Climate Change: God's Call to Repentance

Bernard Wong 
Associate Dean
Assistant Professor (Theological Studies)

 


“In his 2019 New Year’s Message, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres issued “a red alert” over a range of dangers threatening the world, reiterating one of his clarion calls over climate change. From the super typhoon that struck Hong Kong last year to the warmest winter in history,1 we know that climate change is an indisputable fact that is increasingly affecting our life. Scientists also warn that climate change will bring dramatic disasters. Nevertheless, most Hong Kong people are still feeling nonchalant about this, living their life as usual. They do not feel this is a sign of a need for change, and there are very few voices in the church arousing awareness of the problem and calling for actions, as if this world-shaping issue had nothing to do with faith. But is this really the case? And how should we look at climate change from a faith perspective? Does God have His will in this matter?

Reasons for Dismissing Climate Change

Michael Northcott, who studies environmental theology, argues that there are two common ways that people deny climate change: First, some claim that the science behind global warming is not trustworthy and discount the warning signs as lies created by climatologists. Northcott argues that those who still deny climate change even under strong evidence today do not base their positions on objective evidence and rational analysis, but on their own conviction, justifying their “addiction” to high-carbon lifestyles, just as addicts create beliefs that rationalize their behavior. From the faith perspective, these people are addicted to material gratification and are unwilling to control their desires. Second, some people think that technological fixes can solve the problem, such as injecting sulfates into the atmosphere to reduce global temperatures. Northcott claims that these technological solutions represent a dangerous extension of existing problems. Not only do these people not address the core issue of excessive consumption habits, but also put too much confidence in science and technological fixes. On a faith perspective, these people are guilty of selfcenteredness and self-reliance.2

Besides, Hong Kong Christians are also influenced by an “extremely nihilistic apocalypticism”, mistakenly believing that the destruction of the material world will lead to the return of the Lord. Thus, aside from not caring about the earth, they also look forward to expediting its destruction. However, Jürgen Moltmann made it clear that the gospel of Christ does not bring destruction, but life and renewal. The extremely nihilistic apocalypticism does not promote passion for life, but subject life to destructive forces, which completely goes against the gospel. In his opinion, this apocalypticism leads to two kinds of mentalities: one is the attitude of “let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And since indulging in “eating and drinking” will accelerate environmental damage, it works perfectly on both ends. The second tactic is religious escapism to escape from reality, stressing that “the world is not our home” and “the soul is saved”, and that faith alone can protect oneself from environmental damages.3 Take a look at the message of the church or even the worship hymns. They often tell us that in the face of danger, God will preserve us and grant us peace in the world. Even when the “outside” world is chaotic, we can still find peace “inside” the Lord. Since we believe that God will surely protect and shield us from harm, we have no reason to fear climate change at all. We can continue to live a materially “abundant” life. Wouldn’t it be a disdain for God’s love and power to think that God would allow people to suffer from climate change? Moreover, through miracles or by simply changing the laws of nature, God’s unceasing work in the world will certainly not allow climate change to bring about great destruction to mankind. We can only show our true “faith” to God when we believe this way.

God Works through Natural Laws

But is this how the Bible depicts God? Would He perform miracles today to change the warming effect of the greenhouse gases and save mankind from harm? If we read the Bible carefully, it is not hard to find that this would not be the God revealed in the Bible. The Bible says God established the laws of nature so all things in the created world work in order. He evaluated this created order to be “good.”

Throughout the history of the earth, the warming effect of the greenhouse gases has always kept the earth warm and allow organisms to flourish. However, human activities have been contributing to a much greater degree of global warming in recent years, pushing the world to the brink of disaster. So we can see that the problem lies not in the greenhouse gases, nor in the laws of nature itself, but in the excessive amounts of emissions released by human activities.

More importantly, the laws of nature must remain stable so that humans know how to “till and keep” the earth. God gives us rationality to comprehend the laws of nature and to perform our duties accordingly. But if the laws of nature fail or become random, man will not be able to grasp the working principle of the earth, nor will he be able to fulfill the task entrusted by God. It is for these reasons that God is steadily holding on to all laws of nature, including the warming effect of the greenhouse gases. These laws of nature will not easily change, reflecting God’s loving care for the world. In fact, stable natural laws reveals a steadfast and faithful Creator.

God Works through Christ

Since the creation of the world, the most direct work of God in the world is the incarnation of Christ. However, Jesus did not use miracles to remove suffering; there is still oppression and poverty in the world, and natural disasters are still happening. He came to be with the sinners and bore the consequence of sins by being crucified. If Christ Himself endured pain and death, there is no way we can avoid or be exempted from trials and death in the world. Jesus tells us that suffering does not mean that God has abandoned the world. He walks with us in our suffering.

When we look upon the cross, we are reminded of the evilness of sin, that even a sinless person had to suffer. We should repent, lest God’s judgment will come upon us. And we do not need to fear suffering and death, for they can only “kill the body” and not “the soul”. What we really need to fear is the God of judgment who “destroys the body and the soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Therefore, repentance is more crucial than avoiding suffering and death. In fact, the most important mission of Jesus is to urge people to repent, and God continues this same work today.

Listen to God’s Call from Climate Change

If the work of God is to urge people repent from their sins, then He is calling us today in the following ways:

First, climate change tells us that human behavior can affect the world. Therefore, we must know that the task entrusted to us by God to watch over the world is real and important. It concerns human beings, the whole ecosystem and even the well-being of the earth. We must take it seriously. Since we can influence the world, we can also help reverse the endangered natural environment through our choices and actions. In the face of climate change, we should definitely not let it happen and resign ourselves to the consequences.

Second, climate itself is undoubtedly extremely complex, and there are still many things beyond human understanding and control. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, humans have burned a large amount of fossil fuels, expecting no impacts on the climate. However, climate change has warned us that we must be humble, not to be self-centered, and to think that we can control the world. It also reminds us that we should not attempt to fix the atmosphere through technologies. Instead, we must look upon God’s work: to repent from the habit of excessive emissions, so that the nature may restore itself.

In fact, climate change has brought dreadful consequences to the earth. We know that we are making serious mistakes in our job of watching over the earth. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have pursued an economic model of continuous production and exploitation of resources to cater to our self-centered material desires. Over time we have forgotten that God is the one we should pursue and obey. If God performed miracles today to stop the climate change, man would be even less alert about the crisis, and continue to indulge their material desires unscrupulously, staying farther and farther away from God.

Third, climate change is a global problem. The pollution of soil, rivers and even nuclear power affect limited areas, but the greenhouse gas emissions are affecting the entire world. In fact, climate change reminds us that all things in the world are in mutual relationship: while one’s sin can hurt others, one’s good deeds can also bless the world. People are not “autonomous individuals” who can go by “minding our own business” without affecting others. As all share the same atmosphere, greenhouse gas emissions are a matter of justice. Many countries are reluctant to reduce their emissions because of their own economic interests. These developed countries may not bear the greatest climate hazard. On the contrary, those less economically developed regions with fewer emissions suffer the most, resulting in a situation of inequity. In this regard, God’s command “to uphold justice and care for the weak and underprivileged” becomes very important. To face climate change, we need good collaborative efforts and understanding between people and countries. We also need Christ’s example of self-sacrifice. On an individual level, we may not be able to help the material needs of the poor in the other corner of the world. However, our own life habits and consumption patterns can directly affect them through the atmosphere. In the future, when we stand before the judgment seat of God, these will become the criteria for judging whether we are “righteous and compassionate”. If we look at it this way, climate change may very well be God’s test for humankind: to see if we are willing to follow His heart and imitate Christ. Or are we so obsessed with high emission lifestyles that we keep overlooking the plight of those currently affected by climate change?

In the midst of crisis, if we do not repent soon, the impacts of climate change will quickly deteriorate. Will God allow extreme weather to trigger famines or even wars so that we are punished for our self-centered and materialistic sins? No one can answer for God. The Bible clearly tells us that while God punishes sinners, behind the punishments is God’s steadfast love for us. Therefore, climate change, though painful, is the voice of our loving God to call for people’s repentance. While the climate crisis is yet to become irreversible, it is time to wake up, repent and turn to the Lord!

 

 

1. Hong Kong Observatory, “Weather Review of February 2019,” published on 4 March 2019; available from https:// www.hko.gov.hk/wxinfo/pastwx/mws2019/mws201902c_uc.htm (cited 5 March 2019).
2. Michael Northcott, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007), 269–277.
3. Moltmann, Jürgen, Ethics of Hope (in Chinese), trans. Wang Yujing (Hong Kong: Daofeng Bookstore, 2015), 66-68.

 

Extended reading

1. Moo, Douglas J. and Moo, Jonathan A. Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World. Biblical Theology for Life Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018.
2. Bereshith, ed. Caring for the Created World (in Chinese). Hong Kong: Dehui Culture, 2018.

 

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