Is God Green?
Is God Green? A Biblical Perspective on Environmental Stewardship
According to some intellectuals, Christianity promotes ignoring or even degrading the environment. A 1967 article in Science declared, “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” Furthermore, Christianity “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”
Indeed, in Genesis 1:28, Adam and Eve, on behalf of the human race, are told by God to
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue [kabash] it. Rule [radah] over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
The Hebrew word kabash means to bring under control in a forceful, even violent way, and the word radah means to take dominion and rule against. God’s command in Genesis 1:28 is referred to as the “dominion mandate,” and it is the basis for much of the belief that Christianity promotes the exploitation of nature. Additionally, critics reason that the Christian belief in an afterlife is suspect, as it makes the earth relatively less important than ideas of heaven.
But is the dominion mandate in Genesis a license to consume natural resources without a thought to the consequences of waste and unsustainability? What does the Bible really say about environmental stewardship?
In his book Food, Farming, and Faith, Cornell professor Gary Fick offers a different view of Christian teaching on the environment. He argues that the dominion mandate should be taken in a descriptive, not prescriptive, way. In other words, “subduing” the earth is describing what we will need to do to at least some parts of the earth to be able to harvest food. The weeds in my garden, for example, are “subdued” on a regular basis to make room for the vegetables I am growing. The Genesis account acknowledges in Genesis 3:18 that growing food will be a constant struggle. Even animals raised for food need to be protected from predators.
This softer interpretation of the dominion mandate is further supported by Genesis 2:15, which says,
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work [abad] it and keep [shamar] it.”
The word “abad” means “to serve or cultivate” and “shamar” means “to care, guard, and protect” and is even used in some verses to describe God’s care for his people. Thus, viewing the dominion mandate in a descriptive way is more consistent with other passages and principles in the Bible. It also means that the dominion mandate is not a license to be irresponsible in our approach to managing nature.
Pope Francis has been an outspoken advocate of environmental stewardship and has discussed the moral underpinnings of the call to stewardship on several occasions. The eternal perspective Christians have is not an excuse for disregarding earthly things; it does not mean that we do not care about the earth or what we do on earth. As long as we believe we have a God-given responsibility to care for His creation, we are serving God when we cultivate or protect His creation.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis said, “A Chrisple who will suffer the consequences of our actions should give additional impetus to a desire to conserve creation. Christians are also told to put others’ interests ahead of the own (Phil 2:3-4 and elsewhere), which is hardly a license to pollute and degrade the earth. However, caring for the earth should not preclude people from using resources or managing nature. Sometimes our intervention in natural processes might be for the benefit of humans, such as harvesting resources. Other times it will be for the benefit of the natural system itself, such as putting out a wildfire even if it was started by lightning. The Christian perspective is that God created the earth for the benefit of humans, and He desires for us to be responsible in how we use and manage it. Thus, we ought to look for ways to support human life in harmony with nature.
A well-known author and thinker on environmentalism is Joel Salatin, who considers himself a Christian environmentalist and advocates a new approach to agriculture. Salatin believes that farmers should take greater advantage of natural ecological systems and ensure that animals have more freedom. For example, soils can be managed to increase the carbon content so to increase the fertility and water holding capacity of the soil. Instead of locking chickens up in their coop, they can be used to control bugs in the pasture and to fertilize the pasture. Salatin also suggests that animals bring glory to God by being able act the way He created them to act. Even a pig brings glory to God because of its “pig-ness” as it wallows in the mud or digs for roots. Thus, Salatin argues that we can bring glory to God by actively supporting more “natural” agriculture, which seeks to improve both the quality of life for livestock and the environmental quality of the ecosystem.
To be sure, there are Christians who don’t care about the environment. But Christians should recognize the God-given responsibility to “abad” (work) and “shamar” (keep) the earth as responsible stewards of God’s creation. Pope Francis has reminded us on several occasions: creation care honors God and shows our compassion for other humans. One practical application of creation care is to think about agricultural systems that are sustainable and able to provide for people’s needs. Reducing the environmental impact of our society and conserving natural resources takes the effort of many people. Different people will have different views on particular issues, but we should each strive to do our part as responsible stewards of creation. We have a beautiful planet, and it is our job to protect it.
1 Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203-7.
3 Gary W. Fick, Food, Farming, and Faith (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2008), 18.
4 Ibid., p. 19.
5 Pope Francis, “Le Santa Sede,” The Vatican, February 13, 2015, https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/cotidie/2015/documents/ papa-francesco-cotidie_20150209_working-with-god.html.
6 Philip Pullella. “Papal Text Says Man Betrays God by Destroying the Environment,” Reuters News Service, January 18, 2015, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/ article/2015/01/18/pope-philippines-environment-idUSL6N0UX00B20150118.
7 Joel Salatin, “Redeeming the Earth,” (presentation, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, February 11, 2015).
Kristy Perano is a PhD student in Biological and Environmental Engineering studying how to keep dairy cows cool in hot and humid climates. She enjoys outdoor activities, gardening, working with animals (especially her family’s cows), and ministry to international students.
Image credit: Sujay Natson – The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, Spring 2014.Tags: environmental science, environmentalism, Gary Fick, Joel Salatin, nature, Pope Francis, vocation, work