Science in Christian Perspective


Can A Premillennialist Consistently Entertain A Concern for the Environment?
A Rejoinder to Al Truesdale

 R. S. Beal, Jr.

Colorado Christian University
Lakewood, CO 80226

From: PSCF 46 (September 1994): 172-177.

Al Truesdale has raised some significant and worthwhile questions in his paper, "Last Things First: The Impact of Eschatology on Ecology" (PSCF, June 1994, p. 116-122). One question many of us probably have not well considered is whether our particular brand of evangelical theology significantly influences our attitude toward care of the earth. Truesdale believes that it does. The thrust of his argument is that those evangelicals with premillennial convictions have abdicated their responsibility towards the environment by subscribing to a belief in an earth under a sentence of destruction at the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As I listened to Dr. Truesdale's presentation of his paper at the August 1993 Seattle Annual Meeting of the ASA, I could not help asking, "About whom is he really speaking?" There are probably few more convinced premillennialists than I, yet few who are more personally distressed by the continuing wholesale ravaging of creation by developers, recreationalists, industrialists, logging, cattle and mining interests, and many others. I think there are few who exercise more personal care of the world than I do. Perhaps I have not raised my voice as loudly as I might have, but in my biology classes I have constantly sought to instill in students a sense of enlightened Christian responsibility toward the world God has made.

Perhaps I do so in contradiction to my "religiously unnecessary and logically impossible" point of view. I simply may be inconsistent. But I do not think so.

Before presenting my response, however, I want to thank Dr. Truesdale for graciously reading and thoughtfully responding to an earlier draft of this paper. He has sharpened my own thinking as well as corrected some of my errors. I wish space permitted a more detailed reply to some of his pertinent observations. Could I offer them, I am sure I would gain much hearing his responses to my replies.

At any event, we need to confront two questions. The first is what the Bible teaches when read in a normal, grammatical, contextual, historical sense. Dr. Truesdale did not address the question of Biblical hermeneutics, but one must. Secondly, if on hermeneutical grounds premillennialism is inescapable, on what possible grounds can a premillennialist justify an environmental concern? I believe the two questions are related.

Premillennialism comes in several varieties, just as does amillennialism. An environmental apology proposed for one variety may not logically follow from another. Christian people of my generation learned an approach to the Scriptures particularly associated with the names of J. N. Darby (1800-1882) and William Kelly (1821-1906). This was largely through notes found in the immensely popular Scofield Reference Bible, but also through a host of pastors and Bible teachers trained at Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, and similar schools. Darby, Kelly, and other early premillennialists began with a principle of interpretation that was quite foreign to both Reformation and Roman Catholic approaches. Darby and Kelly argued that the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was to be understood in the sense in which it was understood by Jews in Old Testament times. If God promised the land of Palestine to Israel as a permanent possession, then that promise would be, must be, will be, kept. To this extent they helped lay a foundation for subsequent premillennial thinking. Reformation writers, on the other hand, quite generally interpreted the Abrahamic covenant in a spiritual sense, applying it to the Church or to the community of the elect.

Although the Darby/Kelly view still has many advocates, its popularity has greatly diminished. Darby's strained interpretation of the Gospels probably had much to do with that. He understood the terms kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven in the Gospels to have overlapping but nevertheless distinct meanings. His explanations made for some beautiful spiritual applications and allowed people to think of the kingdom of God in some sense as present while at the same time viewing it as the literal, earthly fulfillment of all of God's ultimate designs. His views, however, have not convinced people who try to read the Gospels in a normal sense.

Apparently replacing the Darby/Kelly view in most premillennial circles is the interpretation of the late Fuller Seminary professor George E. Ladd. Ladd's approach began with his supposition that the Jews in the time of Jesus had no consistent eschatological view.1 The meaning of the kingdom, therefore, must be determined primarily from its use in the New Testament. Ladd then asserted, accepting the conclusions of a number of modern philologists, that the basic concept of the Greek word for kingdom is majesty, regal power, or authority, rather than realm or domain.2 With these foundational concepts Ladd examined New Testament passages and determined that they teach a present spiritual authority of God in the world and a future glorious manifestation in an earthly reign of Christ, a "rule of force." His is not a dispensational view according to the Darby/Kelly format.

Ladd's arguments for premillennialism leave me with many misgivings. Admittedly, if his foundational principles are allowed, his analysis of New Testament texts would seem to follow. The principles, however, are at least open to question. Are the philologists whom he follows correct in making regal power or authority the primary meaning of the Greek word for kingdom? Space prohibits examination of the question here, but I think it can be argued that the philologists who examined corresponding Hebrew and Greek words were themselves prejudiced by presuppositions about the nature of the biblical doctrine of the kingdom. Their reasoning may have been circular. Secondly, it seems to me that the Jews did have a consistent concept of the kingdom in the time of Jesus. To be sure, they held various views on some facets of the doctrine, but on certain critical aspects I believe they were more or less agreed.

Over the years there have been other premillennialists who built on a more coherent and defensible interpretation and who avoided the rather convoluted interpretation of the Gospels espoused by Darby and Kelly. The most thorough exposition was published in 1884 in three enormous volumes by the Lutheran minister George N. H. Peters.3 To my knowledge no anti-chiliastic writer has ever attempted a systematic refutation of Peters' arguments. Those amillennial writers who have inveighed against either premillennial or dispensational teaching appear to have been ignorant of the work. Few, at least, have ever referred to it or cited it in their bibliographies.

Although Peters did not use modern literary terminology, he insisted on reading all Scriptures in what we today would generally consider a literary sense. He demanded for Scriptures the meaning they must have had for those who originally received them. How indeed did people in the time of David understand the Abrahamic Covenant, he asked. How did Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and other prophets understand it? If a Bible student accepts the Bible as divine revelation and faithfully follows this principle of reading the Bible in its normal, grammatical, historical sense, what will unfold? Nothing less, Peters insisted (and I am personally convinced), than a premillennial interpretation of the Bible. A short synopsis may help us see why this is so, and also what it may imply for a concern for creation.

The Abrahamic Covenant, announced five distinct times to Abraham beginning with Genesis 12, announced twice to Isaac, and reiterated three times to Jacob, includes at least seven distinct terms, not the least of which is the promise of the land to the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 15:18-19, Josh. 1:4, etc.). There seems to be no question but that Jews throughout the Old Testament took these promises literally.

This is, of course, the watershed issue on the whole interpretation of eschatology. Amillennialists presume the Abrahamic covenant must be understood in the light of what Christ and the apostles taught regarding the kingdom of God. Peters, however, insists that we can understand Christ's and the apostles' teaching on the kingdom of God only in the light of the historical meaning of the kingdom.

There is, however, a consistent picture that emerges when the covenant is taken in its normal, grammatical sense. Note carefully three basic elements of the covenant. First, it was unconditional. There were no terms with which Abraham had to comply. Some have said that circumcision was a condition, but circumcision was not mentioned when the covenant was first announced. It was introduced later on, but not as a condition for the fulfillment of the promises but rather an obligation for the individual who expected to remain within the line of promise. The covenant was all of grace; it was a favor from God. Secondly, the covenant was repeatedly stated to be everlasting. Once received it would belong to the heirs in perpetuity (Genesis 17:8, 19, etc.). The argument is sometimes made that the covenant was fulfilled in the days of Solomon. At that period Israel exercised economic sovereignty from the Nile to the Euphrates. But this could not have been the fulfillment, since within a few years the kingdom was divided, shrunk, the people overcome with misfortunes and harassed by their enemies. If the promise was fulfilled at that point, "everlasting" is a mighty short time. Thirdly, there was no time limit set for the fulfillment of the promise. Abraham was told that his descendants would be sojourners and slaves "in a land that is not theirs," hence the promise could not be fulfilled for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). Nevertheless there was no indication that in 400 years it would be realized; no time was ever set. These observations have a large bearing on how the kingdom is to be understood throughout the rest of Scripture.

When the people of Israel left Egypt at the Exodus, God himself became their actual, functional king (Num. 23:21; Deut. 33:5; I Sam. 8:7; 12:12). This is not to be confused with the universal sovereignty of God, for God acted toward Israel in a unique way as the legislative, judicial, and executive head. He was available for consultation and direction (Exod. 25:22; 33:11). Unlike what we today term a theocracy, that is, a government directed by a presumed representative of God, this was a real theocracy. God exercised genuine rulership, not only authority, over the people.

At Sinai God gave Israel the law with the ten commandments and all its many other terms and regulations. The great significance of the law was that it provided the nation a means whereby, once they were established in the land, the terms of the Abrahamic Covenant might be fully realized. Here is an often overlooked point. The Abrahamic covenant specified no time. The law in contrast said, "Now you may have it, but the condition is obedience." Obedience would bring all the promises (Lev. 26, Deut. 7-8, etc.). Failure to obey, however, would result in frightful chastisement. Nevertheless, even if disobedience and chastisement should follow, as historically they did, the promises to Abraham remained inviolable.

Tired of the judges, the people begged Samuel for a king. God allowed them to have an earthly king who would be subordinate to himself, the actual king. Nonetheless, this was not the end of the theocracy (II Kings 19:15; Isa. 41:21; 43:15; etc.), although the effectiveness of God's rule diminished in proportion to the rebellious wickedness of the people. After Saul's failure, God selected David, making a unilateral covenant guaranteeing that a descendent of his would have his throne over the nation established forever (I Chron. 17). The promise included peace for the people of Israel, who would be planted "that they may dwell in their own place" (I Chron. 17:9). It is difficult to believe that historically this was understood in any other than its literal sense or that the Jews in Jesus' time understood it otherwise.

Ultimately the Northern tribes were taken into captivity and finally the heavy hand of judgment, embodied in the Babylonians, fell upon wayward Judah. The theocracy came to an end, and when God no longer ruled the people neither were they permitted to enjoy an earthly prince. With it all, the prophets described a future glory for Israel, expanding the Abrahamic covenant far beyond its original bounds. When Israel should be brought back into the land, the theocracy re-established, the Gentiles of the world would also be brought under its umbrella. Israel, however, would be the jewel in the kingdom's crown. Nevertheless, the law stood as a solemn and grim sentinel over the future (Jer. 12:14-17, etc.). The law's fulfillment was the prerequisite to the magnificent restoration of the kingdom.

When Jesus and John came preaching, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," how did the Jews understand these words? Whether they accepted Jesus' authority or not, whether they believed him or not, they could only have understood him to be declaring that the theocracy, the reign of God over the nation, was available. The kingdom was ready for final realization.

To insist that the kingdom had some other meaning, a meaning to be known from the New Testament context only, is exegetical folly. The Jews understood what Jesus was talking about. They may have had differing notions about a number of details of the kingdom, but not about the literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (otherwise the words of Jesus in Matt. 3:9 make little sense). Neither did they misunderstand that they needed to keep the law for the kingdom to be established. The famous, disbelieving, German scholar Albert Schweitzer4 (following Johannes Weiss) correctly understood this. He saw that the interpretation of the message of Jesus had to start with the historical Jewish understanding of the kingdom. The view embraced by this critic was that he thought Jesus was mistaken in preaching that God would establish a literal kingdom. According to Schweitzer, Jesus discovered his mistake only as he hung on the cross, but his followers never themselves made that discovery.

We find no place in the Gospels where Jesus sought to correct the supposed misapprehensions entertained by either the Jews or the disciples over the nature of the kingdom. The great points of contention were not the nature of the kingdom but what constituted obedience to the law and whether Jesus had authority for his teaching. The scribes and Pharisees supposed they were keeping the law by outward observance. It was in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus showed what it really meant to keep the law. Obedience had to come from within. It is commonly alleged that as a master teacher Jesus sought gradually to disabuse his followers of mistaken and carnal notions about the kingdom. If so, it is astounding that after his resurrection the disciples still had not learned their lesson. Even at that time they must have been expecting the restoration of the nation according to Old Testament prophecy, for they asked, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Jesus answered, "You knuckleheads, have I been with you this long and you still haven't got it right?" Or did he?

If we start with a historical understanding of the kingdom, the Synoptic narratives and teachings fall into a consistent and easily defined pattern. If we reject this understanding, we have to resort to some tortuous and improbable explanations or else deny the full authenticity of the accounts. The outline is simple enough. There is increasing hostility to Jesus on the part of the Jews. In the middle of his public ministry Jesus announced privately to his disciples that there would be a delay (Matt. 13). Shortly before his crucifixion the delay was made public (Matt. 21:28-22:14 and note 23:39). Then in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25) Jesus clearly taught not only a period of delay but a great tribulation, after which the kingdom, the theocracy, would be established at his coming (Matt. 25:31).

There are many verses which might be used against this view (e.g., Luke 17:21; John 3:3; 18:35; Rom. 14:17), but all these are susceptible of a consistent understanding with the concept of the kingdom being the promised earthly reign of the Messiah. This understanding is at the heart of premillennial conviction. It is a conviction that is not easily dismissed as unrealistic apocalyptic fervor or fundamentalist eisegesis.

The question of how this may lead to a concern for the environment may not be immediately obvious. If all is to be destroyed in a great conflagration at the coming of Christ (most amillennialists) or at the end of the 1,000 year reign of Christ (premillennialists generally), why be concerned? The premillennialist would seem to have particularly little reason to be concerned, even if the final conflagration is more than a thousand years away, since the coming great tribulation will be a time of cataclysmic judgments. The terrors of an imminent tribulation would seem to trivilize any concern for the environment. Pending the coming judgments and/or the annihilation of the physical earth, why not take advantage of whatever residual benefits a doomed earth has to offer? It will soon be gone, so it might as well be used up. Or perhaps one might simply withdraw from any concern. Two answers to these arguments follow.

First, the premillennialist, if consistent in his or her devotion to the Word, believes God places great value upon his creative work. The earth belongs to God and manifests his works and wisdom (Psalm 104, especially verses 24, 31-33; I Corinthians 10:26; etc.). Man is responsible for it (Psalm 8:3-8, etc.). Since God treasures his creation, no less should be expected of those placed upon the earth to keep it and honor him through use of it.

If someone is inclined to suppose that what is destined for destruction is of no concern to God and therefore can legitimately be exploited, these biblical principles are forgotten. Suppose that a Christian man is told by his physician that he has an incurable malignancy. Because his days are numbered does he therefore live the remainder in debauchery and fornication? Not at all, because he still belongs to God "body, soul, and spirit." Likewise, should destruction be the destiny of the material world, the Christian's responsibility toward it is no less diminished.

The second answer stems from a premillennial/dispensational view that recognizes the Christian's freedom from legalism and his or her freedom to live in love. (I add the word "dispensational" because the term is now generally applied to all who recognize (1) that Israel nationally has promises not realized in the Church and (2) that the believer is no longer under the law of Moses.) Those who hold such views have been thoroughly excoriated as heretical antinomians by J. H. Gerstner in his book Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth.5 Dr. Gerstner's condemnation demonstrated an unhappy ignorance of what the Rev. G. N. H. Peters unfolds in his eminently fair and thorough presentation of the kingdom of God.

Christ offered the kingdom to Israel, but it was  it had to be on the condition that the people obey the law from the heart. He was ready to give them divine help, but except for a few, the willingness was not there: the necessary law-obedience from the heart was wanting. Consequently the nation was set aside, dispersed until the time of their future regathering. When they are finally redeemed, it will be apart from the law. Believing Gentiles will share in the glory, apart from the law. This is because when Christ died on the cross he satisfied every demand of the law, becoming a penalty in the sinner's stead. For the believer the law is not an avenue to salvation, and it is not a rule of life. This applies equally to those theological classifications termed the ceremonial, civil, and moral codes. (The New Testament itself does not divide the law into three parts.) What Scriptures shall I quote to validate this most peculiar position, that the Christian is not under the law in any respect? Romans 6 (particularly verse 14) and 7, II Corinthians 3, and the whole book of Galatians, for starters!

If the law is not the rule of life for the believer, what possibly can be? The answer is the "new commandment" of John 13:34, the principle of totally unselfish, wholly giving love, agape. The person who practices love has satisfied the purposes for which the law was given without being under the law (Rom. 6:14 with 13:8-10). The person who loves others with insightful, understanding love is indeed "pure and blameless for the day of Christ," is "filled with the fruits of righteousness" (Phil. 1:8-11). The person who lives in agape, unlike the person living by the acquisitive love characterizing the flesh, is willing to sacrifice of himself or herself and of his or her interests that others might prosper, might live, might have their rights, might be built up to enjoy God's riches.

Precisely here is where the premillennial/dispensational Christian exercises a concern for God's handiwork in nature. It is not his or hers to despoil. In radical love it is to be kept, not for one's own sake, but that others might enjoy it, might be privileged to rejoice in the wondrous and intricate delights of divine providence. Genuine love looks out for the welfare of others. A polluted environment surely does not serve the good of others. When a Christian treats the earth and its living forms with disregard, it can only be concluded that such a person is terribly ignorant of what he or she is doing, or is living "in the flesh," gratifying his or her personal desires at the expense of others the Corinthian syndrome. But God has not called us to the flesh, but to the spirit!

The Christian recognizes the depravity of the human heart outside of Christ and the propensity of the unredeemed person to exploit both creation and other humans for wholly selfish purposes. The Christian, however, has been liberated from the necessity of sin. The Christian alone is in a position to view creation apart from self-interest and to see it as a manifestation of the bounty and glory of God. A Christian walking with the Lord, rather than eager to exploit the earth for self-gratification, is eager to celebrate creation with thanksgiving and to care for and preserve it.

To this argument, let me annex one other thought that has not been carefully considered by most current premillennialists. The destruction of the physical world may not, after all, be a doctrine taught in Scripture. For one thing, a number of scriptures describe the kingdom, once established, as eternal (e.g., Dan. 2:44; Heb. 1:8). The Darby/Kelly scenario places the millennium first, then the great conflagration of II Peter 3:10, followed by "a new heaven and a new earth." Granted, this interpretation makes a certain kind of sense. Revelation 21 and 22, which describe the new heavens and the new earth, follow the description of the establishment of the millennium. One might suppose that the visions are arranged chronologically, so the new heaven and the new earth are viewed as following the thousand years and the great white throne judgment. Militating against this chronological interpretation is the section in Isaiah 65 and 66 from which John took the expression. In Isaiah "new heavens and a new earth" refer, clearly I believe, to the time of Israel's restoration. This follows from the whole context, but especially from Isaiah 66:18-21. The new heavens and new earth refer to what will be established when Israel is brought back to the land. The expression refers to the beginning, not the end, of the "times of restoration." Since (in my opinion at any rate) the Book of Revelation is cyclical in its literary structure, chapters 21 and 22 may well be a symbolic description of the perpetual reign of Christ overlapping but continuing beyond the millennium to the "age of the ages."

But what does the sincere Bible student do with the statement in II Peter 3:10 that "the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up"? Without a detailed exposition, I might point out the following. (a) Whatever it refers to, it is an event associated with "the day of the Lord," which in other passages refers to the judgments and cleansing immediately preceding and accompanying the advent of the Messiah. (b) "Elements" most probably does not refer to elements in our modern chemical understanding. In all five other New Testament instances the word refers to "elementary rules." It can be so understood here, but seems not to be generally translated this way out of deference to tradition. (c) The word for "will be burned up" in most Greek texts is not this word at all but another word meaning "will be discovered." In short, one can legitimately think of the passage as declaring that at the time of Christ's return fundamentally self-centered societal rules will be exhibited for what they are, destroyed, and replaced, in a graphic metaphor being burned up and dissolved.

If these considerations are valid, at the return of Christ the earth will be renovated, restored, brought into a new and greater splendor. The original splendor has been and is being corrupted by the greed and selfishness of mankind. But God, who created all things, will not let the rot of sin ultimately thwart his work. Rather, he must judge sin and set free an earth now in bondage to decay (Romans 8:21). Creation is his perfect work, and although it was "subjected to futility, not of its own will" but for the purposes of God, it will be redeemed just as much as we who have put our faith in Christ (Rom. 8:21-23). All that God cherishes enough for redemption, the Christian can and ought to cherish.

It seems to me without question that the premillennialist enjoys every possible motivation to exercise a concern for the environment. Indeed, he or she is obligated to have such a concern. This concern ought to be second only to that for the salvation and spiritual growth of men and women about us, members of a race that is corrupted and dying even more than the physical world.

1994

Notes

1George E. Ladd, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids; 1954), p. 70.

2Ibid., pp. 78-81.

3George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom of Our Lord Jesus, the Christ (Funk and Wagnells, New York; 1884), 3 vols. Republished by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI; 1988.

4Albert Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede; transl. W. Montgomery (A. & C. Black, London; 1945; first printed 1910), pp. 1-410.

5John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Inc., Brentwood, Tenn.; 1991), pp. 1-275.