As usual, the political divisions over various issues do not match the division between a Scriptural understanding and an idolatrous one. In this case, it’s the division between “conservatives” and “liberals”–or, better, between the rabid Republican and the rabid Democrat–on climate change (what an anodyne, meaningless phrase) and other, related environmental issues. You know it’s a disease because any response is immediately knee-jerking, fist-pumping, and unthinking.
But Christians ought not to be caught up in the extreme partisanship of what seem to be America’s twilight years. There is enough foolishness on either side to make any so-called “discussion” an exercise in engaging a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4, not 26:5). When it comes to human responsibility for the volatility of the climate (and similar issues), too many Christians have been sucked into either viewing extreme weather as the moral challenge of our time, an issue of Biblical proportions; or into an involuntary muscle spasm of mockery and denial.
Quite apart from whether and how much human beings have contributed by way of gases and consumption, the Scriptures are unfailingly clear: disasters that occur in this creation are inherently tied to human sin. According to Genesis, the ground is literally cursed because of Adam’s sin: “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (3:17-18). For Cain, Adam’s son, because of his murder of Abel, things become even worse: “Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (4:11-12).
In Deuteronomy, Moses calls on heaven and earth to witness against Israel in their sin, rebellion, and idolatry (4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1), and the prophets pick this up in their oracles against the people of God. What the people of God do is witnessed in the turmoil of the creation. As Isaiah says, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for Yahweh has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:2-3).
Jeremiah: “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate” (Jeremiah 2:11-12). “Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people, the fruit of their devices, because they have not paid attention to my words” (6:19).
Micah: “Hear what Yahweh says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of Yahweh, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for Yahweh has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel” (6:1-2).
People are not separate from the rest of creation. They are not world-less or detached from an “environment.” We were put within a physical creation, and the sin of Adam and all his children has resulted in creation that, very often, rises up against Adam’s children in disaster and death.
This should indeed be a warning to the people who live in this creation, but not the warning that is often heard by those convinced that humans have created the mess in which we find ourselves, with extreme heat, cold, and weather “events.” Those who point to the human contribution–who, even, lay the blame entirely at the feet of people–are correct. But they are correct for the wrong reasons. And those who deny human culpability are wrong, but also for the wrong reasons.
And because the reasoning is wrong, it leads to the wrong conclusion: that humans are the only ones who can fix what has gone wrong. And for those who say that humans have not contributed at all, the reasoning also leads to an opposite, but still wrong, conclusion: that there is, therefore, nothing that we can or should do with respect to the creation.
Both incorrect conclusions are due to the pervasiveness of dualistic and gnostic assumptions about the physical and the material. When it comes to physical things like bodies, the original gnostics (Greek for “knowledge,” a special enlightenment that leads to some form of “salvation,” depending on whether the gnosis was attached to Christianity or not) held that physical matter was evil or, at best, unimportant compared to the “spirit,” whose goal was to ascend, free from the bonds of the physical flesh.
But this leads in two different directions: if the physical is not important, even evil, and if your goal is to be free from your flesh, then one might conclude that it really doesn’t matter what you do with your body, for example. Your body is not the important thing; your soul is. On the other hand, it seems that many gnostics tended toward the ascetical. If the body is evil, you should do everything you can to restrain and discipline the flesh until your spirit is released.
If the physical creation is unimportant or evil, then who cares what happens to it? This takes Christian form in the sort of “salvation” that focuses on dying and going to an ephemeral and “spiritual” heaven; in other words, being free of the body, which is the source and cause of suffering. It’s not only a gnostic assumption, but nearly a Buddhist one (attachment to anything leads to pain). Either way, it has no place in a Scriptural Christianity (let alone one that believes that Jesus still retains His human flesh and blood!).
The opposite reaction is no more Christian, because it makes creation (“the environment”) the highest good, which is idolatrous. And, like all gods, the environment is a jealous one. You must give up everything, even to the point of death, to make sure that the earth continues on. The world is no longer nothing, but everything.
Christians are neither creation-deniers nor creation-idolaters. Instead, in (the) light of Christ, creation takes its proper place. Paul situates the creation itself in inextricable connection to both human sin and human redemption. There is suffering now, but it is not worthy of anything in view of the glory that is going to be revealed, not only in people, but to people in the new creation. Creation itself is waiting with eager expectation (used three times in this section of Romans 8) for the revealing of the sons of God, because when the sons of God are revealed in the resurrection light of the Son of God, then all creation will be restored as well. The creation is not subject to futility and corruption because of itself, but because God has bound it to His human creation. As goes humanity, so goes the rest of creation.
We have been given the Spirit of sonship, but the sonship has not been revealed to us yet. We still experience this creation as suffering in the slavery to sin and death. But we wait with eager expectation for that revealing. And what is the freedom of being sons? The redemption of our bodies, which is precisely the hope in which we were saved (Romans 8:15-24).
But this restoration of the creation and our bodies within it cannot and will not take place outside of Jesus and His own death and resurrection. It is no coincidence, in light of the witness of heaven and earth against the sin and rebellion and idolatry of God’s creation, that Jesus’ appearance and death are pictured in apocalyptic terms in both Joel 2 and Acts 2; nor that Jesus’ death is essentially the end of this world: darkness, earthquakes, and tombs opened (Matthew 27:45, 51-54; Luke 23:44-45).
Likewise, the fulfillment of all this will be revealed at Jesus’ final appearance: “But by the same word [that created the water of the Flood] the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly… 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… But according to [God’s] promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:7, 10, 13). Further, the Revelation to St. John is full of imagery of the turmoil in creation until Jesus puts all things in their places (Revelation 20:7-21:7, in particular).
The Christian longing that Paul describes in Romans 8 puts the lie both to indifference toward creation, as well as to an idolizing of the creation that talks about “saving the environment” without any knowledge of God’s revelation in Christ. Christ “makes all things new” only in and through His own resurrected body. He gives that life as gift to those made in His image, and it is through Him that both they and the rest of His creation will be restored.
But the fact that creation (including our bodies) will only be restored in Christ does not mean that we should not care about creation, any more than Adam and Eve could neglect creation because they had not made it. Exactly because God made and re-made people (soul and body) in the image of His Son, who is His Image, means that we should care what happens to and what we do with our bodies. Exactly because God made everything else and will renew it on the day of the Lord, we should care about what we do with it and how we live within it. Heaven and earth bear witness to both our sin and our redemption.