The environment can be a polarizing issue. Talk too much about caring for the earth and you risk being branded a liberal, as though recycling is the equivalent of compromising the gospel. I have heard well-known Christian leaders that I respect advocate depleting the earth’s resources and polluting with gusto because God is going to destroy the world anyway.
A college student once asked me after a church service if the church recycled its bulletins. I explained to her that, no, we don’t recycle the bulletins, and that we don’t need to go crazy caring for the environment because we know that the world will end when Jesus returns. I wish I could have those words back.
The simple truth is that our stewardship of creation matters. Francis Schaeffer used to explain that environmentalists were misguided in appealing to pantheism in supporting their cause. Why? Because they really should be appealing to the Christian worldview!
Pantheism would seem to be a good foundation for environmentalism. If everything is God, then we honor the divine by treating the grass, trees, and animals well. But Schaeffer explains that pantheism is an impersonal religion. If everything is God, then God is nothing more than an impersonal force. So why try to appease an impersonal force? There is no motivation to adjust our actions based on the existence of an impersonal entity.
Christianity, on the other hand, teaches us that this world was created by God. Every leaf, every ant, every drop of water was lovingly crafted by the Maker himself. And having created it all, he declared our world “very good.” Sure, it has been stained by sin, but sin is just that: a stain, not the fabric itself. In fact, Paul explains that the creation is groaning under the weight of sin and longs for the redemption that will come at Christ’s return (see Rom. 8). So the stain of sin is no reason to treat the environment badly any more than it is a reason to treat unredeemed people badly.
If you’re not convinced that God’s creation is still worth caring about, take a lesson from the incarnation. By taking on flesh and becoming a human being, Jesus was again validating the essential goodness of creation. If creation had become evil at the fall, then Jesus could not have become a part of it. So Jesus affirmed the goodness of creation and made clear his intention to redeem it.
If Christians are going to care for the environment, then we have to subscribe to the right kind of environmentalism. Some pursue a biocentric environmentalism, in which the natural world is said to have intrinsic value and therefore is to be protected. Others go for an anthropocentric environmentalism, in which the environment is protected and/or utilized in whichever ways best serve human ends. But neither of these approaches should satisfy the Christian. Rather, we should go with a theocentric environmentalism, in which we view the natural world as the good creation of God and therefore steward it appropriately to his glory.
Not only did God create a good world, but he specifically placed human beings in the midst of it and tasked them “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:5, 15). If part of God’s intention in creating humanity was to have an under-ruler who could care for his world, then we’re missing the point pretty badly by trashing his world rather than stewarding it. So let’s be environmentalists. But let’s also make sure we’re being the right kind of environmentalists.