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I was intrigued by the title of David Attenborough’s BBC series “A Perfect Planet”.
The series demonstrates the intricate and delicate connections between the various systems that operate on our planet. Even things like volcanoes which superficially seem merely destructive are shown to have a vital role in creating a breathable atmosphere and therefore life itself.
We are introduced to some extraordinary varieties of animal life. My two favourites were:
- The cryogenic wood frog which freezes solid during the winter (so solid that its heart stops beating) and then warms up back to life in the summer.
- The Amazonian ants who form themselves into a floating raft when their nests are flooded, sailing along sometimes for weeks until they find a place to land.
These systems worked in perfect balance and harmony for thousands of years, but then came:
A new force: one so powerful it threatens the future of life on earth… human activity.
One scientist tells us:
Everything around us is collapsing.
We are likely to lose over half the species of life on earth over the next eight decades.
Clearly the planet is suffering. The scenes of drought in Africa leaving elephants to die of thirst are heartbreaking.
It’s the suffering which raises questions in my mind. Because the suffering is not just a result of human abuse of the planet: it is, in Attenborough’s presentation, a key component of the way the planet works when it is functioning perfectly. Again and again we are shown scenes of predation: one species hunting and eating another. Nature is not very vegetarian. But the fact that so many newborn animals in Africa immediately become food for hungry lions doesn’t seem to trouble Attenborough at all. It is all part of the balanced way the planet regulates itself.
Is this a perfect planet? Does it make sense to lament the death of elephants from thirst but happily accept the death of other animals as food? Should we not lament both?
I have more sympathy with Richard Dawkins’ view:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.from Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden
Dawkins of course takes this as evidence that:
… there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
(Which raises the further question: why should we care?)
I think Christianity offers a better understanding of our world, which takes account of both Attenborough’s and Dawkins’ concerns but goes beyond them to offer hope. It goes like this:
- A good God created a world which was very good (Genesis 1).
- This God created humans to share his rule over his world and commissioned them to look after it (Genesis 1 & 2).
- Humans messed up by rebelling against God. Their rebellion introduced death into God’s good world and resulted in a corruption/dislocation within the human personality, in humanity’s relationship with nature and within nature itself (Genesis 3).
- God, however, has a long-term plan to restore his creation, including a plan for “new heavens and a new earth” in which “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox… they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 65).
- This new creation is not here yet, but we get a foretaste of it in Jesus’ defeat of death itself through his death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).
- Creation’s “subjection to futility” and its “bondage to decay” will finally be healed when God’s children come into their own and are themselves set free from all that spoils their relationship with him and with his world (Romans 8).
Of course this scenario raises at least as many questions as it answers!
But I think it still tells a better story than any other on offer. It satisfies our sense that the world is a beautiful place but it is also full of pain. It explains why our response to nature includes a yearning for something that is just out of reach. It acknowledges human responsibility for spoiling the planet without descending to the barely tenable view that we are just another species, of no more ultimate value or significance than ants or antelopes. It tells us that there is hope. And it calls us to repentance: to live in obedient love for God and stop consuming the earth to destruction.