Many environmentalists have a dim view of Christianity. At least as early as the first Earth Day in 1970, they have seen it as part of the problem. Paul Ehrlich, for example, wrote, “The Judeo-Christian idea of man dominating nature must be replaced by the goal of living in harmony with nature.” He misrepresented that whole tradition. That’s not what the Bible says, although some Christians might think so.
As soon as God created Adam and Eve, he granted them dominion over the earth. Here’s one translation of an important verse:
Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 NKJV).
Using Bible Gateway, it is possible to read about four dozen English translations of that verse on the same page. Not a one uses “dominate,” although the Amplified Bible suggests it parenthetically. We don’t use “dominion” much these days. So most of the newer translations use words like subdue, rule, take charge, or control.
Those words may not seem very different from dominate. But look at some common synonyms for dominate: conquer, overpower, subjugate, vanquish. Those words certainly describe what we’ve done to the earth., but it’s not what God intended when he assigned us dominion over the earth.
Something the Bible says about oppression
Here is what God said when strong people chose to overpower, subjugate, and vanquish weaker people:
‘For among My people are found wicked men;
They lie in wait as one who sets snares;
They set a trap;
They catch men.
As a cage is full of birds,
So their houses are full of deceit.
Therefore they have become great and grown rich.
They have grown fat, they are sleek;
Yes, they surpass the deeds of the wicked;
They do not plead the cause,
The cause of the fatherless;
Yet they prosper,
And the right of the needy they do not defend.
Shall I not punish them for these things?’ says the Lord.
‘Shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation as this?’
“An astonishing and horrible thing
Has been committed in the land:
The prophets prophesy falsely,
And the priests rule by their own power;
And My people love to have it so.
But what will you do in the end? (Jeremiah 5:26-31)
Something the Bible says about God’s will for the environment
Both the Old and New Testaments speak of God’s intention to return bodily to set things right. In Isaiah 11, a Christ figure identified as the “Rod from the stem of Jesse” comes to “slay the wicked.” And here’s the promised outcome:
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
The earth is not full of the knowledge of the Lord. On the contrary, it is full of sin and rebellion. Sin, by the way, means missing the mark. It means falling short of the target. God intended us to rule the earth under his leadership. Instead, we turn our back and try to do everything our way instead.
All the problems we have to deal with come as a consequence. That includes war, disease, and the various environmental problems we face.
Those who want to abandon the Judeo-Christian tradition to save the environment miss the mark. We do not live in harmony with nature precisely because we have not exercised dominion over the earth as God intended. The whole human race has indeed dominated as Ehrlich complained, but the way to live in harmony with nature is not to abandon Bible teachings about dominion over the earth but to obey them.
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The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation
Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology
Understanding Our Covenants with God: God’s Grace, Judgment, and Promise to Restore Human Perfection, from Adam to Moses to Jesus