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Dissolving the Dilemma between Temporal Sustainability and Eternal Salvation


How do we speak with integrity about sustainable development amongst a culture that embraces a worldview of disintegration? Let me explain. From a Seventh-day Adventist perspective, the failing world is heading towards destruction, and only the power of the Christ can implement real and lasting change. When the future is viewed through our apocalyptic lenses, it is the perpetrators of global warming who score the final goal. It is the environmental terrorists, whose global conglomerates are protected and legitimized by corrupt governments, who receive the “Champions Cup” from the architect of destruction.

Adversely, the very concept of societal sustainability is one that champions the possibility of a more prosperous future for the world’s inhabitants. The architects of sustainability are in a desperate attempt to reverse the environmental and societal disintegration of the planet with the hope that the future will be brighter for our children and grandchildren. Driven by four principles (conceived by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert and the international environmental organization, “The Natural Step”), the quest for sustainability calls for humans to be intentional about:

1.      Eliminating the progressive build up of substances extracted from the earth’s crust;

2.      Eliminating the progressive build-up of chemicals and compounds produced by society;

3.      Eliminating the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes, and

4.      Eliminating the conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs.

Given the theological nature of my presentation, it is the fourth principle that governs this discussion as we confront “conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs.”

It would not be an understatement to conclude that these two worldviews are diametrically opposed to each other. On one level, they even appear to be “warring” visions of earth’s future—one where humans save the planet and the other where human exploitation leads to planetary destruction. For those who believe that Messiah is the only solution to earth’s problems, it is easy to relegate the proponents of sustainable development to the camp of the infidel. Those who come to this conclusion have succumbed to the spirit of the early Adventist “shut door” theorists who were afflicted by a laissez-faire virus and viewed the future through myopic lenses. In their view, the sustainable developers are ideological architects and builders for whom the world is an expansive Plain of Dura, upon which they will construct their impregnable version of the Babel Skyscraper.

Those who reject the objectives of sustainable development in the name of Adventism—or any other religion—are categorized among the stereotypical modern day Pharisees who have become “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” Sadly, they have failed to see that truly heavenly-minded people will seek every opportunity to effect earthly good.

Those committed to living the “abundant life” understand biblical holism and are focused on enhancing the quality of life and leaving a godly footprint in whatever community they may find themselves. They are fully aware that the earth as we know it will be demolished at the parousia in preparation for the construction of the New Earth; however, they are also mindful of the fact that God has charged humans with stewardship of the earth’s resources. As stewards, we energetically support all efforts to preserve God’s creation as we create environments where others can positively benefit from our stewardship.

Jesus is coming soon, but as long as there are people who need economic and social empowerment, citizens of the kingdom have a work to do in society. The Bible should be the blueprint for sustainable development, not an obstacle. Practical prophets need to wrestle God’s Word from the hands of ecclesiastical scholars who are only concerned with intellectual uniformity, and release it on a generation of radical followers of Christ who understand the all-encompassing demand of the gospel imperative. It is time for the people of God to “get up” and “stand up” for the rights of all humans to benefit from the bounty of God’s creation.

As we “get up” and “stand up,” I challenge this generation to discover environmentally friendly ways of production so that the earth’s crust will not have to be depleted by unbridled extraction. As we “get up” and “stand up,” I challenge this generation to discover the next generation of carbon dioxide emitting fuels and bio-friendly packaging that decomposes as fast as potato skin. As we “get up” and “stand up,” I challenge this generation to find ways to recycle and to respect the global Tao (if I could borrow a concept from Chinese religion). Finally, as we “get up” and “stand up,” I challenge this generation to treat others how you desire to be treated by promoting a culture where all have the capacity to meet their human needs. In doing this, more can experience a quality temporal sustainability as they wait to transition into eternal salvation.

As you reflect on your role in effecting change in society, never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”


Keith Augustus Burton directs the Center for Adventist Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. This column is excerpted from a recent presentation at the “Conference on Adventism, Society and Sustainable Development” that was held at Helderberg College in Somerset, South Africa.


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