Environmentalism and the End of the World:Our Eschatological Dilemma

Martin Luther once responded to a critic by saying, “Even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.”  Was this merely foolish bravado, or did Luther actually have a theological basis for his answer, which in large measure, we have forgotten today?   In my response to this question, I intend to present a predominantly theological position, which only mildly taps into the inherent scientific issues.  Science and Faith forums like this one tend to adopt a strong scientific bias which taps into rather vague religious ideals, rather than the other way around, and there are good reasons why this is so.  Science has a global universality and uniformity lacking among the great religions of the world, which are deeply divided by contrasting worldviews, beliefs and doctrines.  Polkinghorne has in fact identified this divergence of faith perspectives as one of the most vexing problems he has ever encountered.1  Commonalities of spirituality and religion exist of course, but are often peripheral to the core theologies of the faith.  In this particular case of an eschatological dilemma, it is that very core theology, one unique to Christianity, that can truly dialogue with and inform the scientific perspective of a different way of understanding the end – and the future beyond the end.

When speaking of “the end”, there is of course a major difference between the end as it applies to an individual, and the end as it applies to civilization, the human race, or to the world.  We all agree that the first end is inevitable, but the latter corporate ends are controversial.  What exactly do we mean by the end?  Science and faith have tended to have different answers to that question, but with increased anxiety over global warming and climate change reaching a crisis point, secular and scientific pessimism about the fate of the earth as we know it has entered the orbit normally occupied by apocalyptic religious prophecy.  In Christian theology, the individual and corporate ends are intertwined in a unique way.  Although our main concern is the end of the world, so to speak, there is an important consideration regarding the end of the individual which must first be taken into account.

INDIVIDUAL ESCHATOLOGY: DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE

Most people, cultures, and religions throughout history have maintained a belief in an afterlife; in fact, one of the defining distinctives of any religious belief is its view of the nature of life after death.  In some ways this may seem like hallowed ground on which science may not tread.  At least it moves out of the realm of objective science and into more speculative science.  However, the self-conscious awareness of our own mortality, and a belief that death is not actually the end of life, is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be human.  One of the great remaining mysteries of the Neanderthal is whether or not they shared this “human” awareness; notably whether they buried their dead, and if so, in some ritualistic manner indicative of belief in a life beyond.  Or as some would argue, was burial simply an instinctive desire to protect the body from the ravages of carnivores or simply from unpleasant decay and odor? 

Religious views of the nature of this afterlife vary considerably, from a Buddhist loss of individuality, to reincarnation, to the pantheistic Hindu reunification with the Brahmin, to the continued spiritual existence of the individual in ancient Egyptian and Greek traditions, the communal spirit-life of ancestor religions, or the monotheistic concepts of heaven, hell, purgatory or paradise commonly held today.  Even in the secular context, Heaven and Hell are familiar terms to everyone, even those who profess no religious belief.  You don’t have to look far to find a Hollywood blockbuster where one bad guy says to another as he cuts the cable sending them both plummeting to their deaths, “I’ll see you in hell”.    Ironically, this is seen as perfectly sensible dialogue to people who would otherwise be very uncomfortable in a metaphysical discussion about the reality of an actual heaven or hell.  Pure materialists are very rare, and even dyed-in-the-wool atheists tend to remain agnostic about life after death.  Few scientists today are reductionist enough to propose that human beings are nothing more than the biological and neurological systems which comprise them.2  In other words, there is a spiritual component to human life.  Even the doctrine of reincarnation is based upon a spiritual connection between the various selves of one’s natural existence.

In most religious theologies, whatever form the afterlife takes, it is a spiritual or other-worldly existence.  The temporal natural life ends, and the eternal, spiritual life begins, whether in paradise, the Elysian fields, the community of ancestors, heaven or hell.  Even the nearly endless cycles of reincarnation eventually give way to an escape into a universal spiritual oneness.  Traditionally these beliefs have been held as the sacred domain of religions, a domain where science cannot enter, for there seem to be no empirical footholds available.  Science can merely play the role of skeptic, questioning the authenticity of any who claim to have experienced the world beyond and returned.

While traditional Christian eschatology has consisted of the doctrines of death, judgment, heaven and hell, this is actually a gross oversimplification of the biblical teaching on the afterlife and an incomplete if not inaccurate picture of Christian metaphysical understanding of the future.  Eschatology, the doctrine of “last things”, is often misrepresented as a study of the end.  But theologically in both individual and corporate terms, the end is really just a process or an event which serves as a transitional phase from one state to another.  There is both continuity and discontinuity, and while science may have little to say about the discontinuity, it has a great deal to say about continuity through phases of massive transition.  The earth has undergone several such transitional phases in its history, as has the evolution of life in general, and even human existence and history more specifically.  Some of these transitions such as collisions with comets, mass extinctions, or dramatic climate shifts, have been particularly destructive or cataclysmic. Yet none has represented a complete end; there is always continuity.  Before examining a future continuity however, it is crucial first to lay out the theological view of the so-called end of individual human life.

In Christian doctrine, the terminal point for human life is not death, nor is it a spiritual existence in heaven.  Rather the terminus is resurrection.  Resurrection is in part a historical doctrine referring to Jesus being raised from the dead; not revived from death back to a continued physical human life, but raised up by the power of God in a uniquely transformed body both like and unlike his previous body.  But resurrection is also the doctrine which addresses the future of all humanity.  I often wonder if even Christians who profess belief in the doctrine, really comprehend how completely unique and profound the idea of resurrection is.  It seems incredible, yet ironically its very credibility lies in the fact that it has already taken place once, in history, with numerous witnesses attesting to its occurrence;3 the remarkable spread of early Christianity is due almost entirely to belief in the resurrection of Christ, giving profound weight to his other claims of identity.  For what resurrection claims is not only that death is not the end, but that this physical, material existence has ultimate value to God, thus death is not a transition to a spiritual existence, but to a new form of a physical existence.  In other words, matter matters to God. 

Of course the historicity of the resurrection does not compel belief, no more than the Holocaust, Apollo 11 moon landing, or any historical occurrence compels belief by those who follow.  However, the profound implications of the resurrection have prompted critics and skeptics from that day forward to devote unprecedented effort to disproving its occurrence; early martyrs staked their life on it, vast amounts of literature have been devoted to the topic from every conceivable angle, yet all attempts to discredit the resurrection of Jesus have failed 4, and Christianity has gone on to become the most widely spread religion in the world.  This connection between Christianity and resurrection is no coincidence.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:

How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.  But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep… But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.  Then the end will come… 5

Paul and the other New Testament writers used the resurrection of Christ as historical precedent to “prove” the future general resurrection of the dead, which many Jews of the day and some early Christians did not accept.  Yet without such a belief, their faith was useless and futile.  Jesus was not a religious teacher, and Christianity was not merely an ethical system for this life, but a relational connection to the very source of existence who’s own death and resurrection as a man would ensure his followers’ subsequent transition through death to new life.  The final clause of the Nicene creed which forms the basis of all 3 major branches of Christianity states, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”  Clearly the heart of Christian theology is a belief in the resurrection, and the Christian hope is a hope of resurrection.

Unlike any other religion, Christianity asserts the continuation of both personal identity and physical form.  In modern liberal streams of Christianity, it has become commonplace to deny the bodily resurrection and re-interpret the term as a kind of inward spiritual renewal.  Likewise Tom Wright, bishop of Durham and prolific theologian, expresses dismay that, “though Christians still use the word resurrection, they treat it as a synonym for ‘life after death’ or ‘going to heaven’.”6 But neither the bible nor historic Christian theology allows for any interpretation other than the actual resurrection of the body. I stand firmly in that theological tradition and have built the remainder of this paper upon the assumption that the resurrection of Christ lays the blueprint for the future of humanity, and that humanity’s future is intrinsically bound to this earth.  If Jesus was not resurrected, there is nothing more to talk about, but if Jesus was resurrected, as the overwhelming body of historical evidence suggests, then we have a powerful piece of evidence for the hope of a transformed future life which is not merely speculative, but based on actual historical occurrence. 

CORPORATE ESCHATOLOGY AND “THE END”

At this point we shift gears from the individual end to the corporate.  To be sure, the bible claims that all people will one day be resurrected, but not to the same fate.  The fate of the wicked is a highly controversial topic, but the fate of the righteous is eternal life in what is called the New Heaven and the New Earth.7  The New Heaven and New Earth is not a metaphor for heaven as some mistakenly think.  The emphasis is on a new earth, restored, renewed, transformed and, perhaps in a sense, resurrected.  This concept raises a number of questions, one of which is, “how do we get from here to there?”  This question is important both for individuals who die with the hope of that future, and for corporate humanity at it progresses to that time.  Is this expectation a distinctive ending, and a new beginning, or is it more of a transformative process? 

Unfortunately, this is where Christian theology breaks down into multiple interpretations, and there is little overall agreement.  However, I would like to posit here, what I believe to be the crucial factor in the transition from the present to the future, and that is simply, that there will be both continuity and discontinuity.  One of the problems in a faith - science dialogue about the future is that the faith perspective is almost exclusively concerned with the discontinuity, whereas scientific speculation is concerned exclusively with continuity.  In either case, as Niels Bohr said, “predictions are very difficult, especially about the future.”  Yet I think there may actually be a great deal more similarity between the two perspectives than is generally considered.

The first task is to come to agreement on what is meant by the end.  There are many different endings which can be considered.  In the last 20 years, science has increasingly sought to determine whether the ultimate end of the universe will be the big crunch or the big freeze.  Either way, the time factor is thousands of billions of years in the future.  Long before that of course, our own galaxy will die, and long before that, within about 5 billion years, our own middle aged sun will run out of fuel, turn into a red giant, and earth will either be swallowed up or burnt to a crisp.8  

In 1999, a group of scientists and theologians gathered at the Princeton based Centre for Theological Inquiry to conclude a 3-year consultation on eschatology, resulting in a book, The End of the World and the Ends of God.  In one chapter, William Stoeger does a stirling job outlining the various types of major catastrophes which have impacted the earth and will inevitably strike again. These include impacts by asteroids and comets, with over 140 impact craters documented, at least 3 of which significantly contributed to or caused one of the 5 great mass extinctions of life on the planet.  The most pervasive of all mass extinctions, the end-Permian, resulting in the extinction of over 96% of marine species and over 70% of all land species, was probably not caused by extraterrestrial impact, but by prolonged volcanism, oxidation of carbon, receding seas, and both short and long-term climate change.  As of 1996 there were over 250 objects classified as having “near-earth orbits” with potential to collide with earth, and total estimates range between 1-2000.  Those which would cause the most massive destruction, with a magnitude of more than 10km in diameter, hit earth only once every 50-100 million years.  However, the statistical expectation for medium-sized object colliding with earth is once every 300,000 years.9

While these far-future ends are of interest, their only real relevance to the timescale of human existence is in providing knowledge that life on earth – earth itself – will eventually but inevitably come to an end.  In light of this, theologians may need to rethink the meaning of terms like “eternal life” and “forever”.  Still, we can barely manage to contemplate what life may be like 50 years from now, let alone 500 years.  The orders of 300,000 or 100 million or 5 billion simply become meaningless numbers.  The only end which really concerns humanity is the one which defines not the end of all life, but the end of life as we know it.  James Lovelock, founder of the Gaia theory, believes humanity has come through seven disasters (e.g. various ice ages) during its existence on earth, very similar to the one that’s just about to happen.10  But before shifting to the imminent disaster of global warming, we need to explore the concept of the end from the biblical eschatological perspective.

The most recognizable feature of corporate eschatology is its apocalyptic and cataclysmic nature. This apocalyptic character of the future “end of the age” is not unique to Christianity, but is a particularly strong feature of all monotheistic religions, which hold a linear rather than cyclical view of history.  “The end is coming!” has a familiar ring in American folklore, and history is littered with the rusted wrecks of hundreds of religious sects which have staked their claim on a prediction that “the end is nigh!” based on particular dates or events which seemed clearly to be harbingers of the end.  The Bubonic Plague in Europe, Muslim invasions, the Protestant Reformation, solar eclipses, meteor showers, World War 2, or the identification of Hitler or the Pope as the antichrist, have all at one time or another vied for recognition as signs of the end.  Unfortunately, religious groups have cried “wolf!” so many times, that the rest of the world (and even many within the faith) no longer really takes the theology of the end seriously. 

God must have a sense of humor, because ironically, the evidence for global warming and potentially cataclysmic climate change has begun to seriously concern the secular and scientific world, despite the denials of many outspoken religious leaders.  Perhaps climate change is not supernatural enough or devilish enough to qualify as the right sort of apocalyptic ending.  But this is a serious matter.  Scientific acceptance of the evidence of global warming, and the subsequent predictions of environmental disasters potentially affecting multiple millions of the world’s population has lent some renewed credibility to these religious expectations of the end.  Is there any possible connection between the pessimistic outlook of these religions and the growing global anxiety over the disastrous predictions of climatologists?  Might there be a spiritual dimension to the pace of global warming and the tension of governments and populations looking ahead at the possibility of environmental disasters, refugees, food and water shortages, and the creeping fear of an undefined and insecure global future?   In posing these questions, my point is not to be the next in line to cry “wolf”, but to suggest that if the best evidence of both science and theistic faiths point to a catastrophic “ending”, perhaps the time has come for each to take the other perspective seriously and see what can be gained from dialogue.

Lest anyone think this is simply speculation by the usual prophets of doom, let me offer just a sampling of major articles over the past two years from one highly respected broadsheet, The Guardian Weekly, UK.  Then for the sake of comparison, juxtapose these with a synopsis of major elements of the biblical apocalypse.  Certainly there are disagreements and alternative interpretations on both sides, and one may be taken aback by the seemingly extreme nature of both sides’ claims.  What is surprisingly clear however, is the remarkable similarity of the devastation predicted by each one.

  • 26/03/09 Headline story: Scientists: act now or face climate catastropheGore says, “tipping point reached”.  More than 2,500 climate experts from 80 countries at an emergency summit in Copenhagen last week said there was now “no excuse” for failing to act.  All of the signals from the Earth system and the climate system show us we are on a path that will have enormous and unacceptable consequences.
  • 13/03/09 Ecomigrants’ flee climate chaos  The fear of looming environmental disaster is causing the movement of millions of people around the world.
  • 06/03/09 Scientists warn droughts could lay waste to tracts of US
  • 27/02/09 Too late?  Scientists start to say ‘yes’
  • 07/11/08 Last chance for the oceans?Marine protection zones may be the only answer as climate change and factory fishing turn the world’s seas into dead zones
  • 08/02/08 Global meltdown: the tipping points identified Arctic and Greenland may be already lost.  El Nino climate system ‘will intensify’
  • 09/02/07 Worse than we thoughtFloods and food and water shortages likely

Predictions from the Copenhagen conference March 2009:11

Carbon emissions rose more in recent years than anyone thought possible
Sea levels will rise twice as fast as official estimates predict
Modest warming could unleash a carbon “time bomb” from Arctic soils
A failure to cut emissions could leave half of the world uninhabitable
Rising temperatures could kill off 85% of the Amazon rainforest
A 4C rise could turn swaths of southern Europe to desert

To top it off, James Lovelock, considered one of Britain’s most respected independent climate scientists, predicted in a 2008 Guardian interview entitled “Cheerful in the Face of Armageddon”12, that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and by 2100 he expects about 80% of the human race to be wiped out.  “Prophets have foretold Armageddon for a long time, he said, “but this is the real thing”. 

 

These are secular scientific predictions of a future apocalypse unfolding over the next 50 years or more, but somehow they have a familiar ring to religious ears.  Comparing these to the biblical apocalyptic description makes an interesting juxtaposition:

  • Revelation 6 (the infamous 4 horsemen of the apocalypse) describes conquest, war & bloodshed, famine, and death.  Death is given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, plague, and wild beasts
  • Revelation 8-9 describes hail and fire, and a third of the earth being scorched.  A blazing mountain falls into the sea. A third of the sea turns to blood, a third of all marine life dies, and a third of the ships are destroyed.  A third of the freshwater on earth becomes bitter and undrinkable.  Darkness covers a third of the sky, so that sun, moon and stars are unable to be seen for one third of the day and night.  At this point the description becomes more supernatural as poisonous flying locusts torment mankind, and 4 angels are released to kill a third of mankind by plagues of fire, smoke, and sulphur.  Still, the rest of mankind does not repent.
  • Finally God steps in to pour out his wrath on the earth and the sea and on all the wickedness of humanity.  The bowls of his wrath cause painful sores, the seas to die, the freshwater to turn to blood, the sun’s heat to intensify, darkness to overtake the day, the Euphrates river to dry up, and the supernatural involvement of evil spirits.  These prompt the kings of the earth to a great battle on the plains of Armageddon, culminating with a horrific earthquake, and giant hailstones.

While some of the picturesque descriptions may be metaphorical, the consequences represented are interestingly quite explainable by a combination of climate change, a minor asteroid impact, and the resulting response of nations deteriorating into chaos.  Even 10 years ago, this apocalyptic scenario would have seemed like typical religious fanaticism, and to be sure Christian popular media has done a masterful job of damaging its own credibility.  Yet the reality is, the scenarios painted by both science and Christian eschatology bear striking similarities.

The point here is not to proclaim that climate change is the very apocalyptic end that theistic eschatology has been predicting all along, but rather that here we have a prime opportunity for creative dialogue – a situation where both science and faith have a common perspective: that there will, at some point, be an end to the world as we now know it.  Perhaps “end” is not the best word to use, because it signifies a terminal point.  “Cataclysmic upheaval” may be a better phrase.  Both science and faith seem equally pessimistic (albeit for different reasons) that this is coming and there is nothing we can do to stop it.  But both are equally optimistic in believing (based on quite different evidence) that this will not be a terminal end, but a transition; life will not cease, there will be continuity and a hope for the future.  Therefore, with this common structure in place, the time seems ripe for a deeper level of science-theology discussion.

HOPE FOR THE WORLD TO COME

Having pointed out the similarities, there is a major difference which must also be noted, and which takes us back to Luther’s problem:  If the end is coming, should I still plant these trees?  While science may look back at other upheavals of the past and interpret any future transition as simply another in a long series of natural occurrences (though exacerbated by human involvement), Christian eschatology maintains an intentionality and purpose in its apocalyptic outlook.  Contrary to the view of evolution following an unknown trajectory, Christian eschatology views the “end of the world” as ushering in a new age and a new creation, not random and unknown, but designed by God as an architect’s blueprint, with predetermined specifications, but also with openness and a wide latitude for flexibility and design options.  There is a strong theological sense in which human beings will act as the agents of God’s purpose for the earth, creatively defining and overseeing the advancement of a new creation, the New Heaven and New Earth. 

In other words, I am proposing that there is a theological basis for suggesting that human beings will be involved in the future evolutionary progress of the earth and all its systems, being designated as both rulers and co-creators, and given authority over creation as was God’s original intent – before sin and evil entered the picture.  It’s true that Christ proclaims at the end of Revelation, “behold, I am making everything new… for the old order of things has passed away”.13  But God always works through his people, his moral agents, and rarely acts unilaterally, even in this present order where human beings are estranged from God and may be unwilling participants.  The idea that we might actually be partially responsible for fashioning and constructing the New Heaven and New Earth is not a widely-held view in Christian theology, but this I believe is only because the focus has always been on the end product, not the process of getting there.  There will be no new creation ex nihilo.

Furthermore, God’s purpose for humanity has a moral component, one which is deeply intertwined with the earth itself.  Humanity’s moral corruption and separation from God was not God’s initial intent, but it impacted the whole of creation because of man’s special designation as ruler, steward, and caretaker over creation.  Paul explains in Romans 8:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  [And] we ourselves… groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.14

Creation is personified as a woman in labour, groaning in anticipation to give birth to its new and untarnished offspring, but unable to do so until the “sons of God” have been revealed.  The “sons of God”, meaning those who have moved from estrangement back into relationship with God, have also been groaning, waiting for the redemption of their bodies, which comes only through death and resurrection.  The mystery here is that while death is an individual event, resurrection will be a corporate one, and the resurrection of humanity will signal the beginning of renewal of the whole of creation as well.  The time frame for this resurrection, according Christian theology, is coincident with the return of Jesus Christ to the earth, and is ushered in by the very apocalyptic upheaval which the Jews referred to as “the end of the age”.  So while the end of this age is viewed as a time of horrific destruction and the outpouring of God’s wrath, it is also viewed as a necessary and purposeful occurrence to purge the world of sin and evil, and to enable a new and restored creation to emerge under the stewardship of a redeemed and resurrected humanity. 

RESURRECTION, TRANSITION, EVOLUTION

If one accepts this idea, then clearly the fate of humanity is inextricably intertwined with the fate of the earth.  Theologically we were created from the dust of the earth, and scientifically we are carbon based life forms made of the same elements and dna structure as the rest of life.  We were made for Earth and Earth is our home.  Yet we are spiritual beings as well, and our resurrected bodies will be different from the physical, described by Paul as “spiritual bodies”.  It may be difficult to believe that humans will undergo some kind of metamorphosis and emerge as something different than we are now, while retaining our personal autonomy and identity.  Yet this is the very basis of Christian theology, and in fact we see a similar process in the insect world every day.  The four stages of egg, larva, pupa and adult provide an interesting model.  If we look at death not as an ending, but rather as the pupal stage of a transition to something very new – even unrecognizable –  we might actually conceive of our present human existence as merely a preliminary stage, the predecessor of something more glorious yet to come.  We see the butterfly emerge from the caterpillar.  We know it’s the same creature, yet completely transformed.  It may be off-putting to think of ourselves as only larvae, but this is just a model after all.

With this perspective, the enticing concept of transhumanism, which promotes the philosophy that mankind should proactively attempt to enhance itself, and steer the course of its own evolution,15 becomes rather a ridiculous caricature of what God has already designed.  Rather like taking a caterpillar and implanting mechanical wings, or genetically altering it to reproduce, when in fact, all one need do is let it go into stasis and emerge from its chrysalis already transformed.

Of course there is a major difference in that human death ends in a total decay of the physical body, so how can it be transformed?   A step of faith is obviously required here.  Christian theology doesn’t explain how, but simply says it will be done.  Paul uses the metaphor of a seed dying in the ground before producing a new life which is gloriously superior to the seed itself.16  Interesting, some seeds can lie dormant almost indefinitely before the process kicks off.  John Polkinghorne suggests that if we conceive of our humanness in terms of information – our genetic sequence, dna code, memories, what he refers to as our “information-bearing pattern” –  then it’s not such a great leap to believe that God could store this information in his own memory and place it back into a biological system at the appropriate time.17  Christian theologians refer to this period as the “intermediate state”; some propose a kind of soul sleep, others propose a temporary spiritual existence in heaven, awaiting the time of the resurrection.  But in any interpretation, the intermediate state is always temporary, and the final state is a resurrected life in a renewed earth.

RENEWAL OF THE EARTH & CHRISTIAN ENVIRONMENTALISM

Unfortunately, this theological understanding has taken a distant second place to the popular view of heaven as our eternal home, escaping this earth, and this body, and living a new life in the world beyond.  This neo-Platonic dualism has been around since the early Gnostics, and given impetus in the medieval development of the doctrine of heaven.  And it seems logical that if the body decays in the grave, it is the spirit which goes into the next world.  But this is not an orthodox theological position.  Referring back to the Nicene creed, the statement is, “we look forward to the life of the world to come”, not life in the world beyond.

It is crucial then, to see the continuity between the present age and the age to come.  While the physical is transformed, Christian theology is adamant that the moral and spiritual life we live now, will have a powerful bearing on the nature of our future resurrection.  A rotten seed cannot produce a healthy plant, and a sickly larva is unlikely to emerge as a healthy butterfly, if it emerges at all.  In the same way, our lives on this earth have a bearing on our resurrected life in the future – even though going through the transition of death.

In the same way, there is a theological view within Christianity, that what we do on this earth and with this earth will also have a significant bearing on the New Heaven and New Earth – even though going through the transition of cataclysmic upheaval.  In other words, Luther’s determination to plant the apple tree was based on a positive view that what we do now really matters, even in the face of the end.  Not only is matter important to God, but the present creation is important to God.  So too is the work of redeeming cultures, societies, and institutions, not merely individuals.  As stewards and caretakers of creation, Christian environmentalists have a purpose and meaning to their work which transcends the present, and even transcends a coming destruction.  Caring for the environment is seen as vital and valuable, not only because the task was given to us as our cultural mandate, and so becomes a matter of obedience to God’s purposes; but because what we do with the environment will, at least in part, determine the nature of the renewed Earth to come.  We may not understand how, but on the same basis that our own identity in the present will carry through into the new age, a renewed and transformed earth will depend on how we manage it now.

The problem with secular environmentalism is that when a tipping point is reached where it seems we can no longer make a difference – that global warming is irreversible and the dire predictions of climate change become established certainties – there is no longer any purpose, and therefore no political will nor funding.  The patient is deemed terminal, and terminal patients are not good candidates for organ transplants or cosmetic surgery.  Only so long as there is hope that present conditions might be preserved is there meaning.  If the patient is sick, it can be healed.  But once terminal, hope evaporates, and environmentalism becomes pointless. 

Sadly, this view is prevalent in Christian environmentalism as well.  In a recent Guardian interview with Craig Sorley, entitled A mission to restore Eden, Sorley relates, “The deeply embedded view is that Christ is returning soon, so why should we care for the environment?  Well, what if I had a child with leukaemia and I said to my wife, ‘We don’t need to give him food because he’s going to die anyway’?”18  Unfortunately Sorley himself appeals to a quality of life view, which doesn’t translate into long-term environmental meaning.  It’s like saying even though the ship is sinking, we should keep bailing water as long as we can.  But the real question is, should we continue repairing the ship once we realize it’s going down?  Christian theology offers the rather surprising answer that even though the ship is sinking, it’s going to float again, so regardless of the water, let’s keep working on the ship. 

While Christian environmentalism remains relatively small scale and mainly grassroots level, it seems ironic that as the world plummets toward the despair of irreversible climate change, Christian environmentalism and ecology is fast gaining momentum.  Most of these efforts do not have any sense of making a last-ditch effort to save the earth before it’s too late.  Rather, they have a calm, composed and untroubled long-term vision. Methods and rationale are often quite unique from secular or governmental efforts, stemming from a theological view of man’s role as stewards or caretakers over God’s creation, and thus attempting to follow biblical principals rather than depending on high-tech, high-cost solutions. Organizations such as the John Ray Institute in Gloucester UK; the A Rocha project in Portugal, UK, France and Kenya; initiatives like “Farming God’s Way” in Zimbabwe, are just the tip of the iceberg of small-scale, private, local or regional initiatives happening all around the world.  One need only to survey the massive amount of literature being produced on environmental theology and Christian ecology to realize there is a significant and growing movement afoot.

While at first glance this may all seem like too little too late, pouring small buckets of water on a raging brushfire, we should remember that Christianity claims over 2 billion adherents around the world, and the church may be considered the largest grassroots organization in existence.  If its members truly get mobilized, anything can happen.  Coming from Africa, I have seen the incredible achievements of a few thousand termites working with a common purpose in my own front garden.  While environmental theology is certainly not uniform, environmentalism seems to be drawing people together from across the spectrum and giving common purpose to those from otherwise divergent theological streams. 

In Wittenberg Germany, plans are being drawn up to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Lutheran Reformation in 2017 by planting 500 trees, asking for “partner” trees to be planted at 500 other churches around the world.  It will be called the “Luthergarten”.  It reminds us that in Luther’s view, as I believe is the growing theological consensus today, it doesn’t really matter if the world will end tomorrow, or in a thousand years, or in 100,000 years.  We still have a rational theological justification to go ahead and plant our apple tree today.

 


References

Berry, R.J. ed. Environmental Stewardship: Critical Perspectives. London: T&T Clark, 2006.

Bouma-Prediger, Steven. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Colwell, John, ed. Called to One Hope: Perspectives on Life to Come: Drew Lectures on Immortality. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000.

Copan, Paul, and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds. Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000.

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Jones, James, Bp. Jesus and the Earth. London: SPCK, 2003.

Moltmann, J¸rgen. In the End - the Beginning: The Life of Hope. Translated by Margaret Kohl. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Peters, Ted, Robert John Russel, and Michael Welker, eds. Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Polkinghorne, John, and Michael Welker, eds. The End of the World and the Ends of God. Edited by Wallace M. Jr. Alston, Robert Jenson and Don S. Browning, Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000.

Polkinghorne, John. The God of Hope and the End of the World. London: SPCK, 2002.

Spencer, Nick and Robert White. Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living. London: SPCK, 2007.

Witherington, Ben, III. Jesus, Paul and the End of the World: A Comparative Study in New Testament Eschatology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Wright, N.T. New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope. Vol. B11, Grove Biblical Series. Cambridge: Grove Books, 1999.

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008.

 


Endnotes

1 Polkinghorne, John. "The Life and Works of a Bottom-up Thinker." Zygon 35, no. 4 (2000): 959.

2 In The God of Hope and the End of the World, p. 106, Polkinghorne mentions “good reason to believe that humans are very much more than ‘computers made of meat’” referring to R. Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, Oxford Uni. Press, 1989, ch. 10 and J. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science, BBC Publications, 1984.

3 In I Cor 15:3-8 Paul summarizes the appearances of Christ in his resurrected body, in one case appearing to “more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time”.

4 See for example, Paul Copan & Ronald Tacelli eds., Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd L¸demann, Downers Grove: IVP, 2000.

5 Taken from 1 Cor 15:12-24, NIV translation

6 N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, New York: Harper One, 2008, xii.

7 The most explicit description of the New Heaven and New Earth is found in Rev 21-22.

8 William J. Stoeger S.J,, “Scientific Accounts of Ultimate Catastrophes in our Life-Bearing Universe”, ch. 1 in J. Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, eds., The End of the World and the Ends of God, Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 2000.

9 Ibid. ch. 1. Various statistics taken from pages 21-25.

10 http://westcoastclimateequity.org.  Lovelock’s most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, due for publication in February 2009 in Britain, later in 2009 elsewhere.

11 Taken from “Scientists: Act now or face climate catastrophe”, The Guardian Weekly, 20/03/09.

12 Interview by Decca Aitkenhead for The Guardian Weekly, 28/03/08 p.14.

13 Revelation 21:4&5, NIV translation.

14 Taken from Romans 8:19-23, NIV translation.

15 See Denis Alexander, “Enhancing humans or a new creation?”, The Cambridge Papers, 18 no. 2, 2009 in reference to www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/faq21/46/

16 see 1 Cor 15:35-41.

17 Polkinghorne describes this idea frequently.  See “Science and Theology in the Twenty-First Century.” Zygon 35, no. 4 (2000): 951; or “Eschatological Credibility: Emergent and Teleological Processes”, in T. Peters, R.J. Russell, and Michael Welker, eds. Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, 51-53.

18 Interview by Xan Rice, “A mission to restore Eden”, The Guardian Weekly, 19/06/09, p.25.

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