ESCHATOLOGY AND EXTINCTION

by Tom Baugh, Fellow

Green Institute

Abstract: In this paper I discuss Christian eschatology in relation to extinction and the conservation and preservation of biodiversity. I look briefly at the roots and structure of Dispensational Christian theology and a subset of that theology known as Christian Reconstructionism or
Dominionism.

Livingstone[1] defines eschatology as that “… part of systematic theology which deals with the final destiny both of the individual soul and mankind in general.” Christian belief conceives of time as linear. There is a beginning and there is an end. How one looks at the ending depends greatly where one is located under the sacred canopy of Christianity, in relationship to eschatology, and the impacts those beliefs may have on the conservation and preservation of biodiversity. Christianity is not the only religious tradition with an eschatology. Aboriginal and folk cultures often have such beliefs.

McGrath[2] says that since the 1980’s there has been a divergence between ‘eschatology’ and ‘apocalypse.’ Where eschatology continues to refer to that branch of Christian theology concerned with ‘last things,’ ‘apocalypse’ is now used to refer to a specific type of literature focusing on ‘God’s imminent intervention in the affairs of the world.’ As pointed out in Baugh[3], apocalyptic literature also has a secular aspect that doesn’t always require divine involvement.

In the 19th century, C.I. Scofield divided the history of human salvation into seven dispensations, or periods, each representing an identifiable covenant between God and humanity. The dispensations begin in the beginning with the Creation and a time of innocence (the time between the creation of the world and the Fall of humanity) and end with the Millennium (return of Christ). It is the ending, or actually the period of time just before the ending that most concerns us when we think of human responsibility for caring for Earth and life on Earth. For how one perceives the end of history and when one perceives that happening, is where the issue lies when this aspect of theology intersects with issues relating to ecosystem health and the conservation and perpetuation of biodiversity.

There are about 77 million fundamentalist Christians (biblical literalists) in the United States.[4] Between 20 million and 30 million adult Americans follow dispensational theologies, while a much smaller number of Dispensationalists are in the Reconstructionist (or Dominionist) camp. While the dispensationalist might be willing to wait for the Apocalypse, Rapture and other projected End Times events, the Reconstructionists are motivated by theologies that require that they prepare the way for the return of the Christ. These adherents are socially, culturally, and politically active and influential in the development and application of current US government policy and laws.

When encountering Christianity, conservation biology and efforts to preserve habitat and biodiversity do not usually find themselves in conflict. However, the more ‘fundamental’ the adherent the more likely one is to stress apocalypse and eschaton in one’s beliefs. And it is here that we run into conflict. For example, several years ago I was asked to make a presentation at the yearly gathering of a Christian environmental organization in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I noticed a man with a suit and a tie sitting in the front row. It was difficult not to notice him because he was looking at me with a stern disapproval. My topic was ‘Caring for the Garden,’ and I waxed prolifically about the wonders of the Creation while he looked on with obvious disapproval. I didn’t know it then, but he would have equal time later on in the day, in fact he would have the last word because he was presenting at the last session of the gathering. He was a conservative Christian minister and did not approve of what I was saying. He said so when he publically announced that he would have felt more comfortable with what I said if I would spend more of my time ‘saving souls’ rather than saving the environment.

I’m sure, that with his perception that the Apocalypse was just around the corner, the idea of personal salvation from eternal damnation, was primary in his theology. This is where the great divide is between those committed to the immediacy of the End Time or even to aiding God in bringing about the Apocalypse and the ‘Last Days,’ and those who do not subscribe to that aspect of Christian theology, or put a different interpretation on that aspect of the myth.

While there are millions of evangelical Christians who are active in their concern for earth care, millions more, especially in the fundamentalist camps, actively oppose such support. As Glenn Scherer[5] says, “Many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of the planet is irrelevant, because it has no future.” According to them, humanity is approaching the End Time, God’s end game in the history. Scherer takes this a little further by suggesting that millions of Christian fundamentalists believe “…that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed—even hastened—as a sign of the coming Apocalypse.” The core of this theology is a subset of Dispensational theology often referred to as Christian Reconstructionism.[6] In general, Christian Reconstructionism calls on adherents to create an Earth ready to receive the return of the Christ and the redemption of those found, by this theology, to be deserving of redemption. As Armstrong [7] points out, this theology of election, or myth of a chosen people, has “inspired a narrow, tribal theology from the time of the Deuteronomist right up to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism that is unhappily rife in our own day.”. Literally this means that “every area dominated by sin must be ‘reconstructed’ in terms of the Bible.” [8] How does one do this? How does one go about ‘reconstructing’ those areas of the human experience dominated by sin? There are a number of different approaches to this. One of primary concern to those involved in Earth care is Dominionism supported by Dominion Theology, an expression of Reconstructionism (often used as synonyms). This theology is based on Genesis 1:26 of the Hebrew Testament[9] that reads “The God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

I suspect more harm to Earth has been done in response to various interpretations of this guidance, and the destructive greed it supports, than in any other way except out of pure ignorance. Although I knew of the biblical passage, I first encountered this as an argument in 1971 or 1972 when, during a public meeting sponsored by the USDA Forest Service on roadless areas on a National Forest in Idaho, a local minister took the microphone and read some version of Genesis 1:26 as an argument against removing land from potential timber harvest in order to establish wilderness areas. I have encountered this belief many times since.

There are several dimensions of Reconstructionist theology that have to concern those working for the protection and restoration of democratic systems in the right-leaning United States as well as those working to protect biodiversity and protect and restore healthy ecosystems. Reconstructionist theologians and adherents are often very active on the social and political fronts. [10] It must be remembered that “The dominionist is fully committed to the manifestation of a society here on earth both defined as and controlled by Christians.”[11] In order to aid the Christian God in the return of the Christ, the Reconstructionists must establish a utopia on Earth. This utopia will be based on a strict, literal interpretation of biblical law as portrayed in Hebrew Scripture (the ‘Old Testament’) and interpreted by Reconstructionist theologians. The reconstruction of biblical law will apply to “all aspects of life from the individual to the state” and that includes how humanity relates to biodiversity. The thought behind the establishment of this utopia is referred to as postmillenialism. This utopia might look different to a
Reconstructionist than to those who do not follow these theologies. For example, according to Scheer,[12] to many Christian fundamentalists, “…environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed—even hastened—as a sign of the coming Apocalypse.” End Time theologians and adherents have always looked to natural catastrophe as precursors of or part of the Apocalypse.

Can those of us who do not follow Reconstructionists theologians or theologies take all of this seriously? It is hard for those not caught up in the End Time myth to realize how potentially powerful these theologians and their millions of adherents are. However, today, there are millions of Christian evangelicals in the United States.[13] Over 37 million Americans espouse biblical literalism and belong to evangelical churches.[14] Of these, many millions can be classified as politically right-wing Christians.’[15] Without them it is not likely that George Walker Bush would have been elected in the 2000 or the 2004 general elections. The Reconstructionists among these Christians are more powerful than one might think and potentially dangerous to democratic forms of government, the environment, and world peace. Reconstructionist George Grant[16] says that “Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land—of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ.” Is the control of this power just a vague hope, or dream, or myth on the part of politically right-wing Christians? Not at all! First of all, one must remember that these theological groupings are not mutually exclusive categories. For example, Hedges[17] points out that the End Time series of books by LaHaye and Jenkins[18] are the best selling books in America. According to Hedges, these books feed “dark fantasies of revenge and empowerment,” and “hasten our flight from reality and ensure our self-annihilation.”

On the first day of December 2004, the exemplary Bill Moyers received the Global Environment Citizen Award from Harvard University. Moyers spent much of his time discussing and exposing the current influence of fundamental Christianity on government and governance in the United States. In his presentation Moyers[19] pointed to the sobering fact that “For the first time in our (US) history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.” In his May 9, 2007 comments on the Endangered Species Act,[20] US Representative Nick J. Rayhall asks “how do we want this government to run the Endangered Species Program – entangled in politics, or enlightened by science?” I don’t believe that is the question Representative Rayhall should have asked. Perhaps he might have stated the question differently and asked ‘how do we want this government to run the Endangered Species Program – entangled in the dark and dangerous mire of fundamental Christianity or enlightened by science?’

Summary

In summary, millions of people through the United States and millions more throughout the world are adherents of a theology that not only expects apocalypse as a component of their own metaphysical salvation, but actively encourages apocalypse and may be working to see that it happens. These adherents live work, and play in most sectors of US society including the military and the US presidential administration that came into office in the year 2000. They feel called by their deity to bring about the End Time defined in their mythology and theology. This calling may well include the widespread destruction of habitat and biodiversity, through political manipulation, if not directly.



[1] Livingstone, E.A. 1977. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] McGrath, A.E. Christian theology: An introduction, 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. p. 541.

[3] Baugh, T. 2007. Ecocaust and ecological wisdom. The Green Institute.

http://www.greeninstitute.net/subpages/baugh_ecocaust.asp.

[4] Green, J. 2007. Pers. comm.. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

[5] Scherer, G. 2004. The godly must be crazy: Christian-right views are swaying politicians and threatening the environment. Grist, October 27.

[6] N.A., N.D. Christian Reconstructionism. Ontario Consultants on religious tolerance.

[7] Armstrong, K. 1993. A history of God. New York. Ballantine Books. p. 20.

[8] Saldlin, A. N.D. The creed of Christian Reconstructionism. The Chalcedon Foundation. http://www.chalcedon.edu/creed.html.

[9] New Revised Standard Version.

[10] N.A., N.D. Christian Reconstructionism. The Religious Movements Homepage, University of Virginia. http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/ChRecon.html.

[11] N.A., N.D. Christian Reconstructionism. The Religious Movements Homepage, University of Virginia. http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/ChRecon.html.

[12] Scherer, G. 2004. The godly must be crazy: Christian-right views are swaying politicians and threatening the environment. Grist, October 27.

[13] Green, J. 2007. Pers. comm.. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

[14] Green, J. 2007. Pers. comm.. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

[15] Scherer, G. 2004. The godly must be crazy: Christian-right views are swaying politicians and threatening the environment. Grist, October 27.

[16] Grant, G. and G. North. 1987. The changing of the guard: Biblical principles for political action. Dominion Press.

[17] Hedges, C. 2007. Praying for the Apocalypse. Truthdig.com/report/item/praying_for_the_apocalypse.

[18] LaHaye, T.F. and J.B. Jenkins. 2000. Left behind: A novel of earth’s last days. Carol Stream, Il: Tyndale House Publishers.

[19] Moyers, B. 2004. Comments on receiving Harvard Med’s Global Environment
Citizen Award. TruthOut. http://www.truthout.org/docs_04/120504G.shtml.

[20] Rahall, N.J. II. 2007. Opening remarks of U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, II, Chairman, committee on Natural Resources, Hearing on Implementation of the Endangered Species Act: Politics or Science? http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/

 

Please cite this manuscript as follows:

Baugh, T. 2007. Eschatology and extinction. Green Institute.

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