Scripture: Psalm 8:1-9
This is the Easter Season and for a period of fifty days we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the breaking of the fallow ground, the spring of new life, and the hope that the dead shall live again.
As I have reflected this year upon the resurrection, I do so with new appreciation. My mother passed away six months ago. The thought has come again and again of the reality of a physical eternity. I recall one Easter many years ago when my mother exclaimed her own realization for the first time that the resurrection is not merely spiritual, but bodily, that is, completely physical.
We were on a family trip across the western United States last summer. I put our next destination into the GPS without any real thought about what the roads would be like. As we were traveling through northwestern Colorado on a nice, relatively flat road, making good time at 65 mph, I suddenly realized the GPS was telling me I’d missed my turn.
“What?” I thought, “I didn’t even see a road back there.” But I turned our van around and slowed way down as I listened to directions from the little lady hidden in our GPS. I was surprised when I came to the turn I had missed—it was a gravel road going directly into the mountains. I was tentative; I checked the clock to be sure we had several hours of daylight remaining. Then I turned as directed. To make a long story short, for the next twenty miles we saw some of the most rugged and beautiful scenery as we drove along the headwaters of the Colorado River. Every twist and turn opened up to the real wild west, hundreds of miles from city lights and concrete jungles. It inspired a sense of awe and even worship.
This week we took our kids to the zoo and gazed at the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the animals of the land. I was awed again as I watched the fish swim around an enclosed coral reef. It brought back memories of snorkeling in some of the most beautiful places on earth, and beholding an amazing array of color, sizes, and shapes of God’s creatures. It is a reminder that our Creator solicits our praise through all things (cf. Basil of Caesarea, Homilies 9.3).
On Thursday, April 22, 2021 hundreds of millions of people observed Earth Day, first designated as such in 1970 by a group of secular environmentalists, led by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. The goal of Earth Day for the past fifty years has been to raise awareness of the need for environmental protection.
Conservatives generally think of it as a left-wing political campaign, and undoubtedly that will happen, but for many years evangelicals have used it as an opportunity to make some important theological statements regarding our attitude toward creation.
Approaches to the Natural World
Earth Day raises an important concern for Christian and non-Christians alike: what is our human responsibility in caring for the non-human world?
There are two basic approaches to the question. The first is the approach of secular environmentalists who refuse to believe that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The second approach is called Christian creation care (see Douglas J. Moo and Jonathan A. Moo, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World. “Creation care” has become standard terminology for our ethical responsibilities for the rest of Creation). This perspective consists of theologians and Christians of all stripes who want to take seriously that original mandate given by God to Man in Genesis 1:26-27, to be stewards of the earth and to order it for the good of all creatures.
Secular environmentalism is not a new phenomenon or a new movement. Bishop Ambrose in the 4th century described a group not too dissimilar from today’s secular environmentalists. He says, “They were deceived by the godlessness present within them into thinking the universe was without guide and without rule, as if borne around by chance” (Basil of Caesarea, Homilies, 1.2).
Mere environmentalism ends up being a human-focused concern whereas Christian creation care seeks to honor the Creator.
“Without guide, without rule, as if borne around by chance.” I imagine that these same characteristics have defined every godless movement in the history of humanity. Caring for creation without seeing the glory of the Creator is like reading a book without understanding the point. This is the difference between the two approaches: mere environmentalism ends up being a human-focused concern whereas Christian creation care seeks to honor the Creator.
What the Bible Says
Did you know that thirty-seven of the Psalms talk about nature and the environment? Psalms 8, 19, 24, 29, 33, 46, 50, 57, 65, 67, 72, 74, 84, 85, 89, 90, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 100, 102, 104, 108, 115, 119, 121, 124, 134, 135, 136, 145, 147, 148, 149, and 150 all have something to say about the natural world, or what early Christians called “the book of nature.”
Here’s how the Apostle Paul put it in Romans 1:19-20:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
I found an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown God.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth… (Acts 17:23-24)
God did not leave himself without a witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with good and gladness. (Acts 14:17)
Basil of Caesarea put it this way: “God, who is pleased to save the faithful by the foolishness of our preaching, first set forth innumerable reasons from nature for our beliefs in His wonders” (Basil of Caesarea, Homilies 8.6).
Caring for creation without seeing the glory of the Creator is like reading a book without understanding the point.
Here is a brief summary of what the Bible says about nature:
- First, God is the sole and sovereign Creator of all things (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4; Nehemiah 9:6). “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them, and you preserve them, and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6).
- Second, all things are created for His glory and for our joy (cf. Genesis 2:8-15; Colossians 1:15-16)
- Third, human sin has corrupted the entire universe (cf. Genesis 3:17-19; Job 25:5).
- Fourth, God made a covenant with creation for its redemption (cf. Genesis 8:21-22; 9:8-17)
- Fifth, in the end, God will purge the universe of all corruption so that it may flourish in ways yet unknown.
All of this leads us to one clear conclusion: no one cares about the universe, the earth, and our environment like God does. As Abraham Kuyper put it, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (Kuyper, Sphere Sovereignty, 488). And all that the tripersonal God creates is His. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).
And because God cares about what He created, no one care about the universe like God’s people do. Billy Graham wrote in his sermon on creation care, “When we fail to see the world as God’s creation, we will end up abusing it. Selfishness and greed take over, and we end up not caring about the environment or the problems we’ve created for future generations.”
Creation and Theology
Our care for creation touches on nearly every aspect of theology.
Doctrine of God
At some point in eternity past God, the only eternal being, became the Creator of a physical world: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting You are God” (Psalm 90:2).
First, God is the Creator, the Maker, the Author, Finisher, Provider, and Protector. Creation is the work of the tripersonal God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father created the world through the Son (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16) and the Spirit (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 33:6).
Second, Creation is the outflow of the glory of God. In his sermon series on creation in Genesis, the 4th-century church father, Basil of Caesarea, wrote,
The world is a work of art, set before all for contemplation, so that through it the wisdom of Him who created it should be known. (Basil of Caesarea, Homilies, 1.7)
Let us glorify the Master Craftsman for all that has been done wisely and skillfully; and from the beauty of the visible things let us form an idea of Him who is more than beautiful; and from the greatness of these perceptible and circumscribed bodies let us conceive of Him who is infinite and immense and who surpasses all understanding in the plenitude of His power. (Basil of Caesarea, Homilies, 1.11)
The Psalmists wrote, “Oh come, let us worship and now down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!” (Psalm 95:6). “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth” (Psalm 96:11-13).
Third, creation care comes directly out of the doctrine of divine providence. The Psalmist especially praises the Creator for His faithful provisions for all creatures. “You open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16).
Doctrine of Man
Most obviously, creation care is a responsibility uniquely entrusted to humankind. In fact, we were created in God’s image for this task. The choices and attitudes of mankind impact the whole universe as we see in the doctrine of sin.
The most glaring absence in godless environmentalism is human nature. For godless environmentalists, humanity is the enemy of nature. But this is not so in the Christian worldview. Rather, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14).
If we understand this [how fearfully and wonderfully made we are], we shall learn to know ourselves, we shall know God, we shall worship the Creator, we shall serve the Lord, we shall extol the Father, we shall love our Provider, we shall revere our Benefactor, we shall not cease adoring the Author of our present and future life….Indeed, if transient things are thus, what will be the eternal? And if visible things are so beautiful, what will be the invisible? If the grandeur of the heavens transcends the measure of the human intellect, what mind will be able to explore the nature of the everlasting? (Basil of Caesarea, Homilies 6.1)
Doctrine of Sin
Romans 8:20 says, “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.” “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth even up to this very moment” (Romans 8:22).
Idolatry, or the worship of creation rather than the Creator, is the epitome of sin. Yet the perennial danger for humanity has always been that we will exchange the Creator for the creature.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God. (Exodus 20:4-5)
Basil of Caesarea writes, “The thorn was added to the beauty of the flower so that we might keep pain closely associated with the enjoyment of pleasure and remind ourselves of the sin for which the earth was condemned to bring forth thorns and thistles for us” (Basil of Caesarea, Homilies, 5.6).
Doctrine of Christ
Christ has entered the created world as “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). He has come to redeem, reclaim, and restore Creation. “All things were created through him and for him.” (Col. 1:16).
Christ’s resurrection not only means deliverance of mankind from death, but also the reconciliation of all creation to the Creator. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:19-20).
Doctrine of Salvation
During the late 1st century, about the time the Apostle John was writing his final letters, a heresy called Gnosticism was sweeping across the Roman world. Many historians trace its origin to an early sect of Jewish Christians. The Greek word gnōsis means “knowledge” and to be a gnōstikós is to be one who has knowledge.
The reason this heresy was called Gnosticism is that it claimed that you had to have special spiritual or mystical knowledge beyond the apostolic teaching in order to be saved.
The core of Gnosticism is that an evil deity created the material world—therefore the material world is essentially evil—but the good God offers to redeem it. The point is that God didn’t make this world; it was a lesser and wicked deity who made the world, and the good God comes to save people from the world of bodies and bones and blood (N.T. Wright, The New Testament in Its World, 163).
Furthermore, to be saved meant to be saved out of this physical world. God’s intent, according to Gnosticism, is to trash this world and free those who have this special knowledge from this corruption called “flesh.” The physical world is essentially evil and irredeemable.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ guarantees us that God is not going to trash this world.
But Gnosticism is not Christian doctrine, and it was condemned as a heresy. The physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ assures us that God will raise up the natural world from its corruption and death. The resurrection of Jesus Christ guarantees us that God is not going to trash this world.
Doctrine of Holiness
We care for creation because it reveals the glory of God and elicits the worship chorus of “holy, holy, holy” to the tripersonal Creator. We care for creation because we love the Creator. The social aspect of holiness expresses itself in care for one another. We care for creation because we love our neighbor and the environment we share with our neighbor.
Doctrine of the Church
The Church bears witness to the new creation of Jesus Christ. “If the sounds of the waves of the sea are magnifying to God, surely the mingled voice of men and women and children in a chorus of prayer to God are more beautiful” (Basil of Caesarea, Homilies 4.6).
The Church is not of the world, but in the world to prepare it for the eternal dwelling of God.
The Church is not of the world, but in the world to prepare it for the eternal dwelling of God.
Doctrine of Last Things
In my recent series on Heaven and Hell, you may recall one of the conclusions: in the end, heaven and earth will be one, and the whole earth will be the temple of the Lord.
But there is more to be said, namely, we don’t need to fear the destruction of the earth. God gave a promise, symbolized by the rainbow, that “while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22).
We don’t need to fear the destruction of the earth. It is not creation that will be consumed by the Lord, but sin.
The Psalmist writes, “Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you have made summer and winter” (Psalm 74:16-17). “In His hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are His also. The sea is His, for He made it, and His hands formed the dry land” (Psalm 95:4-5). “Say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns!’ Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved” (Psalm 96:10).
According to Psalm 104:35, it is not creation that will be consumed by the Lord, but sin. “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more!” says the Psalmist. “You have established the earth, and it stands fast” (Psalm 119:90).
The reason God will not let the earth to fail is because He intends to fill the earth with His glory. “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens” the Psalmist says over and over, “Let your glory be over all the earth!” Israel thought they could contain God in a box called the Temple. But the Psalmist understood God’s glory differently. The Psalmist saw a day coming when God would burst out of the Temple and fill the whole earth with His glory. The whole earth will be God’s dwelling place (cf. Psalm 65:5-13).
Nonetheless, God has still given us a mandate, to exercise stewardship—dominion—over the earth. That is, to order it, to shalom it with godly care.
Christian creation care is care for the earth as stewards of God’s property. It recognizes that all things have relative value—that is, a tree’s value isn’t anywhere near the value of a human being.
Almighty God, who created such wonderful things for your pleasure and for our joy, grant to us an understanding of your truth, in order that from the visible world we may apprehend your invisible Being, and that from the beauty of your creatures we may conceive the proper idea of you, our Creator, and give you thanks. Surely since the creation of the world your invisible attributes are clearly seen—your everlasting power and divinity. Therefore, in the earth, in the air, and in the heavens, in the sea, in the night, and in the day, and in all things visible, may we be reminded of your unending beneficence that grips us. And let us make no opportunity for sin nor any place for idolatry, since we have a Dwelling in us, the Spirit of God, to whom be all glory with the Father and the Son, now and always, from age to age. Amen. (Adapted from the prayer of Basil, Homilies 3.10)