How strongly can humans influence God’s creation?
Our possible influence over the creation has become a serious and contentious matter. The implications of how we answer the question might well significantly impact our quality of life and the quality of life for those who may come after us.
The question is fraught with a continual human problem, aptly described by David in Psalm 8:4-7: in the grand scheme of the creation, humanity is small and insignificant, and we rightly wonder why God would notice us; and yet God has made us a little lower than the heavenly beings, crowned us with honor and majesty, and have given us dominion over the earth. Therefore we can understand a perspective that suggests human activity cannot strongly influence God’s creation since God is great and powerful and humans are not; we can understand why anyone who would hold to such a view would consider the alternative to be arrogant and presumptuous, claiming humans can do things they actually cannot do. Yet even though humans might be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, what if their activities on the earth can lead to significant changes and consequences for themselves and for other creatures on the planet? If such were possible, then the suggestion that we are too small to do much of anything would presume a false humility and its conclusion another form of arrogance and presumption: the belief humans can do whatever they wish and it will not significantly impact their environment.
What has God made known about human influences on the creation? In Hosea 4:1-3 YHWH began to indict Israel for their sinfulness: they were unfaithful and disloyal, did not recognize God, cursed, lied, stole, killed, and committed adultery, and as a result the land would mourn, leading to the death of people, land animals, and even the fish of the sea.
We today might wonder how or why Hosea would make such a connection: why would animals and fish suffer because people lie and steal? We can consider one very practical reason: those who do not respect the lives of their fellow humans will also not respect the lives of animals or the environment in general. If the Israelites had no problem extorting and plundering their fellow humans, they would not think twice about over-exploiting and plundering the abundance God provided for them in the land.
There remains a more profound and spiritual reason for such a connection, however, which hearkens back to the beginning. We have been told God made a very good creation in Genesis 1:31, and Paul declared that sin and death entered the creation through Adam’s transgression (Romans 5:12-21). Human sin is not something that just affects God, the person who sinned, and any victimized by that sin; since sin works contrary to the purposes of God in the creation, sin is a transgression against the way the creation is supposed to work, and will have an impact on the creation. Thus Isaiah lamented how the land and would would languish and mourn because the earth was polluted by the transgressions and violations of its inhabitants against God and His covenant (Isaiah 23:3-5). The land would suffer the result of this curse (Isaiah 24:5-14). As Jeremiah asked: how long would the land be parched, the grass withered, the animals die, and all because of the wickedness of the people (Jeremiah 12:4)?
The prophets directly associate God’s judgments on people with environmental devastation (Isaiah 33:9, Joel 1:10-13, Amos 1:2, 5:16, 8:8, Nahum 1:4, Zephaniah 1:3): the people would watch as their cities would burn down, their wealth was plundered, but also as their land burned or suffering from drought, famine, and pestilence. The Chronicler understood Jeremiah’s promise of seventy years of exile to allow the land to enjoy the sabbath years Israel never provided (2 Chronicles 36:20-21; cf. Jeremiah 25:11, Leviticus 25:4, 26:33-35).
In all these matters we should be reminded of Hosea’s maxim and warning to Israel: they had sowed the wind and would reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). The fruit of what they would endure would be bitter indeed, and all because they proved covetous, greedy, and did not give appropriate regard for life or appropriate care and provision for the land.
Most agree that humans can wield significant influence over a given land or region, and many Christians do so on the basis of what we have demonstrated above from Scripture. Yet many will suggest human influence is limited or restricted to small areas of land and cannot significantly alter the balance of life.
For the majority of human history such a position was very understandable: human technological innovation was fairly limited and restricted, and environmental impacts seemed easily mitigated. Populations would rise and tax the earth and its resources, but then times of plague, pestilence, famine, and war would reduce the population and allow the earth and its resources to recover to some degree.
Nevertheless, recent discoveries about the finely tuned balance present on the earth should give everyone pause. The more we compare historical documentation of the rise and fall of empires and civilizations with data about the state of the climate from ice and mud cores from around the world, the more we see the power of the influence of environmental factors over our lives. In a very real way such evidence does confess humanity’s relative weakness and insignificance in the grand scheme of things: the rise and fall of nations and powers had as much to do with slight variations in global temperature and the changes in weather and environmental conditions which came as a consequence as it did with the relative strength and competence of the rulers and powers of the day. Time and time again the veneer of civilization proved very thin in the face of floods, drought, pestilence, and plagues, especially when these disasters would compound upon one another.
Over the past two hundred years, and especially within our own generation, human technological innovation has exploded and has led to significant environmental consequences. Humans with machines powered by electricity and fossil fuels transform land to a degree heretofore unimaginable. The human population has exploded over the past century; around the world we have replaced wild land and wild species with developed and cultivated land for ourselves, pets, and farm animals. In almost every domain the earth groans under the burdens we have imposed upon it: many lands have been denuded of fertile soil and are cultivated only with difficulty and fertilizer; it is now believed that half of the wild animals who were alive a generation ago are now gone; more species find themselves at the brink of extinction; fish stocks have been depleted and people now look to deeper and less quality fish to make up the difference; humans encounter new bacteria and viruses as they push ever deeper into previously untouched lands; plastic and other pollutants are everywhere; the oceans are warmer and more acidic; temperatures have risen; hurricanes/typhoons, floods, drought, and wildfires have grown in strength and duration. All of these are presently happening; who knows what will happen if we persist in our behaviors?
If one group of humans in one area, in their greed and sinfulness, can lead to environmental degradation and devastation when they reap the whirlwind they have sown, there is no intrinsic reason why humans around the world, if they prove greedy and sinful, will not suffer environmental degradation and devastation when they reap the whirlwind they have sown. We have gone beyond what is necessary in our exploitation of the earth; who knows how God will judge us for doing so? Perhaps He has built corrective measures into the fabric of the creation itself, and we will begin suffering the effects of these corrective measures. Perhaps He might bring a more specific form of judgment. Perhaps He will show mercy. Nevertheless, we presume a lack of consequence for the ways in which we exploit the creation to our peril and even greater peril for our children and grandchildren. May we uphold and honor the value of life and the creation with which God has blessed us abundantly, and look for the resurrection of life in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry