End Times and the Environment
What we think about the future influences what we do in the present. What happens when the theology we’ve been taught hinders our desire to care for the planet?
“I believe the kind of stuff I’m writing about [all saved Christians, dead and alive, get snatched into heaven; those with weak faith get left behind to fight the antichrist; a seven-year tribulation of plagues ravages the earth] is going to happen some day.”1 So spoke Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the wildly popular Left Behind series of books, in an interview published some years ago in the Chicago Tribune. While the books may be fiction, the basic plot is based on the authors’ interpretation of the Bible. Given this view of the future, Jenkins implied, Christians need not worry about the earth or its plethora of creatures. These non-human creatures will, after all, be incinerated in the (soon) coming apocalypse. Christians need not worry about porcupines or pine trees or prairies. All of that is of little or no value to a God who cares only for humans and their souls, and therefore it should be of little or no value to those who follow and worship this deity.
A view of the world (an ontology) in which spirit is separate from matter, and a view of humans (an anthropology) in which soul is separate from body, with the former in each case more valuable than the latter, easily leads to a view of the future (an eschatology) in which there is no reason to care for the earth. Eschatology shapes ethics.
Why aren’t Christians motivated to earthkeeping?
This eschatology is powerfully captured by environmental historian Roderick Nash in his book, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. In a chapter on “the greening of religion,” Nash comments on “the pervasive otherworldliness of Christianity.” He writes: “Christian aspirations were fixed on heaven, the supposed place of their origins and, they hoped, their final resting. The earth was no mother but a kind of half-way house of trial and testing from which one was released at death…Indeed Christians expected that the earth would not be around for long. A vengeful God would destroy it and all unredeemed nature, with floods or drought or fire. Obviously this eschatology was a poor basis from which to argue for environmental ethics in any guise. Why take care of what you expect to be obliterated?”2
Nash’s view of Christianity reiterates that of mid-nineteenth century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach: “Nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul.” This claim by Feuerbach summarizes the conclusion to be drawn from a world-negating view of the future, and of reality more generally.
Unfortunately, social scientific data reveal that many Christians today hold this view of the future and thus do not feel compelled to care for their earthly home.3 In a study entitled “End-Times Theology, the Shadow of the Future, and Public Resistance to Addressing Global Climate Change,” David Barker and David Bearce conclude that beliefs among evangelical Christians about the second coming of Jesus are a major factor underlying the resistance to addressing global climate change in the U.S.
In other words, eschatology shapes our ethics. How we view the future affects what we do (or don’t do) in the present. And for critics of Christianity (Nash and Feuerbach are only two among many) this means that an escapist eschatology leads to an ethic of neglect and exploitation—in seeking the cause of contemporary ecological degradation, one need look no farther than religion, and Christianity in particular. We are in the ecological mess we are in, these folks argue, largely because the vast majority of Christians do not care about creation. And Christians don’t care about creation because they believe God doesn’t care about creation. Indeed, the created world, they believe, will be destroyed. So why care for something that (soon) will be obliterated?
Ethicist James Nash even identifies escapist eschatology as one of the four main claims in what he calls the “ecological complaint against Christianity.”4 Each of his four arguments demonstrate Christianity as problematic, and here is plenty of evidence to show that many Christians believe that creation care is not important, in large part, because they believe that Jesus is coming soon, and assume that when Jesus comes again the earth will be destroyed.
What does the Bible actually tell us?
All of the above prompts some questions: What is the biblical Christian view of God’s good future? Would an earth-affirming eschatology change our ethic, and thus reshape our actions in the present? There are many possible biblical texts we could examine, but I would like to focus on Revelation 21:1-22:7. What can we learn about God’s good future from this mind-boggling text? There is much to learn, but here are five main points.5
God’s good future is earthy and earthly.
It includes a renewed heaven and earth. Having brought this world of wonders into existence, covenanted with it, and persistently worked to redeem it, God does not give up on it. This vision is of a new heaven and a new earth (ouranon kainon kai gên kainên), but the “new” here connotes new in quality, in contrast to what is old. New means renewed, renovated, reclaimed. In keeping with the great vision of Isaiah 65 and Ezekiel 40-48, God’s good future is a renewed heaven and earth. In his commentary on this text, New Testament scholar Eugene Boring captures this well:
Even though the first earth and the first heaven have passed away, the scene continues very much as a this-worldly scene….[This] is an affirmation of the significance of this world and history, even after the new heaven and new earth arrive….[God] does not junk the cosmos and start anew—he renews the old and brings it to fulfillment….God does not make “all new things,” but “all things new.”6
In God’s good future, God himself will dwell with us and all of our creaturely kin.
In language reminiscent of John 1:14 and Ezekiel 37:27, the text declares that the home of God (skênê tou theou) is among humans, that God will tent (skênôsei) among us. Indeed, Revelation 21:3 emphasizes that God himself (autos ho theos) will be with us, and we will be his peoples. In language rooted deeply in the Old Testament (Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 7:23; Ezekiel 37:27; Hosea 1:23), the text makes clear that in the holy city God will be known face to face, and we will belong to God, his name emblazoned on our foreheads (22:4).
A truly biblical eschatology of creation renewed should inspire us to become earthkeepers.
In God’s good future, the separation between heaven and earth is overcome.
The now distinct realms of heaven and earth are in the future braided together—cojoined because of God’s initiative. The holy city comes down from heaven (21:2 and 21:10). Its arrival is no human achievement, its reality no product of human ingenuity. In keeping with God’s character, God comes to us. Heaven is on earth. As in the parable of the gracious father (Luke 15:11-32), God initiates redemption. In the words of historians Justo and Catherine Gonzalez:
No longer will there be a great separation between heaven and earth. It is not so much that the redeemed shall be taken to heaven but rather that God will come among us and be part of the new Jerusalem. In the incarnation of Christ, God came among human beings as one of them, but still in a hidden fashion. Now, in this new creation, God will not be hidden, but will come among redeemed humanity in a direct, unmediated way.7
In God’s good future, evil and its consequences are no more.
Seven (the biblical number of perfection) elements of the old order are no more. The sea, symbolic of primeval chaos and the abode of the beast, is no more. Death itself is no more. Mourning and crying and pain are no more. No more parents mourning their kids killed in battle. No more cancer stealing life much too young. No more stillbirths. And all that is under God’s curse is no more. The curse of Genesis 3 is repealed, lifted, abrogated. In the words of the old Christmas hymn, redemption extends “far as the curse is found.” And, last, the night is no more. The realm of deception is banished. In sum, this apocalyptic vision vividly portrays a world of shalom.
In God’s good future, we inhabit a most unusual city.
There is no temple, no set apart place, for God himself is the temple. A Person has replaced a building. Thus nothing in this city is profane; nothing is not sacred. All is for the service of God. And this city is a gardened city. In this city flows the crystalline river of life, watering trees that line its banks. These trees provide fruit year-round, sustenance in every season, and their leaves are a healing balm for the nations. People of all kinds stream into this city, whose gates never close. Kings and paupers, friends and enemies–they all bring their glory and honor to the city. New Testament scholar George Caird captures this part of John’s vision:
John’s heaven is no world-denying Nirvana, into which man may escape from the incurable ills of sublunary existence, but the seal of affirmation on the goodness of God’s creation. The treasure that men find laid up in heaven turns out to be the treasures and wealth of the nations, the best they have known and loved on earth redeemed of all imperfections and transfigured by the radiance of God. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a more eloquent statement than this of the all-embracing scope of God’s redemptive work.8
What, then, does God’s good future look like? These last chapters of Revelation beckon us with an earthly vision of life made good and whole and right. Heaven and earth are renewed and are one. God dwells with us, at home in creation. Evil and its minions are no more. A world of shalom. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright summarizes the eschatology of Revelation 21-22:
We notice right away how drastically different this is for all those would-be Christian scenarios in which the end of the story is the Christian going off to heaven as a soul, naked and unadorned, to meet its maker in fear and trembling. As in Philippians 3, it is not we who go to heaven, it is heaven that comes to earth; indeed, it is the church itself, the heavenly Jerusalem, that comes down to earth. This is the ultimate rejection of all types of Gnosticism, of every worldview that sees the final goal as the separation of the world from God, of the physical from the spiritual, of earth from heaven. It is the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom will come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven.9
In short, the Bible teaches not an escapist eschatology but an earth-affirming eschatology.
Eschatology shapes ethics. And a truly biblical eschatology of creation renewed should inspire us to become earthkeepers. More exactly, such a view of the future should motivate us to become people who embody ecological virtues such as justice and love, courage and hope. While many people of late have spoken of earthkeeping, few have done so as eloquently or insightfully as Wendell Berry. I conclude with some words of his:
The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care if it. If God loves the world, then how might any person of faith be excused for not loving it or justified in destroying it?10
Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum
At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources: