Gospel confusion in Christian environmentalism


More and more prominent voices from around the globe are now describing environmentalism as religion. Czech President Václav Klaus, who has been called the "Margaret Thatcher of Central Europe," says of believers in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming:

"Their ideas are the ideas of ideologues, not of scientists or climatologists. Data and sophisticated theories will never change their views. We have to accept that they have succeeded in establishing the religion of environmentalism as the official religion of Western society, as the religion which asks for a radical transformation of the whole Western civilization."

Both Joel Garreau, a professor of law, culture, and values at Arizona State University, and Paul H. Rubin, a professor of economics at Emory University, have written articles titled "Environmentalism as religion," pointing out how environmentalists tend to borrow from other established faiths.

For example, in his New Atlantis piece, Garreau wrote, "Ecotheologies loosely based on concepts lifted from Hinduism or Buddhism have become popular in some Baby Boomer circles." And in Rubin's Wall Street Journal article, he noted "some of the ways in which environmental behaviors echo religious behaviors," including Earth Day set aside as the movement's holy day and the recycling of various substances treated as sacrificial rituals.

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But while many now regard environmentalism as a separate religion, it is its growing influence on Christianity and its intentional infiltration of churches-targeting youth especially, through organizations like Interfaith Power & Light-that should gain our attention. And it's not only liberal Christians who are becoming religious environmentalists-some professed evangelicals are also joining their ranks.

Books like Matthew Sleeth's The Gospel According to the Earth, Jonathan Merritt's Green Like God, Jim Ball's Global Warming and the Risen Lord, and even HarperCollins' The Green Bible, though they include much good, nonetheless subtly change the gospel. We go from "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures," as the Apostle Paul summarized it in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, to something like "If you love God, take good care of the Earth."

Now, it's true that if you love God you'll try to take good care of His Creation-and the Cornwall Alliance, which I represent, encourages Christians to do just that-but that's not gospel-it's law.

As Martin Luther long ago taught in launching the Reformation, the grammar of the gospel is indicative-it states what God has done. The grammar of the law is imperative-it states what God requires us to do. "Take good care of the Earth" is imperative. It's a true obligation, but that's precisely what makes it law, not gospel. "Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again from the dead" is indicative. It's gospel.

Yes, the law is holy and righteous and good, but it cannot give life. Only the gospel can. By obscuring this distinction, the evangelical "creation care" movement threatens to obscure the gospel and thus rob the Church of her greatest treasure.

By turning all kinds of environmentalist desiderata-recycling; not trespassing on the wilderness; eating only organic, seasonal, and locally grown foods-into moral imperatives, and then equating those moral imperatives with the gospel, the movement becomes precisely what the Paul warned about in Colossians 2:20-23:

"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch' (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."

The grave danger to the Church of Jesus Christ is that, even when it stops short of embracing the pantheism and biological egalitarianism of so much of the environmental movement, so-called "Christian environmentalism" can become the new Galatianism-a false gospel of justification by works rather than by faith. Faithful Christians should approach it with caution.

E. Calvin Beisner
E. Calvin Beisner

Cal is founder of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.


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