I support two charities on a regular basis: World Vision and the World Wildlife Fund. On the few times that charitable giving practices have come up in conversation with fellow Christians, my mention of World Vision has met with a nod of knowing approval. In contrast, mention of the World Wildlife Fund has been met with an incredulous stare. Why? Tacit in the look of disapproval seems to be the judgment that this action is tantamount to valuing chipmunks over children, ferrets over farmers, vermin over villagers. If that were true then I would warrant a stare of incredulity: I recall my own horror at hearing a PETA activist say "a rat is a dog is a boy." No it is not. A rat is a rat, a dog is a dog, and a boy is a human being made in the image of God. But can I escape that activist's logic if I opt to give thirty bucks to the WWF to protect narwhals instead of sponsoring another World Vision child?
Imagine that instead of sending that thirty bucks to the WWF I spent it on a dinner out. I dare say nobody would stand in judgment of that allocation of resources. So dinner out is okay, but improving the lot of narwhals is not?
I suspect that one important reason for that contrasting judgment is rooted in commonly held views in eschatology, the Christian doctrine of last things. While evangelicals may differ about the nature of the resurrection, final judgment, rapture, and millennium, there would seem to be substantial agreement that the Christian destiny is to go to heaven to be with God. Consequently, as Larry Norman once put it: "I'm only visiting this planet, this world is not my home"; indeed, the fate of this world is to be consumed in fire (II Pe 3:7). And if that is true, then fighting to save narwhals is like frantically rubbing furniture polish into the banister in a condemned building. Better to go across the street, have a coffee, and wait for the demolition crew.
To be sure Jesus does speak often of heaven. But taken as the picture of eternal destiny, it is incomplete, for included with the promise of (a new) heaven is a new earth (Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1). Hence, in contrast to the ethereal future of many other religions, Christianity offers an eternal state that includes a corporeal, embodied dimension. And that would imply that this world we are in now has an eternal destiny which should impact our assessment of its intrinsic worth. But one might object, since these passages speak of a new earth, doesn't it imply that the old one is being replaced? I don't think so. First, note that our resurrection bodies are also described as new and yet the clear implication of scripture is that these are not replacements of our present bodies, but the perfection of them. For instance, Jesus' resurrection body still bore the marks of crucifixion (Jn 20:27). Further, in relating our old and new bodies, Paul develops the continuity of a seed and the resulting plant (I Cor 15:42-44). Not surprisingly, theologians have always emphasized that the resurrection will involve the rising of the same body in perfection. As Thomas Aquinas succinctly put it: "by the union of numerically the same soul with numerically the same matter, numerically the same man will be restored." (Summa Contra Gentiles IV, 81)
Shift back to the new heavens and earth. If God's modus operandi with us is not replacement but restoration and repletion, then it would seem curious that we would not expect the same of creation. And indeed, this is what we find. In a fascinating passage in Romans Paul comments: "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." (Rom 8:20-1) Here Paul observes that while (1) creation has been subjected to the effects of the fall, (2) creation anticipates its eventual liberation and freedom. Now if this creation were to be annihilated and replaced by another, then it would be a false hope for it to await its own liberation. Therefore it follows that the new creation is the perfection of the old.
That raises the question of what will fill this new creation. It would certainly be strange to expect a restoration of bare rock, water and air, shorn of any life. As such, it should not surprise us that the biblical images of new creation include both flora (Rev 22:2) and fauna (Isa 65:25; Isa 11:6). Admittedly the passages that provide these images are symbolic, but would it not be misleading if they were not communicating something about the reality of the new creation including non-human life? It is thus wholly reasonable to expect a renewed creation that could include trees, birds, and narwhals (as for mosquitoes, C.S. Lewis once wryly observed that a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for humans could be combined!).
If we can anticipate a renewed creation replete with creatures praising their creator (Ps 19), then creation is not a condemned building, but rather one awaiting the perfecting touch of the master builder. And that has environmental implications now, for it means that a little polish on the banister is not a futile and irresponsible squandering of resources, but rather a faithful anticipation of God's coming. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if God's restorative and repletive work radiates out from the points where his stewards have been working, including those "futile" banister rubbings.
Ultimately, we don't honor creation for its own sake, but for the sake of the creator who called us to be good stewards of his creation (Gen 1:28; 2:15), even as he shows faithful love and care for it (e.g. Matt. 7:26-30). While an art critic can love the paintings of an artist for their beauty, the artist's children can love the paintings both for their beauty and for the love of their father the artist. As such, Christians, should not have an impoverished environmental concern but an enriched one. And as they do, they herald the coming of he who is king both of the impoverished villagers of Africa, and the threatened narwhals of the Arctic Ocean.
*This article was originally published in the magazine Faith Today (Jan-Feb, 2006).