Whenever I speak to Christians about following Jesus on a warming planet, there are certain questions that fairly reliably come up. Is climate change really happening? Are humans causing it? Is it really so bad? Can we actually do anything? Such scientific questions all have very reliable answers grounded in empirical research.
The answer to each four of these questions is a single word that starts with ‘y’.
Is it happening? Yes, the planet is measurably gaining heat, decade by decade. This can be seen not just in the direct measurements with thermometers but in dozens of other sets of long-term data as well, including melting ice, thawing permafrost, the shifting ranges of myriad species, the altered timing of certain seasonal events, increasing humidity and rising oceans.
Is it us? Yes, the dominant cause of this extra heat is human action, particularly our emissions of carbon dioxide and various other trace greenhouse gases, which trap heat close to the planet’s surface. Especially by burning coal, oil and gas, we are thus thickening the Earth’s atmospheric blanket. No other credible causal mechanism can adequately explain the data.
Is it bad? Yes, the impacts of this global warming, while complex, are already overwhelmingly negative for the thriving of human and natural systems and only get worse the further and faster the planet heats up. On our current trajectory, basically all ecosystems and human societies face threats ranging from serious to catastrophic.
Can we do anything? Yes, reducing or eliminating our emissions of greenhouse gases will limit the scale and slow the pace of warming, giving us a better chance to adapt to the various changes we’ll experience on a warming world.
These four answers are essentially undisputed amongst all major scientific organisations around the world and agreed upon by nearly all the actively publishing expert researchers in the relevant fields. Digging into the details can get bewilderingly complicated, especially when it comes to potential impacts on complex systems. There are also still plenty of unknown or contested specifics subject to ongoing research. But from a scientific perspective, the big picture of what is happening is neither too complex for comprehension nor too controversial for confidence.
There is, of course, considerable and quite legitimate debate over the best political, economic, cultural and behavioural strategies to pursue in order to adequately and justly respond to this global crisis. Yet such debates over policy, politics and ethics ought not to be confused with the congruence of scientific evidence for the existence of the problem. However, all too often mainstream commercial media have failed to communicate the scientific consensus. When combined with much deliberate muddying of the waters by vested interests, the result has been ongoing confusion amongst the general public. Add in a strong dash of partisan acrimony on the issue and it’s not hard to sympathise with the widespread sentiment, including amongst many Christians, that perhaps it is a topic best left alone.
I wonder if this reluctance to open a can of worms might be part of the reason behind a further set of questions I often come across in churches, ones that are more theological than scientific. Frequently, these use familiar Christian teachings to imply that climate change is irrelevant to our discipleship. I assume those who raise them typically have noble intentions, but the upshot in each case is to give the questioner permission not to have to consider the fraught topic of climate any further. Given the divisiveness of the topic, the urge to sidestep the matter with a theological rationale is no surprise.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the attempts to do so stack up. Let us briefly consider a few.
Isn’t God in control? The implied consequence is that God would not let something truly dangerous happen. Yet it is clearly the case that all kinds of awful and grievous evils do indeed occur. Christians cannot wish them away or definitively say no further ills may follow. However we understand the scriptural language of divine authority, in virtually all the various major schools of thought on the matter, God’s rule invites rather than replaces responsible human action.
Didn’t God give us dominion? The implied consequence is that we may therefore do with creation as we wish. Yet human authority is derivative upon God’s. Our calling is to exercise an echo of the same servant-leadership we see in Jesus, the true human. Thus, the reference to dominion in the opening chapter of Genesis gives no permission to treat the creatures put into our care according to our own whims, desires or pet projects.
Isn’t it arrogant to think humans can change an entire planet? The implied consequence is that climate science must therefore be incorrect, distorted by hubris. Yet perhaps it is more arrogant to insist we know what is and isn’t possible without actually checking to see if it is the case. The observable changes we have made to the chemistry of the global oceans and atmosphere in the last few decades invite our sober judgement in considering how to respond wisely, not a false humility that seeks to dismiss them.
Isn’t the Earth destined for destruction anyway? The implied consequence is that only what is eternal is of any value or relevance. Yet if the mortality of our own bodies doesn’t provide a legitimate excuse for neglecting or abusing them, then neither is there any justification for mistreating the Earth. If God’s original blessing upon humanity, incarnation as a human and promise of resurrection ground the dignity of our bodies and their relevance to our discipleship, then the same theological realities provide ample reasons to respect the planet and its inhabitants as part of how we honour the Creator.
One further question is perhaps most common of all, especially amongst my own tribe of evangelicals: isn’t this a distraction from the gospel? If we start talking about caring for creation, carbon footprints and closing coal mines, then could we be in danger of majoring on a minor, of distorting the good news by telling people they need Jesus and solar panels?
This is worth exploring in a little more depth, because I think the theological confusion behind it is a little more subtle than in the previous cases.
My two young children often assume the world operates as a zero sum game. For one of them to win, the other has to lose. A bigger piece of cake for me requires a smaller piece for my sister. If mum is currently paying attention to my brother, then her love for me must be diminished. Where competing desires outstrip finite supply, then it is ‘first come, best dressed’, elbows out and grab what you can.
Yet parents know (and children gradually learn) that love does not work like that. Our attention and resources and emotional stamina may be finite, but love can grow. Love is renewable. When shared, love can actually multiply. To understand why this is so, let’s consider one of Jesus’ best-known teachings.
A lawyer asked [Jesus] a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Mt 22:35-40 (NRSV)
Jesus is asked what is the greatest command and he has a twofold answer: love God wholeheartedly; love your neighbour as you love yourself. If we assume that our ability to love is finite—that love is a zero sum game like dividing a cake—then these commands make no sense. Once I’ve dedicated my entire heart, soul, mind and strength to loving God, what is left over for my neighbour? Just the crumbs? Does loving God more really mean I have to love my neighbour (or my self) less? Is loving my neighbour ultimately an afterthought, an optional extra or even a distraction from my love for God?
Love does not work like that. All of our love is a response to, an echo of, and a participation in the prior love of God for us. Far from being a distraction from the good news of Jesus, the invitation to share in God’s love is an integral part of the goodness of that news.
God not only loved us while we were still enemies (Rom 5:10), God adopts us to live as children (Rom 8:15). Jesus not only died for our sins, setting us free from guilt and condemnation (Rom 8:1), he was also raised by the Holy Spirit as a promise and first taste of new life for all in Christ (Rom 8:11). The gospel is not just about a new status that cleanses us from the misdeeds of the past; it is the summons to a true and living way.
And so discipleship, walking in the way of Jesus, isn’t a distraction from the gospel but the very fruit of it. Ethics is also good news. For ancient Israel, the Ten Commandments were the shape of what a life set free from slavery looked like. For us, God has saved us not only out of love, but into love. That is, God’s love is not only the motivation for saving us, it is also the content of salvation. The goal of salvation is that we become God's children, not only as the objects of divine love, but as those who share in it, who come to imitate our Father's perfection (Mt 5:43-48), who love because God first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).
Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said: ‘[A]ll Christian action is a privilege, not an obligation, since we are God's children.’ It is not that having been saved, we now have to love, but that having been rescued, adopted, embraced as God’s children, we get to share in God’s love. What a privilege! To become a little more like God, to become a little more human, to become more ourselves, to participate in the love that brought the universe into being and holds it together (1 Jn 4:7-8).
God’s love for us in Jesus overflows into our love for God and neighbour. Since the source of our love is unquenchable, since we are immeasurably beloved, then love is a not a scarce resource that must be hoarded and parcelled out carefully. So Jesus’ two commandments in Matthew 22 are two sides of the one coin: true love of God overflows into love of neighbour, true love of neighbour points towards the love of God.
What then might this have to do with climate change?
In short, when it comes to our current situation of living in a world growing more hostile to life as we know it due to human actions, we face a choice: will we love the Creator or participate in de-creation? Will we love all the neighbours that our actions are harming, or will we continue to serve ourselves?
First, our love for God is incompatible with recklessness, greed, apathy or antipathy towards the good world God made. If we curse or disfigure what God has blessed, we are expressing hostility towards the one who made it.
Back in 2010, the largest ever gathering of evangelical leaders in history took place in Cape Town, South Africa, under the banner of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Out of that meeting arose a document, signed by the thousands of participants, called the Cape Town Commitment. Part of that text dealing with the Earth read like this:
The earth is created, sustained and redeemed by Christ. We cannot claim to love God while abusing what belongs to Christ by right of creation, redemption and inheritance. […] If Jesus is Lord of all the earth, we cannot separate our relationship to Christ from how we act in relation to the earth. For to proclaim the gospel that says ‘Jesus is Lord’ is to proclaim the gospel that includes the earth, since Christ’s Lordship is over all creation. Creation care is thus a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ. Such love for God’s creation demands that we repent of our part in the destruction, waste and pollution of the earth’s resources and our collusion in the toxic idolatry of consumerism. Instead, we commit ourselves to urgent and prophetic ecological responsibility.
Second, loving our neighbours embraces, but is not exhausted by, telling them the good news about Jesus. To love another human involves care and attention to their situation and needs: physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual. The apostle James specifically warns against an anaemic vision of love that ignores immediate bodily needs (Jas 2:15-16), and John also warns against a narrow view of love restricted to words (1 Jn 3:18).
A warming world is a significant part of our context, an increasingly big part of the lives of so many of the neighbours we are called to love. Obviously, it is not the whole part. There are many other factors and facets to the complex daily lives of all those with whom we share a planetary home. There are many ways to love our many neighbours. But paying attention to the way that a warming world is shaping the possibilities and difficulties encountered by our neighbours is one important outworking of the gospel in our lives today. Far from distracting us from the gospel, if we are attentive to God’s grace towards us in Christ then we will be attentive to the needs and context of the neighbours that gospel calls and enables us to love, including the ways that climate change shapes those needs and context.
Yet I think we can go further. Consider this parallel. If we were in the middle of a dreadful epidemic disrupting life and taking lives, then this context would be important to consider in how we went about loving our neighbours. That our neighbours are suffering is sufficient reason to care about the epidemic and what can be done about it.
How much more would it be our place to care if we were somehow to blame for that suffering? For instance, the epidemic of child abuse revealed and confirmed by the recent Royal Commission is undoubtedly another salient and important context within which we are to be loving our neighbours today. Not simply because our neighbours may have been deeply affected by such crimes (either as victims or simply through hearing the testimony of victims), but also because trusted church leaders played such a prominent part in inflicting those wounds, then churches worsened the situation through trying to cover this up.
The apostle Paul wrote: ‘Love does no harm to a neighbour’ (Rom 13:10). Perhaps even more important than caring for those in need is ensuring that we are not the cause of that need. This is expressed in a well-known precept in healthcare: first, do no harm.
We wealthy citizens of Australia are amongst the worst offenders when it comes to harming our climate neighbours. Our per capita carbon footprint is amongst the highest in the world. Our enormous reserves of coal and gas make a hugely oversized contribution to the source of the pollution causing the harms. Our government has been regularly named as one of those doing most to thwart real progress in international deliberations. Our rates of deforestation are unmatched in the developed world. Our electorates are willing to return representatives who openly mock climate science or whose actions mock the demands of climate justice.
We don’t exist in a situation where we are neutral with respect to climate harms, where we can stand back and weigh whether this or that injustice over there might benefit from some of our effort and attention. We find ourselves thrown amidst injustices as those with dirty hands, those who—often inadvertently—benefit from systems that cause harms to others. This isn’t about feeling guilty, or insisting on our good intentions, or needing to justify ourselves. It is simply doing what we can to stop being part of causing our neighbours harm.
Australian churches have not distinguished ourselves as significantly different from our compatriots at this point. Data from the National Church Life Survey indicates that the attitudes of churchgoers and church leaders broadly mirror those of Australian society on this point. Amongst both Australian churches and Australians more generally, support for better policy and more responsible behaviours is broad, but quite shallow. There are some wonderful exceptions. To pick one example, I have particularly appreciated the work of Common Grace in seeking to engage and lead Australian churches on this issue, though they are far from alone.
Jesus was famously asked ‘who is my neighbour?’ He answered with a story of a foreigner caring for a stranger based on a chance encounter. One way of understanding his answer is to say that we are neighbours to all those with whom our lives intersect.
Today, we discover all kinds of neighbours we never knew we had through networks of influence that extend beyond the horizon of our daily vision. Our actions today have consequences and impacts that extend significantly further than they used to. A significant portion of the carbon emitted today will still be influencing the global climate many centuries and even millennia into the future. Coal dug up in NSW that is burned in China to make products for Europeans has impacts on the global climate, eroding the land and future of peasants in Bangladesh, drying up the water supply of villages in Nepal, worsening the bushfire threat for Victorians.
The expanded reach of our agency creates new possibilities for blessing or harm, making lives I will never meet proximate to my own in certain important respects. The harm we are doing to our neighbours, ourselves and God’s good world through degrading the habitability of the planet is an unavoidable context for the church’s mission and discipleship today. Far from distracting us from the gospel, it is one of the places where the good news of Jesus most needs to be lived out by the church today.
Byron Smith recently completed a PhD thesis in theological ethics through the University of Edinburgh, after receiving honours degrees from Moore College and Sydney University. He is currently Assistant Pastor at St George's Anglican Church, Paddington, climate consultant for Common Grace, and frequently speaks and writes about climate and ecological ethics.
 From Section I.7.A of the Cape Town Commitment. Available online at: https://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment.
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