Natural disasters, climate change, and the ‘burn it all downers’

May 21, 2013
By Richard Cizik
The Washington Post

Pastor Mark Driscoll, who ministers in Seattle, told a Catalyst gathering a few days ago that “I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” No joke. That’s what he said. Actually, Driscoll says it was all just a joke.

A lot of people didn’t get the humor. Maybe it was because last week scientists declared that CO2 levels had reached 400 parts per million (ppm), and released their film, “Do the Math” on the crisis of climate change.

Reputable scientists in this impressive film say “civilization is in jeopardy.” [Disclaimer: I am in the film saying oil companies should be held liable.]

Researchers at Columbia University, in a study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, estimate deaths linked to warming climate may rise by some 20 percent by the 2020s, 90 percent or more 70 years hence.

Adverse health effects from rising temperatures will hit major cities, like New York and other urban areas, especially hard.

“Heat events are one of the greatest hazards faced by urban populations around the globe,” said coauthor of the study Radley Horton, a climate scientist at the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research.

How Americans view these events is strikingly dissimilar, however.

According to Public Religion Research Institute, nearly two-thirds (65%) of white evangelical Protestants believe that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of what the Bible calls the end times. By contrast, more than six in 10 (63%) of Americans say the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of global climate change. Only half (50%) of white evangelical Protestants agree that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of global climate change, less than that of Catholics (60%) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (69%). In other words, there’s a big disconnect between how a lot of evangelical Protestants view the links between natural disasters and climate change and how most Americans see it. The consequence of this is all too apparent politically.

Nevertheless, Pastor Driscoll got some push-back and tried to respond: “For the record, I really like this planet. God did a good job making this planet. We should take good care of this planet until he comes back to make a new earth, like the Bible says he will.” Pastor Driscoll went on to say that his family’s green activities would make a “hippy happy,” which struck quite a few people as ridicule and got him into more trouble. But I’ll take the pastor at his word.

Needless to say, the current political polarization over the environment and climate change has got to change if we are to ever slow the impacts of climate change and the escalating number of deaths already occurring. Evangelicals can be a source of societal healing and political action if they understand their Bible correctly.Alas, we evangelicals (I count myself among this tribe) are still way behind the moral curve.

Speaking in chapel at a few years ago at Harden Simmons University, deep in the heart of Texas, a student walked to the main aisle in the middle of the chapel and shouted as loud as he could, “This [creation care] doesn’t matter, Jesus is coming back!”

My audience went instantly quiet, waiting to hear how I would respond.

“Let me answer that question,” I said, as if he’d asked one, and went on to cite God’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” Can you pollute your neighbor’s water, air, and land, and still say you love God? Of course not.

Those who ascribe to the “God-will-burn-it-all-down school,” pop up everywhere. At a family wedding, an in-law asserted his knowledge of scripture, “Don’t you know it’s all going to be burned up?, citing as evidence 2 Peter 3:10: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud voice, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.”

The best translation of this passage (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, Frank Gaebelein, General Editor) is “everything in it will be laid bare.” It could mean all human products will be destroyed or it could mean that all that man does will be known in the judgment. (I Corinthians 3: 13-15).

This is where some knowledge of Greek comes handy. The word for “fire” in the Scriptures is a multivalent symbol and can mean both extinguished and refined, and the latter usage [Peter 3:10] is the best interpretation. The earth will be “refined,” not utterly destroyed. Besides, if God was going to destroy the earth as was insinuated by the “burn it downers,” why would the Apostle John in Revelation 11:18 write that there will be a time “for destroying the destroyers of the earth”?

God it seems will hold polluters responsible. The grandfather of the creation care movement, Dr. Cal DeWitt, at the University of Wisconsin, once told me that he had asked Dr. Billy Graham about Revelation 11:18, but the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, possibly of all time, admitted he was unfamiliar with the verse, and replied, “I should preach on it some time.” Maybe his son, Franklin Graham, can be persuaded to do so.

A kind of environmental skepticism is associated with the Left Behind series that taught a secret rapture of believers from this world prior to a final bloody battle between good and evil known as Armageddon. Dr. Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the book, a well-known conservative, nonetheless claimed no such warrant for apathy was justified.

Evangelicals, aided by good scholarship and biblical hermeneutics, are rejecting pre-millennial pessimism, which holds that the earth is going to hell in a hand basket, and there’s nothing we can do about it. One of America’s premier pre-millennial dispensational theologians, Dr. Charles Ryrie of Dallas Theological Seminary, author of the Ryrie Study Bible, told me over lunch at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida that he believes “we need to care for this earth,” much as he said he cares for his human body by daily exercise.

About the general principle of creation care, Ryrie was very clear: “The Bible affirms that we must care for the earth as stewards.” That prestigious seminary, moreover, is leading the way in greening its facilities, as is another similar theological institution, BIOLA, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, which is now a liberal arts college with secular academic credentials.

You can even find a Green Bible in most Christian bookstores. There are so many “green” verses that call us to environmental stewardship, much like the red-letter Bible which put in red the verses uttered by Jesus, that any faithful Christian would have to be blind not to pay attention.

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly true about the skeptics. Larry Schweiger, head of the National Wildlife Federation, says you have to engage in “willful blindness” not to see what’s happening to Planet Earth. Turning a blind eye, so easily done just a few years ago, is no longer apparently tolerated even in conservative evangelical circles. And, Pastor Driscoll, it’s not about joining the “happy hippie” crowd. It’s about joining the most significant new recruits to the environmental movement — faithful Christians. No joke.

The Rev. Richard Cizik served for 10 years as vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals. He has been an advocate for bringing evangelicals and scientists together on climate change issues.