It was a perfect Saturday afternoon: cloudless sky, 72 degrees, and a clean breeze blowing across the mountaintop where my husband Matthew and I sat on a bench, enjoying the view.
A few yards away from us, a family was picnicking—three children with their parents. In between ripples of good-natured teasing and laughter, the son, about 8 years old, leaned comfortably against his dad while being quizzed on Bible verses. The kid knew his stuff, and his father was clearly proud of him.
My husband made a friendly comment and began to chat with the dad. After the initial introductions, the conversation quickly turned to scripture and matters of faith. Matthew always welcomes an engaging theological discussion and was delighted to have crossed paths with such an intelligent and devoted believer.
When asked what had brought us to this mountaintop retreat center, Matthew briefly told him about our creation care ministry, Blessed Earth. The conversation stalled for a minute. Then, in a well-meaning tone, the father posed an all-too-familiar question: If Revelation says it’s all going to burn up in the end, why should Christians care?
FINDING COMMON GROUND
While traveling the country, we’ve encountered many variations of this “it’s all going to burn anyway” question. Does God’s making all things new mean Christians can ignore the environment? If we’re ultimately made for heaven, why worry about the earth? Aren’t there more important things to do, like bringing people to Christ?
Such questions can easily become divisive. A radio host recently opened his interview with my husband as follows: “When I think of environmentalists, I picture long-haired, Birkenstock wearing hippies who rant about recycling and global warming. What do you have to say about this, Dr. Sleeth?”
A lot, actually, but not what the interviewer may have been expecting.
Instead of taking the bait, we focus on the biblical call to be wise stewards of God’s gifts—a value we share. Rather than getting polarized by politics, we look for common ground.
The man at the retreat center went on to say that he owns hundreds of books on the end times. Between our home and office libraries, we probably have about as many books on creation care. As believers in Christ, however, we have much that we can agree upon: love, sacrifice, compassion, hope, joy, grace, redemption, reconciliation, and renewal are values that bind us together.
Below are some responses that we have found helpful when engaging in conversations with our bothers and sisters in Christ, who—often because of what they have heard on radio or in political arenas—initially may be skeptical about the call to care for the environment:
Revelation tells us it’s all going to burn up in the end, so why bother taking care of nature?
The answer to this seemingly logical question is actually quite simple—because the earth belongs to God and he told us to protect it.
First, consider the issue of ownership. Scripture unequivocally states that God owns all of creation. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” says Psalm 24:1. In Job 41:11 God declares, “Everything under heaven belongs to me.” The Apostle Paul tells us that everything was created through Christ and for him (Colossians 1:15-16). The earth does not belong to us, but to God—a principle that permeates all of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation.
Since we reside on earth without claim to ownership, we are therefore tenants on God’s land. As tenants, we do not have the right to act toward the earth in whatever manner we wish. Rather, we have an obligation to treat the land with the proper amount of respect due to its owner.
Why bother taking care of nature? Because it belongs to God.
Second, not only does the earth belong to God, but he also has given us the responsibility of taking care of it. In fact, one of the first jobs he gives humanity is to tend and protect the earth (Genesis 2:15). This is a command, not a suggestion; it has no expiration date and is still in full effect.
But the story does not end in Genesis. Before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites are told that they are to provide for the “redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:23-24), thus demonstrating the inherent value God places on the natural world. Likewise, Jesus himself warns his listeners to be faithful with what has been entrusted to them (Luke 16) and states that God cares when even a single sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29). Our role toward God’s creation is that of caretakers.
Why bother taking care of nature? Because God tells us to.
Didn’t God give us dominion over the earth?
Yes, God gave us dominion, but dominion should not be confused with license. Dominion implies great responsibility. We give teachers dominion over our children when we send them to school, but we would not be pleased if at the end of the day our children came home ignorant, battered, and bruised. The same principle applies to dominion over the earth; when God gave us dominion over the earth, he did not intend for us to destroy his creation. As God’s appointed stewards, we can use natural resources, but not abuse them.
Suppose you borrowed a car from God. Would you want to return it with cigarette butts in the ashtray, dents in the bumper, and an empty gas tank? Like the car, the earth is on loan to us. We are to pass it on to future generations in as good or better shape than we received it.
Moreover, God created the physical earth to sustain all life, not just humans. On the renewed earth, God specifically promises to sustain all creatures, great and small: “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18).
Yes, we were created in God’s image, and yes, we were given special responsibilities. However, dominion should not be synonymous with domination. Domination leads to reckless consumption; dominion leads to wise leadership.
If we already know the earth is going to burn, why not hasten the end?
No one knows exactly when the end times will come, not even Jesus. (Matthew 24:35-37). Until then, we are all called to do God’s work. And an important part of God’s work is abat and shamar, tending and protecting the earth he placed in our care.
The prophet Amos explicitly warns us:
Woe to all of you who want God’s Judgment Day!
Why would you want to see God, want Him to come?
When God comes, it will be bad news before it’s good news,
The worst of times, not the best of times.
(Amos 5-18-19, The Message)
The misguided desire to hasten the end times surfaced one afternoon when a new friend invited Matthew and me to lunch. Our host, a devoted father, loved his teenaged daughter but deeply regretted that she did not have a relationship with Jesus. Yet, several times the man also stated that he prayed Christ would return tomorrow.
Matthew and I were both puzzled by this mixed message: As parents, wouldn’t we want more time, not less, for Christ to open our child’s heart? Shouldn’t we pray that, in God’s infinite mercy and grace, the end times are delayed until those we love know Jesus? And shouldn’t we want to extend, not end, opportunities for people around the world to meet their Savior?
In the 16th century, Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, once gave a moving sermon about the end times. His congregation was so affected that they all went home and fed the sick, clothed the poor, and opened their tables to the homeless. When the congregants came back to report what they had done, they were astounded to find Martin Luther planting a tree.
“Why are you bothering to plant a tree when you know the end times are coming?” they asked.
“I am doing exactly what I want my Father to find me doing,” Martin Luther replied.
Like Martin Luther, all of us should be building the Kingdom, not destroying it, up until the very last moment of our personal and collective end times. Live like Judgment Day is coming tomorrow, but pray that we are given as much time as possible to share Jesus with the world.
Regardless of when the end times come, no human has the right to needlessly destroy or mar anything that God has created. In fact, the author of Revelation declares that God will destroy those who destroy the earth (Revelation 11:18). Only God knows the day and the hour of his return. Only God knows the manner in which he intends to create the new earth. It is not our place to hasten these events through destruction, but to give life (Matthew 24:14). We are to lovingly and faithfully care for what He has made until He decides to give us a new role in the new earth—His permanent, perfected creation.
As Christians, shouldn’t we be concerned with spiritual, not physical, matters?
This question quickly leads to a false dichotomy. Physical and spiritual matters are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are interdependent.
For example, God gave each of us a physical body. That body is a temple that must be treated with respect. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
On a very practical level, proper care for our bodies requires us to also care for the earth. God gave us clean water, clean air, and healthy soil. If we want to be good stewards of our bodies, we will also have to be good stewards of the physical elements that sustain life.
Won’t everything be renewed after the rapture anyway?
Absolutely! Revelation 21:1 and Acts 3:21 state that God intends to renew all things. This message is reinforced in Colossians 1:20, when we are told that God intends to reconcile himself to all things. Paul says in Romans 8:20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
Everything—including mountains, seas, flowers, bees, you, and me—will be renewed. This is good news, indeed!
In Revelation 21:5, God declares, “I am making all things new!” This disclosure reveals an important reality about the new earth. God intends to make all things new; he does not plan to make all new things. Revelation 21:5 also provides direction on how to interact with the natural world prior to God’s renewal. Because God is making all things new, we get the honor of participating in this renewal process by protecting his earth now. We are not passive spectators to God’s cosmic design of a renewed Eden. On the contrary, we play a crucial role in God’s plan. This pattern reflects one of the most common narratives throughout scripture—that of God using humans to be his hands and feet in accomplishing his purposes in this world.
Not only will everything eventually be renewed, but the Bible makes clear that even now God is actively sustaining all things. “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3). Likewise, Paul tells us, “[Jesus] is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). If God is even now sustaining his creation, then undoubtedly the earth holds inherent value and is worthy of protection. God currently sustains the earth, ultimately plans to renew it, and longs to use us in the process.
Aren’t we supposed to be worried about saving souls, not saving whales?
There is no greater cause for rejoicing than when a lost soul comes to Christ. The Great Commission’s call to share the gospel with all nations is absolutely central to the Christian faith and should be a part of the life of every believer. Evangelism, however, is not the only calling of Christians; the chief end of humanity—and all of creation—is to glorify God.
Scripture is clear that God’s creation brings him glory. Psalm 96:11-13 says, “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord.” This resounding chorus of praise comes not from human voices but from the natural world and is indicative of a world alive with God’s glory. Elsewhere in scripture, we see worship coming from the sun, moon, stars, rocks, water, fish, lightning, hail, snow, clouds, storms, mountains, hills, cattle, animals, fields, and more. Like humans, they were created by God to bring him glory. And while it is true that humans alone are created in the image of God, this does not diminish the worship that God’s other creations bring to him. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
Protecting God’s creation also preserves a significant way to learn about God’s character. Paul declares in Romans 1:20 that “ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.” Here Paul is making the case that God’s creation serves as an avenue for people to discover God.
The book of Job explicitly tells us to “ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7-10). Countering our human tendency toward hubris, this passage proclaims that the natural world can offer us spiritual insight. If nature holds spiritual value in God’s eye, we should be actively protecting these sources of spiritual instruction.
Unfortunately, the world is very clear on what Christians are against, but fuzzy on what we are for. The perception that Christians don’t care about pollution, species extinction, and the social and human health consequences of land degradation can ultimately drive people away from Christ. For example, we have heard people say they do not understand how Christians can say they love the Creator but not show respect for his creation. Thus, our failure to take a leadership role in protecting the earth has become, for some, a stumbling block to knowing God. This problem is exacerbated when political pundits rather than scripture becomes our source of wisdom.
In practice, creation care opens new doors for sharing Christ’s love. My husband and I have been invited to talk about Jesus in unexpected places, including National Public Radio programs, college auditoriums, and environmental conferences. Whenever possible, we give away free Bibles to those who don’t own one, enabling seekers to learn more about the scriptural call to care for the earth.
In fact, we find that it’s counterproductive to turn this into an either/or equation. We can and should be concerned with telling others about Christ while also caring for his creation. Both callings are based on the same motivation: loving God and loving our global neighbors, including future generations.
Shouldn’t we be worried about saving souls? Absolutely! But we should also work to protect God’s creation, or we may lose the opportunity to save any souls.
Now, our question for you
Once we respond to queries like those above, we often like to ask a question of our own, which my husband first posed to a skeptical audience: If you believe in an all-powerful God, as we do, and the only purpose of life is to get into heaven, then why didn’t God just have us born in heaven? Why were we born on earth?
The answer, of course, is that life on earth matters. What we do on earth matters. God created the earth and cares for it. He called it “good” and gave us the responsibility to care for it. When we care for the earth, we are participating in the work of God.
Life is not merely preparation for heaven; it is also an opportunity for us to put heavenly principles into practice here on earth. God loves to redeem, restore, and renew, and he longs to involve us in the process. God created us on earth because this is a place where we can actively participate in his work of redemption.
A centerpiece of our faith is the resurrection of Christ. Jesus lives, here and now, and we are already participating in the first fruits of the new creation.
Back on the mountaintop
Back at the retreat center, the sun was getting hotter and the kids were beginning to get restless, so my husband and his new friend wrapped up their conversation with warm wishes on both sides. As the children gathered up the picnic utensils, their father asked where Matthew was preaching the next day—a sure sign that the discussion had remained not only civil but gratifying on both sides. Though our starting points may have seemed quite different on the surface, our shared belief in Jesus and the primary role of scripture in our daily lives allowed each to listen, to learn, and—ultimately—to love one another.
“Until we meet again, brother,” Matthew said in parting.
The man extended his hand. “Yes, we shall meet again.”
Matthew and I headed back to our cabin. Before we settled in for a delicious afternoon nap, my last waking thought was “on earth as it is in heaven.” One day, God will use fire to purify the earth, and all the nations will be healed in the shade of the Tree of Life, watered by an unpolluted river. And it will be very, very good
As co-founder and Managing Director of Blessed Earth, Nancy Sleeth travels throughout the U.S. speaking and writing about faith and the environment. Prior to heeding this spiritual and environmental calling, Sleeth served as communications director for a Fortune 500 company and as an educator and administrator, most recently at Asbury University. Nancy is a graduate of Georgetown University and holds a masters degree in journalism. She is the author of Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life. She also authored Go Green, Save Green, the first-ever practical guide for going green from a faith perspective. Nancy and Matthew Sleeth have been married for more than 30 years. They live in Lexington, KY, near their grown children, Clark (a physician preparing for medical missions) and Emma (creation care speaker/author for teens and young adults).
*This article was originally published at relevantmagazine.com.