by Chris Walley
Christ the King and the Environment
Theme: Christ as King over creation
This is not based on any one in particular of the above passages but could be adjusted according to taste and text.
This is a big topic and I’ve put a lot of information here. The intention is that anyone wanting to preach on this would pick up the framework and take whatever ideas and thoughts they found helpful and – a key point – were appropriate for their congregations. Actually because the topic is so big there would certainly be illustrations that the preacher may add according to his or her taste.
Imagine that, like some enormously complicated power station or industrial complex, there was a control room to our world full of a vast number of switches, dials and the screens. If there was, there would be a lot of flashing red lights at the moment. Yes, there are major issues to do with economics and politics but beyond these areas are the big and threatening environmental concerns, such as climate change, resource shortages, species extinction, water pollution and loss of environments. Once upon a time – perhaps as recently as 10 or 15 years ago – it was possible to dismiss these as exaggerations. No longer.
The evidence is unarguable.
- In the 1960s – well within living memory – the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was around 320-330 parts per million. It is now around 414-417 parts per million and rising. In other words it has nearly risen by a third.
- Species loss is appalling. Between 200 and 2,000 extinctions occur a year.
- At least 42,000 square kilometres of tree cover was lost in key tropical regions in 2020
- Invasive alien species are on the rise worldwide.
There are less obvious and less easily quantified factors. How many of us would no longer recognise the village or countryside where we once grew up? When was the last time we looked up at the night sky and saw it unclouded by street lights? When was the last time we heard a cuckoo? When was the last time we were somewhere where it was impossible to hear traffic noise?
Matters are made by worse several factors.
1) How the environment works is imprecisely known. The loss of some species may be largely irrelevant to us in the great scheme of things. Some however may be ‘keystone species’ whose loss may cause collapse of ecosystems. But we lack the knowledge to know which species are critical and which aren’t.
2) There is a concern about positive feedback mechanisms making matters worse. So rising temperatures encourage methane to be released from areas of permafrost. Methane is a very potent global warming gas and is only going to make matters worse.
3) The possibility exists that there are tipping points; situations where – like a vase being pushed over – a point is reached where changes is suddenly no longer gradual but catastrophic and irreversible.
It’s easy to multiply these things and one of the real problems with environmental issues is that many people turn their backs on them simply because they find it too depressing. In fact there is a widespread portrayal of environmental issues that resembles the book of Revelation (complete with fiery judgement!) but without any hope of redemption or rescue.
In the face of this depressing and complex situation there is a crying need for Christian comment. In the context of climate change, species loss or pollution there are some things that are overlooked. There’s an enormous amount that can be said but one of the key roles we can and should play is to answer some questions. Not only are there many big questions but they are not being asked. In fact, the subject of the environment does not simply have an elephant in the room, it has an entire herd of them. So for instance …
- What is the natural world we live in? Is it a random, accidental thing, the product of sheer chance over billions of years or is it in some way designed or created?
- What does the natural world mean? Imagine that you hear a series of sounds. You would ask yourself, do they carry a meaning? Are they signal or merely noise? So it is with the natural world. We are very good at description: much less good at explanation.
- Why should we worry about it? By any standards, looking after the environment is going to cost us, either directly in taxes or indirectly by stopping us buying or having what we want. So why exactly should we save the polar bear? Protect the rainforest? Stop polluting the seas?
One particularly helpful way of looking at the environment for a Christian viewpoint is in the context of the idea of Christ as King. The idea that Jesus Christ is King is an important one with all sorts of implications for us as individuals, for us as the church and for the world generally and can be applied to all sorts of areas of life. It also has real significance for these pressing issues of environment.
Theological background (which may or may not be useful for congregation)
The New Testament tells us that Christ is King through hints and increasingly obvious statements in the Gospels.
- Although there are all sorts of nuances to the ideas of ‘Messiah’ and ‘son of David’ that are present on almost every page of the Gospels at the hearts of both is the idea of kingship.
- Jesus taught much about the kingdom in the Gospels but one obvious but explosive implication of this, which is left for the reader to pick up, is that a kingdom requires a king.
- In the gospels, Christ is explicitly identified as king (βασιλεύς) several times, as in Matthew 2:2 (“Where is the new-born king of the Jews?”).
- Although Matthew deals a lot with kingship in the Passion Week it is also a very big topic in John’s Gospel. Indeed a lot of the dialogue between Pilate (and not just that in John 18.33-37) centres on kingship, often with the irony typical of John’s Gospel.
- In all four Gospels (Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3 and John 18:33) we have Pilate’s mocking title posted above cross: “The king of the Jews”.
References to Christ as King are rarer in the epistles, possibly because it was such an explosive title. Nevertheless calling Jesus ‘Lord’ is, in effect, to call him King. There are however numerous texts that either speak of Christ as King or use kingly language of him. See for example 1 Corinthians 15:25, Ephesians 1:20–22. In Revelation (17:14, 19:16) it is declared that the Lamb is ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords’.
Exactly when Christ became king is a subject of discussion.
- You could argue that it was on the cross; in some branches of Christianity there is a theology of Christ ruling from the cross.
- You could argue that it was on the morning of the resurrection: Jesus appears to his followers, as a triumphant victor over death and the powers of evil. (The famous painting of The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca is very good at typifying this.)
- You could argue that it was it was on the day of the ascension when Christ ascends to take up his position at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.
There is some truth in all of these. In fact, is worth pointing out that becoming a king or a queen is often not a single event. So for example Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne on 6th February 1952 on the death of her father King George VI but her formal coronation did not occur until 2nd June 1953.
There is also discussion as to the extent to which Christ has power as king at the moment. Some theologians see Christ as king now in little more than title only and with very limited power. His ‘hands are tied’ at the moment and it is only with the Second Coming that he will have full power and authority. In contrast other theologians see Christ now as already being an all-powerful king but ruling invisibly. Here the Second Coming will be an event that reveals finally, visibly and unmistakably his power and authority. (Here for instance see Philippians 2:10 and Revelation 19:16.)
A common view is a mediating position which sees his reign now as being genuine but ‘interim’. Since the Second World War a frequent image has been that we are between D-Day and VE or VJ day. Victory is assured; it’s just a question of when. Possibly a better image is to imagine a situation of an heir immediately after someone’s death. The will has been read, the solicitor has promised him or her that there will be a transfer of goods and authority but there is an inevitable wait for the deeds et cetera to be signed and the benefits to be transferred. It’s signed and sealed but not delivered.
The idea that Christ is King casts a great deal of light into the increasingly topical area of ecology and the environment. In terms of environment, it’s helpful to think of Christ as King as being relevant in three areas: rule, responsibility and redemption
1) As King, Christ rules over the natural world
What is the natural world? It’s a very good question. Suppose you are suddenly appointed into some high-level job in a big organisation. Your first task is surely going to be to work out how you relate to your organisation. What exactly are you in charge of? How much control do you have? Who are you accountable to? You might have to sit down for several days try to find out the history, structure and the purpose of the organisation. We find ourselves in a similar situation to do with the environment. Everybody’s running around wanting to do things but such basic questions are not answered.
Outside the Christian faith – and to some extent other religions – there are two possible views, both of which are full of problems.
The first is a secular view in which the natural world in which we inhabit is just a big ‘something’ that has occurred as a result of a long accident. Yes it’s wonderful, yes it’s complex but there’s nothing else behind it. Ultimately, it has no meaning, it just is. On the biggest scale, it is just ‘stuff’.
The second view is the mystical view in which Nature has some sort of transcendence attached to it. It is godlike or even God. We can worship Nature. That sounds wonderful but, it poses lots of problems. If nature is a God, then he, she or it doesn’t speak. At a time of crisis, how are we supposed to deal with it? It is okay to try to control wild boar populations by shooting them? To we kill rats? To use herbicides? All we get is silence.
Into this confused area, Christians have the truth that creation has a king. God, as the king of creation, has in fact made all things. How he made them is not the point – it’s vitally important not to get sidetracked on the issue of evolution where much of the debate is to do with what we mean by the ‘E word’ – but the fact is that everything is made by God. If we could but see it, his signature is imprinted on all things.
This is a truth that comes from Genesis 1 and numerous Old Testament verses but it is a principle that is refined in the New Testament where we learn that God the Son has been involved in creation.
- John 1:3 ‘ All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made’
- Romans 12:36 ‘For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.’
- Colossians 1:16. ’ For by Him were all things created’
The idea that the world is created and sustained by Christ affects how we respond to it. All that we see: stars, sky, birds, insects, bacteria are made by God and kept in existence by God. Each one of them bears broadly the same relationship to God as one of Michelangelo’s sculptures or one of Beethoven’s symphonies does to the artist who made them. All things bear the imprint of the creator and they are his handiwork. What we call nature is in fact not self-sustaining, it is made by God and ruled by God.
This is profoundly helpful when it comes to such issues as the value of a species. There are an enormous number of species and in some cases it is possible to imagine that there are more than we need. Take for example the bird group, the reed warblers. There are at least four reed warblers in Europe region (European Reed Warbler, Great Reed-warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and the Marsh Warbler) and to the inexperienced they all look identical. Frankly, one could say, who cares if one goes missing?
Here the firm Christian response is ‘God does!’ God our King has, in his wisdom (and no doubt through long slow processes) given the natural world diversity and richness. Each of these species belong to him; they are in their own lowly way, the valued subjects of the King.
So a foundational truth when dealing with environment and environmental issues is that as King, Christ rules over the natural world.
2) As King, Christ gives his followers responsibility for the natural world
Many Christians are prepared to say of the world, that God made it. They are sometimes even belligerently prepared to say when God made it. But sadly they do not work out the implications of this. A recent textbook of theology spends nearly 90 pages talking about creation and only gives a single line to the necessity of looking after it! The fact is that if God in Christ is King and we have taken him as our Lord then there are implications from this. Yes, salvation is a gift but it brings with it an obligation. To commit yourself to Christ it is not simply to receive his benefits – forgiveness, adoption, gifts of the Holy Spirit etc etc – it is also to be given responsibility.
Because this is God’s world and he is king over it and we are all linked with the king then inevitably we have a responsibility for looking after his kingdom. We have, if you like, management duties, a delegated authority, a stewardship role. There is a great chain of command with Christ at the top and his people underneath.
This idea is widely present in the parables. In many of them (e.g. Matthew 21:33-46, 24:45-51, Mark 13:33-37, Luke 19:11-27) there is the idea of a king stepping back briefly from his kingdom, with the expectation that in his apparent absence his followers will do his bidding. In environmental context, one fascinating parable is the very uncomfortable Matthew 24:45-51.
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The key thought is that the one who is designated as a steward is to give the other servants ‘their food at the proper time.’ It’s fascinating that this seems to be a quote from one of the creation psalms, Psalm 145, where it refers to the care God himself shows to created things and where in verses 15 and 16 we read ‘The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.’ This suggests that, as stewards, we are responsible for maintaining the tender loving rule of the natural world that God our Father has shown.
This is an extremely helpful thought. If you ask conservationists why we should be concerned about the preservation of a species or an environment the answers essentially boil down to just two. The first is that loss of a species or an environment poses an unknown risk to us. The second is that loss of a species or an environment may mean that we have lost some vital resource for us, such as a plant that may give us a cure for cancer. Both of these ‘risk’ or ‘resource’ answers are very anthropocentric – human centred – and in my experience even non-Christians feel that they are inadequate.
A far better answer is to have the view that species and environments are God’s handiwork and need preserving on that basis. Their loss represents both an insult to God their creator and also something of an artistic or aesthetic disaster. One very fine painting of the seventeenth century is Vermeer’s ‘The Concert’. But it has been stolen and hasn’t been seen by the public for thirty years. It represents an extraordinary loss to civilisation and culture. How much greater is the loss of some species of animal or plant?
Many of us will have spent some time in rented accommodation and we may have dreaded the yearly arrival of the landlord or landlady with the inevitable clipboard to see what damage or loss we were responsible for during the time of our occupation. It’s a sobering thought to imagine that, at the Second Coming, the recording angel will arrive with the celestial equivalent of a clipboard and go through the animal and plant kingdom. When names such as Verhoeven’s Giant Tree Rat, Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus Monkey, the Nebraska Bog Lemming or the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and many other extinct species are read out I think we can imagine the embarrassed and guilty silence. If we claim to be servants of the King of the universe then we have no shortage of motivation for looking after his handiwork. We must be about the king’s business!
If secular conservation lacks an adequate motive for action it also lacks justification for intervention. After all if we human beings are just one species thrown up by evolution over millions of years what right have we got to intervene in nature? When we face invasive species or ones that are proliferating to the point of being a pest why should we intervene? This is a characteristic and troubling problem for conservation organisations when they want to cull something like hedgehogs in bird reserves or feral cats in the wild. Here again the Christian distinctive is marked. We have been designated with authority by the king. We can intervene where necessary. Needless to say, given that our model is of the benign and loving king, we must act wisely and gently.
As King Jesus rules, as king he delegates responsibility to his people. We have a justification and motivation for environmental action. To do nothing is wrong: think for example of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30.
3) As King, Christ will ultimately redeem his natural world
One fascinating psychological study which has not been done and in fact probably doesn’t need to be done because the answer is so obvious, is the frequency of depression amongst those people working with the environment. There’s not a lot of good news around.
So for example although it’s hard to give precise figures, for a hundred hectares of rainforest or wetland that are preserved there’s probably another two hundred that are lost. In some cases the losses, as with extinctions, are permanent and effectively irretrievable.
In fact doom and gloom is pretty much flavour of the month. Indeed there is a substantial and influential school of thought, particularly in France, which centres on the concept of collapsology; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapsology ‘The term collapsology is used to designate the study of the risks of collapse of industrial civilization. It is concerned with the general collapse of societies induced by climate change, scarcity of resources, vast extinctions, and natural disasters.’ Cheerful stuff!
This pervasive sense of doom is encouraged because contemporary secular thinking has largely eliminated long-term hope. All it can offer us is a miserable tale in which we as individuals we die and cease to be and as a species, ultimately we will become extinct as, one by the one, the lights of the universe go out. Ultimately life is a battle against physics and physics wins.
To this, cautiously, graciously and gently the Christian brings the idea of hope. The mediaeval mystic Lady Julian of Norwich wrote ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. We may not feel able to totally agree with her – there has to be some scope for judgement and in the environmental context it’s worth noting the book of Revelation’s stern the announcement of a time ‘for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Revelation 11:18). Nevertheless, all Christians should have some measure of the hope that one day, in a fashion that is inevitably beyond our understanding, the universe will be healed.
This is a wonderful view but fraught with dangers. So, for instance, it can give rise to the perspective – sadly common in some church circles – that because environmental disaster as a prelude to the coming of Christ, the more disasters we get, the sooner Christ will return. Here, of course, we hear the echo of the argument condemned in Romans 3:8 ‘Let us do evil that good may result’. The fact is that prophecy and morality are actually two separate things. Quite simply, we are to do right whether or not it seems to fit with some prophetic timetable.
Not far removed from this, is a view which encourages complacency. ‘Let’s not worry about the environment the world is in because one day Jesus is going to make it all right!’ Linked to this is the perspective, common in some evangelical circles, that the Second Coming is so imminent that conservation is a waste of time. Curiously enough the medical parallel to this viewpoint – that we shouldn’t worry about looking after our bodies because we are going to get new ones soon – has not proved to be attractive. In any case we don’t have a timetable for the Second Coming and we need to remember that the end of all things may not be as imminent as we imagine. We need to plan for the long haul.
Ultimately however the Christian view sheds light into the darkness of conservation. Things are moving to an end. One day there will be a remaking of the cosmos and with the renewal of created world. Paul writes in Romans 8:18-24
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 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 glorious freedom 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. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
There is no scope here for complacency. The fact that we are responsible to the king should encourage us to do our best to look after the world he has created. Nevertheless the fact is that even if we lose battles – and environmentalists are always losing battles – we ultimately win the war.
As king, Christ rules, as king, he delegates responsibility to his people and as king he will ultimately redeem the world.
There are no easy answers to the world’s environmental issues. But it is important that there is a framework in which the questions can be asked and answered. For the Christian, that framework must include the idea that Christ is King and with that the idea of his rule, our responsibility and his ultimate redemption.
by Chris Walley
 In the Septuagint, Psalm 145:15 reads καὶ σὺ δίδως τὴν τροφὴν αὐτῶν ἐν εὐκαιρίᾳ and Matthew 24:45 reads του διδόναι αυτοίς την τροφήν εν καιρώ