The beginning of lockdown, March 2020. I’m sitting in the kitchen reading the news on my phone trying to relax. The news item? Another environmental problem – a familiar and sad theme but still strangely interesting. But this time I notice the Spirit is trying to get my attention to not just understand but pray about the article’s subject. This comes repeatedly in coming weeks.
For years I’d simply felt that surely God had these big environmental issues broadly under control and would sort them out – I’d be ok to ignore them and maybe it’s a specialist area for a few others.
It seemed that the more important calling was our mission to the nations and the “spiritual” things, after all, we are told to set our hearts and minds on things above, not earthly things. So how we treat the world around us must be a long way down the list of priorities and seemed separate from missions.
The general assumption in churches I had been in seemed to be that the New Testament priorities contained little interest in the non-human creation. We all love beauty and wonder in creation but deeply caring for its well-being? Not clear as any priority.
And I knew that for many Christians, the knowledge that God will bring a new heaven and a new earth means that we don’t have to bother much with looking after the current earth. I wasn’t sure I believed that last point but had never explored it.
Yet with these narratives being challenged in intercession, which was incessant for months, I had to seek God properly. Before long, I found other Christians also wrestling with these understandings- some in YWAM, some not. Soon I found that my reading of some Biblical passages had been pretty limited.
Let’s start to look at what can be found in the Bible:
There was a major theme of the whole Bible that I’d hardly begun to grasp – God had specifically created us for the task of delegated rulership of His creation. The objective? Show His glory by how we rule and partner with Him – to the point of a redemption of all things under King Jesus.
Let us start with one of our most familiar verses, Genesis 1:26, describing us as His image bearers. This truth is so deeply consequential that it appears in almost every YWAM teaching I’ve ever heard. But the verse also says something else that’s vital: “let us make mankind in our own image so that they may rule over” the … rest of creation. (NIV). Here, we have a deep reason we were created “SO THAT” – the mandate to rule. But what type of rule? It has often been interpreted as domination. However, the same hebrew word for rule (Radah) is used in Psalms 145 and 72 to describe an ideal King – who wants the best for his people. Far from dominating, the rulership we are made for is actually a servant leadership rule – just like we are trained to lead in our communities, to bring out the best in the people God has put us with. One Old testament scholar, Ellen Davis, translates the passage as “humans shall exercise skilled mastery over the rest of creation.” A much more artisan-like, creative application of skill.
Then, in Genesis 2:15, we are put in the garden “to work it and take care of it” which sounds just like a simple farming task – but the hebrew words (abad and shamar) can be translated “serve and protect” or “work it and guard it” or “care for it and maintain it”. This is not a command for unsustainable, utilitarian, maximum productivity; it is a loving, caring responsibility to seek creation’s flourishing- which will benefit humans as well as non-human creation.
But what about Jesus and the New Testament?
There are many verses about Jesus’ purpose which relate to more than humans in ways I had hardly noticed:-
John 3:16, that precious compact description of the incarnation: we tend to assume that it says “God so loved the people of the world”, yet the “world” that God loves so much is actually the greek word “Kosmos” – which normally means all of creation. So the incarnation and death of Jesus is about more than humans. What can that mean? While being wonderfully excited by what it means for us to be free from sin and death, have we missed that redemption also goes beyond humans to the rest of creation?
Colossians 1 :16,17 talks about all things being created by Him and for Him, echoing John 1:3 “through Him all things were made”. Redeeming all things to himself in Christ is the ultimate consequence of Jesus’ death on the cross (Col 1:20). Romans 8 talks about creation waiting in eager expectation for the glorious freedom of the children of God. Finally, in John’s vision, not only does every tribe and tongue declare Jesus King (Rev 7:9) but every living creature as well (Rev 5:13).
While this redemption will ultimately be seen in the age to come, it seems that some is seen now, in a similar way to our own lives- much redemption is visible in us now as we taste of the powers of the age to come (Heb 6:5) and pray for His will to be done on earth as it is done in heaven. As we obey the Genesis mandate, will we see creation tasting heaven? There are examples from revival settings of bumper harvests, and of sites where particular evil hashappened becoming barren. I consider there is hope here.
About that New earth….
I suggest that we have already seen enough Bible weight to know we are expected to seek the best for His creation. But there could be an elephant in this room for some Christians: verses about a new earth. Let’s address these as they have been used to suggest that we don’t need to look after the rest of creation – or not much anyway.
We do know that we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13) and that the existing world will be destroyed by fire when the day of the lord comes like a thief (2Pe3:10 paraphrased).
Here, as always, the words and context really matter. Two greek words for “new” were available: either neos or kainos. Neos means completely new- like a brand new car exiting a factory – whereas Kainos means new in some aspects or repurposed or transformed – more like a repaired second hand car that’s new to you but not newly created. 2 Peter 3 contains Kainos not neos. The same is true in Rev 21:1. The new heaven and new earth are RE-newed not brand new. There is a parallel to us being “a new creation”- recognisable but cleansed and redeemed (2 Co 5:17) or even the resurrection body of Jesus, whose wounds were still visible. And to understand the destructive fire in 2Pe 3v4-6, the context in the chapter is Noah’s flood, where the destruction was refining from evil not complete obliteration and re-creation of the world. The fire here, I submit (as do theologians much more studious than I ) is a refining fire, not a completely destroying fire.
The “new” earth will, I submit, have some continuity from this earth. This surely adds weight to our responsibility to look after what we can of this creation. But even if the new earth is a complete replacement, we have to obey the mandate from Genesis to care for all God made, and live with the expectation of creation’s future redemption.
Wrapping things up, ready for application…..
This is a brief overview of the extensive Biblical support that we should all care for His creation. If it’s true that this is a fundamental theme of the Bible and our purpose, we need to look in more depth- for which we have offered some further reading and the Creation Care forum in January. And we can explore what this might mean in Phil’s article on practical steps.
Possible ways to think of this relationship between humans and non-human creation; some helpful parallels to ponder:
1) It’s as if we have been lent God’s car keys – and he’d like the car back in one piece! But we do have the ability to crash it- that’s free will right there.
2) Are we tenants of a landlord called King of Kings? The Earth is the Lords and everything in it (Psalm 24). If so, we have a lease that includes us looking after the property.
3) Imagine if we knew an artist who created something good (or even very good), why would you wilfully damage it if you like or love that person?
4) Anyone who mistreats the poor shows contempt for their maker (Proverbs 14:31). So what about anyone who mistreats creation? Does it show contempt for the creator?
5) Is there a parallel with our own bodies- which we feed and care for (Eph 5:29) because we know He made our bodies carefully and loves us dearly? We know that if we don’t take care of ourselves, ill health is a consequence – and less Glory for our creator. Is our relationship with the rest of creation similar?
Ben has over 20 years of YWAM experience under his belt, before joining YWAM he undertook PhD in Paleoclimate studies but left this experience on the ‘shelf’ as he followed Gods call into cross cultural mission. Over the last 2-3 years God has asked him to pick this back up and look at it again from God’s perspective and help to bring a deeper understanding of God’s character to the wider body of Christ. Now based in Paisley he has helped to co-found a creation care hub to help serve YWAM in this area.