Our world is shuddering awake to the alarm bell of climate change, to the potential for an uninhabitable earth, to the prospect of mass climate migration, and to the heartache and hardship that awaits the human race in the next century. This is no lightly held opinion, but deep and dogmatic belief which has science as its foundation and the streets of major cities as its forum; it is no minority belief but is finding its way into public policy and evincing public apologies from global governments. Hysteria is unbridled, and as David Wallace-Wells has stated ‘the facts themselves are hysterical’. Like it or not, believe in climate change or deride it, this is now part of how the people we work with, and the people we witness to, are thinking. The upcoming generation, for whom Greta Thunberg serves as an adequate representative, have been front-loaded with over realised aspiration on one hand (‘you can be all that you dream of’) and doomsday rhetoric on the other (‘you won’t live on earth for long, or earth won’t long remain alive for you’). In this post I want to briefly consider some of the ways in which this viewpoint should inform our evangelistic and Bible teaching ministry, and assess the cultural importance of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ ideology.
1. Denial of climate change is not our business
Say the word ‘climate change’ in polite Christian conversation and it is pretty sure that strong reactions will follow, many of them negative. There is a pervasive view among conservative Christians that environmental issues are a Trojan horse for leftist liberalism, that they are a ruse for a certain brand of social theory, and should thus be ignored at best or ridiculed at worst. Access the outrage centrifuge that is Christian Twitter and you will easily locate comments from Christians on news pages about the age of the earth, the state of the earth, and the laughable idea that climate change even exists. Some of this can be fairly ferocious and is almost always entirely graceless. It seems that, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, we believe that the world will end not with a bang but a snigger.
All of this should lead us to wonder how such a reaction plays out in the hearts and minds of people who feel genuine concern at what is alleged to be happening in the world. Christians might feel that securing the boundaries against ‘extinction talk’ will in some way garrison their own arena of belief, but only in the sense that it shuts off meaningful communication with their world. The science behind ‘climate change’ is complex and well outside of the skill set of many Christians, and the evidence of a violent planet ought not to surprise Christians who understand the vital linkage between cosmology and eschatology which biblical theology suggests to us. In the ears of our world the constant Christian message of climate change denial sounds laissez-faire at best, and arrogant at worst. Combine this with a rapture theology which has held sway, particularly in the United States, and the Christian voice can sound as though escapology rather than eschatology is our area of interest. In a world which lauds the bland nicety of ‘kindness’ such strident denial also can sound brash, harsh, and unsympathetic to the genuine concerns of others.
For these reasons, we might be best to mute the megaphone which is raging into the hurricane of climate discourse. It is unlikely to persuade anyone of the gospel, it is not part of our mandate as disciples, and it is seldom based on well reasoned argument.
2. The ‘extinction rebellion’ gives us access to an unknown god
A more helpful, and certainly a more Pauline, approach to environmental issues might be to recognise the presenting symptoms and the underlying causes of climate change concerns. At a superficial level there is little for us to become too concerned about, and much that we might support, about reducing our carbon output and offsetting the damage done to the planet. As Christians we believe in good stewardship of the physical world, the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament make powerful provision for the protection and nurture of the natural world and livestock, and the New Testament is rich in agrarian metaphor and delight in the divinely intricate systems that clothe flowers and feed birds. Of all people we should be those who recognise that with the ‘progress’ of the Industrial Revolution and the steamrolling rise of Modernism, has come at a dreadful cost to the planet and to the dignity of people. If anything, Christians ought to have been far ahead of the rest of the world in advocating for fairness, for compassion, and for care of the world which God has gifted to us. It is to our shame that this has seldom been the case.
In terms of the more fundamental issues which underlie the ‘extinction rebellion’ this is even more productive ground for the gospel. When Paul went to Athens in Acts 17 he didn’t pulverise the altar to the unknown god, he didn’t assume the mantle of an iconoclast, instead he transposed the motives – and sought to reorient the hearts – of those who bowed in that place. Paul could see the emptiness of Athens, his heart was stirred at what he perceived there, and yet his message at Mars Hill was not an angry chainsaw at the trunk of paganism, but a probing of its roots and a transplanting of its affections over to the one true God. This, surely, ought to be our approach and response to climate concerns. Behind the people on the streets, the mass demonstrations, the fasting in protest at the condition of the cosmos, and writing and shouting and tweeting – the mass panic – lie a whole host of assumptions and insecurities which the gospel can more than meet.
People are now alive to the reality that history might have an end, and having jettisoned a sovereign they are now left with human activism as their only hope. People are now alone in a empty universe, or at the mercy of Mother Nature with the vicissitudes of her moods. They are vulnerable, and are hoping against hope that the cause and effect of planet abuse might in some way be reversed. People are open to the idea of sin against the planet and yet the means of atonement seem dimly unreachable and hopelessly ineffective. There is no eco-messiah who might sort out this mess. It is little wonder, then, that people are in greater numbers professing themselves to be ecosexual, relating their fertility to that of a wasting world. Such truths shock modern Christians more than they would have Elijah at Carmel, or Paul at the Areopagus.
The tragedy for Christians is that the gospel is grand enough to address these issues, but not in its predominant expression among evangelicals. The message which many hear from the church is deeply individualised and capitalistic, the mere personal meeting of needs by God, and little else. While the world congregates in hope of the power of community, Christians are isolating themselves into a private world where our needs are paramount as individuals. The biblical gospel is bigger than this. It is a message of literally cosmic proportions, the proclamation of what the living God has done in sending his Son, and this is determinative of all history not just our individual biographies, it is of global as well as of personal significance. The thorns and thistles, the typhoon and tsunami, the groans and contractions of our world speak the need for the Saviour who is Christ Jesus the Lord, and the deep guilt which follows on cause and effect, abuse and outcome, can only be met by the Mediator who stands, not between us and a broken planet, but between us and the wrath of God.
3. Climate change predictions are an alternative eschatology
Even the smallest amount of time spent reading climate change websites or engaging with the arguments of the ‘extinction rebellion’ show that it is a deeply eschatological issue. It is ironic that over the Easter weekend that Christians around the world celebrated the resurrection without perhaps giving due weight to its future implications in terms of the New Creation, while thousands of people thronged and clotted London with a big eschatology based on scientific research.
Listen to Greta Thunberg, and you will quickly realise the evangelistic and eschatological fervour which informs her position. People have sinned by abusing the planet, and rather than going to hell for it, hell will come to them, the earth will mete out its own sentence and its own violence, and we deserve every consequence that is coming our way. We have an evangelistic responsibility to those in the most deprived areas of the earth, and our western inheritance loads us with guilt and culpability for those who will suffer most. We must become vicarious in ourselves, we must take up the cross of self-denial, we must press government into a suitable shape to intercede for us to reduce carbon and secure our future. We will burn if we don’t address this now.
This is eschatology, plain and simple, and at a time when the church needs to find its voice and articulate the vital things that Scripture has to say on these issues, we are talking about ‘felt needs’, we are beautifying the edifice of cultural Christianity, and we are quite happy here without any other heaven. We believe that Christ Jesus is the firstfruits from the dead, we believe that his resurrection is the great signal that the New Creation has come in inauguration and simply awaits consummation. We take seriously the claims of Jesus that the natural world will convulse and contract as his coming draws nearer, and we long for and rejoice at the prospect of all that is broken being renewed – not by the force of human will, or the policies of human government, but by Christ Jesus coming in glory. This is a message of hope, this is a message of reality and depth and clarity and joy which the world desperately needs to hear, and which we are so slow to share.
Far from being a knife at the throat of Christian belief, the extinction rebellion might be a key in the cultural lock which would allow us to fearlessly and winsomely proclaim the ultimate things with which the gospel grapples, and which the gospel resolves.