A few years ago my kids and I came across a TV show called “Masters of Illusion” featuring magicians doing all sorts of interesting tricks. It got our attention so we watched for a few minutes and saw that “coming up next” was a guy who was going to strap himself lying down in a coffin shaped box. That didn’t seem like too big of a deal until they showed the lid. It was hinged to the box and contained 5 or 6 huge spikes that would fatally pierce anyone in the box when it closed. To complicate things further, the hinges on the box were held open by a string that was attached to a fuse. Once the fuse was lit, the man in the box would have seconds to escape before the string was set ablaze.
Okay, maybe I should have changed the channel but by now my 7 and 4year old were hooked. They had to see what would happen. Well, so did I. So we watched. The tension built as an assistant from the audience fastened all the straps and lit the fuse. We watched nervously as the man used his teeth to undo the straps on his chest. The fuse was burning fast. There wasn’t a second to waste! He then wiggled, twisted, and turned until he was able to slip his arms out of the straps. But the fuse was inches away from igniting the string that would release the spikes! We squirmed and wiggled toward the edge of our seats as we watched as if we were the ones in the box. The fuse was burning fast! No time left to escape! But in a split second, the man freed his arms, bent toward toward his feet, undid the straps, and rolled out of the box as the spike laced top came crashing down. We breathed a sigh of relief and cheered his perfectly timed escape. I gasped in relief that I hadn’t just scarred my kids for life by allowing them to see a man getting horrifically gored to death by metal spikes!
I wonder if most Christians live their lives as escape artists? After all, we’re taught that it’s “all” going to burn anyway, right?
The way a person views a particular thing directly influences the way they treat that thing. If something is seen as disposable, it will be valued only for the moment it is being used. If, however, something is seen as deeply good and long lasting it will be treated with great care. Sadly when it comes to God’s Creation, Christians most often fall into the “disposable” category.
Secularists have accused the Christian community of contributing to ecological disaster and, as Wright points out, “there’s more than a grain of truth in the charge.”1 One of God’s first commands was to care for the Creation (Gen. 1:28-31) and God gave provisions to protect the land from being overworked (Lev. 25:3-7).2 The following discussion will seek to provide a framing story for Creation-care by looking at the redemptive nature of God’s Creation and the role that the Christian community plays in caring for all of God’s Creation.
Christian’s often times live their lives as escapist. By simply listening to hymns that are sung on a given Sunday at a Christian gathering, one might be led to see the Christian community as on board a sinking ship. The pages of Christian hymnals are filled with language of temporal living, escape, and future rewards. The Christian is depicted as “just a pilgrim in search of a city”3 making his or her way “to Canaan’s land…where the soul of man never dies.” The escapist echo continues as a Christian sings of how he or she will “fly away”4 to a land where joy will never end” and ultimately receive “a mansion just over the hilltop in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.”5
These hymns are often followed with a fiery (pun intended) sermon on how “it’s all going to burn when the Lord comes” to warn against attachments to this world. As Wright notes, some, especially in the Western church, have argued that “since God intends to destroy the present space-time universe…it really doesn’t matter whether we emit twice as many greenhouse gases as we do now, whether we destroy the rain forests and the arctic tundra, whether we fill our skies with acid rain.”6
This approach has ignored the grand narrative and distorted the telos of Creation. As Wilson points out well, the Christian community must think like the Hebrew community who believes that everything God created is good and sacred.7 Time is not merely a passing object to be “killed” but rather redeemed.8
This has implications on how the Christians addresses world issues such as poverty, how the Christian treats the physical body, and how the Christian treats the earth itself. Christians, who should be leading the way in Creation care, have instead led the discussion of what a “worldly” attitude it is to be concerned with things that are going to soon pass away. This ignores the vital narrative and the “struggle” to develop an ethic of Creation-care that is so vital to all of Creation.9 McClendon rightly reflects the role of the Christian community in what he calls “watch-care.”10 This care is not only for the community of God but for all of Creation. What then does the narrative say about the Creation?
First, the narrative of Scripture declares that the Creation is “good.” This declaration is made six times as “God kisses his fingers with each new delicacy that he brings from his creative workshop, until, after the piece de resistance, in a seventh and final verdict on whole achievement, God declares it all, ‘very good.’”11 Often times this obvious beginning is distorted by later entries in the narrative which will refer to the earth being destroyed by fire.
For many Christians this means the telos of Creation is to self destruct. This view declares that what started “good” has been decaying ever since. On the surface, this approach seems in harmony with both Scripture and the reality of what is taking place in the surrounding world. Wickedness and evil spread. The hole in the ozone layer and global warming become progressively worse. Terrorism and war continue to breed fear and destruction. Poverty runs rampant in over half of the world. Disease ravages human bodies. It is no wonder then that Christians are the first to remind all that this world is temporary. They do so mostly in the name of hope. It is a hope that God will hurry to the rescue by destroying everything and ushering mankind away from this sinking ship that is quickly going down.
While intentions may be good in declaring this “hope” there is a deep price to pay for trading the narrative of Scripture for an “it’s all going to burn” theology. This approach misses the foundational truth that the identity of the cosmos is deeply connected to the identity of humanity. As Christopher Wright declares, “we ourselves are part of the whole creation that God already values and declares to be good” which means “we need to be careful to locate an ecological dimension of mission not primarily in the need-supplying value of the earth to us, but in the glory-giving value of the earth to God.”12
Not only does this approach fail to see the entire Story, it ends up playing a role in the destruction. Rather than declaring the telos that starts “good” ands ends “good,” the Christian is tempted to help accelerate the destruction. In his book Radical Together, David Platt goes as far as to say that the motive for evangelism is to usher in the return of Christ. While this may not be participating in destruction, it misses something valuable – the telos of evangelism.
Much like the Billy Graham Crusades of the 20th century, the goal is get as many “saved” before the ship completely goes under the surface of the water and descends to the deep. Is evangelism, however, simply about crossing a line into salvation or is it about calling others to participate in the Story of God through a relational discipleship that transforms life NOW, in the present moment, as well as the future? The only place to find the answer to this question is by turing to the entire narrative of Scripture from beginning to future.
God’s Story begins with a garden centered around a tree of life. Surprisingly for most, it also ends, or better stated, never ends, in a garden centered around a tree of life. Life then should be seen as a journey between those trees. The grand narrative of Scripture has a redemptive trajectory of returning to where the Story begins.
Typically the Christian sees the Story in decay. This is evidenced by the view Christians have of death. Death is seen as an unstoppable force pushing all living things towards a day of complete expiration. McLaren helps show another trajectory. Rather than seeing death as a pushing force, McLaren paints a portrait of life being like a baby learning to walk.13 This baby is being called forward by his Father, step by step, until he reaches his loving arms that have been outstretched toward him the entire time. This may seem like a subtle difference but these two ways of seeing are quite distinct. One is a pessimistic view that death is coming and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. This view sees life as decaying constantly. The trajectory is downward. A redemptive trajectory, however, sees life as guided by a loving Father who cares about each step and is lovingly calling the Creation to participate. Grenz states well that God is “ordering our story to its intended goal,” and “the grand culmination of history arrives only because God stands at the end of the human story.”14 This does not mean there will be the absence of missteps, bruises, and bloody knees, along the way.
The difference then is that one view sees each fall as “just what happens in a fallen world” while the other seeks to learn from each misstep and press onward toward the loving Father who participates in each moment. Creation care is participating with God in the journey. That journey is heading somewhere and that “somewhere,” as Grenz says, “is not an illusive human utopia in history, which we are ultimately powerless to create” but rather is “the realization of God’s purposes for his creation.”15
In returning to the narrative between the trees in the Scriptures, God is telling a Story that is redemptive. The creation begins good. There is a Garden and it serves as a beautiful portrait of all that God intended. It is a harmonious place where man lives in harmony with all of Creation including the animals and the environment. At the fall of mankind, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden. Interestingly, the Genesis story describes this banishment as losing access not just to the Garden but to the tree of life. Everything changes at the fall. The harmony is disrupted. Animals will become wild and will now be consumed as food. The creation is marred. This is represented perhaps best by the weeds that bring about toil and labor. A redemptive process is needed.
God brings this redemptive process forward by calling a people. He names them Israel and he calls them his “olive tree” (Jer. 11:16). Why an olive tree? They are to be a people who will take the world back to the Garden. They will be called to do this by displaying for the world what Garden living looks like in a beautiful, intimate relationship between God and man. When Israel fails in its mission to truly be “a light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 49:16) then God must prune. He sends prophets to warn but interestingly the messages of impending doom are almost always coupled with hope and restoration. When Israel ultimately fails to repent God does more than prune, he raises the axe to the olive tree. Within the tree metaphor, this is essentially a cutting down of the tree to the stump. From this stump a “tender shoot” is promised (Isa. 53) from the “stump of Jesse.” As Israel is being cut down, there is a redemptive plan at work. The Messiah comes into the world bearing the name that represents his mission.16
The gospel story has often been reduced to Jesus coming and dying for sins but the metaphor of the trees keeps the narrative in focus. He came to bring about new, or better said, “renewed” Creation. As Jesus grows up as the tender shoot he does what Israel failed to do in showing the world a display of Garden-living. He undoes the curses placed upon humanity. His miracles can be seen as a reversal of the fallen creature. His casting out of demons loosens the grip of Satan on a fallen world. His raising of the dead challenges the curse of fallen bodies inherited in the fall. At the cross, Christ reverses that curse by “becoming the curse for us” (Gal. 3). As Jesus hangs on the cross, the words he speaks to one of the thieves are traditionally translated, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” The word paradise here can also be translated, “garden.” This translation better reflects his intent.
The cross and the resurrection have made all things new and when he cries, “It is finished,” that work is accomplished. It should therefore be no coincidence then that John records that Jesus will be buried in a “garden tomb” and be mistaken at his resurrection for “the gardener.” This is a deeply theological statement. Jesus is the Gardener. He has come to restore and to redemptively call all of Creation back to what was “good” in the beginning.
This reversal sets forth a redemptive trajectory not just for sin but for all of Creation. As Paul describes, the community then can join Christ in his death (Romans 6) and in his resurrection and follow this trajectory towards an apocalypse in which “all things are made new.” The present tension of the cosmos is within the overlap of the aeons. Paul reflects the tension in between the old and the new “in a crucial intersection of Gospel and eschatology. The old aeon is one in which chaos reigns and the world is under the curse of fallenness. It is within this tension that an ethic is formed and embodied. Christians live in a Story that is moving forward with hope and renewal. Virtue then can be described in Paul as the ways in which a Christian lives within the new aeon as opposed to the “vices” of the old aeon. Anything that participates in the old is a vice. Not caring for the Creation is one of those vices.
The telos of Creation care can be seen in the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah who sees all creation being renewed in which the “lion will lie down with the lamb” and the “child will play near the hole of the cobra.” Creation is moving not toward a linear destruction but instead is in more of “circling” trajectory that is heading back to the shalom of God in the Garden at Creation. The church and the cosmos lives in the overlap as a witness. This witness does not participate in destruction but rather joins in the process of renewal.
Creation care ethics are about presently participating in the apocalyptic trajectory that is moving toward a hopeful and redemptive future. This calls the Christian community then to join the life giving narrative of God now in a way that calls for an embodied ethic that produces “fruit.” This fruit that Paul describes is a metaphor for the Spirit filled life that is to be experienced and witnessed to and in the present. Life then is not about simply “going to heaven when you die.” This leads to little witness and little virtue and leads to a desire to abandon the “decaying” Creation rather than playing a role in its renewal.
Finally, in a narrative that knows no ending, John sees an apocalyptic vision that is revealed in the book of Revelation. It is a glimpse into a restored world. What will that “new heaven” and “new earth” look like? The tension builds as the story unfolds. As Hays points out, John is not revealing an eschatoology that is “otherworldly” as is best seen in the way heaven comes down to earth (Rev. 21:2-3).17 As the book draws to the conclusion and brings the Biblical account of the narrative to a close, John has his final revelation. It is a tree but not just any tree. It is the tree of life. Access has been restored. The curse is no more. God’s people will return to the Garden.
What will the Christian community do with the Creation from now until that glorious moment? Passivity and complacency are not an option as is seen in the scathing indictment of Laodicea.18 For the Christian community, an ethic of Creation-care is lived out of the present reality of “new creation.” This is not only a communal calling but a cosmic one. Paul writes that “all creation” groans for complete redemption. (Rom. 8). Until that day the church community lives with an apocalyptic vision that seeks to participate in new creation now. The Christian community joins with God “in rescuing nature from an exploitative urban industrial society.”19 As Hays says, “the church embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet-redeemed world.”20
The old aeon is gone and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). Creation ethics then become a way of deciding which age in which to participate. This is why Paul can write in Romans 12 how the Christian community should no longer live according to the patterns of the old “aeon” but should instead be “transformed” into living into the new.
It’s time to see life in God’s Kingdom as a present reality. We are not merely passing through. We are on a redemptive mission. There will be a day when all things are made new. It is a day when heaven and earth will come together in beautiful harmony. As we journey toward that day we participate in the beautiful and organic kingdom of God that is presently at hand in our lives between the trees.
1 N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 90.
2 Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren, Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 167.
3 “This World Is Not My Home” hymn arranged and copyrighted by Albert E. Brumley
4 “I’ll Fly Away” hymn written by Albert E. Brumley, 1929. Interestingly, Brumley admits that he actually wrote the song as he imagined himself flying out of the cotton field where he was hard at work. www.brumleymusic.com
5 “I’ve Got a Mansion” hymn written by Ira Stamphill, 1949.
6 Wright, 90.
7 Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 162.
8 Wilson, 162
9 McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 17.
10 McClendon, 53.
11 Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 398.
12 Wright, 399.
13 Brian D. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 148-151.
14 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 791.
15 Grenz, 791.
16 His Hebrew name, Yeshua, means salvation
17 Hays, 180
18 Hays, 182
19 Campolo and McLaren, 167.
20 Hays, 198