In 2013 I published my book What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven? in which I presented my core thesis in the following equation: “H=ep.” In other words, “heaven” (in terms of the absolute and final destination for individuals reconciled to God in Christ) is not the otherworldly paradise of the popular Christian (and Platonic) imagination. Rather, it is the earth — that is, the material creation — brought to perfection.
Needless to say, this thesis has implications for how we treat the environment. In the popular Christian (and Platonic) imagination environmental concern is marginalized, even rendered suspect, based on the notion that we are being saved out of the world rather than with the world. In the worst instantiations the notion becomes this: I can live without regard for the environment because creation is doomed to destruction.
Rarely if ever have the environmental implications of evangelical gnosticism been stated with the searing honesty and brutal concision of the following quip from Mark Driscoll:
“I know who made the environment. He’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.”
Driscoll assumes the biblical images of an eschatological burning of creation symbolize destruction. By contrast, if one interprets these images as the refiner’s fire of purification — if one accepts that H=ep — then one cannot shirk environmental responsibility with the puerile quip that God will “burn it all up.” On the contrary, one must be concerned with creation as well.
To be sure, the matter isn’t simply about falling into the legalism of censuring and stigmatizing those who drive SUVs. (Full disclosure: I have an SUV and a Ford Mustang in my garage. So I’m not about to cast any stones from this glass house.) Rather, it is about a holistic consideration of all our life choices and how they affect the environment. And it’s about coming to ask ethical questions of our environmental footprint as an expression of our Christian discipleship.
A couple years ago I had a conversation with a Christian fundamentalist. (I give him that label advisedly as he was an avowed defender of young earth creationism, a narrow conception of biblical inerrancy, and this quasi-gnostic otherworldly view of heaven.) In that conversation I pointed out how we should always be seeking practical ways to lessen our adverse impact on the environment. I opined, “Even something as seemingly trivial as idling your car unnecessarily is an ethical and theological issue.”
The man’s response brings me to the most bizarre rejoinder I ever heard from a Christian fundamentalist. He replied:
“Look, if I have to choose between sharing the Gospel or not idling my car, I’ll share the Gospel.”
How revealing that statement was! I hadn’t said a thing about “sharing the Gospel” but immediately my interlocutor sought to reframe any concern about environmental impact in terms of a zero-sum relationship with evangelistic proclamation as if one immediately must choose between either protecting the environment or telling people about Jesus.
That false dichotomy was itself rooted in the gnostic notion that God saves us out of the world, But it ain’t so. On the contrary, the Gospel is the proclamation that God so loved and saves the world (John 3:16), reconciling all things, whether things on earth or in heaven, through Christ’s blood shed on the cross (Colossians 1:20).