Environmentalism: A Significant Theological and Ethical Concern

Because Earth is not detention hall, because postmodern Christians are abandoning End-times theories of abandonment, because this world is the world of God’s redemptive activity, because man is steward, not owner, of Creation (the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it); because this earth is the one being renewed and restored (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3: 21, Romans 8: 19-25 etc), because this earth is where the resurrection will occur – a trait of postmodern/emerging Christianity is a concern for the Creation, the environment, this place. Recycling is an ethical issue for  postmoderns. Endangered species are part of a theology of creation, an issue of biblical proportions for them. This may sound ludicrous to some modern Christians. If it does sound ludicrous then we are at a point of departure between modern and postmodern Christianity, and I suspect future generations of Christians will look back and consider those modern Christians to be the ludicrous ones.  Postmoderns do not walk around with the primary view of Christian faith being getting me to heaven when I die. The world around them, the Creation here and now, figure large. In fact, if push comes to theological shove, some modern Christians may want to call ‘hippie tree-hugger’ but the postmodern Christian will respond that they are embracing a Hebraic biblical worldview while the modern Christian is a dualistic Gnostic, denying this world and focused on blasting off to a purely spiritual one, implicitly denying resurrection.

Some may not believe modern evangelicalism has been outright anti-environment. It may be that the impression comes from particular political positions evangelicals have been known for. However, pop modern evangelical theology has factored in: an inventor friend of mine, when asked about the environmental safety of his invention, actually said “well, it’s all gonna burn, so who cares?”

When postmodern Christians hear evangelical leaders decry this concern for Creation and the environment it sounds to their ears suspiciously like a Republican defense of big business or Left Behind theology or both. While it is true that this environmental concern is a reflection of societal awakenings that began in the early 1900s with individuals like outdoorsman/ nature lover President Teddy Roosevelt and his crowd, what the postmodern Christians have done is take that concern for the environment and look into the Bible and come to realize “hey! this is part of our mandate!” So while movements in the broader culture may well have sparked the most recent Christian look at the issue, what’s been discovered is that our Scriptures indeed have a direction for us on this subject, and our history has many resources as well.

Bloggers and other de-criers of the Emergent boogeyman hear postmodern Christians speaking about their profound concern over creation and their deep interest in being good stewards of the world God made, and accuse them of being New Age Earth Mother worshippers.  In reality, this is the ‘greening of the evangelical conscience’. It isn’t going away. And it’s in line with a biblical theology of creation. A creation God cares about, evidenced in his discussion of birds, mammals and plant life throughout the Scriptures, especially the Wisdom literature. So: good.

 

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More Than One Way to Think About Hell?

Back just before Rob Bell’s Love Wins came out, people were freaking out. I don’t know why, because the book hadn’t even hit the shelves yet. But somehow enough had leaked out that the firestorm was in full swing. I was suspicious that what had everybody going was that Rob was going to talk about other views of  ‘the fate of the wicked’ than simply “they burn forever and ever”. Since views of hell that were over instantaneously, or only temporary and remedial in nature were much more numerous in historic Christianity than most North Americans realized, I wrote the following summary of the short-terms hells for our church’s website. This post will get us around to a post I will write soon “Then Why Send Missionaries?”

Various Christian universalisms have been around since the beginning, although they haven’t historically been the majority view. Christian ideas of universal salvation are not generic universalism. “Generic universalism” is the idea that all religions essentially teach the same thing and are pointed at the same goal, so any religion can get you to heaven. (By the way, all religions do not teach the same thing, all religions do not aim at the same goal, and no religion gets anyone to heaven, including Christianity).

The various versions of ‘Universal Salvation’  (also called ‘Universal Reconciliation’ or ‘Universal Restoration’) in Christianity are not the idea that any religion will get you to the same place. No, Universalism in Christianity was the idea that the atonement of Jesus is so profoundly powerful that, in the purposes of God, when all is said and done, every human who has ever lived will eventually and finally turn to God. (This may be what Bell’s title refers to: Love Wins.) Here’s another way it has been summed up: “All human beings will ultimately enjoy redemption and the presence of God forever. Some find the abundant life on this side of the grave — they are called “the elect,” “the saints” and “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgment and retribution, either in this life or the next. But in the end, they will join the company of the redeemed.” (http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/universal_restoration.html)

Most Christian versions of this doctrine include hell of some sort, usually as a limited-duration remedial punishment (get their attention so they want God more than rebellion). While it hasn’t come down to us as the majority view, there were times when it was common (as late as the 5th century Jerome said ‘most people’ and Augustine said ‘many people’ believed it).  The idea  has been believed, or at least considered quite possibly true,  by many sincere followers of Jesus down through the ages, including some pretty heavy hitters: St. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Alexandrian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Peter Boehler, William Law,  Sundhar Singh, G.K. Chesteron, Karl Barth and John Neuhaus. (I had a larger list and at present can’t find it). Needless to say, the list of heavy-hitters who did NOT believe in this doctrine is far, far, longer.  The fact that the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Rev. Billy Graham, has expressed hope in the doctrine of Universal Salvation ought to indicate that it doesn’t undercut evangelism, as some of its critics claim.

Christians who believe in Universal Salvation basically build their arguments around the following ideas:

  • the God who told us to forgive our enemies wouldn’t turn around and set His on fire for trillions of years (this idea has also given birth to the doctrine called ‘Annihilationism’: the idea that Hell is brief and then “the wicked vanish like smoke” and cease to exist (Psalm 37:20).
    •  modern English tends to obscure the nuances of Greek words regarding hell, and we tend to assume the words hell, gehennaSheol, punishment, judgment, justice and wrath all mean the same thing, which they don’t
    • the Greek words for punishment associated with hell in the New Testament are words with ‘remedial’ meanings, indicating the punishment is so people will do better next time
    • Jesus said some will be ‘beaten with few blows’ or ‘punished lightly’ (Luke 13:48). How could this possibly be describing trillions of years of torment?
  • 1 Peter 3: 19-20 and 4: 3,5 describe Jesus preaching to those who had died without knowledge of God’s ways during the time of Noah. Universalists figure something will apply to others who fit the same description.
  • It is against the nature of God, who is “kind and loving toward all He has made” to set people He created on fire for trillions of years. Endless torment  is disproportionate punishment for a crime committed in a limited scope on earth.
  • Paul calls Jesus “the Savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10)  and “reconciling all things on heaven and on earth” (Col 1:20 .)   Jesus said “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to me” John 12:32. David declares “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22: 27) These are by no means all the verses Christian Universalists use, but they are representative.
  • ‘Universal Salvation’ was never condemned by any Ecumenical Council during the formative Patristic Age (first 5 centuries), even though some tried to have it condemned. St. Augustine considered those believing in Universal Salvation, (though he did not), still to be genuine Christians.

C S Lewis, in his beloved Chronicles of Narnia approaches this subject by describing a man who had grown up worshipping an idol/false god, finally meeting Aslan (who represents Christ). When Aslan says ‘come here my son,’ the man falls down on his knees expecting to be killed. When Aslan doesn’t kill him, he can’t understand: “I served Tash – a false-god – all my life, and now I see that YOU are the Truth….” Aslan replies “You acted in ignorance. Whatever vows you kept to Tash I credit as vows kept to me. Whatever vows you made to Tash and broke, I count as vows broken to me.” (I summed it up: for more detail, see The Last Battle, chapter 15).

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–          Some Christians ask “If someone can eventually get right with God after death, why send missionaries?” I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.