Climate Week kicked off in New York City this week (September 23-29) as a matter of global urgency. Organized in collaboration with the United Nations, the week is meant to showcase climate initiatives and to discuss what more can be done to reduce the risks associated with climate change, especially for the poor and vulnerable.
Without urgent action, the World Bank estimates that 100 million more people could be pushed into poverty by 2030. They also estimate that as more and more vulnerable people flee regions most at risk, an estimated 140 million people could become climate migrants.
When it comes to climate action, more and more Christians are engaging. Our own Red Letter authors have taken on a range of related topics that you can read about here. Last week, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action issued a call for students to join 16 year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and students across the world striking for climate justice. This is good.
Unfortunately, this kind of conviction represents the exception to the evangelical norm. According to a 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, evangelicals were the least likely religious group to believe the earth is warming due to human activity. Only 28 percent of evangelicals accepted the scientific consensus compared to 50 percent of the general U.S. population.
This is baffling. The Bible claims that God made humans and placed them in the garden God created and told them to “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). So why are those Christians who claim the most fidelity to the Bible — evangelical Christians — the least responsive to the conditions of the earth they are called to steward?
Beyond creation care and our responsibility to steward the earth, there is the matter of Christian mission to the most vulnerable. The Bible says the gospel is God’s message for the poor (Luke 4), yet the world’s poorest 2.5 billion people, many of whom live off smallholder farms and fisheries, are critically at risk by the impact of climate change on their sources of food and income. So why is it that those whose very name —evangelical — means “preachers of good news to the poor,” don’t believe the bad news about climate change or the threat it poses to the poor they are called to serve?
It’s not like the Bible is silent when it comes to human-induced global calamities. Romans chapter 8 talks about a creation that has been groaning under the consequences of human action and one that waits in eager expectation for the children of God to show up (Romans 8:19). Yet, evangelicals can’t seem to hear the groaning creation or see the children striking for their futures that now seem condemned by present inaction.
This indifference to responsible environmental action is too bad, because Romans also points to a future full of hope for the earth. Romans declares that creation will be liberated from its human-induced decay. This is Christian teaching.
Biblical eschatology — those teachings about how things end — should cause Christians to be the most hopeful climate activists on the planet, because they believe God’s promise of an earth they have helped to liberate (Romans 8:21). This is not, however, the eschatology that animates the popular evangelical vision. I suspect that today’s evangelical church goer is more influenced by the distorted theologies of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye than the hopeful vision of the Apostle Paul.
In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s famous book, The Late Great Planet Earth, clumsily applied end-time prophecies in the Bible to the Cold War and Middle East politics current at the time, fanning the apocalyptic fears of an already paranoid American populace. The Second Coming of Christ was held to be imminent and the rapture of the church promised before the coming Great Tribulation. The practical outworking of this reductionist and unorthodox theology has been called “evacuation theology” — or the earth is going to be destroyed and good Christians should ready themselves to be raptured away to heaven. Forget the environment. Why take responsibility for a soon-to-be-destroyed earth?
More recently, Tim LaHaye brought his version of evacuation theology to the masses, selling more than 80 million copies of his distorted reading of the book of Revelation through his Left Behind series. Left Behind’s fabricated struggle between a pious remnant of faithful Christians and a globalist anti-Christ cabal may have been entertaining, but it did nothing to cultivate responsible Christian living in the face of real environmental concerns. Forget climate change. Why care for an earth that, along with billions of damned humans, will be left behind?
Is it these dramatic misreadings of the Bible that have formed the practical eschatology of mainstream Evangelicalism? Whatever the cause, when it comes to science-informed action and conscientious care for the earth, it is evangelicals who are being left behind.
For clarity and conviction on climate justice we have to look elsewhere. Last week, it was a 16-year-old Swedish girl who spoke the truth like a biblical prophet:
My name is Greta Thunberg. I have not come to offer prepared remarks at this hearing. I am instead attaching my testimony. It is the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C [SR1.5] which was released on October 8, 2018. I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists. And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take action.
At the time he wrote the book of Revelation, John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” was suffering in prison. In the genre of a highly stylized and cryptic text, he offered a vision of the final hope Christians should expect in Christ. Despite the merciless power of Rome aligned then against the followers of Jesus, John saw a day coming when the liberating power of heaven would crash into the chaos and suffering of earth. He wrote his graphic letter to inspire hope against the despair of his day.
Christians today should put aside the Christian fictions of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye and pick up the biblical vision of an earth renewed under the stewardship of God’s children. John “saw the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelations 21:2), which he wrote to inspire faithful living. The Bible teaches that heaven is coming to earth. Evangelicals need to get clear about this biblical mandate, otherwise it is they who will be left behind.