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The future of the earth

1. What is eschatology?

2. Early Christianity: imminent expectation

3. Biblical depictions of the future of the earth

4. Eschatological beliefs and environmentalism

5. Competing interpretations among Christian groups

6. Points for discussion

Key aims:

  • To investigate the views of Christian groups who are opposed to environmental care
  • To look at the biblical texts that these groups use to support their views
  • To consider how Christians who support environmental care might respond to the claims of these groups

Texts from Genesis about the origins of the earth have been hugely influential in shaping Jewish and Christian views of humanity’s status and human responsibilities towards nature (see Origins of stewardship and History of stewardship). However, beliefs about what will happen to the earth in the future also have a profound impact on attitudes towards the environment. Environmental ethics tends to focus on ‘sustainability’ – the challenge of achieving a stable future for the earth, but if someone believes that the present earth will soon be brought to an end, or that Christians will soon be taken away at the return of Jesus, then their attitudes towards the environment may be very different. Certain biblical texts are very important in shaping such ideas and beliefs.

Watch an introduction by Dr Cherryl Hunt:

The word theologians generally use to refer to beliefs about the future, and particularly about the ultimate 'end' of the world, is eschatology. It comes from the Greek word eschatos, meaning last, or final. When we talk about God's plans for the future of creation, including humans, animals and the environment, we are talking about eschatology.

The earliest Christians seem to have expected the final end to come very soon, in their lifetime. They believed that Jesus would return and there would be a day of judgment when Christians, both dead and alive, would be caught up in a new, transformed and eternal existence. Texts from the New Testament show this kind of imminent expectation, even if their precise interpretation is debated. For example:

Some texts indicate that the early Christians were uncertain, worried, or sceptical about the timing of these events, and began to raise questions about how soon, if at all, these promised events would take place. In 2 Peter 3.3-4, the author reports the view of some who mock and doubt the idea of Jesus’ return.

Biblical texts present differing images of what is to come in the future, with some pointing towards an age of flourishing and peace, and others to a time of disaster and destruction. Such texts are relevant to shaping Christian views of the earth, and specifically whether humans have a duty to preserve and care for the earth. Texts that might be read and compared include:

One text in particular that raises difficult issues for Christians wishing to support environmental care is 2 Peter 3.10-13. This text seems to suggest not only a fiery destruction of the earth, but also that Christians should do what they can to bring forward this final time. It is one of the texts that is interpreted in various ways, as Christians argue about environmental responsibility (see section 5 below).1

Christians generally believe in some kind of life after death, understood as an everlasting or eternal life. Specific ideas about the form this life will take vary, with many thinking in terms of an immortal soul that will live in heaven, and others arguing that a more biblical view involves resurrection to a new bodily life in a new creation or on a renewed earth. The hope for life after death has often been linked to the idea that we are only pilgrims on the earth, waiting for a real and final home in heaven.

Some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians hold particular beliefs about the future which are built on certain biblical texts. These beliefs include:

  • that the final end may be very soon
  • that Jesus will return in the lifetime of the current generation
  • that Christians will be ‘raptured’ (lifted away) from the earth before a time of suffering and hardship

It is not hard to see how such beliefs could lead to a lack of concern for the present earth. If the ‘old’ earth will be replaced by a new earth (and a new heaven), as some biblical texts suggest, why preserve the old one? If humans will be saved, why should caring for the environment be a priority? If the end will come very soon, why worry about future generations?

The questions above show how Christian beliefs about the future can lead to a lack of care about the environment. However, many Christians would argue that this need not be so, and this has led to competing views about environmental care among contemporary Christian groups.

'Evangelism' rather than 'environmentalism'

However, as mentioned in Contemporary Christian views, other Christians see environmentalism as a threat, distracting Christians from their true priorities. This perspective is most evident among some fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians, particularly in the USA. They argue that current environmental trials and disasters are signs of the coming end of the world, and that Jesus is coming soon. They believe that, at this time, the Earth will be destroyed rather than transformed, and therefore that it is more important to evangelise to covert people than to try to save the environment.

This kind of belief is not frequently found in academic, scholarly publications, but it is found in plenty of more popular writing, particularly on the internet. Todd Strandberg, for example, writes on biblical prophecy in relation to the environment, while Spencer Strickland presents an alternative biblical approach to global warming.

American evangelical organisation Cornwall Alliance supports stewardship of the earth, but strongly opposes environmentalism, which it sees as a 'Green Dragon' – a dangerous threat to true Christianity. The opening of their 'Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming' states that:

We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.

We believe abundant, affordable energy is indispensable to human flourishing, particularly to societies which are rising out of abject poverty and the high rates of disease and premature death that accompany it. With present technologies, fossil and nuclear fuels are indispensable if energy is to be abundant and affordable.2

They therefore reject that global warming is caused by human activity, that there should be constraints on the use of fossil fuels, and that the human population should not continue to expand. In this way, the Cornwall Alliance’s stance reflects not only biblical and religious beliefs, but also political, ethical, and economic convictions. The same is true of those Christian groups that do support environmentalism: religious convictions are bound up with politics, economics and ethics.

Watch a video clip about the organisation, and read an article about their views.

'Transformation' rather than 'destruction'

One crucial argument is whether the biblical depictions of a new earth imply the destruction of the 'old' earth, or its transformation. Christians who support the idea of environmental care argue that the Bible presents a picture of renewal and transformation, not destruction. As evangelical writer Thomas Finger puts it:

If the present creation will not be destroyed but renewed, it would seem important to care for it today.3

Christian environmentalists tend to see caring for the earth as a part of their obedience to God, since it involves joining in the renewing work God is doing to bring the whole creation to its transformed and peaceful future.

  • Can you see why Christians who do not support environmentalism hold the views they do, based on the Bible passages above?
  • How do you think those Christians who do want to support environmentalism deal with biblical passages like these?
  • What are your reactions to these biblical texts? Do you think they encourage Christians to be good or bad at preserving the earth for future generations?

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References

1For further discussion of these texts, see David G. Horrell, The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology (London: Equinox, 2010), chapters 8-9.

2Cornwall Alliance, 'An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming', 2012. , 2009. See also The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, no date

3Thomas Finger, Evangelicals, Eschatology, and the Environment (The Scholars Circle; Wynnewood, PA: Evangelical Environmental Network, 1998), p. 1

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