Here's What Happens When Evangelical Christians Debate Science

The stereotype of Evangelical Christians is that they are anti-science, and therefore don't believe in climate change. But in fact, they are deeply divided over environmental issues. A debate over climate change is raging in Evangelical churches, fueled by conflicting interpretations of Biblical scripture.

Among the most active groups in this debate is the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). Founded in 1993, its defining document is the Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation, which affirms basic Evangelical tenets such as the "full authority of Scriptures" while also rejecting nature worship and positing stewardship of God's creation as the Biblical rationale for environmentalism.

Although EEN is primarily an educational outreach organization, it has become increasingly active in politics. In 1996, the group helped wage a successful campaign to prevent congressional Republicans from weakening the Endangered Species Act, which the EEN called the "Noah's Ark of our day." More recently, the group has emerged as a prominent voice in the Florida gubernatorial race.

Climate Change as a "Pro-Life" Issue

Here's What Happens When Evangelical Christians Debate Science

The EEN's current president, Rev. Mitch Hescox, delivered petitions with more than 60,000 signatures to Florida Governor Rick Scott, asking him to assume a leadership role on climate change. Hescox also wrote a letter requesting a meeting with Scott:

Our shared belief in Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, protect the vulnerable ("the least of these") and care for God's creation. These commands are directly linked to a great moral threat to humanity, climate change. Climate change just isn't in faraway places. Florida, your home, literally represents "ground zero." Sea level rise, more extreme weather, saltwater contaminated wells, loss of farm land and increased air pollution all pose significant threats to the health and well-being of Floridians.

Unfortunately, a few in our nation are attempting to portray addressing climate change as liberal issue. It's not. It's a moral challenge to all Americans. It is a call to follow our Risen Lord and act to prepare for the impacts, many of which are already happening, and to work to reduce our carbon pollution to help our children, now and in the future.

And, in an editorial he wrote for the Orlando Sentinel, he declared:

"For us, being pro-life includes not only defending our unborn children, but also the biblical mandate to care for all life. Toxins and other pollutants foul our water, air, and soil, impacting the purity of life God intends for His creation. That's why creation care remains integral to being pro-life."

That kind of language is offensive to conservative Evangelicals, who feel that equating environmentalism with the "pro-life" movement diminishes their campaign against abortion. And, despite the caveats expressed by the EEN, the group's rhetoric, to conservative ears, has distinct undertones of nature-worship.

In 2005, conservative Evangelicals responded to the EEN by forming the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. The group's national spokesperson, theologian E. Calvin Beisner, has described the environmental movement as "the greatest threat to Western civilization" because it combines "the utopian vision of Marxism, the scientific facade of secular humanism, and the religious fanaticism of jihad" into a pseudo-religion that undermines Christianity.

The Cornwall Alliance's stated mission is:

Promoting Biblical earth stewardship… in a world permeated by an environmental movement whose worldview, theology, and ethics are overwhelmingly anti-Christian, whose science and economics are often poorly done, whose policies therefore often do little good for natural ecosystems but much harm to the world's poor, and whose religious teachings undermine the fundamental Christian doctrines of God, creation, humanity, sin, and salvation.

Chief among the policies that the Cornwall Alliance opposes is reducing fossil fuel emissions to limit climate change, which, it argues, has no basis in scientific fact and threatens to hinder economic growth worldwide.

What Would Jesus Drive?

Here's What Happens When Evangelical Christians Debate Science

Much of the literature distributed by the Evangelical Environmental Network and the Cornwall Alliance is what you'd expect from any advocacy groups: dueling scientific studies, statistics and testimonials about the validity of anthropogenic climate change.

What's far more interesting is the theological philosophies of the two organizations—how their respective interpretations of the Bible translate into their different visions of environmental stewardship.

At the heart of their worldviews are three central questions:

1) Can Humanity cause lasting damage to God's creation?

The key issues here are pride and vanity. Is it arrogant for human beings to damage and even invalidate Creation—for instance, by causing the extinction of an entire species? Or, is it arrogant for human beings to believe that they can permanently harm what an omnipotent God has created?

The EEN argues that ecological degradation is a direct result of human sin, including the gluttony of overconsumption and materialism.

Here's What Happens When Evangelical Christians Debate Science

They cite the fate of Adam and Eve as evidence that sinful behavior causes collateral damage to the world around us:

The Biblical story of the Fall of Man tells us that there are consequences to our sin, and some of these are visited on the non-human parts of God's creation. These practical effects of sin are spelled out in God's curse on Adam and Eve in Genesis…

"Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

The EEN teaches that human sinfulness has caused a perversion of stewardship, resulting in seven "degradations of creation": 1) land degradation 2) deforestation 3) species extinction 4) water degradation; 5) global toxification 6) the alteration of atmosphere 7) human and cultural degradation. Christ came to "heal and bring to wholeness not only persons but the entire created order." Christians are to assist in this task by being "faithful stewards of God's good garden, our earthly home."

On the other hand, the Cornwall Alliance, citing Biblical text such as Psalm 19:1-6, says that the heavens and all creation proclaim the wisdom and glory of God. We should, therefore, see the marks of God's wisdom in the grand design of our environment:

"Just as good engineers build multiple layers of protection into complex buildings and systems, so also the wise Creator has built multiple self-protecting and self-correcting layers into His world.

Positive and negative feedback mechanisms often minimize or quickly repair environmental damage. Irreversible, catastrophic damage is rare to nonexistent in the world's history. What we see instead is a planet capable of recovering from many events we might shortsightedly see as permanent."

As such, the Cornwall Alliance's declaration, The Biblical Perspective of Environmental Stewardship, clearly states:

"We deny that an infinitely wise Designer, infinitely powerful Creator, and perfectly faithful Sustainer of the Earth would have made it susceptible to catastrophic degradation from proportionally small causes, and consequently we deny that wise environmental stewardship readily embraces claims of catastrophe stemming from such causes."

2) Does the Earth belong to God or to Humanity?

Here's What Happens When Evangelical Christians Debate Science

Or, put another way, are we the tenants or owners of this planet?

The EEW believes that God made the world for himself, not for us. They point to the Biblical text, Colossians 1:16-17, which states: "For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

They believe that God had two key reasons for creating the physical world. The first is that Creation is a means of revelation—or a way to see and understand who God is. When we study the world, we see God.

The second belief stems from the Biblical theme that God wants to have a relationship with us. His creation is the space on which or within which that relationship develops:

As a demonstration of this principle, think of any of the important "spiritual" events of your life, whether the time you became a Christian, or when God met you in a very real way: All of these events have a place associated with them, because that is how God works – he meets us in this physical, created world.

In this way, God's creation is like a temple. We can meet and worship God here. When we think of God's creation in this way it helps us respect and care for creation without falling into a trap where we begin to worship it for itself. Worshipers in a beautiful church do not worship the building, but they use the building to help them worship God – and that is how we should think of God's creation.

The Cornwall Alliance, however, argues that a steward manages another's property according to the owner's instructions and purposes. Humanity cannot claim absolute sovereignty over creation, for it belongs to God. Yet God has extended a subordinate ownership over the Earth to human beings, as He says in Psalm 115:16: "The heavens are the heavens of the LORD, but the earth He has given to the sons of men."

To that end, E. Calvin Beisner argues:

Emphasizing only that the Earth is the Lord's— while neglecting or denying that He has given it to men— tends to lead toward making decisions at broad, societal levels. This often encroaches on people's legitimate rights to determine the use of their own property and protect their own needs and rights. The disastrous record of socialist countries on environmental protection is grim testimony to how poorly such a policy works.

3) How should we use the Earth's resources?

Should nature be preserved or used?

The EEN cites Isaiah 5:8-10:

"Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The LORD Almighty has declared in my hearing: 'Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants. A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine, a homer of seed only an ephah of grain.'"

The group sees such Biblical passages as evidence that many of the effects of the "environmental storm" the world is now experiencing are a result of the fact that we are using so much of the Earth's resources that little is left for all the rest of God's creatures. Isaiah "describes an agricultural collapse that inevitably follows abuse of the land. This suggests that the punishment God has in mind for this kind of behavior is the kind of ecological disaster that is already happening in many parts of the world."

Here's What Happens When Evangelical Christians Debate Science

By contrast, the Cornwall Alliance's declaration, The Biblical Perspective of Environmental Stewardship, states:

God's commanding Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and subdue and rule everything in it entails a growing population that spreads out from the Garden to till the whole Earth and transform it from wilderness to garden and ultimately to garden city.

We deny that Biblical Earth stewardship, or godly dominion, is limited to keeping Earth in the condition in which man finds it, i.e., we deny that, as many environmentalists put it, "Nature knows best" and its transformation by humans is in principle wrong or harmful.

We affirm that the Bible normally associates wilderness or wildness with divine judgment and curse…We deny that wilderness is the best state of the Earth [and] that leaving everything in the Earth in its natural state is proper Biblical stewardship.

Beisner even argues that the use of fossil fuels is in keeping with the core principles of Christianity:

While it is likely that at least some petroleum and natural gas come from deep geochemical processes in the mantle of the Earth, coal comes primarily from the death and burial of vegetation and its transformation under heat and pressure.

As spiritual life comes from the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so, in a beautiful irony, the enhancement of physical life that we see most clearly since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the intensive use of energy in our economy comes in part from the death, burial and resurrection of vegetation. As the Apostle Paul explained, the resurrection of the dead happens this way: "It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." Vegetation is sown a natural body. Then, raised from the dead as coal and burned to enhance and safeguard our lives, it becomes a spiritual body – carbon dioxide gas – that gives life to vegetation and, through that, to every other living thing.

So, What About the Meek?

Here's What Happens When Evangelical Christians Debate Science

On one issue, both Evangelical groups are in agreement: Our policies toward climate change must address how the most vulnerable among us will be affected.

The Cornwall Alliance has issued a document, Protect the Poor: Ten Reasons to Oppose Harmful Climate Change Policies. Emphasizing the theme that God created the Earth to be "robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting," they argue that:

Rising atmospheric CO2 benefits all life on Earth by improving plant growth and crop yields, making food more abundant and affordable, helping the poor most of all.

Abundant, affordable, reliable energy, most of it now and in the foreseeable future provided by burning fossil fuels, which are the primary source of CO2 emissions, is indispensable to lifting and keeping people out of poverty.

Mandatory reductions in CO2 emissions, pursued to prevent dangerous global warming, would have little or no discernible impact on global temperatures, but would greatly increase the price of energy and therefore of everything else…. political leaders [should] abandon fruitless and harmful policies to control global temperature and instead adopt policies that simultaneously reflect responsible environmental stewardship, make energy and all its benefits more affordable, and so free the poor to rise out of poverty.

The EEN sees Biblical precedent for taking action as soon as possible:

In the biblical story of Joseph, the climate changed, and drought came. The people of Egypt might have starved. But, as J. Matthew Sleeth, MD, author of Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, says, Joseph was wise and stored up crops for the years of hardship. Sleeth sees a clear parallel to today. "There was a climate crisis. The people obeyed. They conserved, and lives were saved." Today, Sleeth says, we need to plan ahead for what climate changes might bring.

Wealthy people and nations may be affected by changes to the climate, but we have resources to adapt. The poor do not. As followers of Jesus, committed to justice and compassion, we seek to understand the potential threats to the lives and well-being of poor and vulnerable people. We do not claim to know exactly what will happen as temperatures rise. But we can come alongside the poor and make it possible to adapt to rapid changes, and even by our own choices, to lessen the impacts of climate change.

To those who might feel overwhelmed by the task at hand, the EEN quotes Galatians 6:9, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."