Confessions of a Tree Hugger
By Ed Gungor
June 13, 2012
I grew up an earth user. Along with millions of other Americans from my generation, I shamelessly tossed out my fast food trash on the highways and byways as I traveled along, singing a song.
I never thought much about it until I saw a public service announcement in the 1970s featuring an elderly American Indian chief looking at huge piles of garbage and sewage with a large tear running down his cheek. The commercial was very impacting emotionally and it was a watershed moment for me as far as my ecological worldview was concerned. I remember thinking, Maybe we shouldn’t trash the planet. But after I came to Jesus and realized He was going to return sometime in the next couple of months, I began to think, Wait a minute … who cares what happens to this planet? We’ll be out of here soon anyway.
This thinking caused me to discount concerns about how big business was recklessly polluting the air and water and plundering the land for all its natural resources with little care for conservation. Heck, I even found verses that seemed to back up my irreverence for the environment. I saw that God himself was eventually going to trash the planet with fire (2 Peter 3:10)—so a few Styrofoam cups on the roads and some ozone holes in the upper atmosphere shouldn’t matter. I figured since the world was destined for doom and destruction, what does it matter if we humans pollute it or exhaust its resources. My anticonservation bias was actually spiritualized. As a result, I used to look at conservationists with disdain, accusing them of being “men of this world whose reward is in this life” (Ps. 17:14) and ones who, in Paul’s words, “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). They were tree-worshiping heathens to me. Any verses that suggested God cared about the condition of the earth escaped my notice.
It wasn’t till I entered seminary that I first saw what the Bible actually taught about the sacredness of the environment. One day I caught my Old Testament professor roaming around campus collecting soda cans from receptacles he had set up. I thought he was doing it for the money, but when I asked him about it, he said, “Actually, I use the money I make for missions, but my real motivation is to do what I can to conserve the earth’s resources and to keep it clean in order to honor God. Sin has sullied it enough.”
I wrinkled my eyebrows in surprise. I had never thought in those terms and told him so. He smiled and told me that God does care about the earth and that God is planning on returning to this place to live in it one day. He pointed out that it was because of God’s care for earth that he told Adam and Eve to “work and take care of” it (Gen. 2:15). His care also explains why God told Israel to make sure the land got the rest that was its due (Lev. 25:4). He even judged Israel for not giving the land rest. It wasn’t until I really stopped to consider that God created this planet to be a place for his glory to be seen and that in he invited humanity to participate with him in sustaining it—to bring his rule into it—that the picture changed for me.
God doesn’t want us to carelessly trash the planet in the name of progress, even if we think Jesus is coming back soon. He wants us to use it responsibly and to care for it. It is true that one day God will recreate what is into a new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21), but He is planning on returning to the one that is here now. For most of my life as a Christian I was taught that the goal of faith was to escape this planet and “go to heaven.” This may surprise you but it wasn’t until 1832 that John Nelson Darby came up with the whole concept of the “rapture” made so popular by the Left Behind book series. No one in church history had ever surmised such a thing. The Christian-story had never been about escaping. It wasn’t about escaping the first time Jesus came, nor is it about that as scripture talks about His second coming. The story has always been about bringing God’s kingdom into this world, just as the prayer states: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” I’m not arguing that there isn’t going to be a “rapture.” I really don’t have much of an opinion on the matter. The point is, whether or not there is one, those who leave planet earth won’t leave it forever. Whoever is in heaven when it’s time for Jesus to come back to earth, will return back to earth with Him. There will be no “going to heaven forever” for any of us. The historical Christian view has always been that human beings will live on this planet for eternity with God (Rev. 21-22).
The Shape of Things
Thinking Jesus is coming to rescue us will shape your faith differently than believing Jesus is coming to join us and that we need to welcome Him to the planet He loves.
If you were coming to pick me up at my house tonight, I wouldn’t care much about the dishes in the sink, my messy papers on the kitchen counters, the dog toys strewn all over the living room, or the spotty sinks in the bathroom. You would be coming to get me out of here…who cares what things look like inside my house. But if you are planning on coming over to hang around at my house, my whole agenda changes…I would want this place to be clean and to look good. I’d get to work cleaning the house before your arrival.
Because so many of us think Jesus is coming to get us out of here, we are way too casual about the condition of this planet. I think we need to wake up and enter the long-standing Christian tradition of responsible environmental conservation. Jesus is coming. We need to embrace practices like only cutting down as many trees as we can replace with seedlings. Jesus is coming. We need to stop dumping more waste into our air and water than the environment can recover from. Jesus is coming. We need to be stewards instead of users of this planet.
The saints that have gone before us have claimed that God loves this place. What if that is true? What if conservation glorifies God? Then that would mean the followers of Jesus should become the champions of environmental issues. We shouldn’t tolerate global warming, overflowing landfills, species extinction, and the like. We have to find simple, sustainable ways for we earth-dwellers to live here without destroying “here.” So, though we are not supposed to be tree worshipers, I think we should at least be hugging them.