Climate change, divine sovereignty, and the "end of the world”

One of the concerns some Christians may have about COP26 is that it achieved nothing. And by this I do not mean the usual cynicism about politics. I mean instead that belief that the die is cast, the future set by God, and there is nothing we can do. This point of view holds that climate change is part of the will of God, and therefore the church should just get on with “preaching the gospel.” The questions that need an answer are “is climate God’s will for the world?” “And what is our responsibility?”

We can think of God’s will when it comes to our changing climate in one of two ways. The first is that climate change is God’s prescriptive will. Climate change happens because God wills that it changes. This is often coupled to the view that climate change is part of the end times, the divine judgment on human sin. Others go futher and link this to the physical destruction of the earth.

A second way of thinking about climate change is that it is God’s permissive will. God allows human sinfulness to run its course. Climate change is not God’s general judgment on human sin, but God giving us over to the consequences of worshipping idols of growth, of greed, and the violence we have wrought on the earth and each other (see Gen 6:11). We might then argue that humans may or may not be able to do anything about this.

Let us look at Romans 8 to start to think about the problem. Verse 20 tells us that it is God who subjected the creation to frustration, not humans. How might we understand this? Humans have a responsibility to exercise dominion (Gen 1:28) and the model of how this looks is service and protection (Gen 2:15).

Humans clearly have the largest impact on the planet of any one species now, and it is largely a destructive force. Yet also we see the changes we have made being run away with by the creation.

This dominion has not been taken away. Humans clearly have the largest impact on the planet of any one species now, and it is largely a destructive force. Yet also we see the changes we have made being run away with by the creation. Humans burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, in turn evaporating more water vapour to lead to more warming. Heat waves, fires, and rising seas are all pushing back at humans. And power and wisdom have been shown to be lacking – the emperor has no clothes as the saying goes.

We also learn from Romans 8:20–23 that the subjection of creation to our sinful misrule was done in hope of creation’s redemption, which is tied in intimately with our resurrection. This points against the idea that creation’s future doesn’t matter. Matter matters and will be redeemed and not destroyed. Eschatology – the study of the “end times” needs to include the rest of creation. But Romans 8 also suggests that whatever human’s do doesn’t matter. God will save it in the end (Rom 8:20–21). Or does it?

If the groaning of creation is God’s prescriptive will, Christians should be actively working to heal creation, even if we fail. Why do I say this? In Isaiah, we learn that God used Assyria to bring judgement on Israel for its unfaithfulness to God and injustices (Isaiah 5). Their judgment was God’s prescribed will. Yet in Isaiah 7, God also proclaims judgement on Assyria for doing it, as if they should not have, or at least relished the task less. You might find this inconsistent, but it does point to the fact that if suffering occurs according to the divine will, being an active agent of this suffering is not somehow good. Indeed, when it comes to ecological destruction, John makes it clear that divine wrath is on those who destroy the earth (Rev 11:18).

My own view is that climate change is God giving us over to our sins. This mirrors the language of Romans 1, where God gives people over to their sin and its consequences. The God who creates the world very good does not will that humans should destroy it but allows it (for a time) to suffer until the resurrection brings all things to a conclusion in the eschaton or “end times.” What they are we to do?

If the resurrection from the dead means the suffering of creation comes to an end, and that suffering is due to human misrule, then our resurrected selves will rule wisely. Eschatology should include the study of ethics! Why wait until then if we can relieve the suffering of humans and non-humans now? Revelation points to God making all things new (Rev 21:5) and there is no reason to think this does not begin now because God is in charge of history how (Rev 4–5). We don’t go on sinning against human or non-human so grace might abound now or when Christ returns (Rom 6:1–2). In other words, the “end times” does not simply point to “the end of history” – whatever that might mean – but we live in the inbetween time that began with the empty tomb and continues on now and onto the eventual return of Christ.

What then does it mean to affirm that God has “the whole world in his hands?”

What then does it mean to affirm that God has “the whole world in his hands?” What I am arguing is that it means that history has meaning and purpose, but that humans also have responsibility within the bounds of divine order. To say that God is in control does not deny that the future might become very, very bad if we fail to act. The return of Christ is inevitable and does not rely upon how good or bad a state history is in. We might lose billions to climate change, or reverse climate change and avoid losing many lives to warming, fires, floods, rising seas, etc. We might save the coral reefs, the whales, and pollinating insects.
We have lived through disaster before – the two world wars of last century are only one example. Christ will still return.

Until this time, we are called to love God and our neighbour, human and non-human. We are to do good to all (Gal 6:10). COP26 matters because much suffering will happen if we don’t turn the ship of human society. The earth will never become a utopia. We may always be fighting against disaster. But fight we must!

This is an opportunity for us to preach a message of hope to be sure but hope in action.  I despair at how we have failed to love God and neighbour, how we have failed to care for the Earth. I hope for a renewal of all things and live as though it had begun. The end may be certain, but what happens in between relies upon us being faithful to God’s call to be stewards, peacemakers, people of love.

This is Part 3 of a three-essay series by Mick Pope. You can read Part 1 of Mick’s response here, and Part 2 here.