What does the Bible say about the environment and our responsibility to it? Many think that the Bible only deals with ethical morals (i.e., do not lie, cheat or steal). Or perhaps it concerns an after-life in heaven. But the relationship between mankind, the earth, and life on it, along with our responsibilities are introduced right on the first page of the Bible.
The Bible states that God created mankind in His Image. At that same time, He also gave mankind his first charge. As the Bible records it
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”Genesis 1: 26-28
God retains Ownership
Some have misunderstood the commands ‘subdue’ and ‘rule’ to imply that God gave the world to mankind to do as we want with it. We are thus free to ‘rule’ over the earth and its ecosystems to our every whim and fancy. In this way of thinking God washed his hands of His creation right from the beginning. Then He gave it to us to do as we like.
However the Bible never states that mankind now ‘owns’ the world to do with it as they please. Many times throughout the Bible God asserts his ongoing ownership of the world. Consider what God said through Moses ca 1500 BCE
5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,Exodus 19:5
And through David ca 1000 BCE
for every animal of the forest is mine,Psalm 50: 10-11
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
Jesus himself taught that God retains an active interest in, and detailed knowledge of, the state of animals on this world. As he taught:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.Matthew 10:29
We are Managers
The more accurate way of understanding the roles given to mankind is to think of us as ‘managers’. Jesus used this picture many times in his teachings to describe the relationship between God and humans. Here is one example,
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’…Luke 16:1-2
In this parable God is the ‘rich man’ – the owner of everything – and we are the managers. At some point we will be evaluated on how we have managed. Jesus consistently uses this relationship in many of his teachings.
In this way of thinking we are like pension fund managers. They do not own the pension funds – the people paying into their pensions are the owners. The fund managers have been delegated authority to invest and manage the pension fund for the benefit of the pensioners. If they are incompetent, lazy or do a bad job the owners will replace them with others.
So God remains the ‘owner’ of creation and has delegated to us the authority and the responsibility of managing it properly. Therefore it would be prudent to know what His goals and interests are with respect to creation. We can learn this by surveying some of His commands.
God’s heart for His Creation revealed through His commands
After the Passover, and the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses received further detailed instructions on how the fledgling Israelite nation should establish itself in the Promised Land. Consider the instructions that give visibility to the values in God’s heart concerning the environment.
25 The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. 3 For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4 But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.Leviticus 25:1-4
Unique among all the other nations and their practices back then (3500 years ago) and even different than typically practiced today, this command ensured that the land, remained uncultivated every seventh year. Thus the land could have a regular, periodic ‘rest’. During this rest, nutrients that are depleted under heavy agriculture could be replenished. This command shows that God values long term environmental sustainability over short term extraction. It can be extended to environmental resources like fish stocks. Limit the fishing either seasonally or pause fishing until over-fished stocks can recover. This command applies as an extended principle to all activities that deplete our natural resources, whether water, wildlife, fish stocks, or forests.
This guideline seems environmentally beneficial. But you are probably wondering how the Israelites were to eat on the year that they did not plant. These were people just like us and they likewise asked this question. The exchange is recorded.
18 “‘Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. 19 Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. 20 You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” 21 I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. 22 While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.Leviticus 25:18-22
Concern for welfare of animals
Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.Deuteronomy 25:4
The beasts of burden were to be treated well. The animal walking on the grain (so it would thresh) should not be withheld from enjoying the fruit of its effort and work.
And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”Jonah 4: 11
This comes from the well-known book of Jonah. In this book a giant marine creature had swallowed Jonah before he obeyed his call to preach repentance to the wicked citizens of Nineveh. Angry with God that they had repented from his preaching and so had averted His judgment, Jonah complained bitterly to God. The quote above was God’s response to his complaint. Apart from revealing God’s concern for the people of Nineveh, He also reveals His concern for the animals. God was pleased that the animals were spared because the people of Nineveh repented.
Judgment for those harming the earth
The Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible offers visions of the future of our world. The pervading theme of the future it foresees centers on coming judgment. The coming judgment is triggered for a number of reasons, including:
The nations were angry,Revelation 11: 18
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
In other words, the Bible predicts that the mankind, instead of managing the earth and its ecosystems in a manner consistent with the will of its owner, will ‘destroy the earth’. This will trigger judgment to destroy those guilty.
What are some signs of the ‘end’ that the earth is being destroyed?
On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.Luke 21:25b
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.Revelation 16:8-9