1. A failure to grasp the full implications of the cross
The cross and all that it signifies lies at the heart of Christianity. It was the only thing that the apostle Paul wanted to boast about (Gal 6: 14). The word ’cross’ has rich theological meaning and is used by Paul to symbolise all that Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection has achieved1 (cf 1 Cor 1:17,18; GaI5:11,6:12,14; Eph 2:16; Phil 2:8,3:18; Col 1:20, 2:14; for the sake of argument I am assuming Pauline authorship of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and the pastoral epistles). Paul, alone among early Christian writers, used the word ‘cross’ in this way.
Many Christians associate the cross with personal salvation – a term that never occurs in the New Testament. It is this association that undermines any desire for environmental action. Environmental action is seen to be totally irrelevant to the cross; the work of the cross deals with individuals’ sin and enables people to have a relationship with God. Hence the Christian’s priority should be to preach the gospel and bring individuals to God, or so the argument runs.
The cross does deal with the sin of individuals and it does enable them to have a relationship with God and in this sense it is personal. However, to restrict it to that limits the cross; the cross is good news for all of creation! It is all-embracing; it touches every area and aspect of life.
The work of Jesus on the cross is central to Christianity. It follows then that it is foundational to a distinctly Christian environmental ethic. Any environmental ethic that bypasses the cross forfeits the right to be called Christian. The apostle Paul in his epistles brings to light several theological implications which have great relevance to environmental action.
(i) The cross is cosmic in scope
To limit the work of the cross to dealing with ‘personal’ sin or salvation emasculates it. Jesus achieved so much more than this. Paul writing about the cosmic Christ in Colossians gives us its full impact.2 He describes Jesus as: the image of the invisible God; the firstborn of all creation; the creator of the heavens and earth; the means of, and the reason for, the creation of all things; the pre-existent one; the sustainer of all things; the head of the church; the firstborn of the dead; the fullness of God. It is in this context that he says of Christ, that he is the one, ‘to reconcile all things [Gk: ta panta] to himself, making peace through the blood of the cross’.
Not only is he the cosmic Christ, but his work on the cross is cosmic in scope. It reconciles all things (ta panta). Some theologians have tried to restrict this reconciliation to humanity, by suggesting that ta panta is the human creation. This is unjustifiable for two at least reasons. First, ta panta is defined in v20b as ‘things on earth or things in heaven’, and secondly and perhaps more conclusively, the use of ta panta elsewhere (see, for example, Heb 2:8-10 and Eph 1 :10) indicates that it means all things without restriction. Oliver O’Donovan describes ta panta as ‘the universe as a whole’. Eduard Lohse, commentating on Colossians 1:15-20, states that it ‘emphasizes the universal significance of the Christ-event by exhibiting its cosmic dimensions and by speaking of salvation for the whole world, including the whole of creation’. Hence nothing is exempt from its power; it has implications for the whole of the created order, whether it is humans, animals, institutions, the powers, Satan or the earth. It is on this foundation that any Christian environmental ethic must rest.
(ii) The cross vindicates creation
We have already seen that the cross redeems creation; it also declares God’s love for his world. ‘God so loved the world [Gk: kosmos] that he gave his Son’ (Jn 3:16). Because all of the creation is included in the work of the cross it shows the love that God has for it. It is in the cross that God reaffirms his ownership of the earth (Ps 24:1; Job 39). Humanity is not to be redeemed apart from the created order but with it5 Indeed the earth will be the scene of God’s total completion and consummation of the ages-although it will be a renewed and transformed heaven and earth (Rev 21: 1-2).
(iii) The cross deals with the consequences of the fall
When Adam and Eve fell in Genesis chapter 3, it had consequences not only for their relationship with humanity and God but also their relationship with creation. The earth became cursed: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you’ (Gen 3:17). There is some debate about the nature and extent of Adam’s ‘fall’. Did Adam’s rebellion affect humanity alone and leave the rest of creation unaltered or did it result in a fall of creation? Walther Eichrodt describes it as a decisive event which has ‘the characteristics of a “Fall”, that is, of a falling out of line of the development willed by God’. Several things are evident from the Genesis account. The fall had consequences not only for Adam and Eve’s relationship with God and each other but also with the earth: it became cursed as a consequence of the fall (Gen 3:17). On whether this curse on the soil was intended as a curse on the rest of creation the Scriptures are silent. It may be that Paul’s description of the creation as ‘subjected to frustration’ (Rom 8:20) is a reference to fallen creation. One thing, however, is clear: all relationships were in some way ruptured-the pre-fall shalom was broken. Sin affects the whole of the earthly creation; the whole of the created order suffers, and as a consequence the whole of the created order is in need of redemption.
The cross dealt with all the consequences of the fall. On the cross Christ completed a cosmic reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19), the relationships between humanity, God and the earth, were restored and the barriers of hostility were destroyed (Eph 2:14-18). We can once more experience shalom. This, though, has not happened automatically-it is to be fulfilled by the ministry of the body of Christ. We have been entrusted with this ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). We are to bring shalom to the earth (Matt 5:9) by proclaiming the cross and resurrection of Christ.
(iv) The cross declares God’s victory over the powers
Paul’s use of the term ‘powers’ (Rom 8:23; Eph 6:12; 1 Pet 3:22) is ambiguous. Some take it to mean unseen demonic forces, others identify the powers as certain structures in society, such as the state, politics, the market economy, education and multinational corporations. It is perhaps best to see it referring both to unseen forces and the structures in society. These forces control and direct the structures and orders of society. It is these forces that lie behind much of the pollution and rape of God’s earth.
These powers, however, were created by Christ and were not created evil (Col 1:16)-they are part of God’s good creation. In some inexplicable way they became deformed by the fall. Jesus’ victory on the cross defeated the powers; he stripped them, exposed them to ridicule and led them out as a conquered enemy in a victory parade (Col 2:15),10 so that when he returns again they will be reconciled to him and will conform to the order he intended them to have. The structures of society will no longer be tainted by the fall. But now, because they have been dethroned by the cross, these powers have the potential to be transformed so that they can submit to the lordship of Christ.
(v) The cross makes us realists
The cross is also vital because it keeps us from two dangerous tendencies: liberalism and triumphalism.
Liberalism. Liberalism, with its skepticism of the miraculous and its optimistic view of humanity’s ability to save itself, dominated European Protestantism for over five decades. Its view of ‘progress’ saw the rise of a ‘social gospel’ and a kingdom that would be established on earth by human endeavour. But liberalism is a corruption of the truth, because the kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God which cannot be established by humanity. Furthermore, the gospel of the cross is not a ‘social gospel’ that sees Jesus merely as an example. Jesus does not only provide us with an example of how to cope under oppression or under injustice, although he does that. What we need is not an example to follow, but liberation. It is in the cross that Jesus provides us with a way out, that is, liberation and redemption from sin and all its consequences, both personal and global.
Triumphalism. An equal, if not opposite, error is triumphalism, the ‘Hallelujah! We are saved-we no longer need to suffer’ syndrome that characterises much of the ‘prosperity gospel’. It was in the very act of Jesus’ suffering and apparent defeat that the kingdom was established. The cross was not an easy victory; it involved the greatest act of sacrifice and suffering the world has ever seen. Victory came through suffering. The cross reminds us that in our struggle to care for the earth there will be no easy answers; in fact it will be an uphill struggle all the way, until Jesus finally returns and consummates what he achieved on the cross.
The cross then has manifold implications. Its significance to Christianity cannot be overemphasised. By failing to grasp its full implications we water-down Christianity; it becomes domesticated and irrelevant to God’s creation and the kingdom of God becomes other-worldly. It is to this misunderstanding of the gospel of the kingdom that I will look at in another post.