It’s not easy being green: Christian conscience and Earth Day

April 22, 2014

Here we are again. It’s Earth Day and, if you’re anything like me, I suspect you wrestle with how to make some sense of the day. Chances are we’re not about to go out on a Greenpeace expedition or going to retrofit our cars to run off used cooking oil. But does the gospel have anything to say to how Christians think about the environment? We see twin pitfalls. On the one hand, we must reject any worldview that idolizes the creation and fails to worship the Creator. On the other hand, we must reject a miniaturized Christianity that implies that King Jesus makes no demand on how we steward his creation.

First, God made us to care deeply about the entire created order. On the sixth day, God finished his work of creation by forming man in His own image. Part of this image-bearing identity was inextricably linked to the first man’s charge to exercise “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26).

Moses also points out that prior to man the created order was incomplete because “there was no man to work the ground” (Gen. 2:5). After forming Adam, God then placed him in the garden “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Before sin ever entered the world, God made humanity to exercise care for the earth, to cultivate it, and care for it.

While secularized forms of environmentalism seem to suggest otherwise, the Christian story understands that it’s not presence of human beings per se that are the problem with the created order, as if to suggest that everything else would be better off without us. Instead, Scripture is quite clear. Humankind was created and placed in the Garden in large part to care for and to steward the creation. Presumably, Adam and Eve’s righteous labor would have yielded fruitfulness and blessing for flora and fauna alike!

In part, that is why we experience such joy at seeing the earth give up its fruits.

We can’t all be skilled gardeners, but we experience something of the joy of our first parents when we find pleasure in cultivating the earth, when we delight in seeing new crops sprout up and give of their fruit for our own provision. God made us that way. And it is good and right for us to care for the earth and exercise a godly dominion over it. We don’t abuse it, but neither do we worship it. Instead, the Christian worldview liberates us to delight in and care for nature, but also to recognize that it is all a gift and a signal, pointing us to the Creator himself.

Second, the entire created order has been deeply affected by the fall. This becomes evident immediately after Adam and Eve’s sin. In fact, God pronounces a curse that involves the earth. The ground itself is now cursed because of that primal sin such that it will now be cultivated with difficulty, even bringing forth “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18).

The Apostle Paul understood the pervasiveness of sin, extending its devastating reach even into the created order. He even described it as a “groaning together” because of its “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21-22). So we shouldn’t be surprised to conclude that the earth has been profoundly affected—even at the subatomic level!—by the fall. Our theology of sin and the fall must be appropriately large enough (and biblical) to make sense of what we observe. Not one molecule has escaped the lethal and corrupting effects of the fall. And if that’s the case, then we have a renewed ancient way of interpreting the ecological destruction, degradation, and disaster we see around us.

We can be tempted to so compartmentalize our human existence that we fail to recognize just how far-reaching and devastating sin has been in the cosmos. That first sin in the garden had ramifications for everything in the creation. In other words, the problem of ecological degradation is far worse than we realize. And the secular worldview falls short of understanding just how bad things really are. Water and air contaminants, unsustainable farming practices, and strip mining certainly do have damaging effects. But they’re just symptomatic of a more insidious and devastating reality–sin has damaged and corrupted everything. And if the problem is that much more profound, the solution will have to be much more than government policies, changed behaviors, or new technologies. None of those can remedy the core problem.

Third, in the “already not yet” Christians should promote a biblical vision for caring for the created order.

So how does the gospel animate our care for creation? Or does it at all? Clearly it must. We are not materialists, concluding that all the “stuff” around us is all there is and is just to be used as we see best. Christians recognize that this world has been fashioned by God himself and that it exists to bring glory to him. We confess with the Church throughout the ages that the incarnate God-man, the second Adam, walked on this earth, lived a perfect life, and died a substitutionary death to provide atonement for all who would believe. And we recognize that Jesus Christ’s saving work is about the redemption of a blood-bought people for God’s own possession. But that has implications not just for spiritual realities. Instead, the gospel changes everything.

Perhaps one of the closest parallels is how we think about money. The world tells us that if you have it, you can spend it (never mind the debt crisis). Even in the church, this can seep into the way we think about our finances. “I’ve earned it and saved it, so it’s mine to spend as I wish,” we conclude. But the Christian worldview recognizes that we are merely stewards of our financial resources, that they have been entrusted to us by God to use for His glory. So just because it’s in our bank account doesn’t mean we aren’t called to steward it.

In similar fashion, Christians must be careful of failing to see their ongoing responsibility as stewards of the natural resources God has entrusted to us. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s best for us to slash it, burn it, drill it, or mine it. Instead, we start from the foundational question: what would glorify the Creator? Christians can and will disagree on a whole host of policy questions in this area, but we should all agree that our starting point must be God-centered.

Fourth, Jesus will one day consummate his Kingdom and the entire cosmos will be renewed.

The gospel frees us from worshiping the creation and gives us a renewed vision for our role as God’s image bearers who exercise loving dominion. But it also propels our vision forward. Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death and is indeed sitting at the right hand of the Father as king over the cosmos. But we look around us and see a world that still seems very much under the curse of Genesis 3.

But throughout the Bible, God continually promised a coming day when he would create a “new heavens and a new earth.” Isaiah prophesied of this long ago, declaring the word of the Lord and making clear that God’s salvific purposes for his people would also be linked to a new created order, one that would not just be a recovery of Eden, but would even surpass that original perfection (Isaiah 65:17-25).

The New Testament continues this expectation. The Apostle Peter wrote that this new heavens and new earth will be one “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 2:13). The vision is perhaps at its clearest in John’s Revelation. He now saw what had been prophesied by Isaiah: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). And what is distinctive about this new order? God makes his full and perfect dwelling among his people. His presence is now full and comprehensive, driving away suffering and death, grief and pain, “for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

Just like Kermit said, it’s not easy being green. But the gospel reminds us that the path of Christian discipleship never is. Perhaps Earth Day can be a helpful day for us as followers of Christ to give thanks for God’s power, mercy, and skill as the Creator. Perhaps it can prompt us to self-evaluation to explore ways in which we have been shaped more by the culture than the gospel. And perhaps most significantly, it can prompt us to praise God for his work of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Matthew J. Hall is vice president of academic services at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky)

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24