Is Climate Change Divine Judgment?

I remember the first time I visited the Rocky Mountains in Canada.  I was just a kid, but I was still impressed by the signs that marked the retreating glaciers. Years later, before heading to Glacier National Park with some friends, I remember reading about the same thing: there were less glaciers in that landscape than there used to be, those that still existed were shrinking. Earlier this year the New York Times ran an impressive multi-media piece showing the same phenomenon on a much larger scale. All this has come to mind as I’ve been reflecting on the Psalm assigned for worship this coming Sunday. Here are verses 10-12 of Psalm 85:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.

The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.

The biblical poet is presenting an image of human faithfulness being met by God’s steadfast love and the result being abundance produced by the land. Time and again the Hebrew Bible makes the same connection: a people’s way of life has significant repercussions in the land. Something similar reverberates in the New Testament as well. This is from Galatians 6: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.”

Part of the point, Christian ethicists say, is that sin (to use a particularly crunchy word) carries its own consequences; these consequences are a form of God’s judgment. Failing to care for creation, failing to ever be joyful and satisfied, failing to see the world as more than extractible resources—all that has natural consequences. It’s in this light that it seems logical to say that climate change, with its shrinking glaciers, intense storms and frequent droughts, could be an act of divine judgment on an overly-consumptive people.

Yet there are significant risks in making such a statement. One is that those who experience the worst impact of climate change are rarely those who have perpetuated it. The rich countries that created the problem can more-or-less buy their way out, using money to evade this would-be judgment. What’s more, there is always a danger in looking at history and discerning the will of God. We simply cannot look at the successful and say God has blessed them and look at the poor and say that they have received God’s judgment. Such a determination overlooks the fact that ‘success’ can be had through all kinds of morally despicable means. (It’s also why we should stop saying we are ‘blessed’ if we have cool stuff.) It’s important to notice that the acts of divine judgment named in the Bible affected more than those who were guilty. If we say that climate change is an act of divine judgment, something that on its face seems to fit with the grammar of the faith, it’s hard to then not also say that bad things that happen to anyone are divine judgments. That challenge may be more a feature of our own individualist thinking than it is a break from the biblical witness, but it still creates a problem.

So should we say that climate change is divine judgment? I don’t think we should. That kind of certainty easily tilts over into spiritual manipulation. However, not making such a declaration doesn’t mean that we should not be open to the possibility of it being true. Maintaining this openness—this unwillingness to say that it is not the case—creates room for change. Taking the question seriously is itself significant. It prompts us to grapple with the significance and the depth of the problem.

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