Getting the Future at a Discount Rate

The following is an excerpt from my recent column for the Mennonite Creation Care Network:

Christian theology has been blamed for the extent to which we discount the value of future wellbeing. There’s no way to prove a connection like this, but who among us hasn’t heard a  Christian say: “Why should we worry about the future state of the earth, when God’s going to destroy it anyway?” Or “It’s all going to burn, so why are we trying to maintain it?” In places where Christians make up a significant chunk of the population, this thinking is bound to have an effect.  

Christians are not known for considering how people seven generations down the line will be impacted by their decisions. They are known for thinking that Armageddon is just around the corner. To the extent that our low value of the future is a result of biblical exegesis, it comes from a misreading (or even a mistranslation) of II Peter 3:10 and a handful of similar texts. In the KJV, that verse seems to claim that the earth will be burned up. There is good reason to think that passages like these aren’t describing the destruction of the earth at all, but rather the honest disclosure of things that had been hidden. A full rebuttal of the common misreading of this passage would take more than two sentences, but let’s keep moving and consider two other biblical arguments for valuing the future.

First, a more thoroughly biblical vision of the future takes notice of all that the Bible says about God’s care for creation and its eventual renewal. Genesis tells us that God saw creation as “very good.” Closer to the middle of the Bible, we hear the psalmist suggest repeatedly that our praise for God joins that of the rest of creation. In the gospels, Jesus tells us that God keeps track of the sparrows. And at the far end of the Bible, we read that, instead of being raptured off to heaven, the author of Revelation actually envisions heaven coming to earth. Can we really read this Bible and think that we have license to radically discount the future wellbeing of creation and all its creatures?

On a more economic note, it’s also worth recalling that Jesus taught his followers to “lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). No doubt Jesus was aware of the Torah provision that forbade Israelites from charging each other interest (Deut. 23:19). For generations, much of the church took this as prohibition against charging any interest. Over time, and as the basic structure of the economy changed, it became a prohibition against charging exorbitant rates of interest, what was known as ‘usury.’ 

How is this relevant to our valuation of future wellbeing? Part of the problem with allowing exorbitant interest rates is that it permits the wealthy to take advantage of those in difficult situations. It requires the poor to sell their future wellbeing just to make ends meet in the present. Severely discounting the wellbeing of future generations is similar. It takes those with little current power (future generations) and sacrifices their wellbeing for our own. The radical discrepancy between the valuation of wellbeing at one point in time to that of another should clue us in to an injustice. 

The full article can be found on the MCCN webpage.

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