A recent United Nations report predicted that severe and potentially irreversible damage to the environment will occur by the year 2032—most of it in developing countries. As I sit in my comfortable, air-conditioned office looking out at the lush green pasture behind my house, I find it easy to dismiss such a report as just another example of environmentalists’ overreaction. In fact as a Christian it is easy for me to ignore the whole issue; in view of Christ’s imminent return and God’s subsequent judgment on the world why should I care what happens to the ozone layer?
At first glance Scripture seems to support such a nonenvironmentalist viewpoint by saying that the human race should subdue and rule the earth. God passed on to humankind a twofold commission regarding the earth and its resources (Gen. 1:28). We are to fill the earth (be fruitful and multiply) and to rule it (subdue and rule). Sadly, based on that verse of Scripture, Christianity is blamed for many of the world’s environmental woes. Critics maintain that because the Hebrew words translated “subdue” and “rule” carry the idea of violent domination, Jews and Christians are responsible for a mentality that exploits the earth’s resources. In fact some have said that only in rejecting a Judeo-Christian worldview can hope for the environment be restored. Is this an accurate picture of what the Bible teaches about our relationship to the environment, or is there a basis in Scripture for a Christian environmental ethic?
To understand our relationship to the environment we must take a closer look at the early chapters of Genesis. While it is true that the words “subdue” and “rule” often describe violent conquest and enslavement, in the context of Genesis 1:28 the words probably refer to God’s intent that Adam and Eve bring the earth under humankind’s control. In his book From Exegesis to Exposition Robert Chisholm, professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Seminary, suggests that the word “subdue” should be understood with the idea of harnessing for beneficial use. Thus when God says that people should subdue the earth, He doesn’t mean destroy, rape, or pillage the planet. Instead He means that people should harness the world’s resources, bringing them under control for everyone’s benefit. Consider the comment in the next chapter of Genesis: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (2:15). It is interesting to note that the word translated “to work” comes from a Hebrew word that means “to serve,” and the word translated “to take care of” conveys the idea of guarding or protecting. In other words God gave humans a stewardship, not a blank check. If any doubt remains, a visit to the Book of Psalms should remove it.
The psalmist Ethan wrote, “The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it” (89:11). It is clear from this verse that God has not relinquished His creation, but retains the right of ownership to the earth and its contents. Consider also God’s proclamation in Psalm 50:10. “For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.” If God instructs people to subdue and rule over the earth, yet retains ownership of it, then all people—Christians especially—are stewards over God’s belongings. As stewards, how should we conduct ourselves toward the world in which we live?
Paul wrote that the chief requirement of stewards is that they be found faithful (1 Cor. 4:2). Thus as stewards of God’s belongings we should not waste natural resources or use them selfishly or destructively. When the Lord Jesus described an unfaithful steward, He depicted that steward misusing his master’s possessions to satisfy his own lusts—he beat the master’s other slaves while consuming the master’s resources and getting drunk on them (Luke 12:45). While this verse may not directly address environmental issues, other passages of Scripture apply the principle. For example God forbade Israel from cutting down fruit trees when they laid siege to a city:
“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls” (Deut. 20:19:20).
As God was concerned that the Israelites not damage fruit trees of a city being conquered, in order to retain the useful food, can we not also assume that He is still concerned about damage to the world He has entrusted to us?
We need not become environmental extremists or nature worshipers to be faithful stewards of the environment. We must simply acknowledge that as humans we are stewards of God’s creation, and as children of God that responsibility increases significantly. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). We must take seriously the fact that the world belongs to God, and while He intends for us to use its resources for our benefit, He also expects us to use those resources responsibly. That means we must be willing to look long and hard at our own practices, our own use (or misuse) of natural resources, and make changes where necessary.
When someone loans us a prized possession for our use, that person expects us to take pains to care for it. “The earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). He has given His creation into our hands so that we may use it and care for it. May we be found trustworthy as stewards of His possessions.
James Pence, author of several books and a gospel chalk artist, lives in Campbell, Texas, where he directs Tuppence Creative Ministries. Jim is also a student in Dallas Seminary’s ThM program.