Delivered on February 24, 2019 at Woodland Christian Church. Sermon audio here.
For those of you who attend the Sunday evening services, you might remember that I had the opportunity to deliver a few messages last spring concerning how Christians ought to respond to some of the pressing cultural issues of the day, such as immigration and racism. The sermon I am delivering today is essentially a continuation of that series. In this installment I want to talk to you about the topic of environmentalism.
Why environmentalism? Two reasons. First, Earth Day, which we might consider the most significant date related to environmentalism, is two months away. As we draw closer to that April 22 date, hopefully this sermon will equip you to properly discern and respond to the environmental messages you hear around that time. Second, this topic ties is nicely with the truths that Pastor Scott has been sharing with us from Acts 17 over the past few weeks.
The main point from Acts 17 that I want to draw your attention to is this: Paul used an element of the godless culture around him as a launching point for preaching the gospel. Specifically, as he walked through Athens he discovered an altar to what the Athenians called “The Unknown God”. Instead of attacking their polytheism as wicked and irrational, as true as those charges might be, he piques their interest by informing them that he knows this god that they worship without knowing. Paul did not believe that they worshiped Yahweh in spirit and in truth, but Paul did believe that he had found some common ground with his audience.
Paul did not know personally know any of the philosophers there but because he found common ground with them, he had confidence that he could deliver a relevant gospel presentation. Indeed, Paul knows he can always find common ground with his audience. He explains why he can do this in the following passages (Acts 17:23b-28):
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’
These are some of my favorites verses in scripture because the implications for philosophy, evangelism, and apologetics are so profound. You see, the reason Paul knows he can find common ground with anyone is that every person’s existence is defined in relation to God. Specifically, every person lives in God’s universe and every person lives and moves and has their being because of God. Consider the most radical atheist whose worldview seems diametrically opposed to yours at every point. You can find common ground with even this person, because no matter how hard they have worked to suppress the truth, they still cannot make sense of reality apart from God.
I believe that Earth Day is an element of modern culture in which we can find common ground with many humanists that we would consider on the complete opposite end of the ideological spectrum from us. Not Earth Day in its entirety, just as Paul did not embrace the altar to the unknown god in its entirety, because God does not dwell in temples made of hands. But he did start with the altar, even quoting one of their pagan poets for reinforcement. In other words, when evangelizing to certain people today, Earth Day can be our version of the altar to the unknown god in our version of Athens.
Let’s talk about Earth Day. What is Earth Day? According to Wikipedia, “Earth Day is an annual event celebrated on April 22. Worldwide, various events are held to demonstrate support for environmental protection.” Environmental protection. What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase “environmental protection”? Do you think of environmentalist sitting in trees to prevent deforestation?1 Do think of man-made tragedies, like oil spills and seals lying dead on oil-covered beaches? Do you think of governments regulating what products you can buy, whether it be cars, light-bulbs, or even toilets? Well, jokes on them — now you just flush twice.
My point is that a phrases like “environmental protection” carries a lot of connotations today. Whether they’re positive or negative might depend on your politics, your job, or where you live. Do you subscribe to a political ideology that shuns almost all government intervention except in the most critical and obvious scenarios? Do you, your friends, or your relatives work in industries like logging, mining, oil, or gas? Do you live near mines, factories, or power plants? What I’ve observed over the years is that many people hold completely contradictory or even hypocritical views regarding the environment depending on how they’re affected.2 When it comes to environmentalism, If you align yourself with your favorite party, politician, or lobby then it’s quite possible that you’re not serving truth but rather someone’s special interests.
As Christians, we want to serve God and not man. This raises the important question, what does God have to say about how humans relate to the environment? We can’t do much better than turning to Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Combined with God’s pronouncement that his creation is “very good”, this passage indicates that humans are responsible for the care of the creation. This view is known as “environmental stewardship”. I don’t have specific guidelines for what proper stewardship looks like. What I can say with certainty is this: First, the weightiness of our role as stewards should be obvious when we considering how much God delights in his creation and how much the creation glorifies him. Second, subduing the creation, which covers activities as varied as exploration, technology, industry, and commerce, should never extend beyond the purposes God has given us to accomplish, namely the fulfillment of the dominion mandate and the Great Commission.
Going back to the topic of common ground, it should be apparent that Christians ought to be environmentalists to the extent that we uphold our duties as stewards of God’s creation. Consequently, I don’t have any problem calling myself an environmentalist so long as I’m given the opportunity to explain that my view of environmental care is about the glory of God, not the glory of man. That is the difference between Christian environmentalism and humanistic environmentalism. Indeed, listen to Paul’s commentary in Romans 1:18-25:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.
“Worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” What a pointed and accurate description of humanistic environmentalists. While Paul goes on to describe the fruit of the humanists of his day, here is some of the fruit of eco-sensitive humanism seen today:
- The belief that humans are destroying the earth. Make no mistake: humans have harmed parts of the earth3, but the doomsday scenarios presented by many humanists have been laughably incorrect, especially in the realm of climate change. The idea that humans can heavily alter the health of the earth seems arrogant at best.4 Indeed, the founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, said, “The fate of the living planet is the most important issue facing mankind.” But this is wrong. Our fate before the living God is the most important issue facing mankind.
- The belief that procreation is immoral. This position, known as anti-natalism, hopes for a massive decline in human population or, in its most extreme form, the extinction of the human species. Most anti-natalists hold to this viewpoint because they believe that the human experience involves too much suffering to justify bringing new life into the world, but some strains have an environmental bent and believe that the health of the earth will improve with fewer humans. Even if that were the case, anti-natalism is false because God considers humans part of his “very good” creation, which he created for his glory. Moreover, global overpopulation isn’t a major concern.
- The belief that animals are as valuable as humans and vice versa. Since creation stewardship requires minimizing suffering toward animals as much as possible, an argument can be made for laws protecting animal welfare. (i.e., animal rights) But elevating of animals to the level of humans or the diminishing of humans to the level of animals is grossly unbiblical, since humans were made in God’s image and not animals.
As with any non-Christian philosophy, note the internal contradictions within humanism. On the one hand, humanism results in humans worshiping themselves but, on the other hand, humanism results in humans hating themselves. Another contradiction is that humanists wants to make moral pronouncements about what objectively ought to be (e.g., we ought to protect the earth, we ought to reduce our numbers, we ought to give animals the same rights as humans) despite objective morality having no basis within humanism, since there is no eternal, infallible, authoritative law-giver. For this reason, “humanistic environmentalism” is actually an oxymoron and Christianity has a monopoly on the idea the earth is worth caring for.
If environmentalism presupposes Christianity, it follows that someone who wants to be an environmentalist must be a Christian. This provides a powerful opportunity to call the audience to repentance. Remember back to Romans 1 and Acts 17: the unbeliever knows that God created the heavens and the earth, that God is authoritative and powerful, and that we cannot make sense of reality apart from God. They might not be able to articulate these truths about themselves and God, but they still know them and have used their humanistic philosophy to hide from them. These truths are the your common ground and should give you confidence when you tell them what Paul told the Athenians: God has commanded everyone to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.
In conclusion, neither shun Earth Day as evil nor assimilate to the humanistic elements of Earth Day. Instead, use Earth Day to engage a culture that desperately needs Jesus. Lastly, I want to share a fantastic piece of scripture from the Psalms that reminds us not only of God’s glory in his creation of this planet but also his demand for perfect righteousness — a righteousness that can come only from Him. Psalm 24:1-6 says:
The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness,
The world and those who dwell therein.
For He has founded it upon the seas,
And established it upon the waters.
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
Or who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol,
Nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive blessing from the Lord,
And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek Him,
Who seek Your face.
- Incidentally, while certain old-growth forests are under threat of deforestation, developed nations are becoming greener to the point of having more trees now than before the Industrial Revolution.
- On the job, one might be thoroughly anti-environmentalism because they despise how regulations are harming their industry. But at home, they might be pro-environmentalism knowing that regulations might protect their health or comfort. And vice versa. In the 1990’s I remember an article about some New England politicians who had pushed heavily for wind energy but were absolutely livid when they found out that wind turbines were to be built in view of their coastal homes. Where it gets even messier is when politicians get in bed with businesses, both “green” and “non-green”: subsidies for alternative energy, campaign contributions from oil and gas corporations, etc.
- Mike Oard of Answers in Genesis, certainly no friend of humanistic environmentalism, estimates that 50% of the post-1880 global warming trend is anthropogenic.
- My father, an environmental geologist, has made a career out of understanding how humans interact with the environment, particularly in the natural gas industry. He even headed up many “fracking” operations in Pennsylvania during the oil shale boom of the late 2000’s. When the topic of the humans destroying the earth would come up, he would comment on how arrogant it was to think that humans have so much control over the earth that we could actually ruin it in the way that so many alarmists predicted that we would.