The ends of the ages: church in the Anthropocene

Speaking at Davos last year, David Attenborough said, “The Holocene has ended. The Garden of Eden is no more.” He makes the point again in the compelling new Netflix documentary A Life on Our Planet.

The juxtaposition of terms from two very different fields of discourse is intriguing. Can we do anything with it?

The Holocene is the 12,000 year geological epoch of climatic stability, since the last ice age, that has allowed humans to develop great expansive civilisations, culminating in the more-or-less global cultures of modernity. Along with the Pleistocene it makes up the Quaternary period, but it can also be subdivided into Greenlandian, Northgrippian, and Meghalayan stages, each lasting roughly 4,000 years.

Ironically, humanity has been so successful at civilisation building that the climatic stability on which we have relied for millennia is now at grave risk. We are entering a new unstable geological epoch, characterised by humanity’s total domination of the natural environment. It is called the Anthropocene. The documentary is Attenborough’s “witness statement.” Indeed, he thinks that the epochal transition has taken place in his own lifetime.

So in geological or climatic terms, the long period of our innocent and innocuous presence in the world is coming to what may well be a rather catastrophic end. To speak of this transition as the loss of our Garden of Eden is clearly only metaphorical, but it makes me wonder whether we might map this narrative on to scripture to good effect.

In the beginning

There are two independently developed creation stories in Genesis 1-3.

The first is general and cosmic. It is a story of goodness, blessing, fruitfulness, expansion, and dominion—the delegation of God’s management of the world to responsible humanity made in his image. There is no explicit demand for obedience. There are no constraints or hindrances. Everything is declared good (Gen. 1:26-31).

The second story is focused on events in the garden that was planted in Eden for the man whom God had formed from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:4-3:24). The space given to Adam and the woman made from his side is confined, perhaps walled off, and the requirement of a specific obedience is crucial for the development of the story. This intense tragic episode ends with the expulsion of the man and the woman from the garden into a hazardous and painful wider world. It is a foreshadowing of Israel’s disobedience and exile.

The “solution”

A massive flood happens somewhere or everywhere in the ancient world and is interpreted as God’s judgment on a corrupted humanity mired in wickedness and violence. In the story a single righteous family is spared and becomes the wellspring of a new creation: Noah and his sons are blessed by the creator God and told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1, 7). The original mandate is renewed.

The fulfilment of the instruction is interrupted when people settle in the land of Shinar and set about building a city and a tower that would defy heaven. YHWH sees the overweening ambition of humanity: “this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). Prescient words! So the expulsion from Eden is reproduced on a larger scale. Humanity is divided by language and dispersed over the face of the earth (Gen. 11:9).

The name of the city is Babel; it is a prototype or archetype for Babylon.

God’s solution to the problem of humanity’s hubris is to bring Abraham from his home in Ur of the Chaldeans, out of the shadow of empire, and to make of him a new creation in microcosm (Gen. 11:31-12:3). His descendants will be blessed, they will be fruitful and multiply, and they will fill the small land that YHWH will eventually give to them.

That Abraham believed the promise about the future of his family, even when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, would be a critical detail in Paul’s account of “justification by faith” (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6). We face the same existential dilemma today. Do we believe that the biblical people of God has a future in the Anthropocene? Will the church in the ages to come be justified in its adherence to a belief system that has lost out to secularism?

Anyway, in the calling of Abraham we have the central biblical paradigm—not the salvation of a fallen creation but the establishment and preservation of a faithful and obedient new creation in microcosm, in intense relationship with the living God, throughout history, against the odds. Salvation is essentially the salvation of this people, not least from the consequences of their own folly, and it happens more than once. Kingdom is the active governance of this people, culminating—from the perspective of the New Testament—in the rule of Israel’s anointed king over the nations of the ancient world.

Exile and restoration

The Babylonian invasion and the exile were a defining “kingdom” moment in the history of God’s new creation people. When the vineyard of Israel failed to produce good fruit, the owner removed the hedge around it, broke down the guarding wall, and allowed it to be trampled down and turned into waste ground. The Lord “has laid waste his booth like a garden,” Jeremiah laments, “laid in ruins his meeting place” (Lam. 2:6).

This marked the end of an age. The garden is no more. So a new creation is needed. Isaiah urges the righteous among the exiles to “look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” and be reminded that God fulfilled the promise to bless him and multiply his descendants (Is. 51:1-2). YHWH now offers comfort to derelict Jerusalem: “he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD” (Is. 51:3).

The forgiveness of the people and the restoration of Jerusalem will be like the creation of a new heavens and a new earth—in this specific sense: the sins that brought disaster on the nation will not be remembered, and the city will know unprecedented peace and prosperity (Is. 65:17-25; cf. 66:22-23).

Ruin, sabbath, and rewilding

In a time of intense divine activity, when God is tearing down and building up, the Eden stories move in several different directions.

The waste ground of Jerusalem is turned into a new garden of the Lord. But the oppressor Babylon will fall, its carved images will be shattered; the great city will be ruined by the Medes and will become a wild and uncivilised place, the haunt of wild animals and “howling creatures” (Is. 13:17-22; 21:9; cf. 34:13-15).

The prince of Tyre was once “in Eden, the garden of the Lord,” a just and blameless ruler. But he has become proud, he boasts of his own divinity, and so will be brought down by the living God: “Will you still say, ‘I am a god,’ in the presence of those who kill you, though you are but a man, and no god, in the hands of those who slay you?” (Ezek. 28:9).

An invading army of locusts descends upon the land of Israel, which is “like the garden of Eden,” and leaves behind a “desolate wilderness” (Joel 2:3).

So destruction, dispersal, and rewilding signify judgment, either against disobedient Israel or against such concrete expressions of humanity’s defiance of the living God as the great city of Babylon. More positively, exile was seen as giving respite to the overworked land (Lev. 26:34-35).

In the Attenborough documentary the city of Chernobyl is a symbol both for the potential for destruction and for nature’s capacity to reclaim the wreckage of our ambitions. The deserted apartment blocks appear to the hovering eye of the camera as pinnacles of limestone rising from dense forest. Foxes, wild horses, elk, and wolves roam the streets. The large-scale rewilding of the planet is Attenborough’s solution to ecological degradation and species-loss.

Kingdom and new creation in the New Testament

At the heart of the New Testament, of course, is a story about kingdom. ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:14–15). It is a story about the redemption and liberation of the descendants of Abraham from tyranny and oppression, the overthrow of unjust governing structures, the fall of the idolatrous city of Rome as “Babylon the great,” the eventual rule of Christ over the nations, and the reconciliation of kingdom in heaven with kingdom on earth.

To a limited degree this transformation of the Greek-Roman world is conceived as a new creation, as in the prophets, though mainly at the individual level. Those in Christ are neither Jew nor non-Jew; they are “new creation” (Gal. 6:15; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17); they have been “created” in Christ Jesus as “one new person” for good works (Eph. 2:10, 15; cf. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

But Paul also imagines the whole of the created order aching to see the revelation, transformation, and vindication of the downtrodden and persecuted “sons of God”—as a foretaste of its own eventual liberation from the bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-22).

Perhaps most importantly the innovative intervention of God in Christ is understood to be an expression in history of the creative wisdom of God, which has “become flesh” in the person and career of Jesus.

The end of the Holocene

This quick overview has given us a lively catalogue of diverse and flexible storylines, framed by a long overarching narrative about the presence of God’s new creation in microcosm in the midst of hostile nations and cultures—a narrative that needs continually to be retold and updated as new horizons open up before us.

Scripture re-uses the language of Eden and expulsion to speak of later historical tragedies and the epochal transitions that they triggered. Vineyards and gardens are ruined because of the recklessness and hubris of their tenants. The rewilding of former urban centres is both judgment on vainglorious human enterprise and a restoration of ecological balance. But Eden is also a symbol for the renewal of life and community, for the recovery of shalom following disorder and devastation.

To set the biblical story and the current mission of the church against the backdrop of a geological event, imagined as an end of Eden, greatly expands our prophetic perspective. It moves us on from a story about nations and empires to a story about global humanity. It gives us a realistic way of integrating creation-level themes into our theology and storytelling, but without losing touch with history—without reducing the complexities of God’s engagement with his world, throughout the ages, to the abstract sequence of creation-fall-redemption-end.

So what do we need to say? I think we must say that God as creator will be present in the Anthropocene, as he was in the Eden of the Holocene, no matter how different things may be, no matter what birth pains humanity must endure.

I think that this has to be presented as a message not of personal comfort but of hope on a geological time-scale. The church must speak hopefully and credibly about climate change and life after climate change.

I think we must also say that the living God will keep the promises made to the patriarchs—that he will preserve a priestly, new creation people for himself in the midst of the turmoil, to be a source of blessing for the world. But if this is an epochal, end-of-the-age moment, we should expect God to tear things down before he builds things up. We should expect expulsion and exile, destruction and rewilding, before a new heaven and new earth.

All this is good news.

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