This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “King & Country: The Story That Changes Everything,” coming in summer 2017.
When I was in third grade, I hand-drew a bunch of pictures of the rainforest, wrote “Save the Amazon” on them in my scrawling eight-year-old cursive, and used all my allowance to make copies at the local office supply store. I then canvassed the neighborhood, handing them out to everyone I met.
I don’t remember the specific event which prompted that first episode of activism, but not much has changed all these years later. Today, I suppose I’m still what you might call an “eco-warrior.” I drive an electric car. All the light bulbs in my house are LEDs. At my previous address, we had solar panels installed on our roof (and since moving, we now pay extra to source our electricity from a “green” provider). I regularly check online updates on the rate of Amazonian deforestation and polar ice cap melt.
All of which means that any book I write about the restoration of God’s world is probably bound to include a section about environmentalism. This topic might not be your particular hobby horse, and that’s okay with me. God equips people with different passions and positions them to advance his kingdom in different ways. If renewable energy doesn’t get you fired up, go find something good and beautiful and God-honoring that does get you excited, and pursue it with all your heart.
But I do feel the need to include a short section on the environment, and how the story of king and country intersects with our stewardship of creation. The primary audience I’m writing to (at least, the audience I have in mind) is politically- and theologically-conservative evangelicals, of whom I am one as well. One of the primary purposes of this book has been to stretch the comfortable categories that we draw for ourselves by tracing the story of the Bible. And one of the categories that I think needs some stretching is the area of creation stewardship.
Here’s what I mean: most of the time, when one of my Christian friends finds out that I drive an electric car, their initial reaction is to scoff and gently poke fun at me as some wimpy liberal. (I’m not sure why driving a car that can smoke theirs in a drag race makes me a wimp, or why not spewing pollution from my tailpipe makes me liberal, but that’s another story). When I have had opportunities to sit down with people to discuss and understand their thoughts about environmentalism, I have found a few specific theological errors which seem to frame their understanding of this issue. I’ll address those here, and leave you to work out the details of how to order your everyday life in light of the story of God making all things new—including rainforests and glaciers.
The first error I often hear goes something like this: “This world is gonna burn anyway, so we’ve got more important things to do than worry about recycling and global warming.” There’s both a truth and an untruth in that statement. On one hand, it’s correct in the sense that we do have higher priorities than environmental concerns. The kingdom of God is first and foremost about the restoration of humanity in the person of the God-Man Jesus. In God’s value system, people always trump polar bears.
But the notion that God is simply going to torch this creation and start over from scratch comes—once again—from a creeping Gnosticism that devalues the physical world, and doesn’t arise from Scripture. The storyline of the Bible is about the restoration, not destruction, of the entire created order. Proponents of this view often point to 2 Peter 3:10-13 as their proof text:
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… The heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
That sounds pretty straightforward, right? It’s all gonna “burn,” “melt,” and “dissolve,” so case closed. Let’s go burn some tires in eschatological anticipation.
Not so fast. While there is a judgment of fire coming, the rest of the Bible (and even the rest of Peter’s epistle) makes clear that restoration, not incineration, is the final goal of all things. The whole created order will be resurrected, just like Jesus’ body and my body—which means that, even while passing through judgment and fire, the new creation will have an essential continuity with this creation. Anthony Hoekema writes,
“If God would have to annihilate the present cosmos, Satan would have won a great victory. . . . Satan would have succeeded in so devastatingly corrupting the present cosmos and the present earth that God could do nothing with it but to blot it totally out of existence. But Satan did not win such victory. On the contrary, Satan has been decisively defeated. God will reveal the full dimensions of that defeat when he shall renew this very earth on which Satan deceived mankind and finally banish from it all the results of Satan’s evil machinations.”
Satan’s victory at Eden will prove to be a temporary one, and God will not give him the honor of having successfully and permanently corrupted the world. The serpent’s hold on creation will be finally wrenched from his dying grasp, and his final sight before the lake of fire will be to see everything he destroyed made beautiful again. All of evil’s conspiracies will prove futile and temporary in the end.
If this is true, then in what sense will the present creation “be set on fire?” The answer is that Peter’s and Paul’s epistles almost always use the imagery of fire in a purifying sense. See, for example, 1 Peter 1:7. “The tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” In that picture, the gold which “perishes” in the fire does not truly perish, but instead is purified. And as with the gold, so also with your faith, Peter writes; the fire of trials and suffering are not designed to destroy your faith but rather to cause your faith to emerge stronger and more beautiful in the end.
The imagery of fire is used the same way in 2 Peter 3. The “fire” that Peter speaks of is a cleansing fire, not a destroying one. The fire that will consume this world is not God scrapping his old creation and starting over, but rather purifying it and remaking it. John Piper writes,
“When 2 Peter 3:10 says that the present earth and heavens will ‘pass away,’ it does not have to mean that they go out of existence, but may mean that there will be such a change in them that their present condition passes away. We might say, ‘The caterpillar passes away, and the butterfly emerges.’ There is a real passing away, and there is a real continuity, a real connection.”
When you look closely at 2 Peter 3, you will find that this is not an alien interpretation pressed onto the text, but is instead the most natural reading. In the verses immediately preceding our passage, Peter compares the coming judgment of fire to the judgment of water experienced in Noah’s day. The Flood was certainly cataclysmic, but it too was a judgment of purification, not final destruction of the natural world. The earth, the mountains, the animal kingdom, and even specific rivers (compare Genesis 2:14 and a present day map of the Middle East) passed through judgment and emerged restored on the other side.
Verse 10, in particular, gets to the heart of what Peter is saying. The coming fire, he says, will result in “the earth and the works done on it” being exposed. The Greek word translated “exposed” here is literally translated as “found.” So, literally, the sentence reads, “The earth and the works done on it will be found.” Theologian Cornelius Venema writes, “The word… conveys the idea of a process that does not so much destroy or burn up, but uncovers or lays open for discovery the creation, now in a renewed state of pristine purity.” God’s fire of judgment will consume the bad but refine the good, exposing the real and better world that lies hidden underneath the grime of sin and death. The world—the real one, not the one corrupted and polluted by our brokenness—will be found at last.
All of this means that the standard evangelical thinking about the environment—“It’s all gonna burn anyway”—is both unhelpful and untrue. The ultimate fate of the natural world is not fire but restoration, not cremation but re-creation. So to be unconcerned about the fate of the natural world is to miss the fact that God is going to extraordinary lengths to resurrect what we have wrecked. We should care about what God evidently cares about.
The second theological error which I encounter in this subject of environmentalism goes something like this: “Well, if God is going to restore the whole world anyway, it doesn’t really matter what we do with it now.” That claim is then usually followed by some variation of “Drill, baby, drill!”
God is going to set right all that human selfishness has pillaged. But to draw the conclusion that our selfishness therefore doesn’t matter is an abuse of grace. It’s the same mentality that says, “Let us sin that grace may abound.” The cross means that all my anger is forgiven by God. But that doesn’t mean I should go around yelling at my wife. Similarly, the empty tomb means that the Amazon rainforest will be restored. But that doesn’t mean we should slash and burn it now.
Here’s a better way to think about it: our role as image-bearers is to embrace and extend all of Christ’s redemptive, restorative work. The proper response to God’s mercy is to extend that mercy to others (Ephesians 4:32). In the same way, a proper response to God’s promise of restoration is to join that restorative project and work with him for the bettering of our world. The primary way we do that, of course, is by laboring to see people brought into the kingdom and the human project restored. But God cares about—and has promised to restore—the natural world as well, and so should we.
Environmentalism for believers, then, becomes more than just stewardship of creation. It points forward, ultimately, to our hope in global resurrection. Just like all our acts of forgiveness mirror and extend God’s redemptive work, so also all our efforts to conserve the natural world are a picture of our eschatological hope in the restoration of all things. At the end of the day, conservation is about the new creation. Recycling is about resurrection. Environmentalism is about Easter.