by Raj Attiken | 10 October 2023 |
An Adventist Today reader sent in a summary of a sermon preached recently by an Adventist pastor. The pastor had asserted that climate change is a punishment by God for human sin, and that hope for Adventists is not in preventing the planet from increasing two degrees in temperature, but in Jesus’ taking us away from this planet. Christians should not be concerned, the pastor admonished, about present or future harm and suffering caused to human or nonhuman life on the planet that are a result of climate change. Instead, we should be glad because climate change is a sign that Jesus is coming soon.
After listening to the sermon, the reader’s question was “What should I as a layperson in the church take from the arguments presented in this sermon about climate change? Are the arguments in this sermon the most biblical view of how Christians should evaluate and respond to climate change?”
The pastor’s views reflect the uneasiness some feel in supporting efforts to preserve the earth into a long future in light of their belief in the Second Advent of Jesus. If, at the Second Advent, this earth is going to be burned up and purified, what’s the point in caring for it?
How should our anticipation of the Second Advent influence us on how we relate to issues of climate change, global warming, environmental degradation, and their effects on human and non-human life on earth? What influences are shaping the views and actions of Adventists regarding care for the planet?
A matter of life and death
Climate change is far more than a theory or hypothesis that merits discussion or debate. To the approximately twenty million people who are reportedly directly affected by climate-related disasters annually, climate change is often a matter of life and death. It is felt and experienced intensely, particularly by those living in poverty, despite being the least responsible for the crisis. They are at least four times more likely to be displaced by extreme weather than people in wealthier regions. To them, the issue is more than academic. They live with the undeniable reality of droughts, famines, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes.
Despite all of this, there is a segment of the general population today that simply does not believe that climate change is occurring or that human actions contribute to changes in the climate. Fluctuations in the climate have always been a feature of the planet, they argue. These are the normal rhythms of the forces of nature. Some deny that human action contributes to climate change. Others acknowledge that the climate is changing but to label it a crisis is mere fearmongering.
Science, and politics
The political landscape in the United States today includes those who dismiss all scientific data as flawed and who are strongly opposed to any notion that climate change is real or that humans play a part in environmental degradation. Anti-science, as embraced by a U.S. political system, has become a potent social force and has deliberate, well-organized, and well-financed origins. The stance that some Adventists in the U.S. take on this issue is aligned more to such conservative politics than to religious conviction.
Many Adventists in the United States also align their political and religious views with evangelical Christians. This may be true in other parts of the world as well. Research shows that U.S. evangelical Christians identify themselves as environmentalists at very low rates compared to the general population. While 62% of religiously unaffiliated U.S. adults agree that the earth is warming primarily due to human action, just 24% of white evangelical Protestants do. Among the most devout Americans who pray daily, attend religious services at least weekly, and say religion is very important in their life, 61% are climate skeptics.
How we respond to climate change issues is also influenced by our age. Each generation is defined by some distinct attitudes and lifestyle choices. Generation X (born 1965-1979) was passionate about the environment even when they were young. They have continued to exhibit a high level of interest in environmental issues. So have Millennials (born 1980-1994), although to a slightly lesser degree. In the 2021 Pew Research Center poll, 71% of Millennials said “climate should be top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations.”
What about the science?
The peer-reviewed research of many scientists working in many different fields has made a compelling case that our planet is warming, tropical forests are shrinking, oceans are acidifying, and as a result, humans are suffering. Scientists observe trends in the climate record and the changes in physical and biological systems. Many scientists are compelled by the evidence to conclude that temperatures are rising world-wide due to greenhouse gases trapping more heat in the atmosphere, droughts are becoming longer and more extreme around the world, and tropical storms are becoming more severe due to warmer ocean water temperatures. The data published by the scientific community is plentiful. With the abundant scientific information now available on this issue, scientists would insist that the issue of climate change is not a matter of speculation, conspiracy, or fiction. It is a reality that demands a response from the human family.
The church’s statements:
Over the years, the General Conference Administrative Committee (ADCOM) has voted a few official statements regarding climate change and creation care. A Statement voted in 1995 and released in October 1996 expressed regret that
men and women have been increasingly involved in an irresponsible destruction of the earth’s resources, resulting in widespread suffering, environmental degradation, and the threat of climate change.
In 2009, the General Conference Stewardship Department published an article entitled “Adventists and the Environment” which listed ten things churches can do to advocate for reform in this area. About a decade following this publication, the Adventist Review devoted a whole issue to the topic in 2019: “Being Green: Adventists and the Environment.” In his editorial entitled “A Gracious Inheritance,” then-editor Bill Knott concluded that
our caring for the earth grows out of a godly gratitude to the Lord who has graciously cared for us. The same God who both made and beautified the earth asks that we honor who He is by how we treat what He has made.
How does theology inform us regarding caring for creation? Some hold to the view that in Genesis 1:26 humans were given dominion over the non-human world at creation, and that this implies domination over the created order. They contend, therefore, that we can relate to the earth and to non-human life however we like. There is also the belief about God’s sovereignty — the idea that God set this world in place, and if we humans are somehow changing something what God created, that really challenges God’s purposes and authority in the universe.
Perhaps the strongest rationale for disregard for climate change issues among Adventists is the belief in the Second Advent of Jesus and the accompanying changes that will occur to life as we know it now. Among the biblical texts that lead to this position is 2 Peter 3:10: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” Using this and similar passages to form a “it’s all going to burn, anyway” view about the planet could easily disincentivize one from working to protect and preserve the earth, or to work for its flourishing. If the current creation is to be replaced with a “new creation,” with its own new heaven and new earth, why invest in protecting the earth from climate change? This “throwaway theology” renders the created world as being disposable.
The Bible and creation care
One of the central themes of the first chapters of Genesis is the goodness of the entire creation. Even before humans are introduced into the scene, God sees goodness everywhere. And humans – as God’s image-bearers – are placed in a relationship with God, each other, and the rest of creation. The Garden becomes a temple-like space where God dwells intimately with his creatures, and later becomes the template for Israel’s tabernacle and temple. Genesis 2:15 (NIV) describes the role humans are to play in this garden temple: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Our human vocation is to work and take care of the place where God has placed us.
The Sabbath experience gives Adventists another significant rationale for creation care. The Sabbath is a perpetual reminder that God is the true owner and sustainer of the earth. It is also an invitation to appropriate restraint in the use and depletion of the resources God provides. The Sabbath “is an act of both resistance and alternative,” claims Walter Brueggemann in his 2014 book, Sabbath as Resistance. Sabbath is “a visible resistance that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.” (p. xiii-xiv) The Sabbath also brings opportunities to spend time in God’s creation and to purposefully contemplate and engage actively with the non-human world around us in all its wonder and diversity. Israel’s celebration of the Sabbath was to include the seventh year of rest for the land, when “the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord” (Lev. 25:2) – with no sowing or pruning or reaping.
Jesus did not talk about climate change. He was, however, deeply attentive to the natural world. He used images from nature often in his parables. He represented the Father as having concern for sparrows and providing for lilies and ravens. By instructing his disciples to gather leftover food after his creative act of feeding the five thousand (John 6:12), Jesus injected a lesson that the gifts of God’s creation are not to be squandered, left to rot, or wasted.
The earth: replaced or renewed?
What’s in store for this earth when God “makes everything new”? (Revelation 21:5). Only in our imagination can we envision what the “new earth” (Rev. 21:1) will be like for non-human life. Will Isaiah’s vision that “the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion . . . the cow will graze near the bear” (Isa 11:6,7) be literally fulfilled? Will the fire of 2 Peter 3:10 be a consuming fire or a refining fire — or a fire of God’s presence as at the burning bush (Exodus 3) representing God’s transformative power that can make the ordinary extraordinary?
What’s in store for this earth – continuity or discontinuity; redemption or annihilation? We can only conjecture what Paul meant when he wrote that the “groaning” to which creation is now subjected will be removed in the future (Romans 8:19-22). He describes creation’s future explicitly: “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.” Paul then claims that creation will be “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” Paul seems to be affirming that God’s purpose to ultimately glorify his people will extend to creation as well. Creation will share in the freedom that will accompany this glory and become a “world filled with God’s righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13 NLT). In this view, the created world will be “reconciled” (Col. 1:20) and “liberated” (Romans 8:21).
Whatever is in store for the earth, care for our created world would still be imperative. Regardless of the views we hold about the destiny of our planet, they should not negate or in any way detract from the teaching of Scripture that God has given humans the responsibility to care for this world – however long it may last. Even if we knew the earth was to be destroyed one day but that generations of people would still live on it before then, we would have reason to care for it. An ancient Native American proverb puts things in perspective: “Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
The story of creation in the Bible begins and ends with an act of God. We cannot create Eden on earth; only God can – and will! But this does not mean we have no calling or role in working to bring creation closer to the goal God has set for it.
Dr. Raj Attiken is an Adjunct Professor of Religion at Kettering College. He served in the church for forty-two years, for the last sixteen as president of the Ohio Conference. Raj began his pastoral ministry in Sri Lanka, the land of his birth. He and his wife, Chandra, have two children and two grandchildren.