What’s missing in the national conversation about climate change?
There’s plenty of discussion about sin. More fingers are pointed at culprits in the climate debate than nearly any other topic. Environmentalists love to point to greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, and selfish consumers who pursue high pollution lifestyles while not caring for the earth.
Skeptics of the climate conversation love to point out the irony in the sins of environmental activists, when they fly to international meetings and live elite high-consumption lifestyles, when environmental nonprofits take money from tainted sources, and when climate advocates personally benefit from investments in clean energy companies.
Christians in the climate debate are not immune to casting stones. We are often just as polarized and judgmental as the secular world. But while there’s a lot of talk about sin there is not nearly enough talk about Sin⏤as in Original Sin or the Fall.
For Christians, a healthy appreciation for the effects of the Fall should bring more clarity to the problem of understanding climate change. In a healthy, orthodox, Biblical worldview, nothing is more plausible than global environmental chaos.
You could almost predict something like anthropogenic climate change that threatens the livelihoods of millions of innocent people, compromises the global economy, and causes the extinction of many of God’s creatures⏤all you’d have to do is read the Bible.
Our First Job
The great foundational story for the human experience, the Creation account in Genesis 1 and 2, starts with an abundant and flourishing planet, meticulously brought into being by a loving God, who chooses one creature, human beings, to manage all the others, to serve as steward and caretaker, to be a ruler and priest in a place where God and humans could walk together in fellowship. He created humans to bear his image, to represent Him and have dominion over this garden planet.
We need to stop and sit with that notion. As Andy Crouch wrote in his masterful book Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling:
“It’s extraordinary that a biblical author who had seen neither airplanes nor submarines, and for whom boats were small and rudimentary affairs, could anticipate humankind being able to “rule” over fish and birds in any meaningful way….Human beings will be responsible for the creation in its totality, not just for their immediate neighborhood.”
That was the job description for the first humans⏤we were hired to care for the planet and responsibly develop it, to lead it in praise of God, and to extend God’s good and wise management in doing so. If we consider ourselves Bible believers, this was not some grandiose, made-up claim by the author of Genesis. It had more than mythical significance. It meant that our capacity and our choices would shape the state of the planet itself.
A Fireable Offense
In Genesis 2, the human creature starts doing its job. God tells Adam that he wants all the other creatures examined and named. What should their names be? God left it up to Adam to put a handle on every species. He wasn’t micromanaging his new hire; he was making space for human agency, will, and creativity.
We see in Luke 9 that Jesus did the same thing with his disciples: he made space for them to work and create and decide. Instead of just meeting needs himself, when faced with a hillside of hungry people, he tells his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” He then uses their decision as a starting point for his own work.
Tragedy ensues in Genesis 3, when the first couple finds that God will even let them choose to rebel against him. Their free will allowed them to turn from God and invite chaos back into the meticulously ordered world. That decision had consequences, to say the least. In choosing their own way, they failed at their job, and they wrecked their relationship with God, the relationship between husband and wife, and their relationship with themselves, warping their identities and their calling. And, in a way that foreshadows our current climate crisis, they wrecked their relationship with the creation itself. They planted the seeds of planetary chaos, and we’re seeing some of the fruit of that today.
The Most Plausible Thing in the World
The Biblical account of where things went wrong speaks to our current climate crisis. Humans are not merely some mutation of a chimpanzee, randomly evolved, that just happens to be soiling its nest before it goes extinct.
A Christian worldview says that humans still have the kind of dominion and authority to affect the planet at a global scale (including the atmospheric system), and corruption of that authority can have actual, physical, and dire consequences. We’re in this boat because our story⏤the biblical account of creation⏤is true, and we see the evidence unfolding in the chaos our Sin unleashed on the earth.
To concentrate mainly on our sins, our derivative mistakes like wasting energy, using plastic shopping bags, and not recycling, is a diversion. It’s our Original Sin that, predictably, trapped us in a global economy that depends on despoiling the planet.
But the Fall is not the end of the story. Beyond it lies the redemptive power of Jesus’s work on the cross, and the promise of his coming back to set things right. Those elements of the Grand Narrative of Scripture matter for the climate, too.
If you want to learn more about the original job that God gave to humans, read Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch.