Is the created order hostile to mankind? This week saw tornados rip into several communities as cases of COVID-19 rose alarmingly around the world. The earth, innocent and elevated in the minds of some religions, harbors things dangerous to our lives. Pantheism, the belief that everything is God and popular in some Eastern religions, worships no personal god but rather the impersonal force of nature. What justice or purpose there might be in the universe is built-in, the same way gravity can punish someone careless enough to ignore it. Pantheism’s American denomination tends to worship nature as wiser and more benevolent than personal beings can be. It is the god of the environmental movement, whose radical wing refers to people as a virus and longs for pristine nature untainted by human interference. I’ve often wondered if radical environmentalists imagine themselves exempt from the “no humans allowed” rule.
Catastrophe always leaves us with hard theological questions, but natural catastrophes would seem to be a particular challenge to those who consider nature worthy of worship. Pope Francis seemed to illustrate the confusion of modern pantheists when asked about God’s role in sending the coronavirus pandemic, “There is an expression in Spanish: ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives’ … I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.”
But nature is not our judge or the earth our lifeboat or created things our god; we must then have another guide, rescue and god. It is no surprise in the biblical worldview that a corrupted earth will sicken and kill corrupting mortals without any intent. The best the world bent by sin can do is breathtakingly flawed in its beauty and careless in its cruelty. We know why that happened.
It started with us, the lords and ladies of creation—servants of the one Creator of all things. We, at our fall into sin, became the harbingers of predation and pestilence in the good creation. The animals dread us, the crops resist us and weeds and diseases—themselves perversions of something good—fight our lives and well-being. This is not because we are the enemies of creation but because we are its stewards.
How strange to worship the things that cannot by the order of creation be better than we are. Thus, the world will not be healed until we are healed. Neither will the world be healed by any means except the means of our salvation. To remove mankind from creation altogether is no salvation for the created order. Cruelty and disease would continue without us. Creation would suffer then without hope.
In a biblical personification more satisfying than that offered by Francis, Romans 8 tells us that suffering creation—which suffers because of our sin—“eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God.” That’s us. Creation will be delivered from corruption by our salvation, just as creation was delivered to corruption by our sin.
So this earth is not our mother, or even our source. It can be a revelation of God (Romans 1:20) or a proving ground as we learn to follow God (Hebrews 12:1-2); it certainly is a stewardship for which we are accountable (Genesis 1:28). It cannot be our master.
Pantheism as an organized religion, a private conviction or a political movement is the very definition of the sin described in Romans 1:25, serving and worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. It is therefore very much a part of the problem and no true answer to any question.
It is my hope that many who do not worship the God who made them will come to the end of themselves during this season of man. There is no hope in nature, and our own strength is laid low by something we can’t see without lab equipment. Modern as we are, our sense of autonomy and ability has taken a hard hit by weeks of involuntary isolation and doubt. All of us may come to the end of our own power.
How easily our perceived ability to save or prosper ourselves has been stripped away. Some of us will never again be so self-assured as we were. We’re hearing reports of men and women seeking hope and finding it in Jesus. I expect believers and churches are also walking more humbly before God and gently toward mankind in this season of anxiety.
Nature is as broken as we are, and for the same reason. But it does not punish us for our sins. It cannot forgive our sins. The problems we face are always essentially spiritual—whether disease or poverty. If we are laid low by these it is to drive us back to the God who alone can save us. That’s the lesson. That’s always the lesson.