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A Permit to Plunder or a Mandate for Stewardship?


Editor’s Note: The author’s name is Floyd Hayes, not Fred Hayes.

Nearly half a century ago, Lynn White, a prominent medieval historian, ignited controversy by publishing a provocative essay in the prestigious journal Science, titled “The historical roots of our ecologic crisis” (White 1967). His scapegoat was Christianity. “By destroying pagan animism,” White argued, “Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” He concluded that “we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”

Is the triumph of Christianity over paganism the root of all environmental evil? White’s conclusions were embraced by many who were eager to discredit Christianity, but others pointed out that extensive environmental degradation occurred in communist and other non-Christian countries, and even among ancient civilizations that viewed nature as sacred. Long-term scars from deforestation, overgrazing, and overhunting by ancient non-Christian societies are readily visible in various parts of the planet, including New Mexico, Central America, India, China, and many Pacific islands (e.g., Tuan 1970, Novak 1983, Diamond 1994).

Although Christiandom as a society certainly deserves its share of the blame for environmental degradation, does Christianity as a religion deserve any blame? White’s essay kindled introspection among Christian scholars, who suspected that the Bible had been misinterpreted. They subsequently scrutinized the Bible to reevaluate how Christians should relate to the environment and developed a new field of scholarship, dubbed ecological theology or ecotheology (Santmire 1970). A strong consensus quickly emerged among ecotheologians that the Bible unequivocally mandates responsible environmental stewardship.

So what does the Bible have to say about environmental stewardship? Let’s first consider the environment from God’s perspective. The Bible boldly declares that God is the designer and creator of the universe and a host of living organisms on our planet (Genesis 1). Evidence for God’s intention for the Earth “to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18) can be found in a multitude of finely tuned physical parameters of the universe and intricately designed biogeochemical cycles (often referred to as the anthropic principle), resulting in a biogeochemical homeostasis that perpetually sustains life on our planet. In contrast with pantheistic religions, which venerate many living and non-living objects as sacred, the Bible declares that our planet and everything on it is not God but instead belongs to God (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26).

Throughout the creation week God repeatedly pronounced each act of creation, including both living and non-living components, as “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31), revealing that God cares for all aspects of his creation, not just humans. Further expressions of God’s love for creation are scattered throughout the Bible (e.g., Job 40-41; Jonah 4:10-11; Psalms 36, 96, 104, 145, 147, 148; Matthew 6:26, 10:29; Luke 12:6). Indeed, God loved His creation so much that He sent His only begotten son to redeem the world—not just humans (John 3:16)—and promised to eventually restore the original creation (Isaiah 11:6-9; Ezekiel 36:33-35; Romans 8:19-23).

So if God loves His creation, how are humans expected to treat it? As the crowning act of creation, man was created in the “image of God” and given “dominion” (KJV) or permission to “rule” (NIV) over all living things and “subdue” the Earth (Genesis 1:26, 28). Was this a permit to plunder, as Lynn White assumed, or was it a mandate for stewardship? Because the “dominion” over all living things and permission to “rule” and “subdue” were given before sin entered the planet (Genesis 3), before skins were needed for clothing (Genesis 3:21), and before humans were allowed to kill animals for food (Genesis 9:3), the “dominion” is clearly a mandate for responsible stewardship of natural resources rather than a permit to plunder the planet.

After being placed in the Garden of Eden, Adam was instructed “to dress it and keep it” (KJV) or “to work it and take care of it” (NIV; Genesis 2:15), clearly indicating Adam’s role as a caretaker rather than a conqueror of the creation. Later, God reminded His people that “the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25:23), and instructed them to avoid the overuse of productive agricultural land by allowing it to lie fallow every seventh year (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7). Clearly God expected humans to sustainably manage the planet’s resources, for “a good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22).

The Bible reveals that God provides for the needs of all creatures, not just humans or those creatures that benefit humans (e.g., Job 38:19-41; Psalms 36:6, 104:27-28, 147:9; Jonah 4:11; Matthew 6:26), and that we have a moral obligation to treat animals humanely by providing them with sufficient rest and food (e.g., Exodus 23:5, 12; Deuteronomy 25:4), rescuing them from harm (Matthew 12:11), and never torturing them (Numbers 22:23-33). These texts reveal that non-human creatures have moral value. Life is a gift from God and we are morally compelled to respect, protect, nurture, and preserve it by preventing needless pain, suffering, and death.

Based on a correct understanding of biblical exegesis, Christianity cannot be blamed as the root cause of modern environmental problems, for the Bible clearly reveals God’s plan for humans to sustainably manage and protect the environment. Then what, if not Christianity, is the root cause of environmental problems? The Bible identifies it as sin, which is the transgression of God’s moral and natural laws (Isaiah 24:5; Hosea 4:1-3; 1 John 3:4). Such sin is manifested in the greed, pride, carelessness, and ignorance of all humans, not just a particular group (Wright 1970). But if any group is culpable, it is those with the power to rule over others. To prevent the excessive exploitation of human and natural resources, God prohibited rulers from accumulating wives, horses, silver, and gold (Deuteronomy 17:16-17), and expected rulers to provide for those who are weak, needy, afflicted, and oppressed (Psalm 72:8-14). Jesus described the ideal ruler: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27).

Because time and financial resources are limited, and the planet and everything on it will be destroyed when Christ returns, some Christians consider it futile to invest precious time and money in a vain attempt to protect the environment. However, this argument does not absolve us of our divinely mandated responsibility to sustainably manage and protect God’s creation, for we know neither the day nor the hour when Jesus will return (Matthew 24:36), nor how much longer natural resources can be unsustainably exploited to meet human needs. Furthermore, we take care of our own bodies, personal possessions, homes, and yards, all of which will also be destroyed, so why shouldn’t we care for the environment beyond our neighborhood, which nurtures our bodies and supplies our personal possessions and abodes? Those who neglect to care for the environment should contemplate God’s promise to hold accountable “those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18).

Christians believe that God endowed us with the intelligence and ability to study, manipulate, and utilize the creation to our benefit, thereby making our lives more comfortable and convenient. God also bequeathed us with the freedom to make choices, even if some of our choices have a negative impact on the environment. So how should we live our lives in harmony with the biblical principles of environmental stewardship? In a nutshell, we can identify three principles that can guide our decision-making processes. First, God values all aspects of his creation, and so should we. It sustains us in ways we often don’t understand and has intrinsic rather than utilitarian value. Second, God expects us to be responsible stewards of the creation, which belongs to Him, not us. We are not free to carelessly abuse it for our own selfish purposes. And third, God expects us to exercise restraint and exploit resources sustainably. We must share them with others, including other cohabitants of the planet, and with future generations.


Diamond, J. M. 1994. Ecological collapses of ancient civilizations: the golden age that never was. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 47(5):37-59.

Novak, P. 1993. Tao how? Asian religions and the problem of environmental degradation. ReVision 16:77-82.

Santmire, H. P. 1970. Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in Time of Crisis. Thomas Nelson, New York.

Tuan, Y. 1970. Our treatment of the environment in ideal and actuality. American Scientist 58: 244-249.

White, L., Jr. 1967. The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science 155:1203-1207.

Wright, R. T. 1970. Responsibility for the ecological crisis. Bioscience 20:851-853.

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