Since kindergarten, students in my 3rd and 4th grade classes have zealously studied environmental pollution at a rate that has baffled their teachers. Through whole group research on the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceanic Garbage Patches to guest appearances by 1001 pets on Zoom to Student Inquiry projects on pollution, students’ enchantment with nature knows no bounds.
And why should it? Our neighborhood has environmentalism at it’s core. Founders initially moved to this corner of DC after the Civil War because of the beautiful views over the scenery of what would eventually become Rock Creek Park. At just a 15 minute walk from the National Zoo and 7 minutes to Rock Creek Park trailheads, students are well-situated to develop a deep and abiding love for nature.
There are many things students love about nature, from various kinds of flowers to obscure animals. As students’ love of animals has grown, their capacity to be heartbroken at the brokenness of animals has also increased, along with sensitivity to the realities of life and death that we experience on this side of eternity. Just several weeks ago, one of my students’ quails passed away. His grief over his quail inspired this activity, as the sadness it caused him to lose his appetite for several days.
Undoubtedly, nature has its fair share of cruelty. From animals who cannibalize, drown, consume, or maim one another to the diseases that ravage both flora and fauna, creation is imperfect. Whether by encountering baby birds or shells that tell the story of life too soon ended to quieting an irrationally anxious dog, students encounter evidence of that imperfection all the time.
Is there an antidote to creation’s brokenness? And how should we as human beings react to environmental dysfunction far greater than ourselves?
Originally, Adam and Eve were entrusted with the stewardship of all of creation. God created humans and all animals and plants according to his own heavenly blueprints. As co-laborers, humans were responsible for the safe keeping and care of nature. Animals were created to be under humans careful protection, but not in conflict with them. God designed humans to consume grains, seeds, and fruit, and animals were created as herbivores. In this state of being, humans were in right relationship with God and the rest of creation.
However, human’s sin drastically altered creation. As stewards, Adam and Eve’s sins had monumental effects on the life forms under their care. As a general rule, the precepts that God gives to humans have always effects on the animals under their care. For example, in Deuteronomy 28, the regulations related to Sabbath rest were not just for the Israelites, but their livestock. In Exodus 23:12, God also protects the Israelites livestock as an extension of the graces he extends to them as a people traveling through the wilderness, towards a new land.
Sin had the effect of placing a barrier between God and human beings (Ezekiel 1:22, Matthew 27:51). The removal of the blessing of God and manifest presence of God on the earth monumentally changed relationships between humans and creations. Humans, animals, and plants began to die or develop diseases. Humans no longer experienced the intimacy of life in the supernatural realm, and the Earth was no longer like Heaven. Plants began to produce “thorns and thistles” (v20), and there was enmity between humans and animals (v15). This set of consequences brought with it enmity between men and women, and enmity between people groups more broadly.
Hope for Creation
So what can be done to counteract these curses? It is important to recognize that as originators of sin, humans are responsible for the redemption of the Earth. Part of this has to do with the intrinsic connection humans have to the Earth. The Hebrew word for man is “admah”, which translates to dust or earth. Since man was made from dust (Gen 2:7) and is set to steward it, restoring humanity is inseparably connected to the redemption of the Earth. Therefore, Christ’s death and resurrection isn’t just a promise made to humans, but a promise of redemption to all of creation more broadly.
Jesus’ finished work on the cross provides not just salvation to human’s souls, but re-establishes human’s hope of external life, establishes the physical redemption and transfiguration of our bodies, and provides life in the Spirit. At the same time, Christ’s finished work and ultimate return provides eternal redemption for all parts of creation, including animals and plants. It will reverse the enmity between animals. Humans will again be perfect stewards of creation. However, this reality happens in part through human participation. Romans 8 describes how creation is longing for human beings to walk in the fullness of Christ so that it can be free from the consequences of sin.
In spite of the effects of sin on creation, animals still demonstrate the majesty and beauty of God in unique ways. One could argue that God’s grace has preemptively covered plants and animals as evidenced by their many adaptations, to overcome their limited circumstances. A great example of this are troglodytes, cave-dwelling animals who retain non-functional eyes. One can also see the mercy of God in the way that animals can serve as surrogate mothers to animal infants from the same or different species.
Implications for Today
Humans still have a divine responsibility to care for creation. While humans in the 20th and 21st centuries have more often neglected this responsibility with catastrophic results for humans, plants, and animals alike, the intentions of God for human beings have not changed. Working through human beings, Jesus can still show human beings how to intimately care for creation in practical ways. At the same time, As we long for the return of Christ to complete all things, we should expect God through his Holy Spirit to give us innovative solutions to repair the damage we’ve collectively done to our planet and prevent further harm. We should expect to be held accountable for the state of creation, and should not disregard the state of animals, plants, or the climate more broadly to retreat into celestial escapism. More importantly than all, we should live so full of the Holy Spirit that our fullness of life overflows into blessing towards the humans, animals, and plants around us.
Last thoughts: Am I a Creationist?
There are several popular theories among theologians about the exact ways God created the Earth, according to Genesis. While some people believe the Earth was created in 7 calendar days (Young Earth Creationism), there is enough evidence of changes in human lifespan and years as a whole to question the concreteness of humans experience of time prior to the Patriarchs (see Genesis 6:3).
Understanding the exact period of time that it took God to create the earth falls into a category of Holy Mysteries that I believe has to be revealed sovereignly by the Holy Spirit. That being said, I do wonder whether “days” in the biblical sense is much like “ages”. It is important to notice the specific order of creation mirrors many current scientific findings about the formation of the Universe. Genesis 1:1 discusses the earth being “formless and void”, which relates to these scientists theory of protoplanets. Over time, elements combined to create the sun and other solar system oddities, hence, “Let there be light.” The reference in Genesis 1:6 to “separating the waters above and below” relates to the creation of water on earth and atmospheres, as well as Earth and Heaven in the supernatural realm (“the spirit of God was hovering over the waters”). I believe Genesis 1:5, in which God separates light and darkness, should be interpreted both literally and abstractly as a spiritual reality. The reference in Genesis 1:6 to “separating the waters above and below” relates to the creation of water on earth and atmospheres, as well as Earth and Heaven in the supernatural realm (“the spirit of God was hovering over the waters”). Allowing dry ground to appear (Genesis 1:9-10) reminds me of the concept of Pangea. The creation of plants (Genesis 1:11-12) cooled the climate and provided much of the oxygen necessary for the development of animals. Further developments in the solar system, the stars, and the moon allowed for the seasons (the exact timing of this one is still a puzzle to me). Animals first developed in the water then the sky and land (Genesis 1:24-25). Eventually, God created human beings (Genesis 1:27-28). It ends in rest.
In general, I recognize that our current understanding of science has room to change and grow over time. At the same time, because of the nature of these Holy Mysteries, I believe that the most fruitful scientists will actually be people whom God can trust with the revelation of these mysteries, and who are alive in the Spirit.
Many people also believe in Theistic Evolution (which asserts God’s sovereignty in the process of allowing animals to adapt). As an individual, I reject some portions of this theory because it borrows too much from Darwin (as a secular source). While Darwin believed that competition between species and individuals would ultimately lead to more robust life forms, he found very little evidence to prove that creation was becoming better over time. If anything, he discovered more questions than answers and ended his career much more confused than he started (which is probably inevitable if you spend a significant portion of your life studying without a strong connection to your Creator through Christ). Unfortunately, Darwin’s work has been reappropriated to justify eugenics in ways that would have probably caused him great sorrow.
If Darwin were unilaterally correct, I believe that we would see creation acting in not just more sophisticated, but more spiritually redeemed ways over time. Although I love nature, that is not my experience of most animals or plants (with the exception of dogs…just joking). I believe that nature needs saving just as much as humans do. And I’m looking forward to seeing plants, animals, stars, and all manner of created things restored by the one who has conquered it all.