Nils von Kalm

My take on faith, life and how it all might fit together

Category: Climate Change (page 1 of 4)

Climate change – why should Christians care?

Psalm 148 is a song of praise to God for everything that has been created. That, if anything, is enough reason for people of faith to care for the environment. But it goes a lot deeper than that.

With the United States deciding to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement this week, many Christians are again debating whether or not we should care about the planet. I really thought we had gone past this as Christians. The fact that we still have to sit here and debate with some people whether or not we should even care about the planet is incredibly frustrating.

I first wrote this article back in 2006 for a talk I gave at World Vision on this topic. While many Christians have no problem with the need to care for the Earth, they struggle to explain exactly why, apart from a general acceptance that we should because God made it.

So, given the US decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and that today is World Environment Day, here is a slightly updated rewrite of the theological background for why it is an obligation for people of faith to care for the planet.

While there are still people who disagree over the extent of climate change and whether or not it is happening as a result of human activity, more and more people are accepting that it is a current fact and that human actions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are playing a major part.

However, we still have a lot of work to do. While many evangelical leaders in the US have spoken out about the moral obligation to care for the earth that God made, there remain Christians in the US and Australia today who are advising President Trump that policies that look after the environment are a waste of time. Their reason for that advice is that God will take care of it and it is a threat to God’s omnipotence. And so we now have one of the biggest carbon-emitting nations on the planet telling the rest of the world to go to hell.

The fact is that this God we believe in cares deeply for the planet we get to live on. Throughout the Bible there is a common thread of God’s concern for the planet, and from this comes our responsibility and privilege to love what God loves.

Mark Brett from Whitley College in Melbourne has said that, “to reduce the complexity of the many references in the Bible that call us to care for the planet, people have often narrowed creation theology down to the key point which serves human interests: God said ‘subdue the earth’, so let’s get on with it”. Brett goes on to say that “both humans and animals are made from the earth, and in this sense we all belong to the same lineage system or ‘earth community’”. From the dust we were made. Genesis tells us that.

It’s interesting to note that Genesis also tells us that God told all species to be fruitful and multiply, so one of our responsibilities is to allow the other species to do just that.

So let’s have a brief look at what Genesis actually says. Ched Myers has said that,

“The first creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) is structured around the Creator’s repeated pronouncements that each layer of the world is “fantastic”. After day 1, he made the universe, and he said it was very good. Day 2 he made the sky and it was very good. Day 3…and it was very good and so it goes on with everything that God makes. The Hebrew word “tov” signifies intense delight. God says this way before humans arrive on the scene, showing that God thought this planet was pretty amazing when we weren’t even here yet. The environment is part of God’s creation which He said was very good.”

Then God goes on to make us, with the world as our habitat. As Myers goes on to say, “humans have received the world as a gift from the Creator and must never mistake it for a possession (Leviticus 25:23)”.

After humans are created, God tells us what our vocation is. The human vocation is summarised in Genesis 2:15: The human being is to “till and keep” (‘abad and shamar). The Hebrew word for tend (Hebrew: ‘abad) means “to work or serve,” and so, referring to the ground or a garden, it can be defined as “to till or cultivate”. It implies adornment, embellishment, and improvement.

The Hebrew word for keep (‘shamar’) means “to exercise great care over.” In the context of Genesis 2:15, it expresses God’s wish that humankind, “take care of,” “guard,” or “watch over” the earth. What we’re noticing is that Genesis 1 to 2, the very first words of God that we have, are a sharp contrast from the once-prevalent and still persistent interpretation of “dominion” that many Christians use to sanction environmental destruction in the name of progress. The exercise of dominion means that we are to exercise dominion with mercy, justice, and compassion – as servants of creation, and as Jesus was the ultimate servant leader, we are to follow His example in living like this.

Jesus also said that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions. As a result, life works best when we resist the allure of wastefulness and overconsumption by making personal lifestyle choices that express humility, patience, self-restraint and frugality.

Put simply, care for the earth fulfills the Great Commandments to love God and love what God loves. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Do unto others. As a group called Creation Care says, “it’s hardly showing love to a child with asthma when you’re filling her lungs with pollution”.

Another reason that God calls us to care for the planet is because environmental degradation hurts the poor the most. Let’s get this straight: climate change is a poverty issue. Care for the earth is an expression of our love for God and, as an extension of that, our love for the poor.

Despite our call for relationship with the environment as a Biblical mandate, there is also the danger of doing what many environmentalists do and going to the other extreme of idolising the creation instead of the creator. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said that God’s handiwork is seen in all of creation. Paul saw in creation the evidence of God at work, in the beauty and order of it all, and how it all fits together.

In recent decades scientists have been discovering that the laws of physics seem to be fine-tuned for the existence of complex life. All the evidence suggests that our planet is not just a meaningless “lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark” as the famous astronomer Carl Sagan once said.

The Earth is situated in just the right location in our galaxy; that we’re in a planetary system with giant planets that can shield the other planets from too many comet impacts; that we’re orbiting the right kind of star that’s not too cool or too hot; that the earth has an atmosphere that has enough oxygen to allow for complex organisms to survive; that has enough water and enough continents that allow for the diversity of life, and an active biodiversity that you need to support complex creatures such as ourselves. All of these factors give the direct impression that something amazing has taken place, that this did not just happen by a series of chance events.

Scientists are also discovering that the universe itself seems to be fine-tuned for life. Currently there are about 20 known different physical laws and forces that hold the universe together and allow it to sustain life; and if just one of them was altered by a tiny fraction, the universe would not exist. The universe, and this planet, are precious.

Scientists are also telling us about the interdependence of life on the planet. David Suzuki describes how, if all of humanity disappeared off the face of the earth, the rest of life would benefit enormously. The forests would gradually grow back, and relative stability would return to the ecosystems that control global temperature and the atmosphere. The fish in the oceans would recover and most endangered species would slowly come back. On the other hand, for example, if all species of ants disappeared, the results would be close to catastrophic. There would be major extinctions of other species and probably partial collapse of some ecosystems. The functions of the creatures living in the air we breathe, and beneath our feet, all work together to keep us alive.

If we do not consider the effects of a changing climate, we are not working with the poor; we are actually working against the poor. Let me say that again: if we are not considering the effects of environmental degradation, we are working against the poor. The late Ross Langmead said that “the transforming power of the gospel is not just spiritual, and not just social and economic, but also cosmic and environmental. The gospel is bigger than many of us thought!”

Ecology is increasingly teaching us that everything is related. A theme running through the Old Testament is that a distortion of right relationships affects us, affects our societies and affects our environment. As Romans 8 tells us, the creation is groaning and awaiting the setting right of all relationships in the universe.

There is simply no question that doing what we can to care about climate change is our responsibility as Christians, just as much as caring for the poor, no more and no less. And as affluent Christians here in Australia, we have the resources to make a real difference.

Jesus said that from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required. We have been given much here in Australia. It is incumbent on our generation to love what God loves.

Why you won’t be spending eternity in heaven

In case you haven’t seen it yet, my latest article on Christian Today has gone nuts. It’s obviously touched a nerve in one way or another with many people.

This article is probably my strongest one yet for Christian Today. I try to pull no punches in busting the myth that most Christians believe – that we will be spending eternity “up in heaven” with God when we die. Nothing could be further from the truth – literally.

Hope you get a lot out of it…

Why you won’t be spending eternity in heaven

When I was a young Christian, about 30 years ago, I was taught that the kingdom of God meant one thing and one thing only. It was the place those of us in Christ go to spend eternity with him when we die.

Song for Charleston and the world

The recent tragedy in Charleston highlights again the tragedy of mental illness and the darkness that envelops much of people’s lives. The media feeds us with fear and stories of despair, but we rarely hear the stories of hope and goodness in the world.

John Mellencamp wrote this song more than 20 years ago, and it seems more relevant than ever in 2015. I’ve been listening to this song a bit recently. Some of the lyrics have been sticking in my mind, and they are even moreso after the tragedy of Charleston.

In particular, the second half of the second verse strikes me as prophetic to this time in our lives:

Continue reading

Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters – Conclusion

Conclusion

A book which takes on such a difficult topic as the relationship between God and natural disasters can leave one with a feeling of helplessness. This book however ends on a strong note of hope. As mentioned above, the promise of God is of a new heaven and a new earth where all suffering will be no more. Fretheim points out from the life of Jesus that while he stilled storms and healed people, he didn’t do this in all cases. He didn’t heal everyone in his vicinity for example. Instead,

“Jesus’ actions point to a future world, thereby signalling that the kind of world Isaiah envisioned is on its way. Jesus provided signs of a different future that God has in store for the natural world.”

The relational, loving character of God is what comes through most in this book. This is quite an achievement in a book about the relationship between God and natural disasters. From the very beginning, God has wanted us to be co-creators. This means that, to a very significant extent, the future is in our hands. As Fretheim says,

“The future is partly settled and partly unsettled. It is partly settled, yes: there will be a new heaven and a new earth. But the future is also unsettled: our words and deeds in our world will make a difference in the shape of creation’s future.”

The issue of God and natural disasters is one that has perplexed the most inquiring of minds for thousands of years. It has led many to faith and many away from faith. In the end there is mystery and we can never fully fathom the ways of God. What we can do though is trust, and, like Peter, when asked by our Lord if he wanted to join those who were leaving Jesus, responded, “to whom else would we go; you have the words of eternal life.” Fretheim’s book encourages us to trust in a God who is good, despite what we see around us, despite the indescribable pain of those in the midst of suffering. His explanations are biblical, well thought through and compassionate. I recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand how it is that we can worship a God of love in a world where disasters fall indiscriminately on the just and the unjust.

Recommended further reading:

  • Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2008)
  • Jon Sobrino, Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004)
  • Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation(Nashville: Abingdon, 2005)
  • John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion (New York: Crossroad, 1994)

Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 – God, Faith, and the Practice of Prayer

This final chapter focuses on the value and importance of prayer. This is another area in which God gives us responsibility. For many of us with an activist mindset, prayer can often be neglected, so it is pertinent that Fretheim reminds us of its importance. The basic point that Fretheim makes with regard to prayer is that it “is a means in and through which God gets things done in the world.” It is a way of giving us power, but at the same time it is not a “substitute for action.” Many of us have an idea that using prayer as a substitute for using the gifts that God has given us is acting in faith. Therefore, many people will not see a doctor because they would rather pray, and then they are surprised when they do not get healed. Such an attitude, explains Fretheim, far from being an act of faith, is actually an act of faithlessness, for it fails to recognise once again the relational character of God. As Fretheim points out from 2 Kings 20:1-7, prayers and actions can work together.

What this chapter also reveals is that God is open to changing the divine mind. Such is the loving character of God that,

“God is open to taking new directions in view of new times and places; God is open to changing course in view of the interaction within the relationship, including prayers. Yet, never changing will be God’s steadfast love for all, God’s saving will for everyone, and God’s faithfulness to promises made.”

Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters – Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – Suffering and the God of the Old Testament

Chapter 4 focuses on suffering in the Old Testament. One of the main points that Fretheim brings out in this chapter is that, as a relational God, Fretheim convincingly argues that God will honour the relationship between God and humans at any cost. Fretheim admit that this opens God up to charges of neglect, but that “in honoring this basic character of the Creator-creature relationship, God chooses to use constraint and restraint in exercising power in the life of the world.” The main point that Fretheim seems to want to make here is that suffering is a necessary part of living on this earth. This will be difficult to hear for many people ni a society that is deeply committed to the alleviation of pain at any cost. But the message of Fretheim’s book aligns with the life and ministry of Jesus in showing that compassion involves entering into the suffering of others. The fact of life is that love inevitably involves suffering.

Further to the above, suffering did not enter the world with sin. Fretheim points out that “human sin can intensify…suffering possibilities, but no necessary relationship exists between human suffering and human sin.” It is unfortunate that this needs to be emphasised, but there has been so much pain caused by statements by Christian leaders over the years about the causes of suffering that the fact that there is no necessary relationship between suffering and sin cannot be stressed enough. Fretheim does an admirable job at stressing this point.

As can be seen so far, the points that Fretheim brings out in this book will be quite challenging to many Christians, particularly those in evangelical circles. However, as an evangelical myself, I found myself consistently impressed with Fretheim’s use of Scripture to illustrate his arguments.

It is from his biblical understanding of the character of God that Fretheim makes further assumptions about the natural world. For instance, there are good and necessary parts of the creation that can also lead to deep suffering. An example of this is cell mutation, which, while being a “necessary dimension of creaturely development,…can also lead to suffering” and that “even if there had been no sin, cancer and other diseases had the potential of developing in such a world.”

By choosing to create the world in this way, God’s character is open to defamation and critique. But, as Fretheim points out, this is no different to God’s relationship with the church. Most Christians would readily accept that “God’s work in the church is often associated with the work of agents like ourselves, and God’s reputation suffers because God is thereby associated with an awful lot of, say, incompetence.” God does not choose to intervene when we represent God so poorly, so why should we expect the same to happen in terms of natural disasters?

One of the great features of the Christian Gospel is that suffering is redemptive. It is not meaningless, and will be used by God for good. The great hope spoken of in Revelation is of a new heavens and a new earth where there will be no more suffering and no more pain. Fretheim emphasises this when he says that “God will enter deeply into the sufferings of this world and use that very suffering to bring suffering to an end.” Our role is to work with God to help relieve suffering. By doing this we are working with God to bring in the kingdom. God has already played the decisive part, “taking [the world’s] suffering into the very heart of the divine life, bearing it there, and then wearing it in the form of a cross.”

Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters – Chapter 3

Chapter 3 – Natural Disasters, the Will of the Creator, and the Suffering of Job

This chapter focuses on the suffering of Job, starting with the emphasis that “the key reason for Job’s suffering is his experience of natural disasters.” One of the points that Fretheim emphasises throughout the book is that natural disasters are an outworking of the way that God has created the world, and in fact are “a key agent of God in the continuing creation of the world.” Science tells us that without the movement of tectonic plates, there would almost certainly be no life on earth.

One of the ways in which Fretheim emphasises that the earth was not created perfect in the sense that we think of the word. It is well-attested that earthquakes and other such events were occurring well before humans appeared on the scene.

What Job experiences in his sufferings is that God does not intervene in stopping them from happening. As mentioned above, God does not micro-manage the universe. Fretheim even says that “one point of these speeches (between God and Job) is that God’s governance of the world is not all-controlling.” The world that God has created can be a dangerous world, but as also mentioned above, “without such potentially dangerous dimensions of the natural order, there would be no human life.” As I read this section of the book, my first thoughts were that this is fine, but it still begs the question of why God did not make a world which could preserve human life more. Fretheim addresses this by stressing the following points:

  • This kind of world is “deemed necessary for it to be a good world.”
  • God challenges Job to trust that God’s design of the world, however dangerous, does manifest a concern for the life and well-being of all its creatures.
  • God will sustain such a world that is both ordered and open-ended (and therefore dangerous) because of its continuing creative potential.
  • There is a price, sometimes a horrendous price, that people may pay for living in such a world. But this is a price that God also pays, for God too will experience the suffering that the creatures undergo.
  • The God speeches are comforting words to job, helping him to see that God is ultimately responsible for creating and for still sustaining the kind of world in which his suffering is taking place.

Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters – Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – The God of the Flood Story and Natural Disasters

In this chapter, Fretheim looks at the story of Noah and the Flood and raises the issue of disasters being the judgment of God. There has been much harm done by various Christian leaders in referring to particular disasters as God’s judgment over particular sins. Fretheim takes the angle that such pronouncements are dangerous and unbiblical, and that therefore, when thinking of judgment, we need to look at natural disasters as consequences of humanity’s sinful behaviour. As Fretheim states it,

“That human sins, including the sins of violence, have consequences, including violence (see Gen. 6:11-13), is testimony to a functioning of the moral order, and this reality can be named the “judgment” of God.”

He adds that “it is questionable whether the word “punish” is the appropriate translation for any Hebrew word in the Old Testament.”

This is not to say that all disasters, or even most, should be looked at this way. Earthquakes for example cannot be said to be the result of human activity. As far as I am aware, there is currently no reliable evidence linking tectonic plate movements to the activities of humans.

Once again Fretheim stresses the relational aspect of God’s character when looking at the idea of judgment. Through our Western lens we tend to look at judgment in legal terms. We need to remember, Fretheim says, that “if God is viewed as the divine judge behind the bench, remember that God is also the spouse of the accused one in the dock!”

According to Fretheim, God’s judgment is always a reflection of the goodness of God. God’s judgment is always over grief and God’s character is never compromised. As Fretheim emphasises, “although God may give the people up to the effects of their sinfulness, God does not finally give up on them.” The character of God is such that it is God who also suffers over the consequences of natural disasters. God’s suffering and judgment is also manifested in human judgment. To this end, Fretheim says, “if there were no divine judgment on sin/evil, then human judgment toward that which is oppressive and abusive would not carry the same weight.”

Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – God Created the World Good, Not Perfect

For many Christians, the opening passages of the Bible that relate the creation story have been interpreted as clearly saying that God made the world perfect and, when sin entered the world following the Fall, that perfection was marred. Such a reading of this text makes sense on first appearance, both theologically and philosophically. If God is God, why would this Creator of the Universe make a world that is anything less than perfect? However this is where Fretheim demolishes this argument with clear biblical insight.

In interpreting the Genesis accounts of creation, Fretheim presents a God who is relational and who therefore decides to create in community rather than alone. Therefore God allows humans to be co-creators after the seventh day of creation. To illustrate his argument, Fretheim explains that, for instance, the command to “subdue” given to the first humans in Genesis, assumes that the earth was not fully developed, that Genesis does not present the creation as a finished product. For a creative God, the act of creation is ongoing, and “God continues to create and uses creatures in a vocation that involves the becoming of creation.” Such is God’s love for and confidence in the creation that “what human and nonhuman creatures do in creation counts with respect to the emergence of ever-new creations; they make a difference regarding the shape that the future of the creation takes.”

Fretheim backs this view up with a quote from none other than the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who has said that “God does not create merely by calling something into existence, or by setting something afoot. In a more profound sense he `creates’ by letting-be, by making room, and by withdrawing himself.”[1] In other words, God does not micro-manage the universe.

One of the theological points I struggled with in the book was Fretheim’s use of the term ‘divine council’ as being involved in the initial creation act. Genesis 1:26has God saying “‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. I have always interpreted the ‘our’ in this to refer to the Trinity – the ‘eternal community’ as Larry Crabb puts it.[2] As God is relational, it makes sense that the creation would occur as a result of relationship. Fretheim however appears to see the ‘us’ and ‘our’ differently. He states that “a remarkable majority of scholars understand…the divine council [in terms of] the heavenly assembly that engages the deity and does God’s bidding.” I put this issue to Fretheim, additionally pointing out that when he talks about the creative activity of God, he says that “all that it means to be divine must be at work in the creating of that image. This reality may be reflected in the use of the phrases ‘our image’ and ‘our likeness.’” However, because we are made in the image of God, and not in the image or likeness of that which is not God, this seems to contradict Fretheim’s previous statements about the divine council being involved in the creation, unless the divine council – those beings that are created by God – are also divine, which would be unscriptural. It would seem to me that the ‘us’ in ‘Let us make’ is the same as ‘our’ in ‘our image’. Fretheim responded to this question by saying that the “us, our” can include the divine council without compromising monotheism or “image of God” language. He adds that it is not uncommon that angelic beings make an appearance in human form[3] and they too are in the image of God.

One of the main points that Fretheim brings out early in this book is the fact that humans, as made in the image of a Creator God, must also be understood as creators themselves. This goes back to the relationality of God. To emphasise this point, Fretheim states, “God is a power-sharing God, indeed a creation-sharing God, and God will be faithful to that way of relating to those created in the divine image.” The responsibility God has placed with humans is remarkable. From the Genesis text, Fretheim explains that we can see that “how the human beings in their God-given freedom decide will determine whether there will be a next human generation. In some basic sense, God places the very future of the human race in human hands.”



[1] Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 88.

[2] Lawrence J. Crabb, Connecting (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1997).

[3] Genesis 18.

Book Review – Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters

Quite simply, this is one of the most profound books I have ever read. In a world where we are seeing a plethora of natural disasters, many of which are the type forecast by climate scientists to be what we can expect more of in the future, Fretheim’s excellent volume is timely indeed.

Just this year we have seen major earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, unprecedented flooding in the eastern states of Australia, and cyclones which have threatened to wipe some towns off the map.

In this book, Fretheim reveals aspects of God’s creation that the biblical texts reveal as quite obvious when you read them, but which we often fail to consider because of the particular cultural lens through which we read the text.

Over the next week or two I will look at the main arguments in each chapter, including the introduction and conclusion, and will make comments on the points made by the author. This post starts with the introduction.

The introduction to the book makes the following points:

  • Natural disasters are an integral part of God’s design in creation.
  • Natural disasters are not necessarily the result of human sin, though specific natural events may be made more severe by human sin.
  • How might reflection on the biblical text assist our theological consideration of natural disasters?
  • Interest in the link between God and natural disasters has increased over the last generation due to the power of the media and increased environmental awareness.
  • How we do interpret judgment in relation to natural disasters?
  • God is involved in the healing of the natural world.
  • The book does not pretend to offer answers to the question of why natural disasters occur in a world made by God, but many attempts at explanations have not given proper honour to God.
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