About a year ago I was invited to speak at a church conference on the topic of my 2013 book What On Earth Do We Know About Heaven? However, the two gentlemen who had extended the invitation did have one concern before proceeding. When they’d heard me talk previously about the church’s mission in the world, I had included a concern for the environment and animals alongside the traditional evangelical concern for evangelism. And this left them suspicious. “That sounds like the ‘Green’ movement!” one of them said accusingly, as if “Green” were a four letter word.
In my defense, I noted that God called human beings to be good stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:28). And I pointed out that just as the fall had affected all creation, so Paul promised the redeeming work of Christ would be good news for all creation (Romans 8:19-21). I concluded my brief homily for environmental stewardship with a triumphant flourish: If Christ was working to save the entire world, shouldn’t that be our mandate as well?
The two men stared back at me, clearly unconvinced. Then one replied: “Look, if I have to choose between worrying about the environment and telling people about Jesus, I’ll tell people about Jesus!”
And that was it. These two men had concluded that I was some kind of green, liberal Christian tree hugger who had more concern for spotted owls than lost souls. With that, the invitation to speak was quickly withdrawn.
In retrospect, it’s just as well. I could hardly speak at a conference with folks who held such a radically truncated (and borderline Gnostic) understanding of the Gospel.
What makes this interaction of particular interest, however, is the way it illustrates the zero-sum fallacy that is prominent among conservative Christians, particularly when it comes to the environment. This fallacy is based on the concept of a zero-sum game, namely a game in which the total amount of currency is fixed such that one player’s gain is another player’s loss. For example, if we are competing for pieces of peach pie then one more piece for me is one less for you: that’s a zero sum game.
The zero-sum fallacy occurs when people erroneously apply a zero-sum relationship in places where it doesn’t apply. For example, the only child may worry that if his parents have another child, it will mean less love for him. But a parent’s love isn’t like that, as if there is a fixed amount such that the older child will have to cede some of his parents’ love to the new arrival. And so, the child’s worry reveals that he has fallen victim to the zero-sum fallacy.
Those two men viewed the relationship between gospel proclamation and environmental concern as a zero-sum game: in short, the more concern we have for the world, the less we’ll have for the gospel. This kind of thinking is surprisingly common within the church. Consider the familiar lyrics from Helen Howarth Lemmel’s classic song “The Heavenly Vision”:
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.”
Do you see the zero-sum game there? The more you focus on Jesus, the less focused you will be on the world in which you live. Conversely, the more you turn to the affairs of the world, the less focused you will be on Jesus. So choose this day upon whom you will fix your gaze!
That was very much the assumption of those two men. By suggesting the Christian include a concern for the environment and animal welfare within her moral vision, I was supposedly taking away attention that rightly belonged to Christ. Here we have a zero-sum game par excellence.
In fact, this isn’t a zero-sum game. Rather, what we have here is a fallacy, pure and simple. Just as good parents have enough love for all of their children, so Christians should have enough love for all of creation. You don’t have to choose. Indeed, it is foolish to think you should.
And what about that man’s statement that he would sooner tell people about Jesus than worry about the environment? Not only is this an absurd false dichotomy (since when is this an either/or?!), but it also shows that this man doesn’t yet understand the Gospel itself. For Christ did not come to save us out of the world. Rather, he came to save the world: in the words of Paul, Christ came to reconcile “all things” to God the Father, “whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:20)
So call me a green, liberal Christian tree hugger if you must. I’ll wear the label as a badge of honor, for Christianity offers good news not merely for the lost soul, but also for the spotted owl … and indeed for all of creation.
About Randal Rauser
Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta. He is the author of many books, including Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism (2015), The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (2012), and You’re Not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (2011). Rauser blogs and podcasts as The Tentative Apologist at randalrauser.com.