The Cosmic Christ: an introduction to Christian theology on ecology

Colossians 1.15-20:   The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

 

Revelation 4.1-2, 6b-11: After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. In the centre, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:

“‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty,’who was, and is, and is to come.”

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honour and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being

 

 

Houston, we have a problem

 

These words, in 1970 on the Apollo 13 flight, are part of space history. As a science fiction buff, when recently I found Ann and I had a three-hour stopover in Houston on the way back from our holiday, I quickly made it 18 hours for a trip to the Houston space centre.

 

Holiday advice: you need a whole day. A Morning is impossible. Instead we went to the Houston planetarium, one of the biggest in the world. An incredible presentation on our planet in the cosmos. What is most overwhelming is the sheer size of the universe. Everything we can see on the clearest night sky is like the size of a clenched hand in comparison to the entire size of this church. No, I’ve got that wrong. The size of Guildford cathedral. It’s huge

 

And the Lord God made it all; Colossians 1.15, in him all things were created. Crucially he made planet Earth. So small and insignificant in the totality of the universe. So huge and significant in the love and creation of the God of the universe. The one planet where his own son became as one of us. It is hard to contemplate the size of the universe. It is even harder, I suggest, to contemplate the context and extent of this love for us.

 

And as man has travelled through space he has looked back at our planet and the overwhelming response has been its fragility. It’s even been given a name. The so-called Overview Effect. Astronauts head out into the stars but find themselves spending more time looking and reflecting at Earth from space. Astronaut Ron Garran said as follows:

 

As I approached the top of this orbit arc, it was as if time stood still, and I was flooded with both emotion and awareness. But I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space

 

It’s our fragility on this stunning oasis in space which to me is crucial this morning in looking at this passage. Because I believe a dominant theme for our world in this new decade, and beyond, is what is known as green issues, ecology and climate. How are we looking after the created order on this stunning fragile oasis in space? It dominates the news. Already, 30 days into the decade, we have had a spat between those Angry Birds; Greta and Donald with the latter referring to the former as a prophet of doom. On Thursday we fly to Australia, still reeling from the forest fires which have destroyed thousands of homes, cost many lives, caused loss, perhaps extinction of so much wildlife species and yet mostly has been a natural phenomenon. What will be the extent and impact of the virus in China?

 

Some Christians deny global warming and dispute any theology of ecology. Other Christians strongly support the extinction rebellion movement as part of their Christian mission. Where do we stand? What does the Bible say?

 

Two starting aspects. As Simon said last Sunday, in the Western world Christians are an increasingly marginalised group. Nevertheless, we believe that what Christ says to us is highly relevant for our world so we have a duty to speak the gospel in the green context. But do we know what is that gospel? Secondly, green issues are now very strong in the thinking of many of the younger generation including within the church. How we deal with ecology is a matter of justice and righteousness and they are entitled to demand the church has a well thought out, articulate, consistent and honest theology.

 

It is my worry that Christian theology on ecology is underdeveloped and not well understood. I can’t remember any sermon, over many decades, devoted to it. So, I’m making a start this morning. I am barely touching the surface, but I hope it will cause us to want to go on to further reflection to understand what God feels about this issue and what he is saying

 

A caveat. I’m not covering whether there is life on other planets, the debate between evolution and creationism, whether global warming is either wrong or overstated, how much you put in your blue bin and whether you should become a vegetarian!

 

First, God created our planet and our ecosystem. The essence of Genesis 1 e.g. 1.31: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. He has a direct relationship with his creation. Before we appeared sometime on day six, however you understand that, it was just God and creation happily getting on with it. Our ecosystem derives its existence, its purpose, its holistic life, its inter-relationships with other parts of the ecosystem entirely to God. Not us. Our role comes later. There is no reason to think that the God who loves us and created us loves other parts of his creation any less. Whilst Bible passages arguably put mankind as the jewel in the crown, that does not detract from God’s love of his creation.

 

It must therefore follow that he is dreadfully saddened, probably downright angry, by the present state of his created order. Whoever or whatever is to blame, it is not in the state that he wanted. He longs for the created order to come back to how it was created and how he wants it to live in harmony, in beauty and as part of the worship of God. But it seems it can’t because of us and the fall of man. It’s here we enter

 

Secondly, God put us in charge, stewards, trustees, managers, of his created order. Genesis 1.26: then God said, let us make man in our image and let him rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and overall creatures. 1.28: God blessed the man and the woman and said to them, be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish and the birds and every living creature that moves on the ground. 1.29: then God said I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth and every tree with fruit and they will be yours for food. Observe in passing no reference yet to meat-eating. Only vegetarianism. We were given responsibility for looking after the garden of Eden, Genesis 2.15. Our role was as stewards, managers. No status of overbearing, do as you want without worrying about the consequences, completely unanswerable to anyone. It is a primary task given to us in our creation. Look after the planet on which you are living. But answer to me. Responsible to me. If you want help, ask me and I will give it to you. You’re not on your own in looking after the planet.

 

Note that we are not owners. Psalm 24.1: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; Leviticus 25.23: the land must not be sold permanently because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.

 

This concept of stewardship is strongly felt by Christian environmentalists who oppose policies and practices that threaten the health or survival of the planet. Reliance on non-renewable resources, habitat destruction, pollution and practices which may lead to irreparable climate change. Parts of the Anglican church have been forward thinking. About 25 years ago an organisation, A Rocha, was set up based on a bird sanctuary in Spain, endorsed by John Stott. It has gone on to set the green agenda for evangelical Christians in Europe. Tearfund has done brilliant work helping the poor around the world but recently has significantly added ecological change as a vital part. Unless we change our management of creation, we will not help the poor. I could add organisations such as Christian Climate Action which looks at non-violent protest. Within extinction rebellion is a group of Christians who have added a cross to the distinctive symbol. Sadly in contrast, there are some in the evangelical movement in the USA who thoroughly oppose ecological campaigning by Christians.

 

Looking at our stewardship throughout history, we have been neglectful. Until the last few decades, caring for the resources on our planet was barely in the thinking of the vast majority on earth. It has featured in some religions. Hinduism and Buddhism are particularly strong. There are passages in the old Testament as God tells his people how to live their lives. Clear ecological messages. You will be amazed how many when you start to look. The whole principle of sabbath and Jubilee are to do with rest and recovery. Don’t exhaust the earth’s resources. Every few years leave the land fallow, unused, to recover. Good agricultural husbandry. And more. Have no doubt from the old Testament about God’s love for his creation.

 

So we are managers. Any simple reading of the news or documentaries of the state of ecology on our planet demonstrates how much we have failed as managers. For this we need to seek the forgiveness of God just as we do for our other sins of commission and omission, of falling short of his standards. And true repentance leads to action. If we are sorry for our failure to manage our planet well, what are we doing about it? Because we must. But there is a curious further interplay between our relationship with the created order

 

Thirdly, there is a sense in which we and the created order are in some ways bundled up together in the redemption of Christ. As a consequence of what happened in the garden of Eden and the fall of man, however one understands that, we are in need of salvation. We cannot of our own resources and inclination recover to be back into a perfect relationship with God the Father. We need the redeeming work of Christ. We then cease belonging to the so-called first Adam and become in Christ the second Adam. That’s us. What’s it got to do with cats and dogs, dolphins and koalas? Romans 8.22 says: we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only creation but we groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the redemption.

 

This is complicated. But it seems to indicate that creation is just as much awaiting the final coming of Christ as we are. Creation, the ecology of our planet, is intricately bound up with the fall of man. We see in creation so much cruelty and violence. If I brought a domestic moggy here with me today, even just had its favourite breakfast, and it saw a mouse run across the alter rail, it would be after it, play with it and ultimately kill it but not for food. It’s their way. Is that really the way it was in the garden of Eden? The nature documentaries bring us much beauty and wonder. But also scenes which are sometimes too much for us to take. Red in tooth and claw. No Lions laying down with lambs on the African Savannah.

 

Ecology is a gospel issue because the fallenness of this world points to our need for a saviour. Not only is it incumbent for Christians to be good stewards of God’s creation but we are to proclaim his salvation plan as we engage with global, national and local communities in tackling climate change.

 

This is a theology which is undeveloped in my opinion, perhaps because it’s not developed in the Bible. But it’s there and we are entitled to ask how much of the ecological system derives intrinsically from the fall of man. Of course we see how our direct actions and failures have brought about the catastrophic state of our planet today. But it seems that there is also inherent within the created order some sort of violent destructive process. Creation also awaits redemption.

 

This is very much at odds with an attitude prevailing amongst so-called new-age believers. Perhaps less dominant now than a decade or two ago. Gaia, mother Earth goddess, to be worshipped and adored and looked after. Perhaps it found its high-water mark in the film Avatar, one of my favourite films. When the Navi people are attacked in their home, Pandora, the tree of life responds, counter-attacking with all creatures of the planet coming together. Creation on Pandora was a synergy, holistic, unified and as one. That is not the way of creation on our planet. And I suggest the reason is the fall of man.

 

So fourthly how does it all end? Here we are in the book of Revelation; a very difficult and complex book where the apocalyptic descriptions are layered one upon another. They are not consecutive in time. They consist of various segments which are different insights into the same events. They show the final physical destruction of mankind and of our planet. Through earthquakes, storms and similar, the created order suffers the same as mankind. We are literally all in it together. Big question: is Revelation a description of the consequence of our ecological failure properly to manage our planet? Quite possibly. I think we have to admit this. Some descriptions written 2000 years ago match what we now see on our planet as a result of human destruction. But remember final destruction only happens because God allows it, as part of his plan for the fulfilment of life on this planet. He is in charge. He knows what is happening. We are not to be fearful. We are to work for the best for our planet. But if the final times described in the book of Revelation correspond to dreadful ecological events on our planet caused by man’s failure to manage it properly then it is nevertheless still in the great scheme of what God controls. This is also hard to comprehend

 

Fifthly and last in this overview, most of Revelation is not the end. That end is Revelation 21. A new heaven and a new earth. The one seated on the throne says he will make everything new. Then Revelation 22 shows us the beauty of the new creation. A river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing down the middle of the street of the city. Trees abundantly bearing fruit again. The leaves of the tree healing the nations. No longer any curse. The beauty of creation is restored, just as it was in the beginning.

 

We don’t know what heaven will be like. We look forward to finding out. We know it will be filled with the presence of God and therefore we can guess some attributes. And curiously they are how we often describe the natural world we love. A place of beauty, tranquillity, lack of violence and conflict, harmony, wonder, healing, mankind and creation at one together, and all delighting in the presence of God.

 

The Christian theology of ecology is that we, the created order and God are very tied up together.

 

 

This can only be a basic overview. I think we need to go further, for our sake, for the sake of our younger generation for whom this is a far more pressing issue, for the sake of our community to hear about our gospel message which embraces redemption and ecology, and for the sake of our planet

 

So I leave with the following five short points

 

First, God cares deeply about green issues, ecology and all of creation because he created it, loves it and looks forward to it being in perfect harmony with mankind. He has not abandoned us or his creation.

 

Secondly, a key role in our creation is to be a manager of the created life on our planet. It is not ours. We cannot treat as if it doesn’t matter about the future. We are answerable to God for our management of the planet. It is obvious we have failed abysmally. Individually and as mankind we need to seek the forgiveness of God, to repent and to change our ways and our actions and to do far better.

 

Thirdly, it certainly seems as if the extent of our failure of management is reaching a critical point and becoming desperate for dramatic changes and measures to be taken. This will come at a huge economic cost, with an impact on our lifestyles in the West. At the very time when we rejoice in the globalism of our planet we may have to pull back for the sake of that planet. The resources needed to recover the proper management will cost us all and we must be willing to make that sacrifice. The cost cannot fall on the Third World. The first world has been wealthy for so long, has been the prime beneficiary of the Earth’s resources and must now pay disproportionately for its recovery

 

Fourth, the church must engage far more at many levels. This engagement means far more direct practical action. It means far more working through our theology and Christian thinking.

 

Fifth, we seek forgiveness, and this is how I end, in prayer.

 

Dearest heavenly father, we come with sadness and regret that we individually and we as mankind on this planet have failed you and what you asked us to do. We have failed to manage properly the resources of our planet. We have treated as if our own with no regard for the future. We have treated other living creatures sharing this planet with cruelty and violence and contempt. We have ruled and not managed. Will you please forgive us, and we repent. The evidence of our sin and failures are now all around us. There seems still time to recover but we know time is short. Will you give us an urgency, a desire to make changes, to show us how we can do so practically and effectively. Show us how as your church on this planet we can speak your gospel of redemption and your love for this planet and all that is on it. We are a fragile oasis in space. You have given it to us to look after. Help us to do so and to do so better than we have hitherto. In Christ’s name we ask. Amen

 

David Hodson

dh@davidhodson.com

07973 890648

January 2020

Scroll to top