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Fall 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 2 · pp. 37–46 

Environmental Issues, Salvation History, and Decision Making

Lee Balzer

As we approach the twenty-first century, scientifically literate citizens find themselves either frightened or optimistic about the future of the human race on planet Earth. Pessimists (neo-Malthusians) say we are headed for economic and political ruin because human demand for resources will greatly exceed availability. Optimists (Cornucopians) believe that technological and economic creativity will lead to improved standards of living around the world.

Many scientific possibilities taught in biology classrooms twenty-five years ago seemed like science fiction to students then, but are rapidly becoming realities now. Genetic and reproductive engineering, which hold immense power for good and evil, are examples. Others, such as values in science-related areas, however, have generated less progress. Arenas needing such leadership include environmental stewardship, reproductive behavior, and applications of genetic engineering.

In this article, we largely limit ourselves to a consideration of Christian values as they pertain to ecological and environmental concerns. Relatively little will be said about values pertaining to genetic changes, though it is apparent that the topics are not separable in function or experience. {38}



Christians and professionals who are otherwise well-informed may question whether the so-called environmental problems are substantive. This is a fair question. Mass media are often driven by issues and controversy. These sources of popular perspective frequently consider empirical evidence about environmental problems to be secondary, irrelevant, or even a nuisance, so that credibility of key issues is brought into question for thinking people. For example, on a recent nationally syndicated TV talk show, it was reported that in China, a person accused of killing a giant panda is condemned to death without a trial. The announcement was greeted with great applause by the TV audience, presumably without thought about the possible human and legal implications of the endorsement.

There are others who distract from the hard facts as well. Governmental or bureaucratic bungling of policy, special interests, commercial advertising, dominant materialism, extraction-based assumptions in economics, leftist environmental politics of the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently abortion politics, the misguided values of animism, and the association of the “new age” movement with environmental concerns all tend to alienate sincere Christians from the realities of environmental concerns.

The thoughtful Christian will look past these distractors, applying sound biblical theology and an understanding of God’s purposes on earth to environmental concerns, just as one would to any other arena of human and social need.

Illustrative Data on the Environment

The data confirm substantive environmental issues. Two such areas are outlined briefly for illustrative purposes.

Human Population Growth

It is estimated that at the time of Jesus, the world human population was 250 million. At 1215 A.D. it was about 350 million, an increase of about 100 million in 1200 years. In 1848, the population stood at about 1.1 billion; in 1939 at 2.2 billion; in 1969 at 3.5 billion, and in 1991 at 5.0 billion. Whereas it took 1200 years from the time of Christ to achieve a growth of 100 million and all of human history to the year 1215 A.D. to reach 350 million, most recently the increase was 1.5 billion in just 22 {39} years. About 90% of these new births occur in poor nations; thus most of the human population growth occurs at the poverty level.

Core issues about such growth include how long and under what circumstances it can be sustained, and what remedies might be found before biological catastrophe sets in. For how many humans can survival needs be met? If our motivation is a Christian compassion that seeks to meet the actual nutritional and health needs of this population, the challenge becomes greater. If one is committed to improving the plight of the world’s poor under these exponential growth circumstances, the task appears thoroughly impossible.

Is it consistent with Christian compassion to advocate such population growth based on Christ-centered values? Are we then advocating, by implication, even greater mass malnutrition, starvation, and perhaps survival warfare? Should we advocate ignoring these data on the assumption that they are part of God’s purposes on earth? How do our faith and values as Mennonite Brethren guide us in this matter? These are not rhetorical questions but challenging matters on which we are in fact positioning ourselves through priority-setting, behaviors, and lifestyles.

Resource Consumption

As the human population rapidly increases, resource consumption also accelerates. However, per capita resource consumption is much higher in the more developed countries than in less developed countries. Hence, the impact of a given population increase on resource consumption is much greater in North America than in India. It is estimated that the average American consumes 250 times more motor fuel, 170 times more newsprint, 50 times more steel, and 56 times more energy than the average resident of India.

Obviously, this immense thirst for resources is fed by a highly efficient system of extraction, marketing, and supply. In turn, a high consumption rate is regarded as a measure of a healthy economy and desirable lifestyle. Clearly, a stable or growing extraction-based economy provides jobs, income, and consumption potential for the population. It this vicious cycle inevitable? Are avenues toward an earth-sustainable economy available?

In less developed countries like India and China, it is the press of high population density more than the high rate of individual consumption that places severe stresses on the environment. Water pollution, soil erosion, and deforestation are severe problems in less developed countries as high population density places intense demands on the environment for minimal food, shelter, and cooking needs. In the meantime, rapid population {40} growth intensifies the demands on the deteriorating environment.

What is the future of such growth and consumption rates? Should the more developed countries (like North America) continue to consume a highly disproportionate share of the resources? Can North American consumption patterns be exported to less developed countries? Should they be? Can population growth in less developed countries be sustained, even at current consumption rates? Should it be?

How shall the sincere Christian respond? What would biblically based attitudes look like? Are principles available to guide us? Does our theology apply to questions like these? These difficult questions call for studied responses.

Dangers of Oversimplification

The data about population growth and resource consumption are only illustrative. A sampling of other environmental topics of equal or greater concern would include the widespread destruction or simplification of natural ecosystems; air, water, and soil pollution; threatened species and species extinction, hence loss of creation’s diversity; management of oceans, parks, wilderness, wetlands, forests, rangelands, and wildlife; national and international politics and economics of feeding the poor; renewable and nonrenewable energy resources and prospects for the future; prospects for extraction-based versus sustainable-earth economies.

The environmental challenges facing us are not the results of a single physical cause, and hence not susceptible to a simple technological cure. The problems are multidimensional, and the solutions must likewise be multidimensional. Cooperative initiatives have to be generated in business, industry, agriculture, technology, government, churches, community life, and schools. Encouraging signs have emerged with demonstrable progress in areas like recycling, energy conservation, and water and air pollution control and cleanup. But current efforts are piecemeal at best and characterized by absence of a unified world view. The church, the obvious reservoir for values leadership, has not appeared prepared or interested in a vision of environmental stewardship.


It is imperative that the church provide much-needed leadership in developing a vision of environmental values and stewardship. The church has access to essential truth concerning the character of God, nature, humanity, and the relationship of each to the others. It is urgent that {41} Christians courageously apply this knowledge to the needs of our time. Several key principles about God and his relationship with nature can be identified. With these principles we have guidance in addressing environmental values and ethics.

The Sovereign God is Creator of Nature. God is worthy of worship; creation is not. God pronounced his creation to be good. Nature, as God’s creation, is worthy of respect, appreciation and enjoyment. The notion that the material is evil and the non-material is spiritual is a Greek view, not a biblical one. Nature is not a flawed ideal, nor deliberately deceptive, but is open to scrutiny and understanding by persons created in God’s image. So when God’s creation struggles under ecological crises, such problems are worthy of study, understanding and problem-solving.

Creation is a form of Revelation. Scripture is the primary form of information about God. Creation, however, is a further medium of revelation. From nature one may learn about God’s creativity and beauty. One is amazed by fine detail, intricacy, and majestic open-endedness and space. We are reminded that God and his creation are not deliberately deceptive or misleading. God is a God of truth. It follows that contemporary animists and New Age philosophers have it all wrong. Nature is not God, is not sacred, and God is not “in nature” in the sense of being found there, but it does tell about God. When humans despoil and destroy nature, they obstruct creation’s capacity to reveal the true God a reality about which evangelicals should be concerned.

Humans are Created Similar to Creation yet Unique. There is an important unity of humanity with the rest of creation. Scripture links God’s creation of persons with other kinds of living beings, such as vegetation, birds, and sea creatures. But humans, made in God’s image, are created unique and are separate from other living beings of creation. To be in God’s image means at least to have free will and the potential in Christ for righteousness, justice, compassion, creativity, care-giving and forgiveness. One implication is that humans have potentialities, opportunities and responsibilities in common with God. Since humans are held special in God’s eyes, an implication is that respectful and competent use of animals in research for the caring benefit of human well-being is appropriate.

God Gave Humans Responsibility to Use and Care for Creation. God provides that humans can use much of creation to meet their needs. Humans are not expected to function only as an additional population of creatures. They have free will and can make choices about how to use the rest of creation. But humans also have responsibilities to creation, as indicated by God’s instructions that they cultivate and “take care” of it {42} (Gen. 2:15). There is no authorization to plunder the garden, or to exploit it for selfish purposes, or to destroy it in recreation. God did not authorize Adam to gorge himself with garden products while starving Eve. The directives were to take care of nature, God’s creation. Stewardship implies care, responsibility, interest in the welfare of others and in creation itself over the longer term. Stewardship implies responsibility far beyond self-interest. It implies planned and deliberate action.

Humans, Freely Choosing Sin, Face Serious Consequences. Humans make selfish choices, choosing to benefit themselves at the expense of others, violating God’s righteousness of justice, love and stewardship. Humans not only fulfill their needs, but also their wishes and desires. They place self-interest ahead of the love of God and neighbor, and so ahead of the pressing needs of the poor and disadvantaged, and also of the needs of creation. That human sin brings consequences upon nature is evident from Paul’s explanation that “the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed . . . that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:19,21-22).

Repentance Brings Substantial Healing. Scripture repeatedly calls humans to repentance, to remorse for sin, and to a return to God and his righteousness. Through Christ’s death and resurrection there is a great healing that takes place in our relationship with God and with others as we repent, return to the Lord, and experience the joy of full forgiveness. Nevertheless, the damaging effects are real in all kinds of relationships, and many effects remain even after repentance. Abused children may suffer effects for life, even after a parent has repented. Nevertheless, repentance is an essential step toward substantial healing. As we repent of our neglect and selfishness in failing to take care of creation, there is reason to expect substantial healing also for creation. As in other relationships, damaging effects may remain. Still, repentance is an essential step towards healing.

In summary, a basic biblical theology of creation goes a long way toward clarifying an appropriate relationship among God, humans, and nature. Only God is worthy of worship. Nature should be respected, enjoyed, and studied but not worshipped. Nature is substantially understandable and not deliberately deceptive or deceitful. When it struggles under ecological crisis, it is worthy of the best of human attention. Nature reveals much about God, so when we damage or destroy it, we obscure its revelatory capacity and diminish the honor and glory due God. Humans are one with nature in being part of God’s physical structure of creation {43}, yet unique in being created in God’s image and in special relationship with God, thus above nature. Humans are called to use nature carefully to meet basic human needs, and to take care of nature. Humans have fallen into sin and tend to use nature selfishly, often damaging it rather than caring for it. Yet nature also benefits in substantial healing when humans repent to proper stewardship.


A Christian Response to Environmental Issues

But how shall the joyously sincere Christian respond to specific environmental issues and crises? As noted above, basic elements of a biblical theology of nature provide our frame of reference. In addition, specific Anabaptist values provide attitudinal and behavioral guidelines, helping us make decisions. These guidelines may now be applied to the two issues of population growth and consumption of resources. Not all Christians will agree with these guidelines; yet they may serve to begin the discussion.

Reflections on Human Population Growth

While more people are now being fed better than ever, more than ever are also malnourished or starving due to the worldwide human population explosion discussed earlier. Nature’s resource base is stretched and damaged. We must care deeply about both nature and humans, but our theology of creation and our Anabaptist values guide us to care most urgently for the suffering persons, while attempting to find better ways to care for all of creation. Anabaptists, along with other Christians, have an exceptionally strong tradition of caring for the poor, the suffering, and the victims of violence.

Can we advocate unlimited population growth throughout the world, knowing the future increased suffering of those not yet conceived? Or, do we do better to assist people of less developed countries with birth control education, methods, and supplies as an act of God’s love and compassion, if such action promises to reduce suffering and take better care of creation? Our biblical theology and values appear to lead us to assist such peoples with birth control (and of course be willing to use such controls in more developed countries as well) rather than defending or advocating unlimited population growth. It should be noted that there is a movement among some evangelicals at this very time opposing any form of birth control and favoring unlimited population growth. {44}

Reflections on Resource Consumption

The per capita resource consumption by the average American and its impact on the environment is immense. What is an appropriate Christian attitude and response to such consumption? How much consumption is required to meet our basic needs? How much additional consumption might be required to provide for the basic needs and developmental leadership of the poor throughout the world? How much consumption is compatible with a sustainable-earth ecology? How can societies move toward sustainable-earth economies?

How is the issue of consumption informed by traditional biblically based Anabaptist values? Do compassionate action toward the poor, a simplified personal lifestyle, and a commitment to good agricultural and economic stewardship apply? Does our resistance to violence in all forms apply to excessive or indiscriminate destruction of nature and its effects on the world’s poor? These values reflect an informed biblical theology of nature, and they do indeed appear to apply to decisions we must make about resource consumption. We should take care of nature in such ways as to help the poor, consider ways of lightening the environmental load of our lifestyle, practice good stewardship, and resist indiscriminate destruction of nature. If we care deeply about our consumption patterns, they will become considerations when we make decisions about the work of the Church and personal lifestyle. The Christian lifestyle of the 1990s should be substantially characterized by a biblically sensitive conscience about resource consumption.

Concerns about consumption and stable economies will move us toward recycling projects and recycling-based business ventures, toward repair and restoration of quality goods, and toward purchases intended for multiple generations. Such concerns will move us away from a short-term throw-away pattern of consumption. We will appreciate and prioritize efficiencies in home design and transportation. We will tend not to demand new or excessive extraction of the earth’s resources when equivalent goods are available on a recycled basis, whether aluminum cans or homes or automobiles. Commendably, several major auto manufacturers are now designing increased recycling potential into new automobiles.

Christian colleges must assert academic and participatory leadership in environmental stewardship. Obvious opportunities include the content and emphases of the general education program, academic majors, faculty scholarship and publication, design of campus facilities, landscaping, and workshops and seminars for the Church and general population. In all these ways, we should celebrate creation and glorify God through enthusiastic environmental stewardship. {45}

Mennonite Brethren colleges in particular have much to offer as we actively examine how biblically-based convictions like simpler lifestyles, highly participatory Christian community, peacefulness, an enthusiastic work ethic, and a biblically based and action-oriented faith apply to environmental stewardship.

Scientists among us should prayerfully consider a renewed commitment to study of the actual condition of nature in our time. Economists might prayerfully consider examining ways our consumption patterns can be made more helpful to the world’s poor and needy while also being made more compatible with taking good care of the earth. In short, thinking Christians must continue to re-examine conventional and secular ways of making decisions in the light of biblical theology and contemporary knowledge available to us.

Since each North American infant (and citizen) extracts as many resources as a host of inhabitants of less developed nations, young Christian married couples should prayerfully consider before conception the impact of bringing each new child into the world. There is good evidence that the impact is substantial, both on the world’s poor and on the condition of nature.


The well-informed and joyous Christian will recognize that it is unreasonable to expect to correct the world’s ills by modification of one’s personal behavior patterns. To add to the weight of guilt is not the purpose of this article. Rather, we should intend to do right because it is right; that is, because of obedience to God’s commands and His purposes for us. He has called us to love Him, to love our neighbor, to use the garden to meet our needs, and to take care of the garden. These principles should guide us. And we can know that our decisions do make an impact, conforming to God’s purposes for us, even though we cannot always measure the benefit or see a completed solution.

Mennonite Brethren institutions have a tremendous opportunity in the arena of environmental stewardship. We have a strong biblical theology as well as Christ-centered values and lifestyle to bring to these issues. Our colleges and seminary bring spiritual and academic trustworthiness to the table. Our denomination is deeply rooted in compassion for the needs of people around the world, and in conscientious stewardship of God’s creation. I urge all to exert strong and creative leadership based on a biblical theology of nature. {46}


  • Block, Arthur. “Response: Faulting the Simple Lifestyle,” Direction, (Spring, 1989).
  • MacKay, Donald M. “Christian Priorities in Science,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, (June, 1986).
  • Miller, G. Tyler, Jr. Living in the Environment, Fourth edition, (Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1985).
  • Sheldon, Joseph K. “Twenty-One Years After ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’: How Has the Church Responded?”, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, (September 1989).
  • Stafford, Tim. “Ron Sider’s Unsettling Crusade,” Christianity Today, (April 27, 1992).
  • Van Dyke, Fred G. “Ecology and the Christian Mind: Christians and the Environment in a New Decade,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, (September, 1991).
  • Vaughn, Mark. “Animal rights group dogs automaker over safety tests,” Autoweek, (October 28, 1991).
  • Weeks, Louis B. “Global-Village Living,” Direction, (Spring, 1989).
  • Wilkinson, Loren, editor. Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.)
Dr. Lee Balzer is President of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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