Creation is being crucified. The American president's recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement is the latest act of violence to be inflicted upon an already tortured creation. Creation is being tormented and degraded in a process, which can only be described theologically as 'crucifixion.' Nature, an innocent victim of human sin and greed, has been sold for silver and is being whipped, beaten and made to wear a crown of thorns.
What do we mean by the 'crucified creation'? According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, we are losing 18 million acres of forest each year. 70 per cent of Earth's coral reefs will cease to exist within the next 40 years. The world has lost half of its coastal wetlands. Ice caps are melting and colossal sheets of ice are breaking off Greenland and Antarctica.
Ecocide (the eradication of life from the earth) is occurring at an alarming an unprecedented rate. Species are dying out one thousand times faster than their natural rate of extinction, which means that, at the current rate, in the next 30 years, as many as one-fifth of all species alive today will have perished from the face of the earth.
Ecosystems everywhere are on the verge of collapse. Topsoil is being poisoned. Rivers and oceans are being contaminated with every kind or chemical, biological and nuclear waste. Human combustion activity is causing our oceans to absorb over a million tonnes of carbon dioxide every hour. As a result, our oceans are now 30 per cent more acidic than they were 200 years ago. Every year 12 million hectares are lost to desertification and the rate is increasing. The air we breathe has become contaminated with toxic gases.
Geographers have had to redraw the maps of Afghanistan because American bunker-busting bombs have wiped whole mountain ranges from the landscape. In Canada terrified seal pups are being rounded up, separated from their mothers, and then violently clubbed to death for the sake of preserving fish stocks.
In the aftermath of this slaughter, the crimson stains that smear the icy wilderness testify to the pain and bloody travail of creation. Or think of the blue whale writhing in pain under the obscene penetration of the whaler's harpoon, then cut up and turned into pulp which ends up in packages of perfume that find their way onto our supermarket shelves.
These horrors and innumerable others demonstrate a level of God-forsakenness and desolation, which can only be described as 'crucifixion'. Creation is being crucified. This crucified creation is groaning under the weight of sin and greed.
Nature is not as God intended it to be. Creation is in bondage to decay and in subjection to futility, but hoping and waiting for God's salvation to be fully accomplished. And as with the crucifixion of Christ, the crucifixion of creation is being carried out by demonic religious forces that are hostile to life and acting against an innocent victim.
The tragic irony has been that too often Christians, instead of participating with God in the redemption of the world, have in fact exacerbated the problem. Many Christians sincerely believe that the world is evil and we need to get out of it as soon as possible. Their idea of salvation is that we'll all fly away like pigeons and be raptured out of earthly existence to a heavenly realm far, far away.
Because of this false, world-denying Christianity, creation has been crucified and it's all too often been the Church that has led the chants of 'Crucify it! Crucify it!'
Salvation is creation healed
Too often, mainstream Christian teaching has belittled the body and neglected physical creation. Many Christians have understood salvation as a private experience that results in individual souls flying off to heaven.
The tragedy of this common assumption is that it has nothing to do with the biblical hope, which focuses on the cosmic and physical or material dimension of redemption. Many Christians think that salvation means going up to heaven rather than heaven coming down to earth. The Bible says nothing about immortal souls going to heaven when the body dies, but it refers throughout – from Genesis to Revelation – to the coming of God into the world. Biblical salvation doesn't mean the unceasing existence of immortal souls; it means the healing of creation.
Salvation is the healing of the whole of creation, not just the human part of it. Creation has an innate goodness and worth in God's sight. Before humans were created, God created the plants and the animals. He declared unequivocally that they were 'very good'. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, the bodily presence of God into the world, testifies to the inherent goodness of creation.
There's a creation-shaped hole in our gospel which needs to be filled with a proper understanding of salvation as a vision of the healing of creation. If salvation is creation healed, it makes sense to talk about solidarity with planet Earth as a gospel imperative, rather than merely a matter of social justice or environmental ethics.
The world is weeping from the constant assault of inhumanity and cruelty. Christ remains on the cross, as long as human beings continue to crucify God's creation; God continues to be crucified anew every day because of the greed, cruelty and selfishness of human beings. It's vain to claim to be a Christian, to follow the Suffering Servant, to be a disciple of the Crucified Messiah, while exhibiting a thoughtless indifference towards the suffering of God's creation.
The theology of the future must cultivate a new attentiveness towards the natural world and deconstruct the destructive pseudo-Christian ideologies that have contributed towards the degradation and exploitation of the environment. Christians need to start using terms such as the 'Crucified Creation' and 'Salvation as Creation Healed' to address the looming environmental catastrophe of our times.
We need to recognise that to dump toxic waste into a river, to fill the skies with acid rain, to dump carbon dioxide into the oceans, to destroy forests and entire ecosystems – these are all violent and blasphemous acts that deface God's good creation. To pollute God's creation is to blaspheme against the spirit of life.
Creation care as a gospel obligation
As Christians we need a new language that gives us the conceptual resources to rediscover a biblical Christianity that is attuned to God's good creation. The only possible resolution can come from a new spirituality in which love of God and love of human beings will at the same time mean love for all God's creation.
The world is passing through a dangerous period of dehumanisation and godforsakenness. The groaning creation in its travail still awaits the emergence of Christianity not as a religion of private salvation, but as a gospel movement of universal compassion. When this new consciousness emerges, we will begin to recognise creation care as an indispensable gospel imperative.
Dr Joshua T Searle is Tutor in Theology and Public Thought at Spurgeon's College.