Monday, January 22, 2007

Cheap Gas and Eschatology

The Ecotality blog has a piece on "The High Price of Cheap Gas," basically saying that for both environmental and geopolitical reasons, it's a good idea to keep on the path of reducing gasoline usage and finding alternative fuels. Unfortunately, the lowering of gas prices (in inflation-adjusted dollars) over the course of the 1990s had the opposite tendency of fueling the public's appetite for V-8 SUVs and reducing investment in alternative-fueled vehicles.

I haven't dealt with the topic of environmentalism in this forum, partly because I'm not in the slightest qualified to opine on the various charges and counter-charges made on that subject. But both this piece and Ben Witherington's (continued here) have caught my interest and gotten me thinking of these subjects in a way I haven't seen elsewhere. In order to get at it, I have to turn to a seemingly unrelated subject: eschatology.

There seem to be two dominant strains of eschatology floating around these days: a "Left Behind" dispensationalist version, which focuses us on being ready for the Rapture and regards the judgments that happen afterward as generally miraculous in origin; and a preterist version popular in the emerging church, which basically says that the NT writers dealing with the subject (primarily John) were talking about stuff happening within the first century. The "Left Behind" version is often criticized for encouraging a "use it up while we can" mentality: if we expect Christ's return at some point in the near future, then environmental concerns are misplaced, since trends that may have a catastrophic outcome at some point in the not-too-soon future are not expected to reach termination. Most people favoring this approach don't put it in such stark terms, however. Rather, they tend to be skeptical with regard to concerns regarding the environment. This is partly because those politically allied with radical environmentalists tend to be hostile to the concerns of traditional Christians on such issues as abortion. But it would also appear that a variant of Pascal's wager is going on here. If one assumes that we're all going to be outta here soon, then the cost of being wrong on environmental topics is insignificant.

In general, those who favor a more preterist eschatology also happen to be more progressive on the environmental front, but there is no eschatalogical reason for them to do so. If eschatology is really just about the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and opposition to the power and paganism of the Roman Empire, then there is little left to inform the Christian about environmental concerns. The issue of stewardship over the Earth God placed in our care is often appealed to, but once mentioned, there is little left to say, other than to associate generally "green-friendly" ideas with the Genesis command to rule over the earth. And if there is truth to the claims of environmentalists, then a bit of recycling here and there and a change in one's vehicle of preference aren't going to change the course on which we're headed. The way of life among people in the developed world would have to change drastically, and human nature being what it is, that kind of change won't be accepted unless it's imposed against our will. I don't think even members of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace are prepared to deal with it.

Although I'm not dispensational in my eschatology, I'm also not a preterist. I do believe that most of the eschatological portions of scripture do refer to the time period more-or-less immediately prior to Jesus' second coming. And if we look at the scriptures dealing with developments during the end times, some of them correspond rather frighteningly with things that are happening now--for instance, the mass destruction of vegetation and fish (Rev. 8:7-9). Am I saying that these prophecies are in fact being fulfilled now? No, I'm not making any such grandiose claim--the truth of the matter is, I don't know. What I do know is that prophecies in the past that would have appeared to require miraculous divine intervention (e.g., Ezek. 26) came to pass through human means.

What if the judgments that God rains down on the earth in the book of Revelation are not miraculously caused at all, but are the natural consequences of human actions--our failure to take care of this Earth as God commanded us to do? What if the "wars and rumors of wars" that Jesus predicted (Matt. 24:6) are at least partly a result of the developed nations taking advantage of less-developed ones in a relentless, consumer-driven thirst for more and cheaper goods and sources of energy? In that case, it appears that we won't reverse the trend, at least not in the long term. What God has prophesied will inevitably come to pass. But each of us bears a responsibility regarding whether we are a part of the problem or stand against the tide. I don't think most Western Christians are prepared to think seriously about whether our very way of life is sinful and destructive, even if we as individuals are not committing overt sins. If we have a "Let them eat cake" attitude toward the underdeveloped world, will we not be held to account?

I'm not pontificating. I'm just asking questions. All my life I've been politically, as well as theologically, conservative. My theology hasn't changed. But I'm beginning to wonder about the rest.


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  1. I tend to agree that God's judgment on the earth will be brought about, either partially or primarily, by man's sin. It just seems to be in line with the way God deals with man.

    I've also found it strange when believers long for the End Times, and even desire to hasten their arrival. Our attitude should be like Paul's. It would be better for us to be with the Lord but it is better for mankind that judgment is postponed, so that mercy may increase.

  2. Keith: great questions in this post. Some of which I've asked myself. I guess I am forever driven back to the fact that God will indeed hold me accountable, but only for that which I, individually, can do to effect change. Thus I feel being informed on issues and voting is not my duty to Dobson, Democrats, Republicans, or Libertarians, but to God Himself. I don't think God holds me responsible for eating the whole elephant, but He expects me to eat my portion, ya know?

    Some people feel called to pray while others door to door witnessing. Some not only argue and lobby for environmental change but like, Ed Begley, live out his life in accordance to his "green" philosophy.

    Should we be held accountable, for a person going hungry in Darfur and being starved out by government because I'm spending resources on internet access? I don't know. But it has definitely crossed my mind.

    It's a frightening thing to fall into the hands of God. I dare say when all is said and done, our theology is not going to mean one whit as much as how we've treated others in spite of our differences in theology. The same may be said of SUV's vs. Amish wagons. Possibly? SelahV

  3. Hi, SelahV,

    Yes. I don't think we are held individually accountable for that which we have no control over. I guess I just think we need to be aware, not just sipping our lattes and quibbling over theology while the world crashes and burns. I think we need to think about the choices we make. I don't think we're all supposed to pull a Thoreau and go live in a cabin by Walden Pond (although many days it sounds nice), but I think we need to be aware of where our culture is going and make decisions based on more than what is comfortable for us personally.

    God bless, SelahV. By the way, I've always loved the screen name.

  4. Keith: I agree. Can you believe it? I think we each need to be introspective and examinining our individual lives, too. Some of us are guilty of doing too much introspection. I read a book one day called "Beyond Yourself". Can't remember who wrote it. But remember how I saw myself as a very selfish individual. Still do. No matter how much I give, give up, surrender, or sacrifice, I still see myself as selfish.

    I read your comments on all those thought questions on Scot McKnight's site. I think sometimes we can think too much about things. I liked what Scot had to say about reading the Bible to let God speak rather than to disect and analyze. One of the other topics he had. I am that kind of reader of the Word.

    I question too much of life already to question everything God said. I leave the deep questions and thought to people like you and Peter and then I study that train of thinking till my caboose is dropped at a station somewhere. Lol. I'm glad you like my name. I'm thinking about changing my given name to it. Ha! Can't think of anyone who would care. selahV

  5. I don't know if the stuff Peter and I like to discuss are necessarily "deeper." More analytical, more technical, perhaps. And I think it's worthwhile discussing such things. But the things you've written on your site are "deeper" than anything here, in the sense of being more tied to our inner lives and our actual relationship with God.

    BTW, now I'm the one having trouble with comments, this time on your site! I was able to send the comment, but when the verification screen came up, where I'm supposed to copy the letters and numbers from a picture, the picture didn't load. Looked like it was trying to load, but then disappeared. Anyway, I just wanted to say how sorry I am for the loss of your son. I know someone who lost a son in his 20s to cancer; it's ripping her apart. It's good to see you being strengthened by your faith, and I appreciate your honesty in being willing to write even about the bad days.

  6. Keith: thank you for your generous words and care for me in my loss. It's not easy to love one so much and lose them. Ashamedly, I realized after Chad died and I longed to be in heaven with him, that my yearning for heaven increased with the thoughts of him being there. I came to realize how small my love for my Saviour was in reality before my son's death. I thought I loved Him. In fact, I know I did. But the thoughts of being eternally with my son seemed far more important than being in eternally with Jesus (before my son's death). Today I have a greater appreciation for my Saviour. Sometimes the very realization of this makes me wonder if this was part of the purpose of Chad's passing. I have to dwell on much more positive things due to that thought that comes racing into my mind at times.

    I just hate those robots that are so necessary to keep out the pings and pongs. It makes it difficult for those who want to say something. I find when others write comments it stirs my thought juices and real dialog begins...communication courses through the pages and relationships are born. It's really amazing. I think that is why churches with strong Bible-study groups flourish and churches with mega worship without small groups fail to connect with people.

    Thanks so much for your words of encouragement with my writing. I've written a book that I shared with some psychologists who want to use it in their work with people. It's designed and illustrated for children but it costs a ton of money to get it published. It would work great in various teaching settings. Christian and science. You'd have to read it to see what I mean. Anyway it's one of my goals to get it published. His time. Don't give up. Try try again to comment. Sometimes your comment box makes me type in the letters twice. Different letters show each time. I appreciate your wisdom and apologetic gifts. SelahV

  7. Great post, but it opens one very large can of worms. Where to start?

    Fiorstly, I am not sure that the only widely held positions are dispensationalist and preterist. It may be the case in the US, where dispensationalism is very much stronger - but here in Wales, historicism is very strong amongst evangelicals, and there are many people - particularly in Pentecostal churches here - who would probably hold a futurist view complete with a pre-tribulation rapture error...I mean view, without really knowing anything about dispensationalism.

    Richard Dawkins has expressed concern (what else from him!) at Christians particularly in America who in his words "want nuclear war to hasten the return of Christ". I think (and hope) that Dawkins is wrong again - but there may be a grain of truth in this attitude you draw attention to - that it does not matter if we wreck the world, because we leave it soon.

    But put all that aside for a minute - there is one very good reason why Christians should not be consuming all the worlds resources as fast as we can: Christian asceticism. Christians are not called to follow the hedonistic pursuit of pleasuer and the acquistion of things. We are told to seek first the kingdom of God. If we follow the son of man - who had nowhere to lay his head, then can we really do it in SUVs and whatever?

    If we took seriously Christ's teaching in the sermon on the mount, then we would live more ascetic and more environmentally sound lifestyles.

    If we took seriously our call to stewardship of creation, we would not expend limited resources as though they will last forever.

    If we really *considered* the lilies of the field, we would not dress ourselves in the splendour of solomon - we would take delight in God's creation, rather than consume that creation to feed our delight.

    I had better stop there. Thanks for the post.


  8. Stephen: Wales? Oh how facinating! Always lived there?

    Oh that we could all follow the Lord's example and words of wisdom in such a fashion. If I weren't who I am, I'd be Amish-like. As it is, I'm a selfish waster (is that a word) of resources. But I am consciously making efforts to recycle, grow veggies in my compost of peelings and clippings.

    Progress. It's taken us backwards in our quest to simplify life with cotton gins, world-wide travel, flying to the moon, and inventing better wheels. C'est la vie. SelahV

  9. Selahv: Not always. I have also lived in London, but mostly Aberystwyth, Wales.

  10. Keith...thanks for supporting our blog.

  11. Hi Keith,

    Just a thought on environmentalism, inspired by your "Cheap Gas and Eschatology" post. Jesus assumes that we will help the poor, and James takes us to task of we fail to do so, yet the goal of the environmentalists seems to be to make us all poor. Kyoto would further damage our own battered economy while allowing China (and soon India) to continue generate industrial pollution levels similar to that belched out by US smokestacks in the 1950's and '60's. How would that help either the poor, or the earth? Jerry Pournelle has shown, both on his website, and in his late 1970's book "A Step Farther Out" (neither of which I'll do justice to here, I'm afraid)that true prosperity, by which he means prosperity for ALL people in ALL nations is to make energy so cheap and so readily available that things like famines and grinding poverty (whether natural or politically induced) become a thing of the past. That can't happen if we confine ourselves to just this planet. There are HUGE amounts of solar energy available just outside our atmosphere, and we can beam it down at about 85% efficiency. (as opposed to the 10% efficiency of ground based solar power--on sunny days) Also, once we're out of Earth's gravity well, we're pretty much halfway to ANYWHERE. That's important when one realizes that all of the metal ore that's been mined from the earth throughout history is available tens of thousands of times over just out in the asteroid belt. If we're going to use all that cheap energy to make lots of stuff that more and more people can afford, we're going to need some raw materials...

    Related: the environmentalists who think the earth is overpopulated (I disagree)seem more interested in Malthusian ideas and guaranteed poverty schemes like Zero Population Growth than about finding another place for humans to live. Of course if all us benighted Christians go somewhere else, how will the Enlightened fulfill their manifest destiny of informing, nay compelling us to live according to their whims?

    Poverty, labor relations and wages are also related to the above. Say you're some corporate conglomerate, or government, or social cause group, or whatever, and you've found a planet that you want to start a New Society on, or a system with lots of natural resources you want to exploit. The ship that will take you and your people there will have to be BIG, and not only will it have to be built, it will have to be maintained during the YEARS it will take to get there. That's a great big whacking lot of work for welders, electricians, ironworkers, carpenters, plumbers, HVAC techs, and so forth. You want this venture to work, so you want to hire top quality workers--and to do so in an era of growth and competition (which that would by definition be) you're going to be paying top wages.

    The environmental doom-mongers hearken back to Jimmy Carter's "national maliase," and "era of limits." We got out of that and into a great period of national prosperity thanks to the vision of Ronald Reagan. An era of even greater success awaits all mankind if we take ourselves, and with us the Gospel, beyond the "uttermost parts of the earth."

    Heck, maybe we'll even find out that the UFO aliens are just intergalactic tourist-pilgrims who've come to see the planet where Jesus died for their sins.

    Grace and Peace,

    Dave Porter (in all the years you've known me, would you have suspected that my first post to your blog would be this far out?)

  12. Hi Dave. Welcome! I'd always hoped you'd participate in the conversation here.

    To answer your question.... uh, yes. :-)

    My general response to your comment is that if Pournelle's suggestions were technologically and (what is more to the point) economically feasable, they would be being done. But everything you suggest would require massive capital outlay for a very uncertain return. Any manned space project would require as necessary overhead an expensive life-support system, something which our planet supplies for us for free. Therefore, almost by definition, any such venture would be more costly, and thus less profitable, than a comparable earthbound venture.

    And as a onetime student of physics, I don't have the foggiest idea what "beaming down" energy from a satellite would be. We currently beam down information using energy waves, but the energy itself can't be "beamed" anywhere. This is one of those areas in which science fiction doesn't translate into anything even conceptually possible, let alone feasible.

    I'm sorry to be so negative with regard to your first comment here, but ultimately I don't think extraterrestrial exploration is going to be the salvation of the world that God did place in our care.

  13. Hi Keith,

    No offense taken, don't worry.

    Just wanted to address a few of your objections. Jerry (an Army Korean War vet--which is important, but completely unrelated to this topic)was a Jet Propulsion Lab scientist at NASA's Pasadena facility, a missile designer for the USAF, the President of Reagan's Scientific Advisory Council, and chaired the discussion group that led to SDI. He also wrote a widely respected computer tech column for Byte Magazine. He wrote fiction to explore some of the theoretical social impacts that some of the farther out research might lead to.

    The idea that solar energy can be captured in orbit, converted to microwave energy, and "beamed down" to Earth's surface where it is then converted into electrical energy wasn't Pournelle's idea. It's been discussed by scientists since the early days of the space program in the 1960's, and most think it could be done for the same investment (in today's dollars of course) as the Apollo Program, with reliable, cheap energy as the payoff in less time than from Apollo to now. Of course that makes the payoff much further off than the next election cycle, which is why it'll never happen.

    Everything in Pournelle's book "A Step Farther Out" was do-able with then available off-the-shelf technology when he wrote it in 1978. He explains that in the introduction, and gives details throughout, including the equations, so folks with better minds for higher math than mine are free to check his results.

    What also comes through in his writing is that he intended it partly as a response to the doomsayers of that age, who were then predicting ice ages, famines, overpopulation, the exaustion of fossil fuels by the 1990's, etc.

    I find it interesting that many of those folks, like Paul Erlich, author of "The Population Bomb," whose predictions for the future failed miserably, are still taken seriously, and are even leaders in the great Global Warming scam.

    Those folks are the technological equivalent of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Just as Jesse and Al have a financial stake in the poor race relations they pretend to abhor, the doomsayers will be unemployed if we have relatively cheap and basically unlimited supplies of energy and raw materials.

    Pournelle, who (I think)is a conservative Catholic, also addresses taking care of the earth that God has entrusted to our care. With a real space program, we could put all of the polluting heavy industries into orbit and "green up" the whole earth, but once again, the environmental Luddites wouldn't be able to blame high technology for all our ills, if high technology SOLVES those ills.

    Of course there will still be sin and it's effects. If people go into space, there will be murder, adultery, jealousy, and hatred in space. Just like there is everywhere else men have gone. I just don't think that means we shouldn't go.

    Grace and Peace, Dave

  14. Dave,

    As I wrote in my original piece, I've generally left the topic of environmentalism alone because I'm not in the slightest qualified to discuss it. My opinion is that most of the people who are discussing it are no more qualified than I am. We generally follow whichever set of "experts" appears to make the most sense to us; which means, whichever set validates whatever presuppositions and vested interests we bring to the question.

    You write that "doomsayers" have a financial stake in us not having cheap and unlimited energy and raw materials. So they do. The Right, particularly economic conservatism, also has an economic stake in downplaying the possibilities of serious environmental change and of the industrial human component to that change. Fossil fuels are the lifeblood of industrial capitalism, and will continue to be so long as transportation depends on them, because commerce depends on transportation. Since the Right represents business interests, it regularly discounts environmental change as either 1) not happening, or 2) not resulting from industrialization. Once again, I am not qualified to weigh in on the question; I only observe that there are vested interests on both sides of the equation, and probably much more heavily on the side of assuming that nothing is wrong.

    We have two sets of data: scientists forecasting major climactic changes, and the Bible predicting severe climactic changes in the last days. Now, these particular scientists may be wrong, and that interpretation of Scripture may be wrong. I was only discussing the possibility that, if both are not wrong, then they may be related--we may actually be causing the judgments that the Bible predicts. Moreover, the religious Right, because of its alliance with the economic right, might actually be supporting the behavior that causes the judgements. That's my interest in the matter.