Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Will God Save Us?
distributed 11/12/10 - ©2010

This is an adaptation and update of the Notes sent on 7/19/2002.

You've probably heard the story, so I'll do a very condensed version:

A town is threatened with flooding, and police evacuate folk in the floodplain. One guy refuses to leave, saying, "I trust that God will save me." As the waters rise, a fire engine, motorboat and helicopter all try to pluck the doofus from the flood. Finally he is washed away. When he finds himself before the throne of God, he is indignant. "Why didn't you save me from the flood?" he demands of the Almighty. God replies, "What do you think the cop, fire engine, boat and helicopter were all about?"

If you tell the story, be sure to elaborate on the colorful details, because the punch line is pretty obvious.

But then again, maybe the point is not that clear to some people. There are those who continue to insist that we don't need to do anything about the world's environmental crises because God will save us. They probably fall into three loosely defined groups:

  1. There are some who really do believe that God will do what Captain Picard and the Enterprise did in several Star Trek episodes: step in from the outside to miraculously clean the air, replenish the water, and otherwise transcend (or violate) the laws of nature. They believe that, if it is a real problem, then God will stop global warming, clean up the toxic waste, and re-establish the extinct species. My guess is that very few people would admit to such a clear-cut statement of dramatic intervention.

  2. There are probably lots of people who just have a general sense that God wants good things for us, and so God will not let anything really bad happen. They haven't worked through the details of what such a belief means -- it is just an assumption that shapes their view of the world.

  3. Then there are those who don't think God will intervene in the here and now to make it all right, because they anticipate the Second Coming of Christ. The don't expect a healing or a transformation of nature, but look for the end of history. (I addressed that question back in 2002 in Waiting for Jesus.)

I haven't seen polling data to suggest how many people believe that we don't need to worry because God will intervene to fix the world's environmental problems, but I expect the numbers are fairly high -- especially in the second form of generic trust.

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I wrote last week that churches need to do some very serious biblical and theological education about how God works in the world. The urgency of that task is shown in this week's political news.

As the Toronto Star put it, "U.S. Representative John Shimkus, possible future chairman of the Congressional committee that deals with energy and its attendant environmental concerns, believes that climate change should not concern us since God has already promised not to destroy the Earth." Politico gives a bit more nuance to the story, but it is still clear that this powerful politician's positions on US environmental policy are grounded in his confidence in God's absolute control of the planet.

Rep. Shimkus and I probably differ in our theological stances on providence and free will, but I'd suggest to him that there is a big difference between God's promise not to flood the Earth, and humanity's reckless actions that are causing extreme ecological destabilization. There's a difference between active divine intervention, and the destructive consequences of sin.

The Bible does have stories of God's dramatic intervention in history and nature. We love to tell those key stories of our faith, especially the Exodus and the miracles of Jesus. There are occasions where God has "broken the rules of nature." As I sift through the Bible, though, it appears that in every such case of intervention, God's action is to liberate people from oppression, or bring about healing where the inflicted one was not at fault.

I can think of no case where the biblical faith tells of God intervening to deliver an individual, community, nation or humanity from the practical consequences of their own sin and stupidity. (I don't put the resurrection and its salvation promises in the "practical consequences" category.)

What God does do is provide abundant instruction in how we are to live -- personally and in community, in our religious disciplines, in our political and economic life, in matters of social justice, and in our relationship with all of creation. We are told over and over again that seeking God's community of peace and justice (shalom) will bring abundant life. And we are told over and over again that seeking our own power, seeking individual profit at the expense of the community and nature, will bring us to disaster.

And having told us that, God insists that we face the consequences of our own actions.

That is the pervasive theme of the Judeo-Christian faith. We are held accountable for our sin. God's forgiving grace allows us to change; it does not take away the need for change. Those who think that their faith in God will protect them from catastrophe have not read their Bible carefully.

All of our warnings about environmental catastrophe, all of our appeals for just and sustainable living, will fall on deaf ears if people who claim a biblical faith believe that God will bail us out when our blunders start to cause serious problems. Calling people in our own churches to an authentic biblical understanding of the consequences of sin may be the essential first step in moving churches toward environmental action.

Telling the story about the man in the flood may be a good start.

A CHALLENGE: I invite my readers to point out a biblical passage where God intervenes to save people from the consequences of their own sin and error.

A REQUEST: The joke about the doofus in the flood is pretty thin theology. I'd appreciate references from my learned audience about current theological writing that goes into more depth about the ways in which God acts (or does not act) in nature and through history. The position I've outlined today seems implicit in most of the ecological theology that I read, but I'm out of date in my reading of more systematic works.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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