Posted by: Philip Rushton | June 8, 2010

Creation ‘Groaning for Redemption’ in the Gulf Coast

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Romans 8:22

We are now 50 days in to the gulf coast oil spill, which has been classified by many as the, “greatest environmental crisis in American history.” While conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh tries to convince us that oil “is natural” and that the “ocean will take care of this on it’s own if it is left alone,” those of us living in the real world are starting to see the ecological and economic consequences take effect. It is pretty hard to ignore the images of oil saturated sea creatures washing ashore on the Louisiana coast, or the interviews with fishermen who have lost their only source of income.

As I have watched this environmental crisis unfold on TV, I have been thinking a lot about how Christians should respond to an ecological crisis like this. Is God grieved by environmental damage? Should creation care be a priority for Christians?

In recent history, environmentalism and Christianity have sometimes been at odds with each other. Back in the 60’s, Lynn White argued in her article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” that Christianity was to blame for the decline of our environment. She writes, “We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian ethic that nature has no reason for existence except to serve man.” This idea is based on her reading of the Genesis text where man is given ‘dominion’ over creation.

Lynn White’s interpretation of scripture is highly problematic. The Hebrew word for ‘dominion’ does not have connotations of exploitation; rather, the mandate in Genesis 2 is to be stewards of creation and to use it wisely. White’s interpretation also overlooks a consistent affirmation of creation throughout the Bible. For example, in Genesis 1, God calls all creation “good,” and in psalm 104 the interconnectedness of creation and humanity is attributed to the wisdom of God.

However, Lynn White was not entirely wrong to make a connection between ecological decline and conservative Christianity. While the Bible clearly gives us a mandate to care for creation, the church has not always taught this. Perhaps, one of the reasons why White made the connection between anti-environmentalism and the Bible was because she was hearing it from the church.

These voices can still be heard in our contemporary culture. James Dobson has often spoken out against environmentalism, arguing that it is not a core issue for Christians. In 2007, Dobson, and other leading evangelicals, called for the vice-president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik, to resign because he was spending too much time concerning himself with environmental issues. Click here to read the article reporting on this situation.


At the root of this anti-environmental theology is a certain belief in the end times that makes no connection with our current world. There is a strand of dispensationalism that argues that the world is all going to burn and our souls are going to a better place so we do not need to care about our world.

There is obviously a reason why people have held on to this belief. There are certain texts in the Bible that can be read in a way that supports this position. However, there is a growing consensus among evangelical thinkers that this type of dispensationalism overlooks some key ideas in scripture.

I’ve already mentioned some of these ideas above – namely that creation is affirmed as good, and that we are called to be stewards of the earth. What needs to be added to this discussion is how we envision creation fitting into God’s scheme for the end of times.

One of the things we need to recognize is that part of God’s vision for the end of times is for creation to be renewed. In Romans 8 Paul talks about creation groaning for redemption. Paul’s vision of the future envisions a time when, “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). This same theme is present in Colossians 1:20 where Paul says that God is seeking to reconcile “all things to himself, whether things on earth or in heaven.”

The reason why it is important for us to know God’s plan for the future is that it informs how we are to live in the present. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” What this means is that God wants his kingdom to begin to break into the world in the here and now. The Christian community, then, is called to begin living out the values of the kingdom. Therefore, if part of God’s plan is to liberate and renew creation, then we as Christians ought to live out this value in the present. As N.T. Wright suggests in his book Simply Christian, our acts of creation care function like ‘sign posts.’ They point to what God is seeking to do as he ushers in his New Creation.

There is a lot to discuss here and I still have a lot to sort out on this issue. In the wake of this major ecological crisis, perhaps this is a good time to think through this issue together.

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Responses

  1. Thanks Phil,

    I recall reading that article by White in college and realizing that, though it doesn’t properly represent a biblical view, it is all to similar to how many Christians think.

    Great thoughts on the topic.

    Philip

  2. “God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians”

    I’m a big fan of Restoring Eden and Peter Illyn. Do you know of them? Peter is based near here. He has an eye patch! and is a remarkable guy.

    As you and I have talked Phil I have told you some about my work with the environment and how important I feel it is to protect it but there’s one thing I still struggle with.

    How do you reconcile Christ’s admonition to preach the gospel with the desire to keep the Earth clean. If this place is only temporary while our souls are eternal how do you put any priority towards the temporary one?

    Do I spend a weekend pulling invasive species or in a Bible study with youth?

    One thing I have come up with is that no one comes closer to God because of a building. You see mountains and wonder at God’s majesty you see buildings and wonder at man’s power. Nature is important to many for spirituality.

    The other reason I’ve found is the whole the more you turn people off the harder to change their souls thing. If non-Christians see protecting the environment as important and we say it’s not how do we convince them to convert? If they see us as uncaring about something they care about do we lose them.

    Just some thoughts. Thanks for writing the article. I’ve been trying to sort it out for 15 years and haven’t gotten far!

    “If you love the creator take care of creation”

  3. Hey Bruce,

    Great questions and answers! I am wrestling with these questions myself.

    You ask, “How do you reconcile Christ’s admonition to preach the gospel with the desire to keep the Earth clean?”

    I think one thing we need to keep in mind is that Jesus calls us to do more then just talk about the good news. The Christian life does not solely consist of handing out tracts and having awkward conversations with strangers 🙂 The way we communicate the good news is through loving God and loving neighbors. Jesus tells his disciples in John 13:35 that the world will know they are Christians if they love one another.

    In light of this I think it is important to recognize that one of the ways we can love our neighbors is through creation care. The reality is that environmental damage implicates people in serious ways. We are seeing this in the gulf right now. The fishing and tourism industries are severely compromised by the oil spill. Furthermore, it is often the poor that are compromised by environmental issues and we are called to care for the poor.

    Secondly, I think we need to recognized that the Bible does call us to be stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:28). So if we are going to appeal to the Bible for our ethical guidelines we need to make sure we are not picking and choosing.

    The more difficult question you ask is how we reconcile caring for a temporary world in light of the eternal perspective of Christians.

    I guess one thing I’ve come to realize is that the New Testament writers do not envision that our work on earth is useless. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul talks about the glorious resurrection that we look forward to after we perish. But at the end of this dialogue he does not say, “so let’s just sit back and wait for that time and do whatever we want now.” Instead he says, “therefore, my beloved brethern, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.”

    There is a sense, then, that what we do on earth is significant.

    N.T. Wright uses the metaphor of learning a foreign language before we move to another land. We know that in the new heaven and the new earth, creation will be restored (Romans 8). So as we learn to care for creation now, we are starting to learn the patterns of what our eternal existence will be like.

    This sort of leads in to what I was saying about creation care being a sign post to the new earth. As Christians we are called to start living out the values of the future kingdom. This is one of the ways that we witness to our world. We are starting to live out the patterns of the New Creation as we anticipate it’s coming.

    Lastly, I think we need to re-think our notions of heaven a little bit. When we think of heaven we often think in terms of disembodied souls going off to some celestial bliss. The Christian teaching, though, envisions a bodily resurrection (1 Cor 15), and a renewed creation (Romans 8). This is important. It set’s Christianity apart from gnostic philosophy, which teaches that matter is bad and salvation is about escaping the body and the created order. Notice that in Revelation 21 it envisions a new heaven and a new earth. I think we need to realize that the future does not involve floating around on clouds, it involves living in a new creation that is living in complete harmony with God.

    This is still kind of new territory for me, maybe I should do a more detailed blog post about this at some time. But the point I think we need to realize is that a renewed creation is part of what eternity is all about. As we seek that renewal in our present state we are anticipating what God wants to do and communicating his plan for the world.

  4. N.T. Wright’s comment is interesting I’ve never heard that before.

    So what do you think stewardship of the Earth really means? Does it mean we have to save every Snail Darter and Aleutian Canada Goose? Or is it okay to let starlings, hatchery salmon, and nutria displace so-called native species?

    I’ve always found it odd the irony of those who believe most strongly in evolution are typically those who push most strongly to protect weaker species from going extinct while at the same time those who believe God created every species are okay with inconvenient species going extinct.

    I’ll have to ponder your differentiation of gnostic philosophy on heaven. Interesting. Thanks.

  5. Hey Bruce,

    Those are definitely the next questions – how do we put this into practice?

    I’m still working on the basics – reducing, reusing recycling etc. But your example of how native species are being compromised makes me realize that a lot of what we need is education on environmental issues. There are so many things going on that we are not aware of.

  6. Phil, I love how you enjoy asking hard questions and seeking various thoughts and ideas on them. As an outdoor enthusiast most my life, these issues invade my thoughts often — in fact, in catching a big, wonderful Halibut just yesterday off Newport, OR, I wondered how God felt about me killing this awesome fish. But, today, I gave thanks for how awesome the fella tasted. My favorite “creation” verse is Romans 1:20. And, while fishing yesterday, I thought about how “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Clearly, like an artist, God put himself, (his eternal power and divine nature) in creation — at least in part so that we could have a clear idea of His character and sovereignty. Regardless of this being a temporary home for Christians, I think it’s SO important to do our best to protect God’s creation so as to protect the very image of His divine nature he has shown us. As far as Starlings and Nutria go…that’s one to really ponder isn’t it.

  7. Thanks Eric, I appreciate your response. The text from Romans 1:20 is an important addition to the conversation. Creation does reveal to us a lot about God’s wisdom and power. Psalm 104 is a powerful text for me as it describes the wisdom behind God’s creation. It paints a beautiful picture of humanity and creation living in harmony as they benefit from the sustenance of the earth.


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