What Adventists Say About Climate Change
by Loren Seibold | 25 January 2020 |
Seventh-day Adventists, from our very beginning, have believed God was interacting not just with individuals, but with an entire planet. The dark day, the blood moon, the falling stars, the Lisbon earthquake—these were events God was causing (or, say some, allowing—a distinction without a difference) in the natural world to alert us to an even more catastrophic interference to come: Jesus returning to destroy the entire creation, and start over. We not only accepted, but rejoiced in, God’s catastrophes because of what they heralded.
Now something may be happening to the planet that we’re having a harder time explaining, because it is alleged to be humankind’s own fault—and possibly preventable by our timely intervention. While the church has made some statements on the matter (read this excellent summary) I’ve been interested in what I hear from many Adventists on the matter, in discussions in Sabbath School and over fellowship dinner. For example:
“It isn’t happening.” This response hardly needs an explanation if you live in the United States, where denial of human-caused climate change is a journalistic industry. There’s no point in my offering another rebuttal: I will just say that though there have been times in history when the conventional wisdom has been wrong, the preponderance of evidence from reputable sources argues it isn’t wrong this time. To be a climate change denier, you have to be as conspiratorial about a minority scientific opinion as Adventists are about believing that the pope is about to persecute us—and indeed, some say the two are related.
Adventists trust science when building proton cancer treatment facilities. But in other areas, we fight against it. Clifford Goldstein has employed a grab bag of “isms” to say that science can’t quite be relied upon. He titles his book Baptizing the Devil, which is clever, but also seems to imply a sort of demonization of science. Goldstein focuses on origins, but his reasons to distrust science are comprehensive enough that they could spill over into other applications of science when science seems to be in conflict with the Bible. If you can’t trust science on the matter of long-ago origins, you may not be able to trust it about slow, elusive climate change, either.
The impulse to deny climate change comes from the same place as do many anti-evolution arguments: that my beliefs are as good as your facts. Our response to this inconvenient truth shouldn’t be entirely surprising.
“It doesn’t matter—the world is ending anyway.” There’s an old gospel song that goes, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” The problem for Adventists is that we’ve been a-passing through for 175 years, and who knows how much longer we’ll be a-passing?
It is during this very span of time, while we Adventists have been saying Jesus is about to return, that the world has experienced most of the industrial growth that has caused climate change. It is surely not Seventh-day Adventists’ fault alone, but we did tell people we were the harbingers of a frightening future that Jesus would rescue us from. I can’t help but think that an attitude of “it doesn’t matter” isn’t much of an encouragement for us to do our part in planet care, nor to teach others to do theirs.
“It’s a sign of the end.” This is closely related to the previous response, but if that one is passive toward climate change, this one has a sort of reasoned inevitability about it. If climate change is a sign of the end, then it is the result of spiritual winds and tides, and there is nothing we can do about it, or ought to do, because “when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”
If climate change means Jesus is coming, one could argue that the dirtier the planet becomes, the more CO2 builds up, the thinner the atmospheric ozone shield, the closer we are to self-destruction, the better for us.
“It’s a way to introduce Sunday laws.” This is a specific implementation of the sign-of-the-end notion, and one that could only have come from the fecund brains of pope-obsessed Adventists. In May of 2015 Pope Francis issued an encyclical about the environment, saying in passing that “Sunday, like the Jewish Sabbath, is meant to be a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world.”
Now, to be clear, Francis was saying he wants people to be in church on Sunday, just as we want people in church on Saturday. Francis makes no demands or threats: it is an observation, a pastoral encouragement. There is little chance that our secular world is going to shut down every Sunday any more than it already does. And if businesses should close on Sunday, what is that to us? We worship on Saturday. Francis’ mention of the Jewish Sabbath—the one we keep—should ease our minds. We might even applaud his saying that the Sabbath heals our relationship with the earth, since Sabbath and nature traditionally go together for us, too.
But as an opportunity for fleecing the fearful faithful, it was too good to pass up. The conspiracists turned it into “The Pope is using climate change as an excuse to get world governments to institute Sunday laws.” If only Francis could know what a gift he gave Seventh-day Adventists! With one sentence he raised not just our self-righteous ire, but millions of dollars for Adventist evangelists.
Strangely, the pope’s exalted place in our prophetic scheme makes him an inspired voice among us. Many Adventists take as seriously every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the pope as those from the mouth of God. The Bible says not a thing about Sunday laws, national or worldwide. It does say much about not living in fear, and about not willfully misinterpreting the words of others.
Addressing Climate Change Biblically
If we were to look for reasons why we should take climate change seriously, two Biblical principles come to mind: compassion and stewardship.
All Adventists would say they want to follow Jesus in ameliorating human suffering. But helping people is most natural at the symptom level, because root causes are much harder to identify. Adventist Community Services, for example, provides care for people burned out of their homes, but the cause of wildfires we leave to governmental authorities. ADRA helps people displaced by war, but the war itself is regarded as outside our remit.
Whether human actions are the reason for climate change is precisely what many question. Yet if preventable climate change is causing human suffering—even if we don’t know for sure—do any of the above excuses justify our ignoring it?
Stewardship is taking care of something that has been entrusted to us. God said to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Subduing and ruling has meant anything from ravaging the planet for financial gain, to wantonly wiping out species, to vegetarian eating, to tender ecological care. But in simple stewardship terms, “the earth is the Lord’s,” and should it become uninhabitable through our actions, have we not failed the trust God placed in us?
I have heard Revelation 7:3 adduced as an encouragement to ecology: “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.” If Revelation is something more than a psychedelic fever dream, it’s significant that preserving at least certain aspects of the environment are mentioned here in an eschatological context. Though there are problems with this text as a directive (it’s angels who are held back from destroying the earth, not human industry) we self-identified eschatologists ought to try to understand it, especially since we have traditionally identified sealing with our keeping the Sabbath.
We human beings are naturally drawn to simple, evasive answers, and there is no simpler answer than, “This isn’t happening,” or “This isn’t something we can do anything about.” The end of the world gives us Adventists an additional excuse to dismiss climate change or, in the case of Sunday laws, pretzel it into one of our traditional concerns.
According to H. Richard Niebuhr, Luther saw faith and culture on separate tracks—what Niebuhr called “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” Apart from legacy concerns such as religious liberty, we Adventists tend to shy away from topics that have political overtones, and climate change has certainly become political. So you can wrestle with this topic over on your own track, but don’t bring it into the church setting where it will lead to conflict.
Plain old human selfishness explains a lot, too: there’s a natural schism between the local and the large, the personal and the universal—what some have referred to as the “Not In My Back Yard” effect. My friend who owns a lovely country home denies there’s climate change, but he would, I have no doubt, attempt to stop anyone who erected a toxic incinerator near his house or emptied sewage into his creek. Yet he’s opposed to environmental regulations generally, even for people more vulnerable to pollution than he is—much less, laws to protect the earth as a planet.
A Global Wager
Perhaps we could approach climate change as a “what have we got to lose?” proposition, a bit like Pascal’s Wager. You might not think atmospheric warming is provable. But if it is happening and, as some scientists warn, it could go past a tipping point when we could no longer stop a slide into inhabitability, then wouldn’t we be glad we acted? Even if we can’t prove to the satisfaction of a minority that the global climate is changing, cleaning up our air will give us cleaner, more breathable air. Being more efficient in energy use will save us resources and money. Less pollution means better personal health, of which we Adventists have long been advocates. All of which is to say that there are reasons to be careful with the environment, even if you don’t believe in global climate decline, or you don’t think that it matters.
A thinking person might look at us and wonder: of all the unseen, unproven things we Adventists have been able to believe, why is human-caused climate change the one some of us choose to excuse? Of all the cautions we take to avoid health problems, for example, why wouldn’t we be willing to take a chance that global ecological deterioration might be a genuine problem? Faith is a lovely thing, but it’s not an excuse for willful ignorance.
Yet here, perhaps, we hit the heart of the problem: by the nature of our eschatological origins, we are more attracted to conspiracy than to truth. It may be precisely because someone with authority and secular scientific reasoning is saying it that we set it aside. We are programmed to fear the unlikely, rather than lead the charge on the large, obvious questions of the day. This may be, in the end, what will keep us sidelined as a force for good in the world, a not-ready-for-prime-time church that finds itself increasingly ignored.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.