How can I care about global warming when millions of people are going to hell?

Christian faith increases, rather than decreases, the moral urgency of anthropogenic global warming and other pressing issues of the day. We tend to either minimise the importance of global warming or minimise the importance of hell. Correspondingly, some of you will be surprised that I believe in and care about the reality of global warming, and others that I believe in and care about the reality of hell. Others will smile knowingly at me once again displaying the cognitive dissonance required to be an educated Christian. I see your smile and raise you the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – read on, and ask your questions. Also, please read this as if it were some initial thoughts written to explore a topic I know people around me are also thinking about rather than an attempt to speak definitively.

I use ‘global warming’ as a cipher for the generally stuffed-up nature of the world. Global warming itself has occupied very little of my thought life; I’m happy to justify this another time. Most of what I say is equally applicable to sickness, poverty, evil and catastrophe of various kinds. When I say that the world is stuffed up, I’m unlikely to receive too much pushback. Just read the newspaper headlines (I’m not saying things are worse than they used to be; in some respects they are, in some they aren’t). Here are some headlines, appropriately, from ‘stuff’ a couple of days ago:

national headlines

What will receive more push-back is the claim that religion has something positive to offer this dire situation, rather than merely making it worse or perhaps providing subjective (but ultimately false) comfort; the opium of the people. Of course, religion can be engaged in as an escapist attempt to evade reality. So, is religion thereby escapist? I’m sure it can be, and we should be willing to label it as such when it heads in that direction. But, faith in Jesus, properly understood, is not escapist. He came into this world to redeem it. The first syllable of the Incarnation is important. In light of this thesis, I hope to persuade you of the urgency of ethics in this world, and from there of the spiritual implications of such moral urgency.

Anthropogenic global warming is a reality – human activity is making the world significantly warmer, on average, than it would otherwise be. I’m not entirely certain about this claim, but I am convinced enough to say it. Some of my conservative friends will scoff at this, but your assessment of the evidence is almost certainly piece-meal. The evidence is strong – http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
John Houghton was the lead editor of the first three intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) reports, and is an evangelical Christian. He has said “The impacts of global warming are such that I have no hesitation in describing it as a “weapon of mass destruction.” Like terrorism, this weapon knows no boundaries. It can strike anywhere, in any form …”
Of course, in saying this, I don’t advocate everything said in the name of ‘environmentalism’, and I am particularly skeptical of the dehumanising tendencies of some aspects of that movement (did I mention that this post will win few friends?) Nevertheless, climate change is a problem that it looks like we as a world are going to have to deal with – one problem among many!

But how can I do anything beyond the work of the gospel with an easy conscience when hundreds of people are perishing? ‘You can talk about global warming all you like, but the fires of hell are warmer …’ If I actually believe this, how can I be anything other than insane or depressed to the point of utter incapacity? How can I watch a movie, read for leisure, or chat idly on Facebook? Futile activities are simply “shell-gazing!”, according to one of our favourite little flat jokes. For context, this comes from a confronting story told by John Piper, which I paraphrase. “I read of the death of two Christian ladies in a car accident; they had driven over a cliff on a back-road somewhere in Africa. They were missionaries, who had spent the later part of their lives in service of Jesus. Was this a tragedy? No! I’ll tell you what’s a tragedy. Another two people I read of, who had sold their house and bought a boat, in order to spend their lives sailing the Caribbean and doing pretty much nothing except playing golf and amassing an impressive collection of … seashells. What will they say when they meet Jesus and he asks for an account of their life? ‘I gave you 85 years, and a lot of money. Now, what did you do with them?’ ‘Look Lord, here’s my shell collection. Look at the delicate hues of this pink conch :)’ Now, that is a pathetic tragedy.”  [edit: I actually stuffed this up, combining two separate references together, it turns out – but the overall point is close enough. Sorry John Piper for the misrepresentation]

To live for God, even to give up so much of what the world calls valuable, is no tragedy. But what does it mean to live for God? Churches in New Zealand, it seems, often lean towards either focussing on a predominantly ‘social’ gospel of freedom from economic or environmental oppression, or a predominantly ‘spiritual’ gospel of freedom from the influence of the world. But these categories assume that interest in the afterlife doesn’t really connect with economic structures or environmental challenges, and that spiritual concerns shift us away from earthly troubles. In contrast to this though, the Trinitarian God of the Christian faith is surely both social and spiritual, and presumably Christian faith should be too. Similarly, I see some churches focussing their passion and energy on the experience of community, and others on the ideas or doctrine that are taught. I think the proper reconciliation of the two is found in the fact that the Gospel is centrally a message of reconciliation – firstly a vertical reconciliation between those who trust in Jesus and God, and secondly horizontal reconciliation between people. The image of the two beams of the cross might be helpful here. As such, it is proper to focus on teaching; Christian spirituality is not a buffet or pick-n-mix bag and there is a real hierarchy. But such teaching should be angled towards application which involves reconciliation between people and the growth of communities in response to the message. The gospel is a message that saves and sanctifies communities of sinners. A proper understanding of the gospel message results in social fruit. To merely preach the fruit (social implications in various forms, whether politically ‘Left’ or ‘Right’) is to put the cart before the horse and diminish the power of the gospel, but to preach Jesus without urging the proper response is to preach the wrong Jesus.

CS Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
“A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

Now, I write a quick note on hell. Hell is eternal punishment and separation from the goodness of the one true God. It is a fate awaiting all who do not trust in Jesus. There are hard cases (“but what about …?!”), and from what I know of Scripture I cannot speak too confidently on those, but I can be fairly confident that none reading this blog fall into them. Quite what is meant by eternal punishment is a question worthy of debate, and I take evangelical conditional conditional immortality seriously as a reasonable exposition of what Scripture teaches (more on this in a later blog post). The more you know about the truth, the higher the stakes (Luke 12: 35-48). Christians should talk more about hell, and talk extremely carefully about it when they do. I’ve failed to follow both of those pieces of advice.  I could write a long spiel on this, but it probably wouldn’t help, so if you want more information, then ask your questions and look for the forthcoming post. Perhaps the main themes running through the doctrine of hell are God’s holiness and God’s justice. On the latter, this portion of a quote from Miroslav Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace” (I haven’t read the book) is helpful: “the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword.” Trust in a God who is just gives room for rational non-violence in the face of evil. Without ultimate justice, I suspect there is no such thing as a rational moral obligation; only if justice is real will our self-interest fully coincide with what is good to do. Further, without this just God, there is no such thing as justice at all – without a benevolent creator who cares about humans, there is no source of goodness. Atheists can be good, but if they’re right about the world, they’re just blobs of protoplasm performing actions that some other blobs at the current point in time respond to in a way that the blobs like to call “positive”. For more on this point, some excellent essays are available here: http://moralapologetics.com/

And yet, the cross of Jesus undermines a purely rationalistic concept of God, that might tend to see Him as the heavenly bean counter, impersonally totalling up ethical beans. The existence of God guarantees the existence of perfect justice, but the loving action of God creates a way for us to avoid the face-value requirements of this justice. For more on this, see John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ”. In case this is all merely abstract and fails to pull on our emotions, hell is one of the things that can push us to take moral and spiritual things seriously. I think we can only bear the crushing weight of belief in hell if we trust that God is good and in charge of everything. This belief in God’s ‘sovereignty’ also allows us to take the full counsel of God seriously; and this includes many ethical issues regarding how we are to live in the world. The same doctrine undergirding the righteousness of God’s judgement undergirds the comprehensiveness of our ethical obligations. Maybe. It’s a big call, so I say it tentatively. We ought not be consequentialists, to pretend to be able to calculate the optimal use of our time and resources. We should try to maximise results, but only in line with the prescripts of God. This frees us up, I think, to live fully fleshed-out human lives. All work we do is done with creatures of immense worth, with dignity and conscience, and it is right that this should impact how we live – the fact that our neighbours have an eternal destiny only magnifies this requirement.

The gospel mandate (Great Commission – Matthew 28) doesn’t obliterate ethics or the creational mandate in Genesis to fill the earth and subdue it, but it surely does influence how we see it and what takes priority in our lives. The question of how to see the link between creation/culture and church, or the social and the spiritual is perhaps the defining question for the evangelical church in NZ over the next few years, which will determine whether we take the route of accommodationism or politicism (a purely politicised message), insularism or evacuationism, or messy engagement. The Church must seek for faithful engagement with the world, with all the challenges that brings.

Christians must take the moral realities of the big issues of our day seriously. Amongst many other things, anthropogenic climate change, ignorance of the rights of indigenous peoples, child poverty, poor stewardship of natural resources, exclusion or abuse on the basis of gender or sexuality, and the disgusting militarism of the West should offend and upset us, for they are genuinely moral issues. Yet, against the cries of the moral Zeitgeist of the West, so must the moral evils of euthanasia, pride and selfishness, abortion, sexual promiscuity, pornography, consumerism, and idolatry in its multifaceted forms, again just to name a few. While the sages say: “everything in moderation”, Jesus says to cut out all sin as if it were a gangrenous infection. As a Christian, my master is Jesus Christ, not the political geniuses of either Left or Right; neither State nor Market, nor Country nor Family, trumps my duties to Him. As a Christian, I must be morally concerned about so much, but I am freed from moralism, if I will see God’s judgement and God’s goodness on the cross.

Thanks to those with whom I’ve talked about these things. I’d like to name you, but some of you might rather not be associated with me. The errors herein are of course my own. Let me know what they are!