The message today is taken from the Book of Psalms, chapter 104, an anthology of holy songs recognised by both Jews and Christians as being divinely inspired.
I have heard and read some Christian leaders, including North Americans and Australians, claim that global warming isn’t happening, because they believe that the Bible teaches that dangerous sea level rise is impossible, based on the contents of verses 5 to 9.
|“You set earth on a firm foundation|
so that nothing can shake it, ever.
You blanketed earth with ocean,
covered the mountains with deep waters;
Then you roared and the water ran away –
your thunder crash put it to flight.
Mountains pushed up, valleys spread out
in the places you assigned them.
You set boundaries between earth and sea;
never again will earth be flooded.” (The Message)
These verses contain a reference to the Noah’s Ark story – the Biblical account that encapsulates a very widespread oral tradition of worldwide inundation. Some scientists believe these narratives are an echo of very real events, and that the Epic of Gilgamesh also records severe drought (corresponding to the Bible story of Joseph in Egypt):-
The scientific data shows that sea level rise – and droughts, and seasonal floods – are indeed happening, and people of faith would be wise not to ignore these facts, and follow the trends in the data. Is the situation changing significantly ? Are extreme conditions outside the normal range ? And what does it mean if there are real damages likely from climatic change and global warming ? Is God unfaithful ?
I think it’s good to try to put the verses from Psalm 104 in context with the whole chapter.
This Psalm praises the creativity and diversity of God’s Earth, yet the scientific evidence is that mankind’s activities are destroying biodiversity, for example by intensive agriculture, deforestation and the pollution of rivers.
This scientific evidence can offer to Christians, and others who believe in a creator God, the reality that although the Earth is full of life, mankind are capable of spoiling what God has made.
And even in Psalm 104 itself, in the middle of this paean of praise to divine creativity, there is a warning that God can choose to withhold his provision :-
“All the creatures look expectantly to you
Why would he choose to do that when he is pleased with what he has made ?
In other parts of the Bible God makes clear that climate change is the payment for spiritual sin and for the actions of the enemies of his people – although it is God who permits the drought and the floods, they are a result of what people do.
So the Earth looks firmly established, and God’s blessing seems secure, but wrongdoing can have a real impact. As another example, Israel forgot to follow God with their hearts and forfeit the land he had given them – even though he promised it would be theirs forever.
Although God himself is immutable, his deal with mankind is dependent on our right lives and right intentions. And so I believe we need to always bear in mind that God holds mankind accountable for our actions, not just in some spiritual way, but in a real, earthly, physical way.
The oceans are slowly rising as they have been doing since the end of the last Ice Age. But how high could they go ? If conditions were to become very unfavourable because of rapid global warming, we could see significant change.
To give an idea of what has happened in Earth history, around 40 to 50 million years ago, sea levels were at times more than 100 metres than they are today, and during the period about 3 to 4 milion years ago, before large ice sheets established in the Northern Hemisphere, sea levels were up to 50 metres higher than today.
Many of the world’s great cities and centres of human population are just a few metres above current sea levels. If the rapid global warming taking place in the Arctic region causes instability in the ice sheets, particularly on Greenland, sea level rise could accelerate, putting civilisation at risk.
I can believe that God intends to fulfill his promise that the Earth will never again be completely flooded, but I do not believe that he will intervene physically. He has given us the freedom to show our individual and collective responsibility – he has put mankind in charge of managing the Earth, and we are on a collective training course. We need to learn to work together. To prevent serious sea level rise, it will take a concerted effort of mankind. It may seem difficult, but the rewards will be worthwhile.