Friday, 13 November 2009

God Loves Green


It should be obvious that God loves green, he made so much of it. So why is it that a significant number of Christians figure that trying to combat Climate Change is against his will?

This is an admittedly long blog exploring the question as it applies to the book of Revelation. Revelation is always a minefield when it comes to making pronouncements and like the many other people who have rather bizarre interpretations of the book I’m similarly unencumbered by a theology degree; though unlike many I’m also lacking in the milleniumism department.

Assuming that someone actually reads this blog who doesn’t know the Bible very well - Revelation is the last book in the Bible and rounds it off in spectacular style, with a grande conclusion where everything’s sorted, shiny and perpetually new. It’s the bit in between that causes all the controversy. Despite what many people think, Revelation isn’t a complete bloodbath: the first three chapters are mini letters to actual 1st century churches in Turkey and the last two are the happy finalĂ©. Amongst the remaining 17 chapters only Chapters 6, half of 8, 9, half of 11 and 16 have an apparent bearing on the subject. And to cut to the chase, one verse stand out in terms of clarity with respect to God’s judgment:

“...The time has come to reward your servants, the prophets, and all your people, all who have reverence for you, great and small alike. The time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth.” Rev 11:18b.

We'll need to look at a number of facets of the Bible to show why this is the case.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

OK. What this means is that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about verses in the Bible until you’ve grasped the whole thing. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but it’s helped because some parts of the Bible are clearer than others. For example, the Bible certainly does say “God Is Love” - ( John’s first letter, Chapter 4, verses 8 and 16). The Bible also says God gets angry (e.g. Romans 1:18). Since the Bible never says “God is anger” we conclude that God’s anger is secondary to his love, and moreover, it should be understood in the context of him being Love itself. The Bible itself confirms this when it says in several places:

“The Lord is slow to become angry and full of constant love” (e.g. Psalm 145 v 8).

So it’s not wise to apply isolated verses, for example even my quote of Rev 11:18b above, unless the verse somehow fits into the general flow of the Bible. So, if the Bible claims God thought it was a really good idea to create an amazing universe and earth then even verses that appear to talk about God wanting to destroy it should be read cautiously.

Revelation Is Highly Symbolic

Of all the books in the Bible, when it comes to the book of Revelation, we have to tread carefully, because it really is very symbolic. For example, in Chapter 1 v 16 Jesus is described as having a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. The writer (John) isn’t saying that Jesus is gagging because of a dangerous obstruction. He’s merely expressing the power of Jesus’ voice. Later Jesus’ voice is described like a powerful waterfall. It doesn’t mean John felt like he was being deafened by crashing hiss and couldn’t make out what was being said. Similarly, chapter 12 is about a woman, a son and a Dragon. It’s very weird with the dragon throwing 33% of all stars from heaven; trying to kill both her and her son and them being whisked away from danger. Actually, it’s a highly symbolic description of the Good News of Jesus. Relax, it’s happened.

But just because it’s symbolic, it doesn’t mean it’s just useless and confusing. It’s really like that to inspire and encourage - you might think your life is pretty humdrum, but from God’s perspective it’s all completely wild!

Not Everything That Happens In Revelation Is Done By God

Let’s look at a bit of Revelation that’s all about destruction. Chapter 6 is about four horsemen. What happens is that the ‘Lamb’ (a symbol for Jesus) opens five ‘scrolls’ and four horses and riders pop out and cause havoc: War, Taxes (maybe), Death and Martyrdom. The last scroll causes lots of devastation: the sun goes dark, the moon goes red; stars fall out the sky and the sky disappears.

So, assuming this is a prophecy about actual earthly devastation (which it might not be), then does it mean that Jesus is basically killing everyone and wreaking the planet?

No. And this is why: because the fifth scroll represents martyrs and Jesus certainly doesn’t kill his followers. My personal take on it is this: Jesus’ opening sealed scrolls (which in ancient times typically contained proclamations) means Jesus is simply revealing things; not doing the things that are being revealed.

Similarly, in Chapter 8, angles blow trumpets and all sorts of ‘earthly’ disasters happen. For example:
“Hail and fire, mixed with blood, came ouring down on the earth. A third of the earth was burnt up, a third of the trees, and every blade of green grass.”
Nasty. But again, none of this is attributed to God in chapters 8 and 9. Instead these things happen after an Angel (which means “God’s messenger”) blows a trumpet (“i.e. makes an announcement). The latter part of chapter 9 is about disasters that fall on people via human/horse-looking locusts headed by an ‘angel’ king called “The Destroyer.” I’d hazard a guess, but with a name like “Destroyer” this king and henchmen are probably not on God’s side. And in any case it’s centred on people, not the ecology (in fact in v4 the ‘locusts’ are told not to harm plants, only people).

God’s Anger Isn’t Like Ours

Even when God is angry, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s acting directly - he may be acting through someone or something else. And it doesn’t mean that if he’s acting through people that these people are God’s faithful people.

For example, let’s look at Jeremiah 25. Jeremiah takes place during the reign of the last kings of Judah (the ‘better’ half of Israel) and covers the destruction of the country, primarily through the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In chapter 25 we read this (from v9):
“I am going to send for all the peoples from the north and for my servant, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia. I am going to bring them to fight against Judah and its inhabitants and against all the neighbouring nations. I am going to destroy this nation and its neighbours and leave them in ruins for ever, a terrible and shocking sight.”
Here, Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant. But it’s clear from other Old Testament books that he isn’t one of God’s people - he acknowledges God sometimes, but basically he’s a ruthless pagan tyrant. He’s not one of the good guys, he doesn’t live an exemplary life, you wouldn’t want to meet him.

So, God sends Nebuchadnezzar to invade Judah, but the commands he gives to Judah aren’t to join or support the Babylonian army or act like them. Instead we read, a few chapters earlier:
“The Lord told me to go to the palace of the king of Judah, the descendant of David, and there tell the king, his officials and the people of Jerusalem to listen to what the Lord had said: ‘I the Lord, command you to do what is just and right. Protect the person who is being cheated from the one who is cheating him. Do not ill-treat or oppress foreigners, orphans or widows; and not kill innocent people in this holy place. If you really do as I have commanded, then David’s descendants will continue to be kings...’” Jer 22:1-4a
The only way to take this is that God’s punishment is to allow evil people and their forces to destroy Judah for their failure to be just and right. So, the people who bring the disasters are destructive (and wrong) and the solution is to act justly, righteously and lovingly.

In the modern context, surely it means this. If as Chapter 16 implies, God has an ultimate intention of bringing environmental disaster then those who bring it - i.e. those who cause environmental damage are themselves the bad guys, not God’s people, i.e. the equivalent of the ‘Babylonian Army’.

Furthermore, God’s commandment to us is to act righteously. At the time, it wouldn’t have been an excuse to say “Well God is sending the Babylonians to trash the place so I might as well grab all I can and dispose of anyone who gets in my way while it’s possible.” In a similar way it’s not acceptable to say “Well God is sending an environmental disaster, so I might as well buy a new SUV, invest in ExxonMobil and go on yearly holidays to Mexico.”

In this sense God is acting like a Gaia hypothesis. The Gaia hypothesis treats the earth as a living organism, which acts a reassert its survival if threatened. In this case we threaten the earth and so Gaia would bring disasters in order to eliminate the threat - the important thing being that the organism survives, even if we don’t.

I’m not sure that Chapter 16 of Revelation (the 7 bowls of God’s anger) applies in our near future, even if you read Revelation as actual predications of the future. There’s two main reasons: firstly, since we don’t know when Jesus returns we don’t know when any of this other stuff would happen either. Secondly, when it happens may be conditional on our behaviour, as in Jeremiah 22. For as long as we act justly, it won’t happen.


We have to be careful about how we interpret the book of Revelation - it’s symbolic for precisely that purpose. If we take a consistent look at what God is like and how we’re supposed to be then we find that what is there makes sense and holds together. God loves us yet detests people abusing his creation. If we push him far enough though he can relent - allowing disaster to fall, even allowing it through the actions of evil people and systems. In the end though, as it says in Rev 11:16b:
“...The time has come to reward your servants, the prophets, and all your people, all who have reverence for you, great and small alike. The time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth.”
God, right now, wants us to combat climate change. Over a period of 250 years we’ve transformed our society from largely agrarian to highly industrialised. 19th century Christians saw the implications of industrialisation and fought hard for better living and working conditions for its victims. It’s time for us to take this baton of God’s love and carry it into the 21st century.

In part 2 I’ll look at some of the practical consequences of what’s actually happening here and now. I’ll be looking at why compassion for South American orphans, Ghanians in shanti towns; Bangladeshis, Sub-Sarahan Africans, Assamese Indians means caring for the planet and why God’s healing is so much more than just a Band-aid on a near-fatal wound.

And they’ll be more pictures!