From childhood I have loved the natural world—and Australian wildlife and wilderness in particular. When I was a boy I used to read nature books and magazines, keep finches and quails, collect eggs and shells, and catch lizards and ant-lions. From adulthood I have repeatedly celebrated the wonders of nature in my poetry. For example:
Bud and Blossom
The eucalyptus bud:
a cup with a cap.
Lift the lid and
the filaments fizz:
red, like sherbet.1
As a Christian attracted to nature, I am keen to know what God has to say about it in his word. How important is the natural world in its own right? How important is it in relation to human beings? How should it be used and/or conserved? How does the green movement fit with the Christian faith? In short, how green is God?2
God cares for nature
The Bible teaches that God created the universe and everything in it. The galaxies did not originate from a chance explosion of matter; and life did not originate from the random combination of inorganic substances. On the contrary, God made the earth and filled it with innumerable living things, both great and small. By his will, wisdom and power all things were created and have their being.3
After he had finished his mighty acts of creation, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).4 His creation was perfect, and it delighted him.
Now it stands to reason that if God created the earth’s flora and fauna, and if he is pleased with them, then he must have an interest in them and a concern for them. Scripture confirms what reason contends.
God’s care for his creatures is demonstrated by his detailed knowledge of them. He declares, “I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine” (Psalm 50:11). To emphasise his supreme knowledge of his entire creation, God asked Job: “Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth? Do you observe the calving of the hinds? Do you give the horse his might? Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up?” (Job 39: 1, 19, 26, 27). The Lord Jesus Christ told his disciples that such is God’s interest in, and involvement with, his creation that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge and permission (Matthew 10:29).
God’s care for his creatures is also demonstrated by his provision for them. Jesus said: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26). God sustains his creatures by supplying their needs. Again God asked Job, “Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?” (38:41; cf Psalm 147:9). Who is moved to pity when the fledgling ravens cry out in hunger? God is! Who provides food for them in their plight? God does! This fact is all the more remarkable when we appreciate that under Old Testament law the raven was viewed as an unclean bird, a bird which the people of Israel were not allowed to eat, or even to touch (Leviticus 11:13, 15, 24). This unclean bird, this bird of no practical value, is the object of God’s tender care! Similarly, “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Psalm 104:21). Indeed, all creatures look to God, “to give them their food in due season” (Psalm 104:27).
God’s care for his creatures is additionally demonstrated by his protection of them. The Old Testament contains certain guidelines for the preservation of the environment and its wildlife. For example, God rules out the wanton destruction of vegetation, as indicated in Deuteronomy 20:19, where he commands the people of Israel, “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field men that they should be besieged by you?” Trees enjoy a measure of divine protection. And so do the birds that nest in them. For God commands the hunter: “If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall let the mother go” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Even a mother bird enjoys protection from our Father God.
God also extends protection to domestic animals. He commands, for example, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). In ancient times, oxen were yoked to wooden sledges which they pulled around the threshing floor to break up the stalks and husks of the grain in preparation for winnowing. To prevent an ox from eating the grain, a farmer would cover or tie up its mouth. But the Lord forbade this, insisting that the animal should be allowed to eat as it worked. Kindness towards domestic animals is pleasing to God. Proverbs 12:10 states that “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast”. One of the ways a person shows consideration for his animal is to ease its labour. Hence, God commands, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest” (Exodus 23:12).
God’s care for his creatures is further demonstrated by his approval of the study of them. He “gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure”. With this wisdom, Solomon spoke, among other things, “of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and birds, and of reptiles, and of fish” (1 Kings 4:33). Inspired by God, Israel’s third king became a great naturalist. He also carved “palm trees and open flowers” in various places in the temple he built for the Lord (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 35), thereby intimating that the natural world is precious to God and contributes to his praise.
The magnitude of God’s love for all his creatures, great and small, is celebrated in Psalm 84:3, which exclaims: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.” This tender picture shows that God’s concern for his creatures is not business-like but father-like, not distant but nearby, not general but particular. Even the most insignificant of his creatures is welcome in his presence.
The earth’s plants and animals are precious to God. He is intensely interested in, and intimately involved with, the life of each one of them. He knows their natures and calls them all by name. He supplies their needs and protects their interests. In this respect, he is the Cosmic Conservationist, the Original Greenie.
God gave humans dominion over nature
However, so far as an understanding of mankind’s relationship to nature is concerned, God is at odds with many of today’s conservationists.
God made the natural world for his own pleasure and to reveal his own glory. But he also made it for mankind’s pleasure and profit. At the end of the six days of creation, he instructed Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). This command does not sanction the destruction of the environment; but it does permit, and even require, the wise use of natural resources for the benefit of mankind.
Many conservationists misunderstand what the Bible means when it speaks of human dominion over nature. They define dominion in terms of degradation and destruction. But such notions have nothing to do with the biblical concept of dominion. As we have already noted, God’s love for the earth and its creatures is boundless. In this regard, he out-greens the greens to an infinite degree! So he plainly was not telling Adam and Eve to degrade or destroy the earth’s creatures and their habitat. He was not setting up a dictatorship but a guardianship. He intended human beings to administer and utilise the natural world benevolently.
Mankind’s dominion over nature involves the legitimate use of natural things. For example, to split a tree into posts is to have dominion over nature. To fence a piece of land for pasture is to have dominion over nature. To keep a sheep in a paddock is to have dominion over nature. To shear wool from a sheep is to have dominion over nature. We could go on and on. To keep dogs for pets, to pen poultry for eggs, to arrange plants for gardens, to prune vines for grapes—these simple and sensible acts are acts of dominion.
While conservationists may object to the notion of human dominion over nature, they, like all people, necessarily dominate nature in numerous ways. Even the most dedicated greenie must subdue creation to live. He might object to the logging of native forests, but he is pleased to have jarrah floor-boards and furnishings in his own house. He might not wear furs, but he does wear leather sandals cut from the hides that come from the slaughter yard. He might not eat meat, but he does eat other living things, such as carrots and turnips, and thinks nothing of hoeing the vegetable patch to kill the weeds. In short, he does what the Bible says he ought to do: he subdues the earth for his own survival.
Dominion involves more than consumption, however. It also involves conservation. The right to exploit is counterbalanced by the responsibility to protect. Dominion in this sense is necessary for the well-being of nature itself. To keep cattle for meat so game can be spared, to plant trees for timber so native forests can be preserved, to lay baits for foxes so numbats can breed up, to licence marroning in rivers so marron can remain plentiful, to study diseases in koalas so the species can survive—these are some of the ways that human beings exercise dominion over nature for nature’s good.
Nature can benefit from mankind’s dominion in another way. Under human guidance, plants and animals can be lifted above their natural state. For example, a dog that has been trained to round up the sheep has become something more than it would otherwise have been. Its existence is touched with added purpose. Similarly, a fruit tree that is fertilised and pruned becomes something better than it would have been in its wild state.
God charged mankind with the government of the natural world. In doing this, he conferred on humans the right to use considerately all living things. While conservationists may object to this right, even they cannot help but exercise it.
God values humans above nature
God and the greens are often at odds on a second, more serious matter concerning mankind’s relationship to nature. This disagreement centres on an estimation of the worth of a human’s life as compared to an animal’s life.
Some time ago the Australian Conservation Foundation published a brochure about endangered animals. It was an interesting and informative leaflet; but it contained one statement that demonstrated just how far conservationist and Christian thought can be from each other. It said that we must look upon all species “as our companions on planet Earth, commanding equal respect.” The phrase, commanding equal respect hints at the idea that seems to underlie much conservationist thought today—namely, that animal life, and even plant life, is as inherently valuable as human life.
The belief that humans are no more valuable than other animals arises from the belief that humans are basically the same as other animals; and this belief arises from the evolutionary theory, which teaches that humans evolved from other animals. Evolutionists insist that “No single, essential difference separates human beings from the other animals”.5This is an extraordinary claim, and one that defies reality. Human beings are remarkable different from “the other animals”, as indicated by such intangible qualities as conscience, reason, faith, will, imagination, ambition, language, laughter, wonder and worship. These qualities find no counterpart in nature but are unique to human beings; and they arise from the fact that God made us in his own likeness so that we might enjoy a special relationship with him.
At first glance, the attempt to attribute equal value to human and animal life seems to ennoble animal life. But on closer consideration we discover that it does no such thing. Rather, it demeans human life. To say that a rabbit-eared bandicoot is as valuable as a human does not dignify the bandicoot so much as degrade the human. We see this degrading of human life under Hinduism in India, where animal life is considered sacred. In that country, cows are permitted to eat crops while people starve.
To value all life as equal ultimately leads to a contempt for human life. Equal respect for animals and humans soon turns into greater respect for animals. D.H. Lawrence illustrates this in his poem, “Mountain Lion”, which he wrote after meeting two hunters carrying a dead lion in the Lobo canyon in Mexico. Having expressed his grief and anger over the killing, Lawrence continues:
I think in this empty world [of the Lobo canyon] there was room for me
and a mountain lion.
And I think in the world beyond [the canyon], how easily we might spare
a million or two of humans
And never miss them.
Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of that slim
yellow mountain lion!
Whatever their merit as poetry, these lines express a shocking devaluation of human life. Lawrence would happily sacrifice (not himself but) one or two million human beings for the life of the mountain lion. For in his thinking, a lion is special, while humans are common; a lion is rare, while humans are numerous; a lion is lovely, while humans are unlovely: so what could be more sensible than to value the lion’s life above human life?
Now, a Christian can share with Lawrence a sense of loss and indignation over the slaughter of the rare and beautiful “slim yellow mountain lion”. But no Christian should share his view that the world could easily “spare a million or two of humans” in exchange for the lion.
The notion that other forms of life are as valuable as, or even more valuable than, human life is utterly rejected by Christianity. The Lord Jesus repeatedly stressed the surpassing value of human life in God’s eyes. On one occasion he exclaimed, “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” (Matthew 12:12). On another occasion, having noted that God feeds the birds, he said, “Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 12:24). On another occasion, having noted that God cares even for the common sparrows, Jesus emphasised God’s special care for human beings by saying, “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31). On yet another occasion, Jesus calmed his listeners’ anxieties concerning their daily necessities by saying, “Consider the lilies … even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field … will he not much more clothe you” (Matthew 6:28-30)? While God cares for the lilies and clothes them with beauty, he cares for humans and their needs even more.
In the estimation of our Creator, human life is the most valuable life on earth. In fact, it is vastly more valuable than all other life put together. Not all the rain forests, not all the seal pups, not all the great whales, not all the mountain lions, equal the value of one human soul. This truth might seem outrageous when we compare the worth of the whales against the worth of a person whom we do not like or know. But it becomes rather wonderful if we compare it with the worth of either our own life or the life of someone we love. How wonderful it is to know that the God who made all things, loves and values each one of us above all things!
Some people claim that this Christian view of the pre-eminent worth of human life is parochial (ie, narrow and bigoted), while others say that it is anthropomorphic (ie, man-centred and selfish). But it is not either of these things, for it is God’s doing, not ours. He has chosen to make us in his own likeness, thereby elevating us far above other living things. He has chosen to set his special love upon us. He has chosen to send his Son to save us from sin and judgment. We had nothing to do with it.
Indeed, we are entirely astonished that it should be so. Like King David, we find ourselves saying, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). Given the vastness of the universe, how can it be that God thinks about us at all? How can it be that he cares for us above and beyond everything else he has made? We do not have the answer. We only know that it is true.
The ultimate proof of the surpassing worth of mankind is found in the incarnation, when the Son of God became the man Jesus and dwelt among us. He became one of us—not one of the animals, but one of us—to bear our sins on the cross. The Bible teaches that all creation will ultimately benefit from Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 8:21). But this, in a sense, is by the way. For essentially “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The Lord Jesus came to earth to take away our sins by dying on our behalf. This is the measure of our worth!
How green is God? When it comes to a love for all living things, he is greener than the greenest greenie. For he cares deeply for his creatures, watching over them constantly to ensure their welfare. However, when it comes to a love for all human beings, God is not green in the least. For he gives humans dominion over nature, and values human life above plant and animal life to an immeasurable degree.
Christians should cultivate an interest in the things of nature and strive for their conservation. This is one way to honour God and to learn more about him. But we should take care that we do not devalue human beings in the process. Rather, we should remember that people are more precious than wilderness and wildlife, not only because God created them in his likeness, but because he sent his Son in their likeness.
To help us keep a right perspective, we would do well to remember that nature is transient, while humans are eternal. On the Day of Judgment, “the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). But human souls will not. The soul will live forever in a new, resurrection body. Persons who have placed their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ will live upon “a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). On this new earth all nature will be restored to its original vigour, harmony and beauty. This is the ultimate hope for every nature-lover.