Reformed Reflections

Environmentalism: A New Religion?

Are we destroying our environment beyond repair? Are oceans and seas rising to such high levels that some islands will submerge under the waters? Are glaciers melting because of human carelessness? May we question the findings of environmentalists? Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming and industrial pollution is an enemy of the environment. During the 1990's concern for global warming was growing, culminating in the Kyoto Protocols of 1997, calling for international agreements to limit the burning of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the fact is that the alarmist and exaggerated warnings of people like the former US Vice-president, Al Gore, are being taken up by the mass media. And they are largely responsible for the Green Revolution. The Grand Rapids Press (February 1, 2009), reported on Al Gore's talk about global change in his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The heading of the report was Goracle [nickname for Al Gore] offers doomsday testimony. It said that Goracle's powers seem to come from his ability to scare the wits out of people. Gore told the committee that what he saw in the future was not good – temperature changes that "would bring a screeching halt to human civilization and threaten the fabric of life everywhere on the Earth – and this is within this century, if we don't change."

Who Pollutes the Environment?

In his book, The European Dream. How Europe's Vision of The Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, Jeremy Rifkin blames the creation story. He argues that for most of Christian history, the concept of dominion has been used to justify the ruthless detachment from and exploitation of the natural world. And he accuses Americans of being the major source of pollution. According to him, Europeans seek to live a good quality of life in the here and now. They are the most avid supporters of sustainable development of any people in the world. But the American Dream is largely caught up in the death instinct. This American scholar argues that Americans over-consume, indulge their every appetite, and waste the Earth's largeness. They put a premium on unrestrained economic growth, reward the powerful and marginalize the vulnerable. They are consumed with protecting their self-interest and have amassed the most powerful military machine in all of history to get what they want and believe they deserve.

But what about the role of sinful human nature? Sin applies to the totality of man's being and existence. Scripture clearly tells us that man is impacted by his sinful condition. As Jacques Ellul points out: "Man has exploited nature without brake or limit. He has ravaged the planet."

The Rise of Environmentalism

The modern environmental movement is rife with paganism. When the Triune God is denied, idols will take His place. Our Western society's idol is science. Our secular society acts towards science in just the same way the Canaanites did towards their Baals. Science is now the final and infallible arbiter of truth. This means that the individual has become something of a god in contemporary Western culture. But this faith in individual reasoning power really amounts to the religion of self-glorification. As Martin Buber commented: "Something has stepped between our existence and God to shut off the light of heaven..., [and] that something is in fact ourselves, our own bloated self-hood." Science's child called technology is also devoutly worshipped. It offers the hope that man's salvation will come through technical progress, or the uncontested idealization of productivity and a higher standard of living. It is based on the assumption that goodness, justice, and so forth can be achieved by political means. But the very thing which characterizes modern technology is the lust for power which the apostle Paul taught us to avoid.

Today much of the world's attention is focussed on the pollution of the environment. Tragically, the concern for the environment in the 1960s and in later decades of the 20th century cut itself off from its Jewish-Christian tradition which was the foundation of Western culture. But if care for the environment replaces devotion to God, it becomes idolatry and there are some people who call the earth "Mother" and revere its ecosystem as a goddess. Normally, these devotees can be tagged as animists or nature worshippers.

Environmentalism, as we know it, originated in the 1960s. It was a totally new concern. It evolved into a movement highly critical of technology and its impact on global ecology, and deeply skeptical about the market. Environmentalism, or the Green movement as it is known to many, began to protest vehemently against the unbridled exploitation of the earth. Some even claim, "If only they could get rid of humankind, the pollution would be gone." If the Greens had their choice, they would regard animal rights as more fundamental than those of humans. But they are not very consistent. During the Beijing Olympic games the attention was not on the negative impact of smog on Beijing's citizens, but on the effect the dense smog would have on the athletes. What has begun as a hobby horse of various groups, has now become part of the platform of political parties. The one party claims to be more green than the other..

How should we evaluate environmentalism? In First Things (Nov. 2008), Dr. Richard John Neuhaus refers to environmentalism as today's new religion. He quotes Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and mathematician, who has written for years on environmentalism. Dyson wrote: "There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are taught to children in kindergartens, school, and colleges all over the world. Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion.....The worldwide community of environmentalists – most of whom are not scientists – holds the moral higher ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future."

Christian Perspectives on Environmentalism

How should Christians address environmental degradation of the earth? As usual, there is no unanimity in approach. Some claim that on this issue there is "an unfathomable and sad rejection of responsibility by the so-called Christian right that has morphed into a bewilderingly vicious backlash against 'environmentalism'." They point to the so-called "right-wing" Christian websites and literature which strongly condemn environmentalism. Some of these sites denounce it as unchristian and others attack it as a dangerous, leftist, New Age substitute for God, a form of idolatry.

The Greening of Mainline Denominations

"Mainline" Christians seemed to embrace the claims of environmentalists as "Gospel truth". The latest fad is a Green-Letter edition of the Bible. It highlights green verses and passages that speak of God's care for creation. It also has a personal green Bible trail study guide. It is printed on recycled paper, using soy-based ink and has a cotton/linen cover.

The Canadian Council of Churches did not want to lag behind in showing its concern for the environment. At a consultation with leaders of aboriginal communities, environmental organizations, and international development agencies, a joint statement emerged: Climate Justice: A Call of Canadian Leadership (2001). Concern was expressed over Canadian energy consumption patterns as well as government support for exploration and expansion of fossil fuel production and nuclear power. The statement called for Canada to take a leading role in implementing the Kyoto Protocol and to give priority to the "quality of life we bequeath our children and grandchildren, and the long-term economic, social and ecological security of our planet." And what is now known as Kairos functions as a resource for Canadian churches and an advocate for environmental concerns, and ecological integrity in practicing responsible stewardship of creation and protection.

The Greening of Evangelicals

Evangelicals have also made their views known on pollution and the environment. The International Consultation on Simple Lifestyle (1980) included a section on creation and stewardship and a denunciation of "environmental destruction, wastefulness and hoarding," and an acknowledgement that Creation Ethics are an "important part...[of] mankind's responsibility to the world we live in." In 1999, the Mission Commission of The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the largest non-binding global organization of evangelicals, called "all Christians to commit themselves to ecological integrity in practicing responsible stewardship of creation and protection initiatives." The 2004 Sandy Cove Covenant, drawn up by U.S. evangelical leaders, resolved to make creation care a permanent dimension of our Christian discipleship, and to motivate the evangelical community to fully engage environmental issues in a biblical, faithful manner....that we might take our appropriate place in the healing of God's creation, and thus the advance of God's reign. In 2007, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), issued the Energy Star Challenge, with its goal to reduce energy uses in churches and buildings and, in so doing, to protect the environment and save millions of dollars. But not all evangelicals have come on board in the matter of climate change. Well-known leaders James Dobson, Charles Colson, and others disagree about the cause, severity and solutions to the global warming issue.

Missions and the Environment

Environmentalism has also caused missiologists to rethink what it means to do missions. In the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (Oct. 2008), Allan Efa, professor of Intercultural Studies at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, Alberta, argues that one of the great contemporary matters requiring an informed mission response is the environmental crisis. He notes that due to the growing consensus that the planet may be moving toward an unprecedented ecological disaster, the Christian community is reexamining some of its theological assumptions and filling in some gaping blind spots, in its understanding of the mission of God.

In his article Missiology in Environmental Context: Tasks for an Ecology of Mission, William Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Yale Divinity School, claims that if communities experience the reality of sin through impoverished soils, dangerous chemicals, disappearing waters, and polluted air, then mission practices must in some way confront and respond to environmental problems. Missiology, therefore, must find ways to name and condemn environmental misuse, to promise environmental health, to offer ecological restoration, and to invite the world into a geography of grace. Jenkins suggests to reconsider the significance of missions among communities living especially in degraded places. He points to the Philippines as an example where environmental degradation is the most important thing happening in some communities. In some places, the landscape has been so devastated by commercial logging and mining that entire mountains are burned bare to the ground and their slopes cut by constant landslides. Jenkins notes that church organizations in the Philippines have responded with outspoken criticism of governmental land policies and denunciation of corporate corruption. Meanwhile, local church members often try to resist the pillaging, sometimes to the point of martyrdom. Mission partnership with these churches is unimaginable apart from a thoroughgoing response to a social ecology of injustice. Jenkins also notes a suggestion that perhaps the church should affirm environmental activists as "avant garde missionaries." He says that just as many churches perceive civil rights workers who put their lives on the line for justice as doing the work of God, so environmental workers who risk themselves for the sake of preserving species or in resisting exploitative operations can be seen as carrying forward God's purposes. Another missiologist suggests that the whole of Creation should be considered as a corporate personality, emerging as a dialogue partner.

But what has this so-called new approach to do with the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20)? How is it related to the ministry of the Word? Why does the Church send missionaries? Of course, the deed is a vital aspect of mission work. But as the evangelical scholar, Dr. D.A. Carson, points out that an ostensibly Christian organization which, decade after decade, distributes tons of blankets and food, founds orphanages, and combats HIV, without ever offering Bible studies or explaining what doing this in Jesus' name means, and what the gospel of salvation is about, is indistinguishable from UNICEF or Doctors Without Borders, and is no more Christian than they. He rightly adds that no thoughtful reader of the Bible can ever forget that people are destined to die once, and after that face judgment (Heb. 9:27).

The Biblical Perspective on the Environment

Why should we care about the environment? We cannot do with creation what we like because everything created is good (1 Tim. 4:1-5). The dignity which God invested in creation is well illustrated in His covenant made after the Flood. It was not just made with Noah and his descendants, but with every living creature, in fact, with all life on earth. But the greatest honour bestowed on material creation was God becoming part of it in the incarnation of Jesus Christ (John 1:14). God assumed a material body. Therefore, we need to view the earth with wonder and adoration.

The Bible clearly intends for us to care for our Father's world. Man was set in the garden of Eden "to work and to take care of it." We are stewards, not owners of creation. Hence we should treat it with reverence as God's possession entrusted to our care. As God's appointed stewards, we are accountable to the Lord of creation. Therefore polluting the environment is morally wrong. It is an evil performed against the people of the earth and the One who made the earth for people, and who made the earth a revelation of Himself.

The apostle Paul and many of the early church missionaries proclaimed that God in Jesus Christ is the Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe and all things in it. They emphasized a holistic perspective on salvation, often beginning their proclamation with a reminder of God's creative activity (see Acts 17:22-24).Their objective was to remind their hearers that God has a purpose for the whole earth and all people. They did not call for commitment to a private faith. They showed that the Gospel has implications for the whole of life and for all of history. It has environmental, as well as eternal, imperatives (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:19-20; Ps. 8:6).

The Bible is positive about the future of creation. Paul tells us that the whole of creation is subjected to frustration because of the sin of man and is groaning as it waits for liberation from bondage and decay. The creation is so important that all nature will be transformed. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. And all this will happen when Christ comes again.

lationships between the powerful and marginalized. Mission work must take these issues seriously as part of the challenge of the whole Gospel for the whole world. In fact, current environmental issues suggest various ways in which missions in the twenty-first century can be made more effective. We should study biblical holism and our role of stewardship in caring for the environment.


I am convinced that the biblical view of creation is the world's only hope of averting environmental disaster. This requires a transformation of attitudes, which is most effectively achieved by the regeneration of human hearts. Balance will be recovered only as we study and adopt the integrated view of life reflected in Scriptures, rather than Western individualism. Heaven and hell are real. We must warn sinners to flee from the wrath of God and turn to the Saviour, the only hope for the world and the world to come. Yet missionaries can be involved in environmental issues that relate to human survival – population, land ownership and use, healthcare, relationships between the powerful and marginalized. Mission work must take these issues seriously as part of the challenge of the whole Gospel for the whole world. In fact, current environmental issues suggest various ways in which missions in the twenty-first century can be made more effective. We should study biblical holism and our role of stewardship in caring for the environment.

Johan D. tangelder
February, 2009