the final act of God’s creation, and our role is to enable that harmony.

I believe the rediscovery of a God-centred (a theo-centric) view of creation is critical. In their rejection of modern science and its man-centred (anthropocentric) view, many modern-day greens have adopted an eco-centric view - making the earth itself the object of worship and devotion. At its extreme this is tree-hugging, mantra-chanting nonsense, but there is a serious side to it. The thinker James Lovelock has proposed the theory of Gaia - that the earth is a self-regulating organism. Lovelock put this forward as a serious scientific theory, and it has value as such, but it has also been adopted by those who wish us to worship the earth as Mother Earth, and confuse the created with the Creator. But this eco-centric view is full of contradictions - at one level it is pure Hindu monism - all is one, and nothing we can do will make any difference. Yet on the other hand its followers urge action to save Mother Earth - but if the earth is a self-regulating organism why do we need to act? In the end, the Biblical world view - with a God who is radically distinct from creation, yet intimately involved in it - a view that is theocentric not eco- or anthropo-centric - is the only view that really makes sense.

2 THE FALL

Remember the Bible as a play in five acts? I have deliberately spent longest on the first act - creation - because it gives us the context for the others - but as we shall see the non-human creation is involved in a central way at each stage. Genesis 3 sees the fall - Act 2 - and note that the curse and devastation are not limited to Adam and Eve. They are expelled from the Garden and are condemned to suffer and struggle to tame unruly nature. Whether it is in the natural process of growing crops or of having children - the whole creation becomes infected with the cancer of human sin. As a result of the fall the creation itself becomes destined to self-destruction. The consequences of human sin are environmental destruction. Yet we are still meant to steward and conserve the creation however fallen it now is. God’s image may be distorted, the seeds of ecological disaster may be sown, but the Psalms (written millennia after the fall) tell us that the earth still expresses God’s power, glory, character and provision. Psalm 24:1 remains true - the earth is the Lord’s. It is still a wonderful place. In the words of C S Lewis, even after the fall, Creation is an index of God’s character and glory. Enough of God’s fingerprints are left in the natural world for the Apostle Paul to be able to write in Romans 1 that God’s works and character are clearly displayed, so that those who reject God are without excuse.

Often Christians have been so other-worldly, and so conscious of the pollution of sin and the fall that they (we) have been unduly negative about creation. This should not be. The world is still something glorious and awesome. If it was good enough for the Psalmists and Paul it should be good enough for us. A few years ago I heard John Stott preach on the Mighty Works of God. John Stott reminded us that when the Bible speaks of the works of God, it refers not only to his work in saving his people from slavery in Egypt or to Christ’s work on the cross, but that the phrase is usually used to refer to the mighty works of God in creation. The mountains, the seas, the rivers, the animals and birds are the mighty works of God - and they are where our worship of him should start. Stott reminded us that creation should be the subject of our worship of God - although never the object of our worship - and also the subject of our witness, as we say to all people - look at the wonder of God’s works. However hard we’ve tried to destroy them, however damaged God’s works are by our sin, they still witness to this great God.

3 THE LAND

The third act in the Bible, after creation and fall is the one that takes up most of the rest of the Old Testament - it is the story of Israel, not just the tale of a people, but the story of a land. The relationship of the Jews to God is connected very closely with how they live in, and treat the physical environment of the land they live in. The earth itself is seen as an indicator of God’s people’s faithfulness or lack of it. Many of the laws in Deuteronomy are to do with increasing the fruitfulness of the land, and to conserving the wildlife in it. The Israelites are encouraged to leave margins around their fields for the wildlife to thrive. If only modern farmers, for whom the drive to bigger profits has led to the ripping out of hedgerows listened to the same advice. Many rural bird species in Britain have dropped by 30-60% over the last 30 years - yellowhammers, tree sparrows, skylarks to name but three. What has this to do with Christian faith? Simply this - that God made these species and made them good - that each in its unique way reflects his goodness and his glory. As we destroy them and drive them towards extinction we are destroying the works of God which he has asked us to steward and protect. I’m not saying that we’re meant to turn the whole world into some great nature reserve where nothing can be touched. Interestingly the word conservation - conserving and preserving at all costs - is not a biblical term, but the word stewardship is - being careful and responsible in the way we treat creation’s finite resources. I am told that every species extinction in the last 200 years has been due to the interference of human beings with the natural balance God has created. And is it not blasphemous to silence for ever something that was created to glorify God?

In Deuteronomy 22:6-7 the Israelites are told what to do if while they are farming they find a bird’s nest. They are allowed to take the young birds - they will make good food - but they are forbidden from taking the mother - they must make provision for the species to continue and thrive. And notice the consequence - they are to let the mother bird go, so that they live a long and prosperous life in the land. God’s blessing on them is conditional on their obedience and right stewardship of the earth’s resources. Just one more example from the Old Testament laws will do here - and again it has modern resonance. The principles of the Sabbath and the Jubilee are not only about social justice, but environmental awareness. Not only the people but the land need rest to remain fruitful. It was not the European Community’s Common Agricultural Policy that invented set-aside agriculture (which allows fallow fields where wildlife can thrive). It is there within the pages of the Old Testament!

What is clear from the story of Israel is that just as God’s calling of the people is an example of his love for the whole world, so the way in which they are to treat the land is meant to be an example of good stewardship for future generations and other nations to follow. Unfortunately, as we know, Israel were a sinful bunch. In the books of the prophets, we find time and again that Israel’s sin has environmental consequences - just as Adam and Eve’s did - and just as ours does. Listen to Hosea 4:1 & 3 There is no faithfulness or love in the land, and the people do not acknowledge me as God and so the land will dry up and everything that lives upon it will die. All the animals and birds, and even the fish will die. Or this from Jeremiah 12:4 How long will our land be dry, and the grass in every field be withered? Animals and birds are dying because of the wickedness of our people, people who say God doesn’t see what we are doing. Does God care about the creation? You bet he does. When we see concrete sprawling over the countryside because it’s cheaper to build there than redevelop urban areas, when human greed leads to obscene quantities of waste, and our desire for comfort to bypasses cutting through Sites of Special Sceintific Interest - when we see al this and do nothing, or fail to see a link with our Christian faith - who are we kidding? The earth is the Lord’s, and like it or not, we are accountable to him for how we use it. In the book of Revelation, in chapter 11:18, after the blowing of the 7th trumpet God says clearly, I will destroy those who destroy the earth.. John Stott has written Despoiling the earth is blasphemy, and not just an error of judgement, a mistake. It is a sin against God as well as man.

4 JESUS

The fourth act, on which the whole drama hinges is of course the mission of Jesus. At first appearances he says little about the environment or conservation - but just try rereading the Gospels. Where does Jesus take his illustrations of God and his Kingdom from? To Jesus, creation is a story book of God’s character and our relationship with him. He would probably have been happy with Sir Thomas More’s description of creation as the second book of God. For example. Jesus urges us to look at the birds. In Luther’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount he says quite seriously, Let the birds be your teachers - learn from them about simplicity, trust, dependence on God, about how we receive everything by grace. Jesus also tells us to look at the lilies of the field. One of the most eminent botanists around today is Sir Ghillean Prance, director of Kew Gardens in London. He has discovered many new species of plant through his exploration of the Amazonian rain forests. He also happens to be a committed Christian who has written powerfully about how the complex web of nature he sees as a botanist witnesses to God. Jesus’ stories tell us to learn from birds, flowers, mustard seeds, fig trees, the sower and so on.

But the significance of Jesus goes beyond this. Jesus the man is God made flesh and blood. It is the most stunning affirmation of the goodness of creation we could possibly have - that God was prepared to step into it himself, to consecrate it with his presence, and show that it can be good and perfect. And why did Jesus come? Most Christians would say to save us from our sins. Yes, but there’s more. Listen again to one of the most familiar verses in the Bible, John 3:16. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. The world, not just you and me. The Greek term used is kosmos. God so loved the cosmos that he sent his Son. It makes sense when you get used to it. He loved the whole cosmos into being and keeps it going with his love. When he was tempted to destroy everything due to sin at the time of Noah, he relented and saved not only humans but all the animals and birds as well. The Covenant he made thereafter in Genesis 9 was with all living things - not just people. The rainbow - that great Christian symbol that the radical greens have hijacked and we need to recover - is a symbol of the promise that I am making with all living things. So when in the fullness of time God sends Jesus it is for the whole world not just human beings.

I am aware this may be a new idea for some! It was for me until I started to read the Bible with an awareness of God’s love for all creation. Yet it is so clear in scripture. When Jesus died the creation reacted with an earthquake and an eclipse. And according to Colossians 1:20, through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. This is the Apostle Paul, not some New Age mystic outlining the cosmic dimension to the work of the cross. When Jesus died the curse of the fall was destroyed, not only in our human relationship to each other and to God, but in the whole created order. Remember the triangle of relationships? In the cross the broken lines of communication are now restored.

God - Human beings - Rest of creation

Apart from John 3:16 there are two NT passages that spell this out most clearly. The first is Romans 8:19-23 All creation waits with eager longing for the children of God to be revealed . In verse 21 Paul states the sure hope that creation itself would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God.. In that verse you have it all - the curse of decay and environmental disaster, and also God’s saving purposes in Christ for the whole created order. And note the role of the Holy Spirit. In verse 26 the Spirit pleads with God on our behalf with groans too deep for words. But that groaning of frustration and longing for the coming fullness of God’s Kingdom is not unique to us. It is a theme picked up from verse 22 where all creation groans with the pain of childbirth as it waits for the final day of freedom. Paul continues the theme in Colossians 1:16-20 - a truly remarkable passage in its implication for the earth. Through Jesus God created it all (v.16) and through him God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself (v.20). Just in case we haven’t got the message it is repeated in verse 21 God made peace through his Son’s sacrificial death on the cross and so brought back to himself all things both on earth and in heaven. God made it. God loves it, and in Jesus God is saving his creation.

5 PENTECOST ONWARDS

For Christians the era following the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2 is the age in which we still live - the age of the Spirit and the Church, the in-between times where God's Kingdom is here, but is a long way from its full and perfect completion. The book of Acts and the epistles do not contain much that is directly about creation except for the very important passages already referred to. That is not surprising as they are focusing on the growth of the church and on issues of church order and discipleship. But that does not mean modern Christians are excused from involvement. We believe in the whole bible not just the pastoral epistles. We remain the stewards of creation. In fact if the whole cosmos is somehow included in God’s saving plan, and is waiting for us - the sons and daughters of God - to be revealed, then creation-care is Kingdom work - it brings glory to God, and witnesses that Christ’s liberation is for all creatures. Christians are deeply involved in caring for the poor, in seeking for justice for the oppressed, in trying to save unborn children, so why not also the Kingdom work of caring for creation? What is the ultimate pro-life issue if it isn’t the survival of the planet we live on?

Yet, many Christians hang back from involvement. Partly perhaps due to a fear of being contaminated by some of the weirder views in the conservation movement. Yet the way to combat such views is not to avoid involvement but to engage and seek opportunities to put forward the clear biblical message. However, there are also two larger questions I find I’m often asked and I want to tackle those now.

Why bother to care if it is going to be destroyed?

The first is, why bother to care if the earth is going to be destroyed at the end of time anyway? This is such a commonly held misconception that I want to try and deal with it thoroughly. I believe it stems not from the Bible but from a world-view that Christians have absorbed from pagan Greek philosophy - a view that matter is evil and spirit is pure. It is not a biblical view. The Bible sees us as whole people: body, mind, and spirit. But if you start with a negative view of matter and look in the Bible for evidence of it, you will find verses that can be taken that way - we’ll look at those verses soon, but I want to make the point first that if you start with an unbiblical presupposition, and then try and find evidence for it in the Bible you will probably succeed - if only by taking things out of context or misinterpreting them. After all if the Dutch reformed church in South Africa could find biblical justification for apartheid, maybe it’s not surprising that some Christians have found evidence for geo-cide.

No, the whole emphasis of scripture from Genesis to Revelation is positive regarding creation as we have seen. God made it in love, he sustains it in love, and in Christ he will reunite it to himself in love. Would he then just burn it up and destroy what he loves completely? Of course not, and in fact in the Covenant with Noah and creation in Genesis 9 he explicitly promises not to do this. The Old Testament is full of references to the positive hope that we can have regarding creation. In Isaiah 1:6-9 we read of a day when wolves and sheep will live together in peace, when calves and lion cubs will feed together and little children will take care of them. Later in 65:17-25 Isaiah writes of a new heaven and a new earth - a place without tears or infant mortality, a time of harmony with nature when lions will eat straw and snakes will no longer be poisonous. Hosea too looks to a time beyond God’s judgement of unfaithful Israel - a time of human and environmental harmony. At that time I will make a covenant with all animals and birds so that they will not harm my people. I will also remove all weapons of war from the land (Hosea 2:18). Many other passages also show that God’s coming Messianic Kingdom is all-encompassing involving peace not only with God but within the whole creation.

The New Testament carries this further, as we would expect. We’ve already looked at the key passages in Romans and Colossians. but think for a moment of the implications of Jesus’ resurrection. I believe this to be a key to interpreting the transformation that will take place in us and in the creation. Here was no ghost, but a man physical enough to cook a meal and eat fish. Yet his resurrected body, although physical was like no other body. It could disappear and reappear, it could go through closed doors. This was a radical transformation, and sets the pattern for our own resurrections which as we say in the creed will be a resurrection of the body, not just some disembodied spirit. And so we move to 2 Peter 3:7-12, a passage that has caused more trouble than any other. It talks about the earth and heavens being burnt up and destroyed before the arrival of a new heavens and new earth. How does this fit in? Well if only we’d read the whole passage! In verse 6 it talks of the flood in Noah’s time and how this destroyed the earth then - but hang on a minute, the earth was not destroyed completely, it was cleansed, submerged, renewed, but the new earth that followed the flood was made of the same stuff. The language of 2 Peter is not of destruction in the sense of complete obliteration but of purging and transformation - as happened with the flood. Just as Jesus’ resurrection body was the same yet different, so it will be with the new heaven and new earth. There will be dramatic and cataclysmic change there will be judgement and fire to get rid of the evil - there will need to be violent change if snakes, lions, and wolves are to become harmless, and if all sickness and suffering are to be destroyed. But there will also be continuity - the new earth will bear some relation to the old one, just as the new Dave Bookless will bear some relation to the old sinful one. If you read the book of Revelation carefully, where the whole earth continues to give glory to God right up until the new earth and new heaven appear, you will see this very clearly.

The consequence is that Christians can have hope for the world in God’s hands. Not the naive hope of the deep greens who think that somehow we can be reunited with our mother earth, but a real biblical hope. The world will not be renewed by gradual evolution, but by God’s intervention. And as Kingdom people, Christians should be signs of his presence and power in the world - renewing the face of the earth in preparation for the return of the King of Creation. The environmental movement is profoundly pessimistic - recently I read some words written by the French oceanographer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau just before his death in which he held out little hope for our survival as a species or even for the planet. As Christians we have a message of a future and a hope. There is hope for the world in God’s hands.

So why aren't we doing something?

That was one question - and the second is this, if this is biblical as I’ve tried to show, why are we only now waking up to it? Actually although we in the urban and industrialised West have not realised this is a central concern, that’s not the whole picture. If you look back through Christian history, an awareness of the wonder of God’s world, of our interdependence on the rest of creation, or our fellow creatureliness, and of the need to care and conserve have often been present. The early church was far more positive about creation than we have been (at least until Plato’s Greek philosophies about matter being evil began to infiltrate). Through history we have examples like St. Francis of Assisi, and even Martin Luther who said If I were to die tomorrow I would still plant a tree today. John Wesley and William Wilberforce, and early missionaries like Willliam Carey all had a joy in God as creator and a concern for the care of creation. many of the early scientists and explorers had a strong Christian basis of thinking God’s thought after him. The Orthodox churches still have a much stronger doctrine of creation than their western counterparts. In the British isles the Celtic Christians who had such a powerful impact were grounded in a knowledge of God as creator - their spirituality was closely tied to the environment. If you look around the world most Christian cultures are far more positive about creation than we have been. Our problem in the West is that as Christians we have often been too influenced by the spirit of the age rather than the Holy Spirit. Particularly since the eighteenth century enlightenment and the subsequent industrial revolution we have swallowed the lie that the earth is there for our thoughtless enjoyment and exploitation.

Now God is calling us back to our biblical roots. All over the world Christians are rediscovering the importance of creation care. Recently I visited Romania to speak at a conference organised jointly by the western evangelical mission YWAM and the Romanian Orthodox Church on caring for the earth in the former communist bloc. Students from Britain and young Orthodox Romanians studied together, prayed together and worked practically to restore a piece of land. The Anglican Consultative Council has stated that care for the creation is one of the five marks of mission, Mission organisations like Crosslinks and Interserve are now recognising that caring for creation is an integral part of mission. Both have seconded people to A Rocha, and those eco-missionaries are involved in Portugal, France and now war-torn Lebanon, seeking to share in God’s work of renewing the face of the earth. Is this mission? You bet it is - because mission means being sent by God, and God sends all Christians to steward and manage the garden of his goodness. As we do this, others come and catch a vision of the creator God, and of his servant people. I had a letter recently from Portugal where A Rocha’s centre has been since 1985, working to preserve the only unspoilt estuary in the whole Algarve. It is a work that has been praised and recognised internationally - not so much in the Christian community, but in the conservation world - by the RSPB, the EU, the Portuguese government. And it has its impact on people. The letter I got told of a young non-Christian Portuguese environmental science student who came to the A Rocha centre to do some fieldwork. She was so impressed that she kept coming back, and now has become a Christian. God witnesses to his greatness through his creation sometimes more powerfully than thousands of sermons. The story of A Rocha in Portugal "Under the Bright Wings" is an inspiring story of God overcoming enormous barriers. It has inspired people all over the world - there are now people sensing God is calling them to set up Christian environmental projects in many different countries.

As we have seen the whole drama of scripture from Genesis to Revelation witnesses to God’s goodness in creation and his purposes for it. So often Christians have been working against God’s plans by a compromised lifestyle and a world-denying theology. David Watson said By unfaithful stewardship when we fail to conserve the earth’s finite resources, to develop them fully, or to distribute them justly, we both disobey God and alienate people from his purpose for them. In terms of practical action I believe the Spirit is calling us first to REPENT of our misuse of creation, of our blasphemous destruction of God’s handiwork. John Stott has written, We believe both that God created the earth, entrusted its care to us and that he will one day recreate it, when he makes the new heaven and the new earth. These two doctrines give us a respect for the earth, indeed for the whole material creation since God made it and will remake it. In consequence we learn to think and act ecologically. We repent of extravagance, pollution and wanton destruction. So our first duty is to let God’s Spirit convict us and lead us to our knees in repentance.

Our second duty is to REJOICE in God’s good creation. Spend time in nature. Have times with God in listening to him speak through the birds, the flowers the ant (if you’re a sluggard!). I remember a time when I was trying to be strong after my wife and I had suffered a miscarriage. I went out for a walk alone, and God spoke to me through the trees in the wind whose strength lay not in being rigid and unbending but in being open to the wind and going with it. In Churches we should make sure that our individual and corporate worship rejoices in creation. We can sing Glorify your name in all the earth, or O Lord our God how majestic is your name in all the earth.

Finally we should be involved in RENEWAL & RESTORATION - strongly green concepts if ever I heard them. We can do it by praying for the Ghillean Prances, the John Houghtons, the A Rochas of this world - for the Christians who work within environmental organisations. But we can also be involved ourselves - in examining our lifestyle and our use of resources. We may feel that we don’t make much difference by re-using plastic bags, or walking instead of driving to church, but Christians are measured not by results but by obedience to God’s command.

I want to finish with the Holy Spirit and Creation. One of the images of the Spirit in the Bible is the dove coming down on Jesus at his baptism. All the paintings are of a domesticated white dove - but actually the Greek refers to the wild rock dove - purple grey and brown, which in Israel lives in rocky wild coasts and wilderness. Mike Mitton, until recently director of Anglican Renewal Ministries in the UK has written This presents a wonderful description of the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not a tame bird kept in a clean cage to be released for short bursts at charismatic meetings. The Holy Spirit is a wild Rock Dove, who makes his habitation in some of the wildest and darkest places this world has to offer. The Holy Spirit is wonderfully free, able to go to the dark places of our lives for healing, to the dark unvisited places of our churches, and to the dark and demon-infested places of our society [I would add to all the places of the earth.] The Dove flies to these places to bring the light of Christ.

Will we learn from the birds of the air? Will we let the wild Rock Dove of the Spirit lead us into all his concerns, not just our own little areas of interest? Will we allow the Spirit to call us into the Kingdom work of acting as God’s stewards in renewing the face of the earth?

October 1997

Rev Dave Bookless, A Rocha UK

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