Why Care for the Earth When Jesus Is Coming Soon?
Last month, my husband and I backpacked another 240-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail for our vacation, this time in Washington state. (We are planning to finish the entire 2,650-mile trail in sections over the next few years.) While basking in God’s incredibly beautiful creation, we were also sobered to experience record heat waves, as well as oppressive smoke from fires burning all over the state much earlier than normal. We experienced firsthand that the earth is groaning, and all creation is suffering as climate change continues.
But why does it matter? If Jesus is coming soon, why protect a forest? Why care about endangered species? Why recycle? Why lower carbon emissions? Shouldn’t we try to hasten God’s return by letting the earth implode—especially since the Bible seems to indicate that the earth will burn up at the end of time and God will re-create it? By destroying it now, aren’t we simply helping God out?
These ideas overlook clear biblical instructions about God’s care for the earth, human responsibility toward it, and strong indications that the fire at the end is for cleansing from sin, not for utter destruction of the earth.1
God loves and cares for the earth and all creatures on it. The earth actually belongs to God; He loves this place (Lev. 25:23; Deut. 11:12). He created the earth and all creatures and pronounced it all “very good” (Gen. 1:31, NKJV). Among other passages, Psalm 24:1 and 2 and Leviticus 25:23 give further insight into humanity’s roles as caretakers and not owners (Gen. 2:15; 1 Chron. 29:14). God’s concern for the earth and all animals is a clearly identifiable theme after sin (Joel 1:18–20; Ps. 147:9). Other living creatures are co-inhabitants of the world with humans (Job 38:26). As they also depend heavily on its ecosystems for survival, God always calls for the preservation of the earth and the care of all living creatures (Hosea 4:1–3). God also preserves and saves animals along with humans (Genesis 6–9; Jonah 3 and 4). Psalm 36:6 states that God saves both humans and animals, using a word normally reserved for humans and salvation.
God instructs humans to care for the earth. We are made in God’s image, but our purpose is not to exalt ourselves or exploit the environmental resources under our dominion. Instead, humans are to act as God’s representatives on the earth, ruling it as He would if in our place. The Hebrew verbs in Genesis 1:26 to 28 do not give license to abuse but demand a just and wise rule over God’s creation.
The importance of human responsibility to care for animals and all of God’s creation in Genesis 1 to 3 does not diminish after sin but remains a prominent theme through the rest of the Bible. The creation narrative sets the foundational mandate for creation care, and many other texts imply or allude to this care, while others clearly depict God’s love and concern for His creation and humanity’s continued responsibility to care for the earth and all its creatures (Ex. 23:10–12; Lev. 25:2–7; Luke 13:15). Because of God’s love for the earth, and the potential of humans bringing destruction to the earth, the commands to care for the earth intensify after sin. Humans are held responsible for the state of the earth and all the creatures that live on it (Rom. 8:19–22; Rev. 11:18).
God will cleanse and restore the earth at the end of time. Eschatological passages in the Old Testament include a picture of the earth rejuvenated, not necessarily re-created from nothing (Isaiah 65; Zechariah 14; Ezekiel 40–48). In Revelation, John still sees the lake of fire and all those who have died (Rev. 21:7, 8), implying the cleansing of this earth, not the presence of a different earth. God plans to redeem the world, not utterly destroy it and start over again. The idea of utter annihilation of all matter is not biblical, but actually originates with gnostic eschatology, which states that the spiritual is good, and the physical will be burned up to make way for that.2
In Romans 8, the same Greek word is used in verses 19 and 23 for the eager anticipation of the final deliverance, both by all creatures and by all humanity. Paul thus confirms that creation is also waiting for redemption and will be delivered along with humanity. Creation and humanity share their expectations and hope in the future liberation, as well as groanings for deliverance. Creation is not going to be annihilated in order for God to start over with a different earth. Creatures and all of creation are also awaiting Jesus’ second coming, when they also will have no more pain and suffering but will live on the earth made new and restored (Isa. 11:5).
In 2 Peter 3:5 and 6, Peter makes the comparison between the judgment by fire at the Second Coming and the worldwide flood in Genesis 6 to 9. The Flood did not utterly destroy the earth; it only cleansed it of sin. In fact, fish lived through the Flood, as did plants and seeds, evidenced by the raven returning a green leaf to Noah and the fact that no mention is made of fish on the ark. Thus, this was a refining destruction, just as the final one clearly seems to be. The point was to remove sin and sinners, so that righteousness can dwell (2 Peter 3:13). Ellen G. White made similar statements when describing the Flood, pointing out that the Flood was worse in some places on the earth, where the wickedness was the greatest. This would imply that there were some places that were not impacted as much by the Flood, and that perhaps the final judgment by fire will be similarly selective.3
Peter also references Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22 in 2 Peter 3:13, where it is clear that this is a renewed earth, not a new earth after it was totally burned up. Skip MacCarty notes that a similar example would be the “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31, which is actually a renewed covenant, as it contains all the elements of every previous covenant. The reason it had to be renewed is because people kept breaking it. But there was nothing new in content or purpose.4 Isaiah 66:24 confirms this by describing the earth after the cleansing fire is done (Isa. 66:15, 16), indicating that the evil to be burned up is sin and sinners. The people are the ones who die, while the earth is still there (Mal. 4:1; Ps. 11:5–7). Similarly, Revelation 20 and 21 describes a lake of fire, not an earth full of fire. This is hinted at in 2 Peter 3:7 as well, in that the fire is reserved for the judgment of ungodly humans.
In actuality, rather than indicating that we should not take care of the earth because it will all burn up, 2 Peter 3:7 to 12 urges us to take better care of the earth than we are doing now! “What manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?” (2 Peter 3:11, NKJV). The earth belongs to God. God cares for the earth. God will redeem the earth. And God is expecting us to care for it too until He returns. Not only that, but we will continue to care for the earth throughout eternity. On the renewed earth, humans will still have the responsibility of caring for the earth and animals. Isaiah 65:17–25 details actions in the new earth that include planting vineyards, and a total lack of pain or destruction (Revelation 21 and 22). Human responsibility continues to include care for the earth after sin is no longer present.
Eschatology does not negate our responsibility to care for the earth; rather, it presupposes and urges it. Thus, we cannot dismiss care for creation on biblical grounds by reasoning that the earth will eventually burn anyway. The Bible holds all humankind responsible for the preservation of the earth and the care of all living creatures, continuing our responsibility from before sin into the present, and looking toward our responsibility on the renewed earth. Humans are to care for the earth now, especially in light of the biblical account of God’s creation of the world and the future continuity with the earth made new. Conservation is not only necessary, but also a God-given responsibility for humankind. Followers of God should be at the forefront of care for those less fortunate than we are, including animals and all life on earth, not as a chore, but as an offering of thankfulness for our redemption by God, looking forward to the redemption of the whole world.
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