Poverty and the environment

As we look at how the 21st century is shaping up, we have four really big challenges: climate change, biodiversity loss, human population and resource depletion – especially oil and water. These four issues all impact on each other and in turn affect economics, politics and global security. What does mission mean in a century facing these major environmental challenges? This article will look at a number of biblical passages to provide a theology of environmental mission.

Creation and incarnation An interesting place to start is John 1 and the importance of creation and incarnation to our understanding of mission. It has powerful things to say about the value of the material world. The Word is the agent of creation: all things came into being through Him and without Him not one thing came into being (verse 3). So the whole of creation looks to God as its source. The passage goes on to say that in Him was life; that this life was the light of all people; and this light shines in the darkness. The implication is not that any part of creation is darkness, but that non-creation (that which is not of God) is darkness. This might be the non-being of Augustine, or it might be other interpretations of evil, but it is not God’s creation, which God created to be good.

John 1 has great significance for the doctrine of the incarnation: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (verse 14). Jesus was without sin and affirmed the goodness of creation by becoming a part of it. John 1 connects a high view of the biblical doctrine of creation with a strongly historical and physical belief in the doctrine of the incarnation. This has implications for the way we see salvation and redemption.

Creation and salvation What is the link between creation and salvation? Romans 8 is a good place to investigate these themes. A popular passage for biblical teaching on the environment is Romans 8:18-27 which does seem to be written directly for our own environmental situation today. But before we rush to apply it, we need to remember that it was written within a very different world. The Romans to whom Paul was writing would not have been in the shadow of global warming or environmental meltdown. For them the term “Creation Groaning” was not something that would have resonated with contemporary environmental problems. So what was Paul getting at and what would the Roman Christians have thought? There are four mentions of “creation” in this passage. There are only 24 in the whole New Testament, and this is certainly the only place where the “whole of creation” is included in the same sequence. Like John 1, this passage is based on the understanding that humans are part of God’s creation. The human experience of suffering is part of creation groaning and not something separate. There is a lot of discussion over this concept of a “cosmic fall” and we are sure there will be differing views among readers. Part of the reason why we support the concept of some sort of cosmic fall is that the opposite, a cosmic redemption, is seen in Scripture. We can see this in the amazing promise in verses 20-21: the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

Isaiah can help to explain a cosmic redemption. Here we find the idea of a renewal of creation that is integral to the prophecies of salvation at the end of the age. For example in Isaiah 11:6-9 “The wolf will live with the lamb”, we see a picture of harmony between nature and humans. In Isaiah 65:17: “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth”, we have an image of creation renewed. The Romans would almost certainly have viewed Paul’s concept, of creation in bondage and waiting to be liberated, as looking toward these redemption images. So creation groaning points toward a redeemed and renewed creation.

But there is another very powerful image in this passage, of a woman in childbirth (Romans 8:22). In the first century, the pangs of childbirth were used as illustrations of cosmic woes accompanying God’s judgment, and they are a metaphor here for the universally shared pain that anticipates new life and the new creation to come. So what will this new life look like? Creation will obtain the freedom of the glory of the kingdom of God, and will become a magnificent sign of God’s love and faithfulness. Our God, who became part of His creation and died for us, was raised bodily as the first fruits of the redemption of our cosmos. We see glimpses of what all of that looks like in Isaiah and Revelation 21-22.

Creation and the kingdom Redemption therefore impacts on the whole creation and not just humans. This means that being part of God’s redemptive plan for creation is a mission imperative alongside proclamation, discipleship, justice and a concern for the poor. As we engage more deeply in integral mission, we discover that God is just a whole lot bigger than we may have imagined! Environmental mission looks toward seeing God’s kingdom come and will be done on Earth as in Heaven.

Margot Hodson is a church pastor and Martin Hodson is an environmental biologist. They are joint authors of Cherishing the Earth and work with the John Ray Initiative.

Weblinks www.hodsons.org/cherishingtheearth www.jri.org.uk