Biblical Ignorance and Climate Change

One of my emerging themes on this blog is my gradual, belated, realization of how many people believe so many things that simply aren’t true. Here’s an example in a religious vein: Bible believers who misunderstand their Bible, with potentially drastic consequences.

LA Times, Bart D. Ehrman, 3 May 2023: Opinion: How a misreading of the Bible fuels many Americans’ apathy about climate change

Bart Ehrman is, like Michael Shermer, a former believer who was smart enough and intellectually honest enough to realize that his religion could not be taken at face value. Shermer became a professional skeptic; Ehrman became a religious scholar. He’s published books like Jesus Before the Gospels, which I reviewed here, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, which is in my TBR stack, and just recently Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says about the End.

The essay here, in that it concerns climate change, might well be an excerpt from a book about the end of the world, but if so it’s not indicated.

The essay opens:

Christian theology and global politics can make strange bedfellows. Consider the intimate relationship between fundamentalist expectations of Jesus’ return and market-driven disregard for the environment.

The affair became public back in 1981, when Ronald Reagan’s newly minted Interior secretary, James Watt — once known for suing the department he went on to lead — was testifying before a House committee. Watt was asked whether he was committed to “save some of our resources … for our children?”

“That is the delicate balance the secretary of the Interior must have,” the secretary affirmed, “to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.” But then he continued: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns. Whatever it is, we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources for future generations.”

Was Watt suggesting that his faith in the Second Coming should temper the government’s conservation efforts? In response to the ensuing uproar, he maintained that his personal Pentecostal belief in a possibly imminent end of the world would have no bearing on official policy.

But his critics had doubts. Why would anyone who seriously imagined that only a few more generations would enjoy the planet skimp on consuming its resources?

I wasn’t paying much attention to politics in those days, but indeed, a statement like Watt’s should have immediately disqualified him from office. Especially that office. (More recently, of course, Trump hired cabinet members who in some cases were opposed to the existence of the departments they headed, and they should have been disqualified too. These are the kind of things Republicans do, it seems.)

“In fact, scripture says no such thing”:

American evangelicals are still disproportionately uninterested in climate change and other environmental issues. Their apathy is driven not only by their well-documented distrust of science but also by a specific eschatological belief that Jesus is coming soon to bring history to a rather climactic end. Most evangelicals believe this is simply what the Bible teaches, especially in the Book of Revelation.

And it’s not just evangelicals. Popular evangelical culture — including Hal Lindsey’s bestselling 1970 book “The Late Great Planet Earth” and, more recently, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ blockbuster “Left Behind” novels (with movie spinoffs) — has led many more Americans to believe the Bible predicts our imminent end. Although evangelicals emphatically believe these predictions, and non-evangelicals decidedly do not, it’s broadly assumed that this is indeed what the Bible predicts.

In fact, Scripture says no such thing, either in Revelation or in any other book. This is widely known among historical scholars of the Bible but scarcely at all outside our ranks.

Well, this is exactly what Ehrman addressed in his interview on Fresh Air, which I mentioned here, at the bottom of the post. So if this isn’t an excerpt from his latest book, it’s a summation of one of its themes.

It was not always that way. Throughout the long history of Christianity — from at least the 4th century to the early 19th — the vast majority of those who read and heard the stories in the Bible (including the forerunners of modern evangelicals) believed Revelation was describing events that had already happened or were happening in their own time in the life of the church. They were not thought to refer to a near or distant future.

Oddly enough, the French Revolution changed all that. The surrealities of the Reign of Terror convinced horrified Christians in Britain that the world was coming to a crashing halt in fulfillment of the catastrophes described in Revelation. This futuristic reading of Scripture swept through England and then, with a vengeance, America: The world was going to hell, and it was all according to plan.

Cut to the chase: why worry about the environment if the world is about to end anyway?
This is the problem with the religious. They are endlessly gullible.

In the religious realm, virtually every major crisis has been taken to show that the prophesied signs of the end times were being fulfilled: the horrors of World War I, the Nazi threat, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the Gulf wars, the invasion of Ukraine — not to mention all kinds of natural disasters. So, too, has the Antichrist repeatedly risen among us: the Kaiser, Benito Mussolini, Mikhail Gorbachev (with the “mark of the beast” on his forehead), Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin — pick your enemy of the human race. The end is therefore perpetually upon us, as it was in 1959; 1988; 2000; 2011; 2021 — pick your date.

The predictions in the Bible about Jesus’ return (not to mention the reputed end of the world) have had 2000 years to come true, and they haven’t.

“Fundamental misreading”; “It isn’t all about us?”:

Many such predictions were based on assured readings of Revelation and were demonstrably wrong — and not because the doomsayers misunderstood a detail here or there or forgot about one verse or another. They were wrong because of a fundamental misreading of Revelation.

Biblical scholars have long recognized that the book was written for a 1st century audience with 1st century concerns about the 1st century Roman Empire. But there is nothing particularly scintillating about that understanding for modern audiences. You mean our generation is not the climax of all human history? It isn’t all about us? How disappointing.

This is the nature of religious belief, which is dangerous when it affects policy decisions of an entire nation.

While many of us continue to worry about how we might indeed destroy ourselves and our planet, incredible numbers put their trust in the ultimate deus ex machina. A 2006 Pew Research Poll showed that 79% of Christians (not just evangelicals) believed that Jesus would indeed return to Earth. More intriguing, a 2010 poll indicated that over half of American Protestants believed he would return by 2050.

Ironically, by ignoring the dangers of climate change and other existential threats, the fundamentalists may bring about the end of the world through their own in-actions.

Ehrman concludes:

That this view is based on a misinterpretation of the Bible suggests that religious expertise has never been more crucial to humankind. Who would have thought that serious biblical scholarship could help preserve the ice caps and stem the rising seas? Could it thereby contribute to our collective salvation after all?

It can only help. Let’s spread the word before it’s too late.

Ehrman is a tad naive, though I admire him for writing his books; the frightened masses expecting the end of the world, or the imminent return of Jesus, will not be schooled by biblical scholarship. Any more than by the science they don’t believe in.

This entry was posted in Conservative Resistance, Quote at Length, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.