One of the topics now dominating public discussion is climate change. From Extinction Rebellion protests to BBC wildlife programmes, we are continually reminded that there is a real issue here.
Even Jeremy Clarkson, in the new Grand Tour series for Amazon, has admitted that climate change is a genuine threat to the environment and human existence. Clarkson, not known for sympathy with anything that would get cars off the road, conceded the point while filming on the Mekong river in Vietnam. Dramatic falls in river levels, destitute fishermen, absent rainfall, are all observed – leading Clarkson to admit there is an environmental crisis.
What to do about it? ‘I could run around the world on carbon-fibre yachts, shouting and yelling or wailing … or, you can just acknowledge it, and then behind the scenes start working on how we address the problem.’ For Clarkson, the hope lies in scientists – not in protestors.
As Christians we have often been on the sidelines of these issues. Sometimes that may reflect the healthy scepticism our faith has towards the secular prophets. All through history we have been warned of a catastrophe round the corner, only to find we have been misled. At other times, Christians have been wary because environmental concerns seem a distraction from the gospel. If we are preparing for a world to come, why take care of this one? A third reason for a lack of engagement is the fear that environmental ethics have been taken over by a new brand of paganism with an idolatrous view of mother earth.
However, thoughtful Christians have always had a concern for our treatment of the environment which stems from a biblical concern for God’s creation.
Francis Schaeffer, one of the great missionaries of the 20th century, provided a model for many Christian apologists. Long before this was a mainstream concern, Schaeffer realised that evangelicals had lost sight of the value of the natural world. He wrote about plastic in the ocean and deforestation long before this was a trendy thing to do, and he wrote one of the earliest evangelical books to plead for Christians to show concern for our treatment of the environment. Pollution and the Death of Man, published in 1970, remains a great example of thoughtful evangelical apologetics.
Schaeffer identified a truth in the largely non-Christian hippy movement around him; ‘The hippies of the 1960s did understand something. They were right in fighting the plastic culture and the church should have been fighting it too … More than this, they were right in the fact that the plastic culture – modern man, the mechanistic worldview in university textbooks and in practice, the total threat of the machine, the establishment technology, the bourgeois upper middle class – is poor in its sensitivity to nature’. The hippies were right not only to care about creation, but to resist the devaluing of the natural world.
But Schaeffer also went further than this. He sought to analyse the philosophical reasons why people might care for creation. And he concluded that only a Bible-based worldview provides coherent grounds for environmental concern. The problem with non-Christian environmental ethics is they may end up either deifying nature or merely treating it as a tool. The biblical worldview gives us an adequate basis to care for creation (it is declared objectively good – Genesis 1) while also making use of creation in a sustainable way (examples are written into the Law – Deut. 20:19; 22:4, 6-7, 10).
Schaeffer emphasised the integrity of creation as good in and of its own right, regardless of its functional value.
We should care about the oceans or a tree because God has made them and declared them good, not just because of their functional value in regulating the earth’s atmosphere. Schaeffer said he affirmed creation ‘because I love God – I love the One who has made it! Loving the Lover who has made it, I have respect for the thing He has made’.
Fifty years ago Schaeffer recognised the importance of an evangelical response to the ecological crisis, our apologetics have been weaker for failing to take these concerns seriously.
Chris Sinkinson is the D.L. Moody Lecturer in Apologetics, Moorlands College.