Can we Fix our Broken World?Vol. 26 No. 1 | Nov-Dec 2015
What does the Bible teach about our duty to the environment?
By Leilani Hortaleza and Andrew Hendrickson
Forget the pictures you see in travel brochures. Our world is dirty, smelly, polluted, and quickly becoming toxic. Retreating into pristine wilderness will not guarantee any of us a privileged escape for long from what the rest of the world is breathing, eating, and drinking. Face it. We are all on this ship together.
As the Earth ship heads deeper into the 21st century, it does so with four times more people than it had one hundred years ago. Of the nearly 7.3 billion inhabitants, a small minority control and consume the vast majority of its resources. The technology to produce goods and services for this privileged class destroys landscapes, depletes resources, and spews toxic chemicals into the soil, water, and air shared by the entire planet. Then, toxic waste and non-biodegradable items from the developed world are, often illegally, exported to dumpsites in the developing world—which already receives the worst of pollution and destruction from manufacturing and resource production. What greed, materialism, and irresponsibility have wreaked in the last 150 years on this planet may never be reversed. Even if all the wars were suddenly to cease and humanity was able to come to some sense of harmony, would there even be a planet to peacefully occupy?
To live means to consume what is necessary to continue life; but Earth’s resources do not spring from a never-ending supply. The more people there are, and the more sophisticated our demands become, the dirtier and more polluted our world becomes. And eventually, the less it is able to sustain life. The environmental decline we are experiencing is a by-product of maintaining human life as we know it on planet Earth.
So what can be done about the environmental mess we are in? What can we do with all the garbage that the privileged few produce in their pursuit of the good life? And how can we make sure that more than just a privileged few get the food, shelter, and clothing needed to sustain life? Answers vary; and while they are often highly creative, they come with their own set of problems.
Imagine a world where the air was clean, the water pure, and the food safe. Where all nature was in harmony with the law of unselfish love.
Take exporting garbage to developing countries, for instance. This is like cleaning the refrigerator and selling the moldy leftovers to hungry street people. What about recycling the waste? As important as recycling is, you can only serve leftovers for so long without them becoming toxic. In the industrial world, the more usable material you extract from refuse, the more poisonous the residue becomes. To hungry people in the developing world, there is only one priority: earning enough money to feed the family. As such, the dangers of recycling lead from car batteries or recovering plastic are un-important to people with empty stomachs.
What about seriously reducing the growing number of consumers and ultimately polluters? Introducing something as drastic as China’s one-child policy would still take generations before the benefits could be noticed. And the benefits of smaller families and regular incomes from industrialization often include greater access to first world consumer lifestyles, complete with all the pollution necessary to support it. On the other hand, even as much as fertility rates have been declining in more recent years, the population could grow to 12 billion or more by 2100.1
Some people believe that we should let nature run its course and allow disease, famine, and war to eventually eliminate large numbers of people, leaving a more easily managed planet. Such cold-hearted ideas—besides depending on untold suffering, pain, and heartache—would only further stress the earth’s resources, as desperate populations slowly gut the earth of everything of value, leaving it in the end much less capable of supporting life than it is now.
How about trying to become more globally accountable for conserving the natural resources we now have? Efforts to conserve the rainforest, protect the oceans, or even conserve dwindling fresh water supplies often fall short because local policies are not the only things that affect the stability of local environments. And trying to make the whole world feel responsible for the conservation of the entire planet will probably be as successful as trying to promote world peace.
THE SOURCE OF POLLUTION
Maybe we need to ask why we even have pollution and environmental decay? Environmental waste comes from two sources: organic and inorganic. The reason we have organic waste is that every living thing—plants, animals, and people—will at some time die. The reason we have inorganic waste is that we manipulate material from our environment to make plastics, metals, building supplies, detergents, fertilizers, and so on, to meet the needs of modern consumers. Nature has a built-in system to decompose all organic matter back into the soil, water, and air. Inorganic substances do not always fit into this system. Their residues can often seriously alter nature, as in the famous case of DDT.
But imagine a world that was unpolluted. Where the air was clean, the water pure, and the food non-carcinogenic. A world where you didn’t even have to strive to live, and where nothing died.
Did you know that such a place actually existed here on earth? Having just created the world by His Word, “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31. It was a world that did not need to destroy its environment to sustain life because it was sustained by the immortal God. A world that was in harmony with God because it was obedient to the laws of its Creator.
In the beginning, all creation was in harmony with God and His law of love, the character of the Creator. Then something changed. Man broke God’s law, the law by which all creatures have life. It was like listening to a beautiful violin sonata, when suddenly, a string broke.
What happens when the law of life is broken? “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23. When the first pair chose to disbelieve and disobey their Creator, the harmony with which all creation praised God shattered into discordant shrieks of fear, hatred, and rebellion. Before Earth’s atmosphere was polluted from the first fire, man’s heart was polluted with sin. Then our struggle to live on Earth started. And the result of that change is the world we live in today: not just a broken and poisonous environment, but a world of evil and self-centered thoughts.
GOD’S ANSWERS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
“There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.” Mark 7:15. Restoration starts exactly where man first fell—in the heart. Once we become right with God, we will be right with the rest of His creation. When we come into possession of an incorruptible heart, then only shall we have the promise of an incorruptible inheritance. How does this happen?
Christians should seek a lifestyle that can give back to the earth as well as to its inhabitants, and not just take for their own benefit.
In the parable of the talents is illustrated the right management of the earth—no doubt one of the most important things entrusted by God to humanity’s stewardship. In Matthew 25, two kinds of stewards are described. To two servants, the Master said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” And to the third He said, “Thou wicked and slothful servant,” and “cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness.” The two improved the talents given them, remembering that it was not their own. The third servant selfishly hoarded what was entrusted to him. “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown.” How do we, today, use what God has given us? Are we busy making the world a better place for our existence, or are we more concerned with our own level of comfort and convenience?
Because the Bible teaches humankind’s stewardship over nature, as well as an apocalyptic destruction of the world, many view Christians as unconcerned with the present ecological crisis. Perhaps Christians’ responses have been one-sided. By contrast, Christ taught a balance. Yes, there would be an end to this world. But as the above parable of the talents clearly states, the steward, representing professed Christians, was to be rewarded on the basis of his use of all that was entrusted to his care. The principle of faithful stewardship will determine who will enter Heaven and inherit the earth.
Jesus, the law of life personified, left the comforts and security of Heaven to suffer and die for our chance at Heaven. Paul writes that that when Jesus came to Earth, He emptied Himself as God and took the form of a servant. Philippians 2:6. He did this so that He could give eternal life to as many as God had given him. John 17:2. In these words we find how Christ used what God gave Him—He took to give. And in giving God’s life to men in the flesh, He gives naturally selfish people the capacity to give His life to others. Now, through His Son, life from the Father can flow out to all, and through His Son it returns to its Source.
The concept of “green Christians” is not a radical, fringe lifestyle. While we cannot make a savior out of environmental issues, we must consciously seek a lifestyle that can give back to the earth as well as to its inhabitants, and not just take for our own benefit.
Looking into the future, however, the Bible makes two things plain: there will never be enough unselfish people to save this earth as a home for living things; and, God will not allow innocent people to endure suffering forever. The great controversy between good and evil will finally cease. The earth will be destroyed, not because of environmental ruin, but because God will no longer tolerate iniquity—selfishness—on the face of the earth. It is our Creator alone who has the power to rebuild this world. And that is exactly what He is going to do. Just as the only solution to sin is to destroy the “old man” and to have a “new heart,” the only solution to our tired old world is to start all over again.
And what kind of people will be entrusted with this new world? “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:5. “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.” Isaiah 11:9. “And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth.” Revelation 21:27. “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away… And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away…and behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:1, 4, 5.
I’m glad that I don’t have to put my trust in politicians or coalitions, as sincere as they may be, to ensure that my planet is not destroyed by human pollution. God will intervene in human history, and we can claim these marvelous promises for a better world: “Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” 2 Peter 3:13.v
Leilani Hortaleza, from the Philippines, studied at Hartland College when she wrote this article. Andrew Hendrickson is currently studying Christian Media Ministry at Hartland College.
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