Don’t Let Me Catch You Sleeping: A Biblical Response to Climate Change

Matthew Sleeth

Several years ago, I was traveling on a plane when we ran into a biblical-sized storm system. It seemed to cover the entire Southeast. Our plane went up, then down, was diverted, landed at a small airport, refueled, and then went back up again. Like pilgrims from Canterbury, the passengers on the plane were inspired to tell their stories.

The man next to me was a civil engineer, who had worked all over the world on water issues. At the time, he was working with several South American countries, which depend on glaciers for over ninety percent of their water supply. Because glaciers are melting, they will soon be out of water, and their hydroelectric energy will be erased as well. He informed me that, in the next thirty years, the US Glacier National Park will have to change its name because it will no longer have any glaciers.

I had a great time listening to my engineer seatmate. Eventually, he asked me what I did for a living. My guard must have been down because, without thinking, I told him the truth. I said that I was a Christian writer.

“But you seemed so smart!” he blurted. He leaned away from me. “Do you write those end-of-the-world, Left Out books?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I write about the Bible and taking care of the environment.”

We fell back into talking. When I spoke about the environment, my IQ was redeemed. I then asked what he predicted was going to happen in the next one hundred years vis-à-vis the environment.

My fellow passenger said that when the glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere melt, the ocean level will rise, displacing coastal and island nation populations. He brought up other environmental challenges that will affect water, like mountaintop removal. He talked about fish die-off when ocean spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon occur. He told me about air quality experts who warn about air pollution and particulate matter, which make the sun dimmer during the day. At night, when combined with light pollution, particulate matter keeps half the people on the planet from ever seeing the Milky Way. Noise pollution is making us—and wildlife—deaf.

My seatmate’s conclusion: There is no way humanity is going to make it. “But, after a few million years, things will get back to normal,” he reassured me.

Upon landing safely, I reflected on the biblical implications of our conversation. The Bible doesn’t say that ocean levels will rise—instead, it talks about the islands sinking, which I would submit is the same thing.

It doesn’t use the term “mountaintop removal”—but Jesus did say that the mountains would be laid low.

It may not specifically mention “Red Tide,” which now all too frequently afflicts the Florida coastline; rather, the Lord warns that the oceans would turn red.

It doesn’t talk about air pollution, but Jesus does say the sun would grow dim. Nor does the Bible specifically call out particulate matter; instead, it warns that the stars would fall from the sky.

He didn’t call it “noise pollution,” but Jesus did talk about a time when the nations would have cities roaring like the oceans. I challenge you to stand in the middle of a city listening to the 60db background level of noise with your eyes closed and not hear something that sounds like the ocean roaring.

How bizarre it must have seemed 2,000 years ago when Jesus said that the nations would be perplexed about the changing of the tides. Today, Jesus’s warning sounds like the headline from a world climate summit, explaining the dire need to preserve thermohaline circulation, which drives the Gulf Stream.

Likewise, Christ warned his listeners of earthquakes in strange or “diverse” places. Ours is the first generation with the technology to cause them. (This is why many areas of the globe have moratoriums on horizontal fracking.)

Much of Jesus’s prophetic language can only be fully understood through an environmental lens. Like all the prophets before him, Jesus did not forecast to discourage, but to call us to repent.

What are we, the church, to do when we see these signs? Are we to give up—run and hide or throw in the towel?

No—just the opposite. “Don’t let me catch you sleeping,” Christ warns us.

When I speak to audiences in churches, I sometimes ask them to close their eyes and picture heaven. “What do you see?” I ask. Do you see rivers and trees, or shopping malls and parking lots? Is the air clean? Are rivers clear, or are they filled with smog and trash? Do you hear leaves rustling in the breeze, or horns blaring in traffic jams?

Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” The implication is that the church should make Earth more like heaven. But what does heaven look like? Is it lush and green, or is it blacktopped and eroded?

For Christians, the question is not moot or academic. We are either in God’s will, or we are not. We are either making Earth look more heavenly, or we are making it more hellish.

At the beginning of this century, if you had asked me what heaven looked like, I would have said, “That’s an interesting question,” and then backed away from you. I didn’t believe in heaven. I didn’t believe in God.

All that changed when I found a Bible and read it for the first time. It was as if the Lord reached into my brain and connected it with my heart and soul. From that point onward, the Bible has been my source of truth. Over the next two years, my entire family came to know and love Jesus. We had no idea where God was leading us. In the coming years, I would quit my job as a physician, my Jewish wife would become a Christian, my daughter would become a pastor’s wife and international ministry administrator, and my son would become a missionary doctor in Africa.

And now I take the question about what heaven looks like seriously. Does heaven have trees? Are birds allowed near God? Over the past two decades, I’ve come across Christians who think that everything on earth eventually will be burned up, so nothing here really matters. They are right— partly. Paul tells us that our old corruptible bodies will be changed into new bodies (1 Cor 15:51–55). I believe this. In the same way, we are told that the earth will be renewed (2 Pet 3:13).

Does this mean that nothing in the here and now should matter to the church? Does this mean that you don’t have to brush your teeth before you go to bed, or that we can bulldoze every for-est without repercussions? Not if we want to keep our teeth or have clean water to drink.
God asks his bride to be faithful in little things. Later, we will be given bigger things. Modern scientists are forever pointing out how small and insignificant Earth is compared to the universe. They say that my life is small and accidental, too.

But Christianity affirms that these little things matter to God. We have the kind of God that groans when a single sparrow falls. Earth and everything on it are the Lord’s (Ps 24).

Our bodies are a temple of the Lord, a living, breathing church. Although nonbelievers are not bound by the same constraints, a Christian’s treatment of their body reflects the respect we have for its ultimate owner—God.

When I became a Christian, I had to grapple with the fact that my body, time, talent, and treasures were not mine to do with as I pleased. They belong to God. He asks me to steward these gifts in order to further the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

At the time I first met Christ, I wasn’t taking very good care of my body. Rather than take responsibility, I used the conveniently self-serving “let it all burn” theology. My amen to this theology was, “Hello, chip and dip!”

Then, while studying a quite different subject, the Lord led me to read a book written by John Wesley, Primitive Physick (1747). This book shared how Henry VIII expelled the Church of Rome from Britain and closed all the church hospitals. The Church of England came to believe that it had no responsibility to care for sick people. It was concerned with people’s souls—not their physical health. His book is a treatise on practical home health care.

Although I can’t recommend Wesley’s medical treatments (no, his cure for baldness doesn’t work), Wesley’s theology is spot on. Gluttony and slothfulness were the underpinnings of my “let it all burn and give me my new body” theology.

That was over ten years and forty pounds ago. It turns out, I can serve God more effectively when I maintain a healthy body weight and exercise regularly than I could as an out-of-shape and out-of-breath man. Like a twelve-year-old who leaves their new bike outside and expects their parents to buy them a new one when the old one rusts or is stolen, I’d been treating my body like a spoiled child —thinking of God as an overly indulgent parent.

Likewise, the underpinnings of a “Just give us a new Earth, and let’s blast this one to Hades” theology are equally self-serving, slothful, and gluttonous. When someone says we can do anything that strikes our fancy and God will mitigate the effects, I want to ask for an explanation of the rest of their theology. New Age theology, not Christianity, believes there is no ultimate right or wrong, that humanity is the master and measure of all things, and that we are the center of the universe. Christianity teaches that people reap what they sow. That is not to say that we should in any way worship the creation—God forbid! Creation, however, is a living and indisputable argument for the existence of God (Rom 1:20). As such, it cannot be dismissed as trivial.

God gave humankind the awesome responsibility of caring for the planet and the power of dominion to do the job. How will we account for the missing elms on Elm Street, the chestnuts on Chestnut Lane, the caribou in Caribou, Maine, or the buffalo in Buffalo, New York? What did we do with the blue pike—once the most abundant fish in the Great Lakes—and the passenger pigeon—the most numerous bird species in North America?

God put our family’s parents, Adam and Eve, in the garden. We were naked and unashamed. Our instructions were “to dress it and keep it” (Gen 2:15 AV). All of creation was ours; we only had to refrain from eating from one tree.

You know the story. We have been naked, ashamed, and ripping leaves off trees ever since. We have been at enmity with God and nature.

Christ died on a tree so that we might have access to the Tree of Life— not the mall, not the stadium, not entertainment. Our hope isn’t in our ability to flatten every forest on Earth. Our hope is in an empty tomb and the man Mary mistook for a gardener. That was not a mistake. Christ is the new Adam. He does not strip the forest for vanity—or to hide from God—like the old Adam (Rom 8:22–25).

When I close my eyes and picture heaven, I see birds near God’s holy throne (Ps 84:3), taste water as clear as crystal, and hear all creation praising the Lord (Rev 4:6–7). The trees shout for joy. God has come to judge Earth; his forests always knew how the verdict would go (1 Chron 16:33).

In heaven, God’s throne faces a tree that stretches from one edge of the River of Life to the other. The water that feeds The Tree of Life is unpolluted (Rev 22:1–5). A lamb is there; its blood was once spread on wooden doorposts to seal out death (Exod 12:7). Now, its blood is spread on a wooden cross that opens the door to our true home (1 Cor 5:7). I see a desert blooming! I see acacia, myrtle, and olive trees. I see cypress and pines (Isa 41:18–20). I see a City of God— perfect harmony. I hear quiet (Rev 8:1).

When you close your eyes and think of heaven, what do you see? On earth as it is in heaven?

One of the biggest obstacles to addressing climate change and other environmental crises has been our failure to think that people on the other side have any intelligence. Wasn’t my seatmate on the plane talking about the same phenomena as the Christians he thought were so ignorant? His language was scientific while mine was biblical, but the effect on life on Earth is the same.

The children who will be born a hundred years from now do not care about the nuances of language. They need us to stare into the future and care.

The church has much to offer the environmental movement that government and science cannot. We—not they—own the language of sacrifice, forgiveness, simplicity, and restraint.

For those who would give up on all of humanity—either from scientific or religious despair—I wonder: Have you ever held a child while it was sleeping … watched the sunrise on a Sabbath morning … looked into a fire on a snowy night … thrown a stick and had a dog chase it … or been transported to heaven while listening to music … or watching Shakespeare performed?

God is always setting before his church a choice—and he asks us to choose life. That may involve biking to work, putting solar panels on the roof, or turning down the heat. It may mean working with people who espouse very different political or theological beliefs. But in a few years, the one question your grandchildren will ask is, “What did you do about climate change? What choices did you make?”

The jury is still out. In the name of God, I pray that we are not caught sleeping.

Posted May 10, 2023