Sunday 5th June saw some 45,000 Australian’s join GetUp in rallying for a carbon tax. What should the church do with this level of interest in the environment? Get funky I reckon…
Its a bit of a characterisation, I know, but it never ceases to amaze me how many Christians assume that the world will one day be burnt up-destroyed-done away with. What worries me is that many, well meaning Christians use this as a justification to say things like climate change don’t really matter, after all, ‘why polish the brass on a sinking ship?’ Lets just get out there and save souls.
So, here’s why I don’t think the world will end…
The biblical view of creation is that it is good, very good. It is not opposed to God and his eternal purposes, he loves material things and he sustains material things. Humanity being made in the image of God is given the role of reflecting God’s rule and glory to the world. This includes consuming but also maintaining and sustaining. God, in his freedom entrusts humanity with responsibility and authority to do this. This doesn’t make God any less sovereign – all throughout the Scriptures he works through humanity, chiefly he does this by taking on the fullness of our humanity in Jesus – the true man. God’s sovereignty is not a reason to do nothing about the environment, if that were so we should stop doing evangelism.
We hope for the renewal of this earth, not to escape it and flee to some immaterial ‘heavenly existence.’ The hope of new creation is of an earthy place much like the place we now live- in fact the same place we now live, albeit radically redefined. The picture we have in Revelation 21-22 is of the ‘new Jerusalem’ coming down from heaven to this earth. The new creation is the fulfillment of the creation we currently live in.
Any theological reflection on the environment must be centred on the person and work of Jesus because he is the culmination of God’s self-revelation. The resurrection of Jesus is a reaffirmation of the goodness of the created order and a renewal of it. He is ‘the first fruits’ of the great final Resurrection when everything will be made new. The resurrection of Jesus therefore, is the key to the debate over whether the world will be destroyed or not – his body is transformed, renewed, glorified, but never destroyed. Oliver O’Donovan speaks of the resurrection of Christ as ‘the vindication of the created order.’ It is his body that is the bridge between creation and new creation.
2 Peter 3
But doesn’t 2 Peter 3 say the opposite, that the world will be destroyed? Good question, but no!
1) The passage is apocalyptic in style and should be read that way. Peter employs familiar apocalyptic formulas; referring to judgement as a day of fire and destruction, and making parallels with OT e.g’s of judgement. The final judgement will be like the judgement in Noah’s day (2 Peter 3.5-7). What happened to Noah’s world? It was profoundly judged but never destroyed.
2) The word for ‘destroy’ (katakaio) in v.10 is unreliable and most probably a latter addition to the text. The earlier, and far more reliable manuscripts use the word ‘to discover/find’ (heurethesetai). This fits the apocalyptic tone of 2 Peter 3, and also a great deal of apocalyptic language in Scripture that uses fire language to refer to God’s judgement. Here, as in 1 Cor 3, I think, the fire of judgement is a revealing or a discovering of the true nature of the earth.
3) If we take the later manuscripts and go with the destruction language and interpret it literally, then there are further problems. 2 Peter 3.7 uses the same word again to refer to the ‘destruction of ungodly men’ – that sounds a lot like annihilationism to me. Something most advocates of the ‘destruction of the earth’ view wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole!
(for a much more sustained and thoughtful reflection on these vv check out Byron Smith’s series from 2006).
If Scripture speaks more about a renewal of the earth rather than a destruction of it then we have a real responsibility to care for it. We too often diochotomise evangelism and acting on a concern for the world, be that social justice or environmental action. This is dangerous territory, not taking into account the holistic nature of Jesus’ physical resurrection. If Christians don’t fulfill the role of humanity to reflect God’s rule over the earth, as it is reaffirmed in his risen body, who will?