This Saturday, April 22, is Earth Day. But most Christians have even less regard for this day than we do for Halloween. After all, it’s about environmentalism and other, well, “earthly” causes. Some are nobly secular. Some are boldly religious. Some are downright pagan.
Yet I think I know how to redeem Earth Day.
A U.S. senator with help from students started the first Earth Day in New York City on April 22, 1970.1 Organizers wanted to spark a national and worldwide effort to combat pollution and rescue endangered species. They began to get their wish. It started by moving the cultural discussion from the theme of “conservation” to “the environment” (we didn’t always use this word). Then came congressional acts that are, even now and often debatably being used at the federal level to restrict human actions.
Christians can and should discuss how we steward this planet in light of God’s “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1:24. How we follow this mandate is certainly changed after the first humans brought sin into the world. To an extent, Jesus’s Great Commission comes first: to spread the gospel in the world. Saving a human soul is still better than saving the whales.
However, Scripture leaves us no option for ignoring creation care. Our care can include cautious yet intentional participation in events such as Earth Day. Andrew Spencer writes:
Creation itself testifies to God’s glory (Ps. 19: 1–6). Adam and Eve were given responsibility to cultivate and keep the earth (Gen. 2:15), and proper stewardship of the environment remains a primary human function as sub-creators made in the image of God.
Evangelicals broadly agree that humans have a God-given responsibility to use natural resources wisely and maximize flourishing of all creation. However, when we say we are concerned about creation care and fail to participate meaningfully in organized efforts to care for creation, our actions undermine our rhetoric.2
Earth Day events and causes can do a lot of good. Yet Christians are also right to associate the occasion with all manner of religious progressivist beliefs and even outright paganism. As Spencer says, some rhetoric supporting Earth Day blamed Christianity for mistreatment of creation. To save “the environment,” other activists proposed drastic, human-loathing measures such as sterilization, abortion, and other eugenics-minded nastiness.
Meanwhile, even Christians who rightly support “caring for the environment” may lack real beliefs for doing so. One can easily challenge them about why they care so much. Don’t souls matter more than whales? What about “this world is not my home”? Would you really put so much effort to clean up a rental property that’s already condemned to destruction?
New Earth will last forever …
Except, as I’m fond of saying: the Bible doesn’t clearly forecast that planet Earth is doomed.
Except: Scripture constantly prophesies the eternal state in overtly Earthlike terms:3
- Isaiah 60: nations, kings, family members, the sea, wealth, camels, precious minerals and incense,4 animals, coastlands with ships, cities with walls and gates, trees from Lebanon (with specific types named), and plenty more precious metals.
- Isaiah 65: houses, vineyards (with hint of prosperity and wine-making from the grapes), trees, work, and childbearing(?).5
- Revelation 21: a holy city (this could be symbolic), a mountain, precious jewels again, “no need of sun or moon,”6 nations and kings (again, as in Isaiah 60), and “the glory and honor of the nations”—an even clearer reference to some kind of continuity between this world’s kingdoms and the next.
Apart from these direct prophecies, Scriptures such as the Psalms express overt delight in creation. They exalt the Creator. They give nary a hint of the notion that all these wonders and creatures will someday be divinely nuked from orbit—as if God blames the creation for sin’s corruption, rather than blaming the hearts of creation’s would-be human caretakers.
These match the apostle Paul’s more didactic teaching in Romans 8 that “the creation itself groans” as it awaits its redemption, similar to how Christians groan awaiting resurrection. Paul equates creation’s hope with humans’ hope. Creation’s fate is tied to ours. If Jesus rose, then we will rise. And if we rise, in physical Spirit-empowered bodies,7 then “the creation itself” will also rise.
Even if we concluded the Bible forecasts Earth’s destruction, God’s word still offers enough delight in creation for us to conclude that it’s worth something to us now. How much more, then, ought we to continue to delight in his world—to worship Him—given that this planet will last forever? And so how much more can we embrace good stewardship of this world?
… After God’s judgment fire
Make no mistake. Some people have gone off the deep end with this. They act as if Jesus won’t return as he promised, or as if “all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”8 Against such skepticism there’s only one response: a reminder of the terrifying future fiery judgment against this world. 9 This is just what the apostle Peter promises, with words like “pass away with a roar,” “burned up and dissolved,” and total exposure of “the earth and the works that are done on it.”10
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.11
We don’t need to believe God’s judgment fire will obliterate the Earth to quake at reading this. God’s people are safe and even hopeful, but everyone sinful on Earth won’t be.
Why not instead celebrate ‘New Earth Day’?
Still, Peter concludes with that expression of hope. All these terrible things will happen. Then afterward comes the glorious future for saints, especially saints who currently suffer persecution: “the new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”12 No more sinful hearts. No more sinful actions. And that means no more abuse of creation, failure to steward, unsustainable resources, endangered species, or any of that. Unlike secular activists, Christians have a greater hope of a world restored far beyond its original, pre-sin beauty. And even better: we’re not responsible for making this paradise.
Why not then adapt Earth Day into a uniquely Christian celebration?
That way, we could celebrate not just today’s Earth or our care of it, but the future New Heavens and New Earth that Jesus will make. This change makes more sense as a logical followup to the far older (and better) ancient celebration of Easter. We can celebrate Christ’s resurrection and ours, then celebrate Earth’s coming renewal.
We can also still help with environmental care, as our life situations allow. But we would not be motivated by celebrity trendiness, or desire to impress our non-Christian neighbors, or conformity with law, or religious-level guilt about our failure to recycle and conserve.
We would be motivated by the same Person who motivates our other good works: Jesus.
And we would be less affected by progressivist guilt trips. We needn’t suspect the planet will burn if we don’t perform. We would be more affected by God’s promise of a restored paradise—Earth not as an object of our devotion, but as a means to our worship of God.
Without Jesus, Earth Day makes no sense if you question it. Worse, it can become part of a legalistic religion. If you repent of your selfish human pollution and commercialism, and perform limitless righteous acts to recycle and minimize your carbon footprint, maybe next century you’ll Save the Planet. But then millions of years later, as documented by Doctor Who and many other fine science fiction stories, the sun will swell up and burn up the planet anyway. And you’d be dead millions of years before then. So what’s the point? Only if you believe in Jesus, planet Earth’s Creator, does Earth and human caretaking of Earth have any purpose.
And if you yearn, as I do, not just to stay on a purified planet New Earth, but journey into New Heavens, this will make today’s “practice” stewardship of Earth far more meaningful. Because for eternity, we won’t just care for the planet. We’ll be caring for the universe.
Happy New Earth Day!
- Jack Lewis, “The Spirit of the First Earth Day,” EPA Journal, January/February 1990, accessed via Wayback Machine archive. ↩
- Andrew Spencer, “Why Christians Should Support Earth Day,” The Gospel Coalition, April 16, 2015. ↩
- As Brian Godawa explored here and here last week, some of this language may be symbolic, such as Revelation’s potentially symbolic New Jerusalem references to particular numbers of city gates. But if the prophets meant to forecast some non-earthly existence for eternity, their symbols should have directed us not toward today’s earthly reality, but away from it. ↩
- Isaiah 60:6. From what I’ve seen, Scripture’s images of precious metals and jewels in eternity almost always connotes refined elements like these. This strikes me as a clear reference to human culture, such as mining and cutting jewels. ↩
- Some interpreters believe Isaiah also foresees a “trial period” for New Earth. They believe this will be a literal 1,000-year Millennium between Jesus’s return and creation’s renewal (or else the supposed obliteration of Earth in favor of Heaven). I’ve believed this view before, and could be re-persuaded to accept it. But this view doesn’t really work when set to fiction. It also seems to depend on the view that Israel’s destiny is not being fulfilled in the Church. Either way, one must explain the (symbolic?) references to death in Isaiah 65:20. This can’t happen after the rapture/resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15, because Paul clearly says this “twinkling of an eye” moment marks the end of death itself. ↩
- This does not rule out the continued existence of the sun or moon. John only says the city doesn’t need them. ↩
- Paul teaches more about this in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 2. ↩
- 2 Peter 3:4. ↩
- 2 Peter 3:7-10. ↩
- Many Christians recall the warning of 2 Peter 3:10 in the King James Version, that in the end “the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” But the key phrase “burned up” is a disputable translation based on newer and less-reliable manuscripts. Newer translations based on older manuscripts promise a different fate for earth: “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” Peter’s language is not about annihilation. It’s about purification or refinement, purging unwanted elements to refashion something new from the original material. Finally, if creation will be annihilated, creation’s “groaning” for redemption in Romans 8 would be futile. Randy Alcorn addresses the “burned up” objection to Earth’s renewal in chapter 15 of his book Heaven. (See PDF here.) ↩
- 2 Peter 3:11-13. ↩
- 2 Peter 3:13. ↩