Somewhere in the list of “100 Bible passages Christians know best” you will find Romans 1:20.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Christians often point to the grand elements of nature and say, “there must be a God”. At other times we will highlight the intricacy of nature and say, “there must be a God”. One statement expresses awe at enormity and grandeur, the other expresses awe at delicacy and intricacy. At either end of the scale what we really ask is, “How could anyone look at this and deny the existence of a God?” We then point to Romans 1:20 and say, “See, people (atheists, remote tribes, scientists…) are without excuse for rejecting God.”
Unfortunately, we often fail to notice the details in this verse. Paul doesn’t claim that Creation tells us about Jesus. He doesn’t claim that nature informs us about the church. He simply says that nature reveals two aspects of God: Eternal power; and Divine nature. Basically, nature tells us that a divine God exists, and God is powerful.
Nature by itself does not enlighten us to the goodness of God. It doesn’t reveal the grace, or mercy, or love of the divine God.
It is true that at times we may see glimpses of goodness and tenderness in a sunset, a flower, or the way animals interact with each other. It is also true that carnivores feeding on other animals, earthquakes, droughts, diseases, and death may justifiably give a very different impression of God. This second view still sees God as divine and powerful, but adopts a very different view of His character.
Although Creation has a voice that speaks of God, God’s people still have a vital responsibility to use our voices to fill the many silences of creation.
If creation speaks of God, then I wonder if the way we treat creation speaks of the way we value God?
Harking all the way back to Genesis 1 God has given humanity the responsibility of caring for Creation. In the beginning this was the only responsibility God gave the people he created in his image. Don’t eat of one tree. Care for everything in the garden.
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 1:28
In my experience many people have taken the directive to “subdue and rule” as an opportunity to consume and exploit resources. We have taken our place at the top of the biological pecking order and acted as though everything else on the planet exists for our benefit alone.
Sadly, caring for the environment and other species inhabiting this planet has become a political football. Because the Green Party, or the Democrats or whoever have emphasized this so much, many people want to swing to the opposite extreme. That opposite extreme is to say that economics always trump environmental concerns.
I’m fine if we all have different ideas of what it means to rule over creation, as long as we all have that goal. Our track record as a collective humanity is not great. The World Wildlife Fund maintains a long list of animals that it regards as currently endangered. It doesn’t take very long searching the internet to find even longer lists of recently extinct species.
We can argue around the clock what the reasons are for the loss of biological diversity over the past 100 years or so, but I think most people would agree that humans have contributed to some degree.
We can also argue over definitions, but a key word for me in this conversation is “sustainability”. God wants people to live in a manner that sustains the life of the planet, the plants and the animals. While this charge was given to all humans through Adam and Eve, Christians who believe in the existence of God and the role of nature in revealing God, should take a lead role in promoting environmentally sustainable living.
From the very beginning God challenges us to consider what it means to “subdue and rule”. Humanity well knows the tendency for absolute power to corrupt absolutely. We understand the desire to accumulate power, to assert our will, to pad our nest, all at the expense of others. God calls us to a different manner of ruling.
God calls us to rule as He does: for the benefit of others. Jesus himself provides the ultimate example of this type of leadership. The King of the Jews allowed himself to be nailed to a cross for the benefit of all humans. He calls us to love our neighbours. And ultimately the health of the planet is linked the wellbeing our all people.
As a closing point I want to direct our attention to Hebrews 2:5-9 which quotes Psalm 8. These verses discuss “the world to come”. As I understand this passage, it states first that the world to come will not be subjected to angels, but, in light of Psalm 8, to humans. Christians in eternity will share the same responsibilities to the world we inhabit then as we do today on planet Earth. So we better take this task seriously.
What does the way you think about nature, which reveals God, communicate to those seeking God?
- “The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation” by Richard Bauckham.
- Chapter 4 in “Old Testament Ethics for the People of God” by Christopher J.H. Wright, (the chapter entitled ‘Ecology and the Earth’).
- Chapter 5 in “Surprised by Scripture” by N.T. Wright, (the chapter entitled ‘Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree!’). Scot McKnight provides a brief review of Wright’s essay HERE.
- Chapter 21 in “Kingdom Ethics” by Stassen & Gushee (the chapter entitled ‘Care of Creation’).