What’s Really behind Evangelicals’ Climate Denial?
BY ALL ESTIMATES, the earth has gone through five mass extinctions, all of which were the direct result of some form of cataclysmic climate change. These cataclysmic changes were mostly caused by large amounts of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere; the only real difference were the mechanisms that brought these changes about.
Many scientists also believe that the present epoch (the Holocene) will see a sixth extinction and that the cause, like with the others, will be climate change. However, this time the mechanism of change is us. (Which, incidentally, is why many atmospheric scientists and geologists now call the current epoch “the Anthropocene.”) The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and even President Donald Trump’s own administration have confirmed that we are facing human-caused extinction if we don’t reduce our carbon emissions by 50 percent in the next twelve years and bring them to near-zero by 2050.
Many are viewing climate change as the great existential crisis of our time, perhaps of all time. So why does it seem like the current administration, along with most of the Republican Party, is reacting to the scientific community not just with skepticism or denial but with outright hostility? At the very time we should be moving forward and working towards reducing carbon emissions, the ruling party of our government, through policy, deregulation, and disreputable cabinet appointments—seems hell-bent on taking us backwards. Why are we stuck here? Economic and ideological factors are certainly at play, but part of the answer also lies in the Bible passage quoted above.
During my twenty years as a Christian, including my time spent as a missionary, a youth pastor, and an assistant pastor within the network of evangelical churches known as Calvary Chapel, climate change wasn’t something I worried about. On the contrary, I welcomed it as a fulfillment of ancient biblical prophecy.
The very first thing God reportedly said to Adam and Eve regarding the world he had just created was: fill it. Subdue it. Subjugate it. Bend it to your will. Use it for your needs. Take dominion over it. Some theologians and Christian apologists have interpreted the word “dominion” as meaning “care.” They say it means that we are to be stewards of the earth. We should maintain it and preserve it. We may even have to answer for how we take care of it.
In Pollution and the Death of Man, Frances Schaeffer wrote that Christians “have reason to respect nature as the total evolutionist never can, because we believe that God made these things.” I once believed as Schaeffer did. I thought that all of God’s creation should be respected and revered. I wasn’t an activist or extremist of any sort; I just recycled, tried not to litter, and thought that electric and hybrid cars were generally a good idea—even though I didn’t own one. And though I would feign concern at times, neither I nor any Christian I knew really worried about things like pollution, global warming, ocean acidification, or any of the other seemingly apocalyptic scenarios put forth by the scientific community. I thought I had insider information about the end of the world, and it had nothing to do with climate change.
After all, the Bible teaches that everything on the earth will be destroyed one day. Climate change, famine, natural disasters, war—all of these are, as written in the book of Matthew, things Jesus said would happen. He said it would get so bad that if the period of “tribulation” wasn’t cut short, all life on earth would be destroyed.
Neither I nor any Christian I knew really worried about things like pollution, global warming, climate change, or any of the other seemingly apocalyptic scenarios put forth by the scientific community. I thought I had insider information about the end of the world, and it had nothing to do with climate change.
When it comes to Christian eschatology, there are numerous end-times scenarios embraced by evangelicals. The details may change but the main plot rarely does. In general, there are three main theories: Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism. The first posits that the end of time will bring a “tribulation” of suffering, that Jesus will return, and that Christians will be raptured, which is when Jesus takes the faithful (whoever that is) back up to heaven with him. Within this theory are two types: “pre-tribbers” and “post-tribbers.” Pre-tribbers believe that true Christians will be raptured first and that seven years of hellish suffering brought by the Antichrist will follow, after which Jesus will return again to rule over the earth for the remainder of the Great Tribulation and give people one more chance to reject him before destroying the world. “Post-tribbers” contend that Christians won’t be raptured until the tribulation ends and must evangelize during this time.
Postmillennialism holds that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will happen after a thousand years of relative peace on earth made possible by the practice of Christian ethics, at which time final judgment and the Rapture will occur and the world will end.
The last group, the Amillennialists, hold that Jesus is reigning in the hearts of believers right now and he will return as soon as the last person who can get saved does get saved. As confusing and convoluted as these ideas may sound, most evangelicals believe a period of tribulation, characterized by war, famine, and natural disasters, is necessary because God, being totally righteous, must dispense his wrath and judgment on the physical earth as well as the immortal soul.
Calvary Chapel, through which I learned a lot of this eschatology, is moderate as far as evangelical churches go. Founded in the 1970s by Pastor Chuck Smith in Costa Mesa, California, Calvary follows the pre-trib model of the end times and teaches that Jesus could return at any moment. Its congregants also believe the Rapture to be to the first sign of the apocalypse and that immediately after the Antichrist will come onto the scene and usher in a new world order—a one-world government similar to what many conspiracists call the Illuminati. The Antichrist will then rule the world for seven years.
According to many evangelicals, the Great Tribulation will occur about halfway through this seven-year period and will bring plagues, demons, natural disasters, and horse-bodied locust-like creatures with human faces that sting like scorpions. There will be martyrs, and mass murders, and even mass beheadings. There will also be another world war, and by the time it’s over a third of all life on land and in the waters will have been destroyed. One of these plagues, listed in Revelation, Chapter 16, is a plague of heat. Verses 8 and 9 read:
The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory.
I was taught that after these plagues, Jesus will return again. This time he will crash through the heavens on a white horse, drenched in the blood of his enemies and followed by the armies of his raptured and martyred saints. I not only believed this would happen, I was excited about it. I, like many evangelical Christians, longed for the day that Jesus would return. During prayer or worship, I would become ecstatic at the thought of it. While I felt sadness for those he would damn, and shed tears of joy knowing that I would be spared his wrath. I prayed daily for the world to end, asking God to return, destroy the wicked, and send them to hell where they would suffer for eternity. Millions of Christians do the same, sometimes multiple times a day. Every time a Christian asks Jesus to come quickly and redeem the earth, they are also asking him to damn a great portion of its inhabitants, whether they realize it or not.
It should be noted that there is a growing disbelief in the Rapture among some of the more militant strains of evangelicalism. These faithful favor of a belief that the true Christian will have to stay and fight the heathen in the name of the Lord. Some, called dominionists, take a more political approach in believing that Jesus will be unable to return until the church controls what they call the seven pillars of society: government/military, media, arts/entertainment, business, education, religion, and family. Vice President Mike Pence is a self-described dominionist, which explains why no evangelical Christian batted an eye when he uttered his now infamous proclamation: “I am a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”
In reality, every conservative Christian is a dominionist to some extent. You’d be hard pressed to find one who believes that there should be a separation between church and state or who doesn’t see having to provide birth control and hire homosexuals as some form of religious persecution. Their strongly held beliefs in the coming apocalypse and Christ’s imminent return not only explains why so many don’t support action on climate change, but why evangelicals run for office, why they go to work for fellow evangelicals, and why so many more vote for evangelicals. Its why, in January, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (an evangelical) criticized a call for action on climate change by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) by telling Fox’s Sean Hannity: “I don’t think we’re going to listen to her on much of anything, particularly not on matters that we’re going to leave in the hands of a much, much higher authority.” The fate of the earth, she stressed, was in “the hands of something and someone much more powerful than any of us.”
It’s why, after Trump announced the US would pull out of the Paris Climate accord, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) told a constituent that while he believed climate change had been occurring “since the beginning of time… as a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”
The more sinister version of this thinking says that even if the science is real, it doesn’t matter; God is going to use climate change to enact his wrath on the world. And you can’t fight God.
Historian Lisa Vox, author of Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era, made this connection in a 2017 Washington Post piece. Noting that conservative evangelicals had been somewhat on board with environmentalism in the 1970s, in the ’80s, when climate scientists starting talking about the dangers of global warming, many of those evangelicals latched onto the idea that it was the work of the Antichrist, who was sowing fear in order to gain power. Vox explained:
Just as conservative evangelicals opposed arms treaties during the Cold War, they see environmental pacts, like the Paris agreement, as paving the way for a charismatic world leader to form a global government and begin the seven-year Tribulation that precedes the Second Coming of Christ.
But wait, you may be thinking, isn’t the number of evangelicals in the United States plummeting? While it’s true we’re seeing a decline, according to the 2016 Religious Values Atlas put out by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), white evangelical Protestants remain the dominant religious force in the GOP: “More than one-third (35 percent) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestant, a proportion that has remained roughly stable over the past decade. Roughly three-quarters (73 percent) of Republicans belong to a white Christian religious group.” And, evangelicals vote.
Earlier this year, in a commentary titled, “Politics Is Religion, and the Right Is Getting Ready for the End Times,” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson explained the appeal of President Trump to eschatologically minded Christians. “If it is really just minutes to midnight for America, then maybe the situation requires an abrasive outsider willing to fight fire with napalm,” Gerson opined. “Desperation increases the appetite for political risk.” It’s likewise time for humanists and all rational thinkers to connect this thinking to how we approach electing leaders who will pursue sound policies on climate change.
White evangelical Protestants remain the dominant religious force in the GOP. And, evangelicals vote.
Tertullian, one of the so-called, “Early Church Fathers,” taught that when sacred teachings and discoveries in science are at odds with each other, the Christian should defer to the Bible. He wrote, “when we come to believe (in Christianity), we have no desire to believe anything else; for we begin by believing that there is nothing else which we have to believe.” Martin Luther and Saint Augustine both taught that Christians should avoid knowledge, reason, and learning. They held that such things were detrimental to belief in Christianity.
They were right. In the end, education was the undoing of my Christianity. It is therefore no surprise that many conservative evangelical Christians deem education one of the most important pillars to conquer, and why Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is smarter than she seems in terms of getting what she wants.
Education must become our most important pillar as well—educating not only about the scientific evidence for climate change and what it will take to mitigate it, but about the wild and dangerous thinking that motivates evangelical Christians running for positions of power in our government. As Thomas Paine said, “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.”