The world is becoming increasingly aware of the plight of planet Earth. Governments around the world are signing up to sustainable development strategies and international agreements designed to protect and conserve the resources that we have.
While current progress falls short of targets, the world is nevertheless expressing care for the Earth, for God’s creation. So how should Christians and churches respond to these measures? What does the Bible say about care for creation? What stance does God want his people to take?
Creation care for humanity
God gave the first humans the mandate to ‘be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish… birds… and every living thing…’ (Gen. 1:28; Ps. 8:3-8). While the whole creation belongs ultimately to God, for ‘he has given the earth to the sons of men’ (Ps. 115:16), they are to ‘subdue and rule over’ it by ‘working and taking care of’ what God has entrusted to them (Gen. 2:15).
The verbs to work and to take care of are also coupled together to describe the nature of the priests’ service in the tabernacle (Num. 3:8), which centred on the worship of God on behalf of the people. This suggests that human work in the garden had a priestly dimension.
Because they are ‘made in God’s image and likeness,’ humans also function as God’s representatives in creation. They deputise for God as his viceroys or kings. In working and taking care of the garden in God’s way, they would be obedient kings or representatives.
So, the first humans were given privileges and responsibilities to care for creation as priest-kings. They would have freedom to use their creative gifts, to find fulfilment and joy in their work and enjoy time to rest, giving thanks and praise to God for all that he had given them.
Humanity’s care for creation mattered to God. He valued his creation. He saw it all as ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31). His care for it was not arbitrary. He had long-term plans for it. It was made to glorify him. He loved it: ‘the Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all he has made’ (Ps. 145:9). And he privileged human beings to share in his love, care and concern for his creation.
The Fall and its effects
However, things changed with the Fall, when Adam wanted to be ‘as God’ and decide for himself what was right and wrong, grasping at moral autonomy. God put Adam and Eve out of the garden. God cursed the ground because of Adam, subjecting it to frustration. From now on it would grow ‘thorns and thistles’ (Gen. 3:17-18; Rom. 8:20).
As humans spread, so did their sin and so did the frustration. Human wickedness reached such a level that God destroyed virtually all life on the earth in the Flood. Only Noah, his family and a variety of animals were preserved. Yet God renewed his covenant with creation and his mandate for creation care through Noah (Gen. 9:1-7). There were differences though. Humanity would strike fear in the animals and eat the animals. While animal sacrifice seems to have taken place before the Flood, things now turned ‘red’. But God built into his covenant with Noah the necessity to respect life, animal as well as human. No-one was to eat flesh with its life-blood still in it (Gen. 9:4); all life was to be considered sacred. This food law was absolute and universal.
Creation care for Israel
Whilst the land was under the curse and subject to frustration, God still had concern for it. God reiterated to his people, Israel, the primacy of the food laws given to Noah (see Lev. 17:10-16; cf. Acts 15:20). Animals could be killed, but not murdered or savagely dispatched. All life was a gift from God. Even when eaten, the creature’s life still belonged ultimately to God. Humans were to grieve the loss of an animal’s life while they derived the benefit from it.
How Israel treated animals and their environment was also a matter of righteousness. The righteous ‘know the needs of their animals’ (Prov. 12:10). They give their working animals rest, unmuzzle them when working, return them when lost, help them when burdened, and protect wild animals to ensure their survival (Ex. 23:4; Deut. 22:1-7; 25:4).
The land itself was to lie fallow on a regular cycle for the benefit of both humans and animals (Ex. 20:9-11; 23:10-12; Lev. 25:1-7). The land should have rest, time to replenish and recreate, but its fruitfulness was affected by Israel’s behaviour. As the prophets said, when the people sin, the land mourns and is laid waste, emptied of its biodiversity (Hos. 4:1-3; Isa. 6:11-12). Yet, when Israel returns to the Lord, he renews the people, the land and its nature (Hos. 2:18-23; Ezek. 36:22-36; cf. Ezek. 34:23-29).
Creation care for the church
The mandate for creation care in the New Testament is implied rather than explicit. The Lord Jesus, the Messiah, explains the Father’s underlying and continuing care for his creation in the way he feeds the birds (Matt. 6:26; Luke 12:24), clothes the lilies and the grass of the field (Matt. 6:28-30; Lk 12:27-28), and knows the falling of a sparrow (Matt. 10:29). God’s care is detailed.
The Messiah will obey his Father to death on the cross. In so doing, he will serve and redeem not only sinners, but creation as well. All things were created by him and for him, in him they hold together, and through him God reconciles them to himself (Col. 1:16-20). Through Christ’s resurrection, God secures the immense regeneration and renewal not only of individual sinners, who are new creations but of the whole cosmos (2 Pet. 3:10-13). Then, ‘the meek will inherit the [new] earth’ (Matt. 5:5; Rev. 21), freed from its present frustration (Rom 8:21; cf. Isa 65:17-25). In the meantime, however, each renewed sinner must develop the ‘mind of Christ’ (Phil. 2:5) and the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15); learning to serve their Father in Heaven with humble obedience, which will include caring for his creation.
Creation care today
Even if the task today appears more demanding than it was in Eden, the mandate has not changed. As a royal priesthood, the ‘sons of God’ represent God their Father to creation. They exercise their priestly service through ministering the gospel to the world (Rom. 15:16; cf. Col. 1:23). In the new covenant they function as salt, not only to preserve the truth, but also to preserve God’s creation (2 Chron. 13:5; Num. 18:19); and in the new earth their works here ‘will follow them’ (Rev. 14:13).
In practice, this will mean standing, perhaps with the world, for eco-justice, and speaking for those who cannot defend themselves, plants and animals, as well as humans. Christians will show mercy to a drained planet against the tyrannical demands of an exploitive humanity, by walking humbly with God. Christians will teach the world that planet Earth is neither to be worshipped – a prerogative belonging solely to God for his wonderful handiwork – nor thoughtlessly exploited for selfish ends (cf. Mic. 6:8). The Father’s love and care for his creation must be taught and lived out through humble obedience to him as ‘sons’, in fulfilment of the royal priestly service offered to him in Christ.