WHY SHOULD AN EVANGELIST PLANT A TREE?
Some Thoughts on a Biblical Theology of the Environment
David W. Bennett, D.Min., Ph.D.
The discussion took me by surprise.
I serve on the board of an evangelical foundation that for over twenty years has had holistic ministry as one of its primary focus areas. The board has joyfully and enthusiastically made grants for digging wells, training community health workers, helping farmers to grow drought-resistant crops, providing capital for small business loans, purchasing equipment for mobile clinics, and much more.
So I was not prepared for the liveliness of the discussion when one of our staff members brought forward a proposal related to the environment. To me it seemed an obvious candidate for a grant, similar to dozens of others that we had made.
It is important to know that one of the key criteria for grants approved by this foundation is spiritual intentionality. The grants we make need to be related clearly to world evangelization. At first I thought the debate arose perhaps because the spiritual components of the proposal were not clear enough, whether in the larger vision that motivated the ministry, or in the practical implementation steps outlined, or in the specific outcomes that were identified.
But as the discussion proceeded, I realized that there were more fundamental questions being expressed about the biblical and theological foundations for our involvement in this sector of holistic ministry. The question appeared to be, “Is an environmental grant in line with the mission of this foundation?” In short, what did planting trees have to do with sharing the good news of Jesus, and planting churches, and discipling believers, and training leaders in countries of the world that were spiritually and economically most needy—that is, the core priorities for our granting?
I began to see that even though our foundation board and staff were all long-time believers, nurtured in evangelical churches, even embracing the Lausanne Covenant as our statement of faith as a foundation, we were at different places in our theological convictions and/or in our personal passions related to environmental concerns. There were even some brief comments, partly in jest, about “tree huggers,” and references to some of the more costly and politically controversial environmental initiatives in recent years.
At one point in the discussion I expressed my surprise, and dismay, that what had seemed to me to be such a simple grant proposal should launch such a lively discussion. I expressed that to me it appeared obvious that environmentally focused proposals should be included in our holistic granting portfolio. I mentioned that for years in my preaching and teaching I had laid biblical foundations for such involvements. In that context the board asked me to share my thoughts concerning a biblical basis for environmental concern and action, especially in relation to our foundation’s priorities of evangelism, church planting, leadership development and holistic ministry among the least reached and most economically needy.
This paper represents an expansion of the outline I presented to the foundation board and staff at our next meeting, four months later. I framed my comments as answers to the question: “Why should an evangelist plant a tree?” The following ten biblical principles are themes that I have preached publicly and shared personally over a number of years.
Recurring Biblical Themes
1. God created all things.
The Bible begins and ends with the statement that God created all things. The universe is not eternal. There was a time when God was, and the universe was not.
In particular, life is a gift from God. Every living thing is an expression of God’s engineering, artistry and planning. As people made in God’s image, we have the privilege to explore our world, and to be awed by its complexity, beauty and elegance. As a life science major in university, I found myself increasingly amazed during the course of my studies at the intricacy of the systems at work within a single cell. And that was 45 years ago! Discoveries in cellular biology and biophysics have exploded since then.
New scientific discoveries continually show how things are related as entire interdependent systems. The principle of design applies not only to individual organisms, but also to entire ecosystems. As our understanding of organisms and their habitats increases, we see more and more illustrations of the power and wisdom of the Creator. Our scientific investigations become fuel for praise and worship. Both mathematicians and artists can draw inspiration and insight from what God has made.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being. (Revelation 4:11)
And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. (Genesis 2:9)
2. God reigns over all things and is present everywhere.
Care for creation acknowledges this transcendent dimension of life—that God reigns over all things and is present everywhere. The world we see is not all there is. Neither our senses nor our physical measurements are adequate to perceive spiritual realities, nor to describe the connections between the physical and the spiritual realms.
The physical world is not self-existent, nor is to be deified. The reverence and respect for nature found in animism and many traditional religions, as well as the pantheism of Hinduism (“God is in everything, and everything is God”), are distortions of the biblical truth that a sovereign, immanent and personal God rules over and cares for his creation; but they do at least grasp the spiritual dimensions of the universe, in contrast to the secular materialism of modernism. The apostle Paul taught that Jesus Christ is the one who holds the entire universe together.
What we call the laws of nature reflect the personal, faithful, ongoing, pervasive and loving involvement of our Creator.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)
He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth… The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted… How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures… All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. (Psalm 104:14,16,24,27,28)
3. God loves his creation.
God cares for the plants and animals he has created the way that a farmer nurtures his/her crops and tends his/her herds. Affection for the land, the soil, the crops and the trees, is a deeply held value for the gardener and the farmer; they can love their plants the same way a child loves his/her pets. Scripture often uses the metaphor of God as gardener or herder.
If we love God, we will value what is of value to God. We will respect what God has designed. We will take joy in what gives God delight.
For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains and the insects in the fields are mine. (Psalm 50:10, 11)
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. (Luke 12:6)
I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. (Isaiah 5:1)
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. (John 15:1)
4. God placed people in a garden and told them to take care of it.
As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings were created in God’s image. Genesis 1:26 states a key purpose for which God designed the human race: to rule over the world God had created, that is, to be managers, stewards, trustees, caretakers— preserving, enhancing, nurturing, building on the foundations God had laid. God worked in bringing the universe into creation, in shaping the environment, and in creating living things to inhabit it. We continue God’s work in the care of creation. In our rhythm of work and rest, we imitate God’s pattern of creation followed by Sabbath.
The very first commandment to the human race, even before the prohibition regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, involved caring for and protecting creation. Genesis 2 details the creation of the first man, Adam. He was told to work the garden, and to take care of it. The word translated “take care of” includes the ideas of watchful protection, guarding and preserving.
This command came prior to the creation of the first woman, who became a partner with him in this work. The command came before Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Their work was assigned before they sinned, while they were still living in joyful and harmonious partnership. The curse that followed their sin made the work of creation care more laborious and difficult, but their task of responsible stewardship remained.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15)
5. The blessings of God are sometimes expressed in terms of an environment of lush plant and animal life.
The blessings of God are sometimes expressed in terms of an environment of lush plant and animal life. This is true not only of promises for life on this earth, but also promises concerning the coming kingdom, and the future heaven and earth. These promises are meant to strengthen our faith and to stimulate our obedience.
In tending creation as God’s caretakers, and experiencing God’s blessings on our faithful labors, we see a glimpse of another dimension of “shalom,” that is, life as God intended it originally, and life as God will restore it in the age to come. The kingdom of God is both present and not yet. God’s present blessings of fruitful trees and herds, and abundant crops, foreshadow even greater blessings yet to be.
If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. (Leviticus 26:3,4)
I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. (Ezekiel 36:30)
Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:12)
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:2)
6. Struggles within the natural order are among the consequences of human sin.
The entrance of sin brought distortion and pain into every dimension of human life. Adam and Eve experienced estrangement from God. They blamed and accused. For the first time they felt shame. Their marital relationship was distorted. The birth of children would entail excruciating pain. Growing food from the land would also involve pain, and would require arduous toil, resisted by thistles and thorns. Worst of all, death entered the world—both physical and spiritual death.
The pain of the curse, the taint of sin and the stench of death impacted not just the first human pair and all of their descendants, including us, but also the entire natural order. The ground itself was cursed. And the creation suffered bondage to decay. The world as we experience it now, not only in human relationships, but the entire environment is no longer “very good” in the way God intended it to be. Degradation of the environment in many ways is a direct result of human actions, but at a deeper level is an ongoing consequence of the original fall into sin.
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. (Genesis 3:17)
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:20-22)
7. God rebukes individuals and nations for ravaging the environment.
God will not stand idly by while his creative handiwork is destroyed or abused. God rebukes individuals and nations for ravaging the environment. Israel was explicitly warned not to engage in the common practice of deforestation as part of conquest.
What right do we have to destroy ecosystems, or to decimate species that owe their existence to the hand of their Creator, especially when often we understand so little about the role that each organism, and each environment, plays in God’s larger design?
When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them? (Deuteronomy 20:19)
8. The judgments of God are often expressed in terms of destruction or unfruitfulness of the environment.
God has many ways to discipline those who flaunt his commands or who determine to live their lives without reference to God. As a loving parent, sometimes God allows people to suffer the natural consequences of their actions. Other times God specifically brings about circumstances as warnings or punishments, in hopes that erring people will come to their senses and turn back to God.
The judgments of God are often expressed in terms of destruction or unfruitfulness of the land and its crops. When people stand under God’s condemnation for sin, they risk loss of the blessings of a rich and productive environment.
But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands…
Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit. (Leviticus 26:14,20)
He struck down their vines and fig trees and shattered the trees of their country. (Psalm 105:33)
The splendor of his forests and fertile fields it will completely destroy, as when a sick man wastes away. And the remaining trees of his forests will be so few that a child could write them down. (Isaiah 10:18,19)
My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place—on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the crops of your land—and it will burn and not be quenched. (Jeremiah 7:20)
The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up. (Revelation 8:7)
9. We love people by caring for the environment in which they live.
The first and greatest commandment, said Jesus, is to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. But it cannot be separated from the second command, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Environmental concern is one expression of this love. How can we claim to love our neighbors as ourselves without caring about contaminants in the water they drink, particles in the air they breathe, the sturdiness and energy efficiency of their shelters, the disease vectors endemic to their region, the sufficiency and sustainability of their food sources, or the availability and accessibility of green spaces, meadows, forests and shorelines where their spirits as well as lungs can be refreshed?
Our actions, as well as inactions, can have both direct and indirect impacts on the lives of others, both near and far away. One aspect of love is to cultivate awareness, sensitivity and empathy regarding the impact that our attitudes, our words and our patterns of life are having on those around us, as well as the larger effects that our whole structure of life may be having as our actions and their consequences ripple outward globally.
For the entire law is summed up in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jeremiah 29:7)
10. We are called to become all things to all people, in order to win some.
Paul urged the believers at Corinth to follow his example in being willing to adapt their behavior in order to build bridges of love and communication to people in different contexts. Like him, we are called to become all things to all people, in order to win some.
At least in the West, concern for the environment is one of the most commonly held values among the emerging generations, who are also the most alienated from the institutional church. Engagement in environmental concerns is a way to build bridges for the gospel and to establish credibility with those who often assume the church has nothing to offer. (Note: Dr. Ken Gnanakan in India has developed a curriculum on care of creation that is used widely in private as well as public schools. The environmental projects he has initiated for the ACTS Institute campus have attracted such favorable attention that he and his colleagues have been invited to advise the Bangalore city government on some environmental challenges).
As agents of reconciliation and ambassadors of peace, we have opportunities through our involvement in care of creation to express the heart of God among people, and within communities and contexts, that may not otherwise have heard the good news of Jesus Christ, nor seen it embodied in ways they can receive.
I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:22,23)
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:19)
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19,20)
So then, why should an evangelist plant a tree? For the same reasons an evangelist may apply a dressing to a wound, or dig a well, or show a farmer how to plant a new variety of disease-resistant wheat—
• As an expression of worship and respect for God the Creator
• In imitation of the heart of God the Gardener
• In obedience to God’s command to rule over and manage the earth
• As an expression of love for the people God has made
• As a reversal of the damage to creation brought though the curse on sin
• As a sign and promise of the coming kingdom of God
• As a bridge to prepare the way for sharing the glorious good news that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and that God in Christ was reconciling the world (including all of creation) to himself.
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God. (Genesis 21:33)
 All quotations are from the New International Version (2011).