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!

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

  1. Ben says:

    A nice post. Not that your post is written for the secular left or aimed to defend Christian priorities from people within it, but I think the secular left’s objection to the Christian right is less when the Christian right seems unconcerned with global warming &c.; it’s when the Christian right seems actively opposed to dealing with those issues. Inasmuch as it does seem, relatively speaking, a waste of time to deal with the climate when souls are being damned every day, I think you’d agree it seems doubly wasteful to spend time actively fighting against fixing the climate. One of my favorite passages, which seems to fit well here, is relevant to all of us who have various goals we think are important: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”

    I’m afraid the rest of this reply is tangential, but it’s of great personal importance to me, so forgive me?

    “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.”

    But I’m not so sure about that. What if you believed in God and believed in His imperative to speak the truth? And what if you became convinced that there was no evidence for His existence? And that while some of his commands were wonderful and good and if everyone followed them the world would be a much better place, other commands seemed irrelevant to modern-day life and others seemed diametrically opposed to His more obviously helpful commands, in light of what we now know about human nature? Then, would it not be morally incumbent to “pick and choose”? Is it imperative on a follower of Jesus to keep silent in that situation? When what’s evidential and rational seems opposed to what’s Revealed, to not make that observation, and certainly not to act on it?

    Then…is the command to speak the truth about what you perceive, or ignore it? And when does “speaking the truth” about one’s doubts become disbelief? This seems like a “hard case” to me. Not only pagans living in the BC era who never heard the gospel; also the atheist living in the contemporary era who was given every reason to disbelieve and no reason to believe.

    That’s my experience. Perhaps I am wrong, but I have to trust my senses to some degree, or I’d never be able to read scripture and understand it or obey it. And if I trust my senses enough to read and interpret scripture, why not also be critical?

    • truelocution says:

      Hey Ben, sorry for slow reply – busy times…
      I tend to write with one eye on the secular left, since they produce much of the intellectual air we all breathe in NZ, and quite a few people who see my posts are that way inclined.

      Various scattered thoughts:
      – ‘no evidence for His existence’ is a strong claim, from my standpoint. Even in my most skeptical moments, I would struggle to say there’s ‘no’ evidence that there is a Creator, sustainer, moral law giver, (etc) and/or divine redeemer as revealed in Jesus. Sure there’s evidential ambiguity to some extent, but that doesn’t mean there’s absolutely no evidence.
      – I think our own desires are inherently diametrically opposed to following God, so I wouldn’t put too much weight on moral intuitions; they’re only a rough guide, particularly sans Scripture & sanctification. I know for myself that I have a remarkable capacity for self-justification.
      – The appropriate response in the situation you mention would I think be to continue to wrestle with Scripture in community. But then again, that’s the appropriate response to most things.
      – Speaking the truth about one’s doubts is fine, it just needs to be accompanied with willingness to have the alternative beliefs underlying those doubts subjected to similar challenge. Tim Keller’s work on this and many other things is excellent, I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy it – I can’t remember if we’ve discussed him before.
      – The thinking atheist in Western society who has explored the Christian story necessarily (I think) lives in a place of uncomfortable tension. Too much of what he/she values (human rights, scientific law, aesthetics, personhood/agency, relationality) is rooted in the transcendent (specifically in a Christ-oriented view of the transcendent) to just let that worldview go, but his/her culture proclaims that there is nothing left of the Christian story worth holding to.
      – I think the problem is not so much with the senses as the choosing of intuitions and frameworks by which to interpret the sense data.
      – The key question is arguably whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. That event would change everything.
      Let me know what you think.

  2. Tad Davis says:

    Some nice reflections here. It’s refreshing to here more Evangelical voices being raised on the reality and importance of anthropogenic climate change. It’s not exactly a popular view here in the U.S. BTW, Matheson Russel is helping lead the charge on this issue within Anglican dioceses of NZ. He might be someone you’d be interested in talking with.

    On the question of how to prioritize one’s earthly activities (both individually and collectively as the body of God) in response to the pressing demands of on the one hand, saving souls from hell, and on the other, saving the planet from climate change (or at least, attempting to prevent further damage), here are some more considerations.

    First, in addition to the horizontal and vertical aspects of reconciliation that you mention, Christ’s work also includes reconciliation between humans and earth (along with all of His creatures), a relationship which was damaged by the fall.

    Second, as to the gospel I heartily agree that we oughtn’t to engage in a false dichotomy between on the one hand, tending to the social elements of the gospel, and on the other, it’s spiritual elements. For they are one and the same gospel. The good news is just this, that Christ’s has has come, and has, is and will conquer the enemies of sin and death. That all of the ills attending to the fall have, are and will be made right. Christ is reconciling the whole world to himself through His reign, and that we, His church, are ambassadors of this new order to a world still caught in the throws of the old regime. We are participants in this grand narrative of reconciliation. Since this narrative of redemption and reconciliation encompasses the totality of creation, it would be a form of spiritual myopia to think that we (collectively as Christ’s body) had to choose between the various demands of the gospel. Faithfulness to Christ entails obedience to the fullness of His gospel.

    Third, the commandment to “Love thy neighbor” and to care for the poor, the widows and orphans (and in general the disenfranchised peoples of the world) compel us to take seriously the ways in which anthropogenic climate change is harming our neighbor and (disproportionately) the poorest and must vulnerable peoples of the earth.

    Fourth, assuming one is an Exclusivist (and not, like myself, an Inclusiivst), far from acting as a competing entity, the threat of hell ought to provide additional motivation for the church to do all in it’s power to curb anthropogenic climate change, since the consequences of it are that far more people will die before ever having had the opportunity to embrace the gospel.

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