Texts: Ps. 36:5-10; Job: 28:1-12
What does the Bible have to say about climate change?
Well, the answer depends on how widely we’re casting our readerly net. Certainly, as we heard in Psalm 36, the Bible tells us that God’s loving care extends to all creatures. That is not insignificant. However, if we are looking for a reference to the scientific side of climate change we will not find much in the Bible.
Scientists have observed that in the last century the average global temperature on the earth’s surface has risen about 1° C. The longest running atmospheric monitoring station is on Hawaii’s Big Island. It’s called the Mauna Loa Observatory. Data on atmospheric C02 has been collected on this site for 60 years and much, much longer through the analysis of ice cores. This kind of observation shows an increasing concentration of C02 and other “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere, which correlates with increasing surface temperatures around the globe.
Does the Bible weigh in on this?
One of the world’s most famous climate scientists is a Canadian woman named Katharine Hayhoe. Her husband is an evangelical pastor. They live in Texas. A couple of years ago, she wrote a column describing how surprised church folk sometimes ask if she rally “believes” in climate change. Dr. Hayhoe says “No.” What she means is that climate change is not a matter of “belief” it’s a fact demonstrated with data. The Bible does not have much, if anything, to say about this aspect of climate change.
The idea that humans are causing climate change is not new. Way back in the 1890’s the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius described the connection. The actual changes we’re talking about, though, have been trace to the beginning of the Industrial Revelation. That’s long enough ago to give us clear data, but not nearly long enough ago to have shown up on the Apostle Paul’s newsfeed.
So, no, the Bible does not have much to say about the science of climate change. We wouldn’t expect it to. Contributing to the natural science has never been the point of the collection of texts in our Bible. Psalms and Proverbs have lots to say about life, but neither is intended to be a science textbook or a research report.
One passage from the Bible that people sometimes point to when thinking about the future of our planet is II Peter 3:10. This is the kind of passage that gets shown in jagged text at the start of a scary movie. Here’s how it reads in the NRSV:
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”
Remember that last word, “disclosed.”
Some older English translations have a more startling ending. Here’s how the KJV renders the final clause II Peter 3:10: “the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” This verse, in this translation, was often mentioned during the nuclear arms race. Then and now people sometimes point to this verse and say, “Look the Bible tells us that God intends to destroy the earth, so why worry about it?”
The problem is that the scholars who developed the older translations (like the KJV) were relying on less credible manuscripts. II Peter 3:10 is a challenging passage, but it was probably not intended to say anything about God destroying the earth. The newer versions give us more credible translations.
What the author was most likely saying was that there will come a time when God will tear away the vale of secrecy that covers sinful injustice and exploitation. God will disclose secret, backroom deals and self-interested carelessness. II Peter 3:10 is about divinely mandated transparency.
Way back in Genesis 8, just after Noah’s flood, we’re told that God made a covenant with all creatures to not destroy life. Furthermore, the future oriented texts within the Bible speak to the renewal of the earth not its elimination (e.g., Rev. 21-22). II Peter 3:10 is not about the destructive of the earth, whether by nuclear weapons or climate change.
So, we circle back again to our question: What does the Bible have to say about climate change?
Here’s what I think, and I invite you to consider this with me: I believe the Bible encourages us to think of climate change as a symptom.
We’re all now familiar with the process of noticing a symptom and then trying to identify the cause. Someone in your household has a sore throat or a runny nose: Is it a cold or is it covid? Even though it takes work to uncover the link between the symptom and the cause, the symptom is still significant.
A symptom is a form of grace. At least that’s how we’d describe it on a Sunday morning.
Pain or discomfort, at least in modest amounts, are merciful signals. Imagine not knowing that your body was fighting a serious infection. (You might not have to imagine that.) Without a symptom you wouldn’t know something was wrong. Even worse, you might not know that you were causing harm.
Think about this verse from Leviticus 26 [the ancient Israelites are preparing to enter the promised land; God is addressing them]:
“If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.”
Did you notice the link?
Think about this verse from Isaiah 29 [God is speaking to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who have disregarded instructions for living well and living justly]:
“You will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.”
The link is there too.
The British theologian Michael Northcott has written more about the Bible and climate change than almost anyone else (Sallie MacFague would be another candidate). Northcott says that in the Bible weather magnifies and reveals the will of God. In the Bible weather is often a sign of how people are living.
For the biblical writers, especially those of the Hebrew Bible, it was impossible to separate humans from the rest of nature. The division we often make between our “selves” and our “environment” would not have made sense to them. Today ecologists are saying the same thing.
Some scholars of the Hebrew Bible say that the writers thought of elements of non-animal nature as persons. In their way of seeing the world, trees, rain, and soil were responsive. They were animate. You know how we sometimes say certain things are “inanimate objects”? We sometimes make fun of each other for having affection for something we see as inanimate.
Many of the biblical writers would not have thought of mountains, trees, weather, or lakes as “inanimate objects.” These elements of nature were not just objects waiting for us to do something with. Instead, they were viewed as active and responsive agents. There’s an obvious parallel here with many indigenous cultures.
Here’s a classic example from Isaiah 55:12. Think about this carefully:
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
We often hear this verse and think, “Wow, isn’t that a nice metaphor. Obviously, trees don’t have hands or clap, so this is just a metaphor.”
It is a metaphor but think about how the comparison is arranged. It’s not just a metaphor. Mari Joerstad, from the Vancouver School of Theology, explains this well. She points out that, though the verse is speaking metaphorically, it is still saying something about trees. The focus of the metaphor is not on people. Isaiah is comparing trees to people as a way of saying that trees respond. They are animate—as strange as that idea sounds to us.
Our language doesn’t have a great way of describing the responsiveness of trees, so Isaiah likens it to something the reader knows—people, clapping! The trees, along with the mountains and the hills, are responding to the fact that the humans have repented and God has been merciful (vv. 3-7). The human-earth system has been reconciled and the trees, mountains and hills respond.
So, returning to our question again, what might the Bible have to say about the fact that our climate is changing?
Taken as a whole, I’m suggesting that the Bible says something like this: The changing climate is a symptom of sickness. And this is not merely a sickness of the earth’s carbon cycle. It is a sickness involving the relationship of the earth’s human inhabitants to the rest of the community of creation. Climate change is a symptom of a destructive way of life. We’ve allowed our scientific technologies to outpace our spiritual ‘technologies’.
Here’s an important thing to remember: When we’re talking about climate change as a symptom, let’s not forget that those who experience the worst impacts are often those who have done the least to cause the problem. Just like your body, the link between the symptom and the cause is not always fair. It’s largely the wealthy countries of the world that have pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The Inuit, for instance, have done little to contribute to the greenhouse gas problem, but they certainly are feeling the effects. This injustice is one thing we should remember, another relates to the temptation to demonize certain people or industries.
For instance, notice that the Bible does refer to resource extraction (e.g., mining) in several places. The Hebrew Bible straddles the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the ancient peoples it depicts benefit from mining just like we do. One of passages I’m thinking of is Deuteronomy 8, where God describes the land where the ancient Israelites will live:
“A land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey,a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.”
Of course, there is also the passage read to us earlier from Job, which compares seeking wisdom to mining. When I’m suggesting that the Bible would have us view climate change as a symptom, I’m not trying to stigmatize certain people’s work.
As urbanites (and easterners) its easy to point fingers at other people or places. But this is not helpful. The symptom of the earth’s changing climate is making it clear that our power as human beings has far outpaced our wisdom. Sin, as described in the book of Genesis, begins with something similar.
Climate change is signaling that our desire for wealth and careless consumption has outpaced our ability to make wise choices about our use of energy. Climate change is signaling that our historic defense of individual rights and private property have not been matched by a defense of the kinds of things we can’t divide up or own individually. Since nobody can own the atmosphere, we haven’t developed good ways of protecting it.
The point I want to leave with you this morning is that the Bible has something say about this problem.
You might remember a couple of Sundays ago we considered part of the Christ hymn from Philippians 2. There are several significant lines that precede it: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Early Christians believed that care for the wellbeing of others was a direct application of the story of Jesus. This is important medicine for the sickness that inflicts our society.
Look to the needs of others—future others, who have no vote now, but who will surely be affected by our actions.
Look to the needs of others—others who are less wealthy, who can’t buy their way out of the impacts of a changing climate
Look to the needs of others—others whose lives depend more directly on the seasons and the weather than do ours, those for whom changes in climate have devastating affects on a way of life
And look to the needs of others—others whose work will be altered by practical and necessary changes to our economy.
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but also to the interest of others.”
So, does the Bible have anything to say about climate change? I think it says quite a bit. When we work our way though it, like a miner through the seems of the earth, it says quite a bit.
For more, see the work of Mari Joerstad, Sallie MacFague, or Michael Northcott; here’s a link to the column I referred to by Katharine Hayhoe.