Climate Change: A Historical And Biblical Perspective

Feb 29th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The phrase “climate change” is an incendiary one.  There are the “alarmists” who often posit a scenario of end-of-life-as-we know-it. And there are the “deniers,” who argue that it is all a hoax.  But any intellectually honest person cannot deny the partial relationship between human emissions of greenhouse gases and a warming climate, which cannot be denied.  Being concerned about climate change is a genuine expression of our faith as Christians.  “Pollution, biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation, species extinction” are all effects of our changing climate.  We cannot ignore these.  Hence, in this Perspective, I seek to bring some balance to the issue and then offer a biblical perspective and a historical one.


First, Ted Nordhaus, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, offers some balance to this heated debate:

  1. While it is true that poor nations are most vulnerable to a changing climate, it is also true that the fastest way to rescue the vulnerability is through economic development, which requires infrastructure and industrialization. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that we can cut emissions fast enough to stabilize global temperatures.  Nevertheless, “there is still substantial uncertainty about how sensitive global temperatures will be to higher emissions over the long-term.”
  2. “The energy intensity of the global economy continues to fall. Lower-carbon natural gas has displaced coal as the primary source of new energy.  The falling cost of wind and solar energy has begun to have an effect on the growth of fossil fuels.  Even nuclear energy has made a comeback in Asia.”
  3. The utopian dreams of desiring to reorganize the world to stop climate change (e.g., Greta Thunberg) are not a plausible global future. “Nor will denying the relationship between carbon emissions and global warming make the real risks go away.  The world will tackle this problem the way it tackles most other problems, partially and incrementally, by taking up the challenges that are right in front of us—adaptation, economic development, energy modernization, public health—and find practical ways to address them.”


Second, let me offer a biblical perspective:

  • A proper biblical view of the physical creation begins with a proper view of God. The challenge is to keep in balance God’s transcendence and His immanence.  God’s transcendence focuses on His radical separateness from creation; He is both above and beyond His physical world.  God’s immanence focuses on His presence in His physical world.  To stress His immanence at the expense of His transcendence is to land in pantheism where everything is god.  To stress His transcendence at the expense of his immanence is to see the physical world as insignificant and a tool for exploitation.  Neither is satisfactory nor God-honoring.  There needs to be a balance between both God’s transcendence and His immanence, between His intimate involvement in all aspects of His physical creation (see Psalm 139) and His radical distinction from creation.  Where the physical world is finite, limited, dependent; He is infinite, unlimited and self-sufficient.
  • Second, is a proper view of humans. Human beings are both interdependent with the rest of creation and unique within it, because we alone bear His image and have stewardship over the Earth.  Christians frequently forget our interdependence with the rest of God’s world.  Our daily existence depends on water, sun and air.  There is indeed a global ecosystem.  It matters how we treat the water, the trees and the other animals.  If they are harmed so are we.  There is this vital, interdependent relationship that comes from the creative hand of God.  But the Bible also declares human uniqueness.  Human beings are image-bearers of God. No other physical part of God’s world can claim this.  Furthermore, humans also have dominion status.  God declares in Genesis 1:26-30 that humans have the responsibility to rule (have dominion) over the nonhuman creation.  Tragically, this dominion has frequently turned to exploitation.  Genesis 2:15 is the corrective to exploitation.  Humans are to serve and watch lovingly, almost worshipfully, over God’s creation.  We are God’s stewards.  He is sovereign; we have dominion authority.  Francis Schaeffer argues that humans have two relationships–one upward and one downward.  The upward relationship accentuates the personal relationship humans should have with God; a relationship not enjoyed by the rest of the created order.  The downward relationship accentuates the “creaturely” relationship that humans share with the rest of the created order (see Genesis 2:7 and Job 34:14,15).  As in most issues, the struggle is to keep the two in balance.  We tend to so highlight the upward relationship to the virtual exclusion of the downward.  This leads to horrific neglect or ruthless exploitation of the physical world.  Or we tend to highlight the downward to the virtual exclusion of the upward.  We are accountable to God for how we care for His world as dominion stewards.  This includes managing the effects of climate change.


  • Third, non-human creation is of great significance to God.  He created the physical world as a deliberate act; He takes pleasure in His physical world.  This is clear from the Creation Ordinance in Genesis 1 and 2 and from 1 Timothy 4:4: “For everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude.”   (See also Psalm 104:31 where we see God rejoicing in His works).  The point is that if the physical world is of importance to God, then it must be to us–His creatures–as well (see also Job 39:1-2, Colossians 1:16 and Psalms 19:1-4).  It is likewise imperative to note that God has a covenant, not only with humans but also with nonhuman creation.  After the flood, God made a covenant with the physical creation: “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark (Genesis 9:9-10).  The physical world has dignity, worth and value quite apart from its service to humanity. Incredibly, God’s plan for redemption has a cosmic quality to it, thereby providing a crucial foundation for building a Christian theology of the physical environment.  The biblical hope that the whole created order, including the material world, will be part of the kingdom confirms that the created order is good and important.  Romans 8:19-23 demonstrates that at Christ’s return the groaning of creation will cease, for the creation will be transformed: “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (v. 21, NIV).



Finally, there are two important historical studies that enable all us to put things in proper perspective.

  • The first is by William Rosen, whose book, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, focuses on the Medieval Warm Period from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 14th century when the Northern Hemisphere was warmer than at any time in the past 8,000 years. The reason for this warm-up is unclear and scholars have arrived at no consensus in explaining it.  It is rather clear, however, that human behavior did not cause this incredible period of climate change.  Near the end of the Medieval Warm Period, the severe winters in 1309-1312 were catastrophic.  Polar bears could walk from Greenland to Iceland on pack ice.  Then in 1315, it rained for 150 consecutive days, causing devastating erosion of topsoil, with the result that over half of the arable land of Europe was gone.
  • The second book is by Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. Among other things, Parker charts the consequences of the Little Ice Age, which occurred between the 1640s and the 1690s.  Scholars are a bit more certain on what caused this period of climate change—e.g., decreased sunspot activity, seismic activity—and the devastation that resulted was staggering.  Among other effects was the flight from farms, which could not function in the cold, to cities.  The result was “the urban graveyard effect,” which included disease, nutrition, water, sanitation, housing, fire, crime, abortion, infanticide, suicide and other calamitous problems.  Parker tries to connect this devastation with the wars of the 17th  There were more wars in that century “than in any other era before the Second World War.”

These two scholarly works give us a much needed perspective and a significant dose of humility when it comes to the nearly daily pronouncements that human behavior is the singular cause of climate change.  That the climate is undergoing a period of change is a given.  These books at least should give us some caution.  They provide a caveat on both the causes of and the solutions to climate change.

See Katherine Hayhoe, “The Christian Case for climate Action” New York Times (3 November 2019); Ted Nordhaus, Wall Street Journal (25-26 January 2020); George Will in the Washington Post (7 and 14 January 2015); and James P. Eckman, Christian Ethics, pp. 109-120.

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One Comment to “Climate Change: A Historical And Biblical Perspective”

  1. Arlie Rauch says:

    A Bible verse that helps me to have balance is Genesis 8:22: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (NIV)