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Scripture doesn’t address the issue of climate change.  As with other issues raised by modern science and technology, that wasn’t a concern of biblical writers two to three thousand years ago.

The Bible does speak about weather conditions and their seasonal changes, about storms and droughts and other weather-related phenomena. But there’s nothing about long-term changes over large parts of the earth or the entire world or the possibility that human activity might be bringing about such changes.

At this point you’re probably thinking that I’m belaboring the obvious, and that no more discussion about climate change in scripture is needed. But don’t stop reading too quickly!  

While the Bible is silent on the science of climate change and gives no specific information about how to deal with it, the Biblical writers do have important things to say about what trusting in God’s care means and the extent to which we can expect God to protect us from the consequences of our actions.

Furthermore, since the beginning of the environmental movement some fifty years ago, some political and religious conservatives have objected to the concerns of environmentalists as exaggerated messages of doom. One argument they’ve used is that God will take care of the world and won’t let any problems get too bad. That means that we don’t need burdensome regulations or changes in our lifestyles. Here’s an example from a prominent right-wing voice 27 years ago.  

My views on the environment are rooted in my belief in creation.  I don’t believe that life on earth began spontaneously or as a result of some haphazard random selection process; nor do I believe that nature is oh-so-precariously balanced.  I don’t believe that the earth and her ecosystem are fragile, as many radical environmentalists do. They think man can come along, all by himself, and change everything for the worse; that after hundreds of millions of years, the last two generations of human existence are going to destroy the planet.  Who do they think we are?

I resent that presumptuous view of man and his works.  I refuse to believe that people, who are themselves the result of Creation, can destroy the most magnificent creation of the entire universe.1

That statement didn’t rely on anything from scripture, but the lack was remedied later by Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) in connection with the question of climate change.  Explaining something that he’d said in his book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, he wrote,

[T]he Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.2

Of course, the fact that the earth will continue to have seasons (which depend on the inclination of the earth’s axis and to a lesser extent on its orbital parameters) doesn’t mean that summers won’t get hotter or storms more frequent and violent.  But my point here is not so much about the science or the exegesis of such claims. It’s about the more basic issue of what it means to trust in God when threats loom.

Jerusalem, circa 600 BCE

A good source for addressing that is the prophets — and the false prophets — of Israel.  Even though they weren’t concerned about the possibility of anthropogenic climate change, they present starkly contrasting messages about what it means to believe God’s promises and what human responsibility is in light of them.  Let’s focus on the book of the prophet Jeremiah.

Much of Jeremiah’s message, like that of other biblical prophets, consisted of announcements of trouble and disaster that would come if people didn’t repent, return to the LORD, and mend their ways. These weren’t simply threats of arbitrary divine punishments but statements about what present policies and practices were leading to.

Picture yourself in Jerusalem, the capital of the little state of Judah, around 600 BCE.  The Babylonian empire — the “Chaldeans” — is the 800 pound gorilla everyone is worried about. A few years ago Judah had rebelled against the empire and Jerusalem was occupied by the Chaldean army. About three thousand people were carried into exile in Babylon, including the king. He was replaced on the throne by his uncle, who was sworn to loyalty as a vassal of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Sacred vessels of the temple were carried off as well. But now there are new stirrings of rebellion and attempts to enlist other vassal states of Babylon as allies.   

Popular prophets are encouraging that activity. They say, “Our God will take care of us.  We’re the LORD’s chosen people, with the law he gave Moses, David’s royal line and Solomon’s temple. God has promised to take care of us and won’t let anything really bad happen.” They had some tradition behind them on that, the idea of “the inviolability of Zion,” that God would never let the holy city be taken.

The prophet Jeremiah is not popular. Some time ago he narrowly escaped being put to death for a sermon that he preached in the temple (Jeremiah 7:1-15 and 26:1-24).  He had said that people couldn’t simply rely on having the temple, and that it would be destroyed if Judah and its rulers didn’t return to God. That conflicted with the belief that Zion was inviolable, but Jeremiah was spared when it was remembered that an earlier prophet, Micah, had said pretty much the same thing and wasn’t punished.   

Jeremiah has continued to oppose the popular prophets, saying that they proclaim their own dreams as “the word of the LORD.” He’s started wearing a wooden yoke, an “action prophecy” to get across God’s message that Judah should keep its agreement and accept the Babylonian yoke. “Your problems and weakness,” he tells the rich and powerful, “are due to your sins of unfaithfulness and injustice. Give up your ‘Make Judah great again’ dreams, stick to your treaty with the Chaldeans, and try to have the kind of just society God wants. You aren’t safe just because you have this temple. God will be faithful to his promises, but it may not be in the way you expect.”

In Jeremiah 28 he’s confronted in the temple by one of the popular prophets, Hananiah, who proclaims a popular message. In two years, Hananiah says, all the exiles with their true king and the temple vessels will be brought back to Jerusalem.  Many of the people probably cheered. And Jeremiah says to Hananiah, “Yes, it would be great if that would happen. But it’s not the kind of message that the prophets who came before us spoke. They announced ‘war, famine and pestilence.’ If a would-be prophet promises peace, we’re wait to see if it really happens before we believe that word came from God.”  That’s a rule found in Deuteronomy 18:22. The Israelites knew about the danger of false prophets, even though they didn’t have radio or television.

Then Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke — he knows about action prophecies too — and says God has told him that he’ll break the yoke of Babylon.  We’re told that then Jeremiah simply “went his way.” That wasn’t because he couldn’t think of a snappy comeback, but because he wanted to be sure that he had a word from the LORD.  When he was, he told Hananiah that it’s easy to break wood, but God has imposed an iron yoke on Judah. And Jeremiah said, “You’ve lied, and lied in God’s name. You’re a false prophet.  Within a year you’ll be dead.” And he was.

Well, Judah did try to throw off Nebuchadnezzar’s yoke.  You can read about it in later chapters of Jeremiah, who was thrown in prison but lived through the siege by the Chaldeans.  The common people suffered terribly but those in power didn’t change their ways. The city fell, some leading priests and officials were put to death, and many were taken into exile.  The city and the temple were burned to the ground by the Chaldeans. Only poor people were left in Judah. All the political and religious structures that people had depended on — the temple and its rituals, the Davidic monarchy, the entire religious and political structure — were annihilated.  Lights out for Israel.
About fifty years later the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians, who allowed peoples taken into exile to return to their homes.  Groups of Jews returned to Jerusalem and gradually rebuilt the city and temple. God’s promise that had been spoken through that unpopular prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled — “But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the LORD, and do not be dismayed, O Israel; for I am going to save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of captivity, Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and no one shall make him afraid” (Jeremiah 30:10).

About fifty years later the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians, who allowed peoples taken into exile to return to their homes.  Groups of Jews returned to Jerusalem and gradually rebuilt the city and temple. God’s promise that had been spoken through that unpopular prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled — “But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the LORD, and do not be dismayed, O Israel; for I am going to save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of captivity, Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and no one shall make him afraid” (Jeremiah 30:10).  

What happened was as impossible as God’s promised Messiah being killed and then raised from the dead.  Biblical scholar James Sanders, speaking of the difference between the false prophets of Israel and real ones like Jeremiah, said it this way:

For the prophets were true monotheists, and nothing they said so stressed their monotheism as the idea that God was free enough of his chosen people to transform them in the crucible of destitution into a community whose members could themselves be free of every institution which in his providence he might give them.  Their real hope, according to these prophets, lay in the God who had given them their existence in the first place, in his giving it to them again. Normal folk, in their right minds, know that hope is in having things turn out the way they think they should — by maintaining their view of life without let, threat, or hindrance.  And normal folk believe in a god who will simply make things turn out that way.

For them it is not a question of what God ought to do, that is clear:  he will do what we know is right for him to do, if we simply trust and obey.     
Nobody in his right mind could possibly believe that God wants us to die in order to give     us life again, or to take away the old institutions he first gave us in order to give us new

Foretellers, Forthtellers, and Fact Tellers

We may think of prophets as people who claim to foretell the future, but that’s too narrow a view of the prophets of Israel.  Sometimes they did speak about what was going to happen, but they were also called to speak the truth about the present. Condemning individual and social sins and warning of dangers, sometimes using dramatic language and symbolic tasks, were part of that task.  Those who continually told people what they wanted to hear were likely to be false prophets. As it’s sometimes put, the task of a prophet wasn’t just foretelling, but also forthtelling, setting out the truth.

There do seem to be some similarities between climate change deniers who appeal to religious beliefs to support their claims and the false prophets Jeremiah criticized.  There’s an obvious reason for the attractiveness of such false prophets. If God is going to make sure that nothing too terrible will happen then we can continue with business as usual.  Companies can keep selling fossil fuels and people can continue to use them. When I occasionally listened to Limbaugh years ago, one of the phrases he’d use in denunciations of the environmental movement was, “Folks, you don’t have to change your lifestyle.”  That’s a strong selling point.

On the other hand, it would be too simple to equate people today who accept and argue for the reality of climate change with those who are seen today as prophets like Jeremiah.  Certainly some who speak about, and work to deal with, climate change and its effects are religious.  Christians who believe that the command to “have dominion” over the earth (Genesis 1:26) means a call to care for creation would be included,4 as would Jews who take seriously the tikkun olam mandate to be participants in the repair of the world.  People of other faiths might give different religious motives for caring about the state of the world. But there are plenty of people concerned about climate change and a broad range of environmental issues who aren’t religious believers.

The word “prophetic” is sometimes used very loosely for almost any criticism of current conditions, and we needn’t be too eager to use it in this context.  Regardless of their motives, those who are concerned about climate change can work together to address the problems that it raises.

For finally, the questions of whether or not climate is changing, what effects that that is likely to have on the state of the world in the future, and ways in which harmful effects of climate change might be averted, are not ones to be answered by theologians and ethicists.  Dealing with such questions is the task of scientists, people whose task is to learn the truth about the natural world — what has happened and why, what we can extrapolate from the present state of the world to its future, and what the capabilities of science-based technology to affect the situation are.

They are fact tellers, and the facts that they tell us don’t have the religious and ethical depth expected of a Jeremiah-like prophet.  But if we want to be honest about environmental matters, what the fact tellers can say to us is essential. There’s no point in talking about the religious or ethical implications of a situation if we don’t know what the situation is.

The ability of science to tell us about the future, especially when it depends on human actions, is limited.  No responsible person is claiming that we might “destroy the planet,” but over the next century we certainly could destroy a lot of species and make life miserable for a few billion people.  We can speculate about technological developments that would enable us to control the climate or a runaway greenhouse effect that in millions of years would turn the earth into a lifeless planet like Venus, but those are themes that for now are best dealt with in science fiction.


George Murphy

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.  He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

  1. Rush H. Limbaugh, III, The Way Things Ought to Be (Pocket Books, 1992), p.152.
  3. James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Fortress, 1972), p.87.

  4. See, e.g., the ELCA’s 1993 Social Statement “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice”:  –
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