Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2008 in SciTech, the journal of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology, and the Christian Faith. It is reprinted with permission.
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.
— Genesis 8.2
In God’s first words to Noah after the great floods have receded and God has restored life to the wasted earth, God promises never again to curse the natural world because of humanity’s sin. The basic cycles and rhythms of nature will remain steady, and their steadiness will testify to God’s faithfulness in creating the world and making covenant with humans, despite their inherent inclination to evil.
In the 21st century, human actions have contributed to the warming of the planet and to massive changes in climate that now disrupt seedtime and harvest, summer and winter. Humanity’s impact on the environment is no longer just a matter of limited, localized destruction of forests, soils, and ecosystems. Rather, human manipulation of the natural world has assumed global, planetary proportions. Humans have adversely affected and modified the most basic cycles of weather and the seasons, of plant growth and animal habitation.
Will now the cycles and rhythms of the natural world still testify to God’s faithfulness? Or will human sin bring the world once again into a state of chaos like that represented by the floods that swept over the earth in the mythical age of Noah? Surely it would be the height of arrogance for humans to imagine that they and their actions could override the faithfulness of God. Surely our powers to destroy are not greater than God’s to create.
Climate change nevertheless confronts humans with a basic theological lesson: the condition of the natural world always reflects something fundamental about God’s ways with us: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), but someday “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25). God is ever faithful, but that faithfulness places us under judgment and calls us to repentance when we have gone astray.
Nature as Theological Witness
Much of the Christian tradition has been strangely silent about nature’s witness to God and humanity’s relationship with God. The confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) rarely invite us to observe the created order to understand the ways of God. Some Christians have feared that human reverence for plants and trees, animals and mountains, could lead to idolatry. Protestants in particular have rejected efforts to seek the sacred in nature. For the Reformers, the only thing that really mattered was God’s revealed Word, as spoken through the prophets and ultimately made incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. God had called the church to preach Christ crucified, not the cycles and rhythms of the natural world.
In abandoning nature, Christians lost something essential to the biblical witness. Nature is not the source of idolatry; human sin is! The example of Israel is instructive. The Israelites knew the temptations posed by nature religions with their shrines on high places and in sacred groves (Jeremiah 3:6). They struggled again and again with their sinful propensity to make God into an idol that they could manipulate and control. But God did not call them to ignore the natural world but rather to attend to it rightly: as a witness to God’s gracious ways with humanity.
God’s Providential Care
The biblical examples of nature’s witness to God are legion, especially in the psalter and prophetic literature. Psalm 96 calls on the sea to roar, the field to exult, and the trees of the forest to sing for joy at the coming of the Lord (96.11-13). The Book of Job reaches its climax in singing a hymn to the awesome mystery of God’s creative power in the springs of the sea (38:16), the storehouses of the snow (38:22), the chains of the Pleiades (38:31), the deer as they calve (39:1), and the hawks as they soar (39:26). Isaiah awaits a day when “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus, it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (35:1). Jesus too draws on imagery of the natural world to testify to God’s providential care: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil not spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matthew 6:26, 28-29).
The natural world demonstrates God’s goodness in providing not only for our physical sustenance but also for the experience of sensual delight. God has endowed nature with an extravagant beauty that surpasses anything that human art can achieve. Even John Calvin, despite his reticence about seeking God in the natural world, could write: “Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor?…Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?” (Institutes, 3.10.2).
If rarely in their theology, more often in their hymnody Protestants have cited nature’s cycles and rhythms as testimonies to God’s graciousness and goodness. Consider: For the wonder of each hour, of the day and of the night, hill and vale and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of light, Lord of all to Thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise. And: Thou fertile earth, that day by day unfoldest blessings on your way, O sing ye! Alleluia! The flowers and fruits that in thee grow, let them God’s glory also show! Alleluia! [“For the Beauty of the Earth” and “All Creatures of our God and King”].
The natural world has no inherent sacrality; it is not divine. The rhythms and cycles of nature are silent about a God who makes covenant with us and redeems us in Jesus Christ. And yet the natural world makes its own distinctive witness to the God whom Christians know in Jesus Christ. The best of Scripture and the Christian tradition have avoided nature worship but have nevertheless allowed nature itself to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to the true and living God.
God’s Judgment on Human Sin
If nature can make exuberant witness to God’s faithfulness, it can also raise up God’s complaint against sinful humanity. The heavens that proclaim the glory of God also accuse humans of faithlessness. God threatens to lay the earth waste again, to disrupt its basic cycles and rhythms, as though he were calling into question the promise to Noah. Would seedtime and harvest endure? Might summer and winter, day and night, someday cease?
God warns a rebellious Israel that “your land shall not yield its produce, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit…I will let loose wild animals against you…I will send pestilence among you” (Leviticus 26:20, 22, 25). Hosea laments that there is no knowledge of God in the land, but rather “swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery…Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air; and even the fish of the sea are taken away” (4:1-3).
God will no longer work through the steady cycles and rhythms of nature; rather, he will undo them. Micah declares that “the Lord is coming forth out of his place … The mountains will melt under him, and the valleys will be cleft, like wax before the fire … All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel” (1:3-5).
According to Habakkuk, God will make the mountains writhe, the raging waters sweep on, and the sun and moon stand still (3:10-11). Isaiah warns that “the Lord will lay waste the earth and make it desolate…The earth mourns and withers, the world languishes and withers, the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants…A curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt” (24:1, 4-6).
What testifies to God and his plans and purposes is no longer the regularity of nature but rather its disruption. This dramatic imagery, though disturbing, helped Jesus’ followers make sense of his life, death, and resurrection. At the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51), as though the very foundations of the earth had been shaken. There would be a new creation; in Christ, “the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). A new heaven and earth were coming to birth.
Climate Change as Theological Witness?
Climate change promises a future in which nature’s cycles and rhythms will no longer seem as trustworthy to us as they once did. Scientists warn of rising seas, summer-like winters, and more frequent drought and flooding. But these dramatic and unpredictable changes do not give Christians reason to believe that the end is near. They do not even give us reason to accuse ourselves of greater sinfulness than our forebears. The causes of global warming are complex, and while humans have surely played a significant role, not all of it is attributable simply to sinfulness or selfishness. More neutral factors, such as population growth, as well as laudable human achievements, such as improved living standards, have contributed to the problem.
We cannot read God’s plans and purposes directly from the state of the natural world. But phenomena like global warming are not theologically neutral. Nature testifies to God and our relationship with God. Nature not only sings of the glory of God; it also cries out in sorrow. It shows forth not only steady cycles and rhythms, but also bloody wounds, often a direct result of human activity. Climate change testifies to earth’s fragility and vulnerability. Global warming reminds us that we inflict great damage on the world, whether intentionally or not. Human disruption of nature’s cycles and rhythms provokes nature to turn against us, so that we are no longer able to take delight in it. We experience nature now only as hostile and threatening.
Climate change makes nothing less than a prophetic witness. It declares that God’s faithfulness is more than just the comforting promise that seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. God’s faithfulness also places us under judgment; it convicts us of ignorance, indifference, foolishness, and arrogance. In a time of global warming, we will increasingly experience the natural world as wounded beauty and will have to confess that we have scarred even its most basic cycles and rhythms.
God’s promise to Noah does not mean that nature is spared our destructive impact. Humans have now profoundly disrupted seedtime and harvest. Our actions have damaged summer and winter. Even so,
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
— Psalm 46.1-3
Climate change does not put God’s faithfulness into question, only ours.