How shall we live at this time of crisis? Exploring the biblical idea of fullness.
We face an environmental crisis of greater proportions than any generation before us and we desperately need to find ways to respond to this crisis. As Christians, our discipleship has been challenged through the COVID-19 crisis and we will continue to face new and very difficult situations in the coming decades. We need practical, spiritual and theological resources to help us respond effectively. The biblical concept of fullness gives us a vision, not only of what once was, but also provides a pathway to enable a restorative response.
What does the Bible mean by fullness? Psalm 24 begins, ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ and in Deuteronomy 33:16, fullness is used to describe the abundance of creation. The fullness of the Earth is, therefore, a blessing and provides the abundance of all that is needed for life. When Moses and Aaron are commanded to fill a pot with manna to keep for posterity, the amount is described as ‘fullness’ (Exodus 16:33). God had provided his people with everything that they needed during their ‘lockdown’ in the desert. Trusting God and his purposes is, therefore, trusting in his fullness for our lives.
In Genesis 1:31, God describes ‘all’ he has made as very good. The goodness of all creation is the Earth in its fullness and this is God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3). If the fullness of creation is God’s glory, it is logical to conclude that any diminution of that fullness is a fundamental sin against God as it diminishes his visible glory in the world. Our overuse of the planet’s resources is stripping it of its God-given fullness. This is damaging nature and is a denial of God’s glory. If we continue, then the inevitable consequences are dire for humanity as well as for biodiversity and the Earth’s systems. Climate change has come from our abuse of the earth’s atmosphere and COVID-19 is most likely a consequence of our abuse of other animals through hunting, intensive agriculture and land-use change. These practices have brought wild animals into close contact with each other and with humans and domestic animals, creating the conditions in which viruses can spread. The valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 is a stark picture of the world stripped of its fullness and the implications for people and the rest of nature.
Can there be a way forward? In the New Testament, we find the usage of fullness is focused on Christ and the restoration of the fullness of creation through him. In Colossians 1:15-20, the concept of fullness lies at the intersection between Christ, the church and creation. Creation has its fullness in Christ, who holds all things together, and who reconciles all things through his blood shed on the cross. The atoning work of Christ restores fullness to the whole of his creation and his church. Christ, creation and the church are reconciled and filled in this new redemptive age.
We see fullness portrayed in the passages describing the New Creation. Isaiah 11:4-12 portrays harmony in creation: a world filled with all creatures at peace with one another: ‘the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (v.9). This image is repeated in Isaiah 65:16-25, giving a picture of abundance on Earth that has fruitfulness from human farming and harmony between domestic and wild species. There is a role for the people of God in aiding the fruitfulness and therefore restoring the fullness of the Earth.
We can now bring these thoughts together and understand why fullness is a powerful environmental ethic for our age. If we continue to strip God’s creation of its fullness, we may yet experience a modern realisation of 2 Chronicles 36:21: ‘The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfilment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah’. Christian discipleship at this time of environmental crisis demands a complete rethink of our lifestyles, our theology, our church life and mission. The Protestant Reformation put emphasis on the first part of Romans 8; now we need a new ‘Environmental Reformation’ to place emphasis on the later part of Romans 8 – creation is groaning and waiting for glory to be revealed. As Christians, we are called in Christ to enable fullness to give glory to God. If we are secure in our own fullness in Christ, we will have the courage to follow Christ and take up a lifestyle that is self-giving to the Earth as well as to humans.
A call to embrace fullness as an environmental ethic is also a call to be a restorative agent in society and in our communities. When Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, he pointed towards the fullness of the New Creation and his love that brings everything to fullness. If we follow the way of Christ, every project to support the homeless, the hungry, endangered species, or to restore degraded land, also points towards Christ’s redemptive love and the hope of New Creation. Actions by churches to support mitigation of climate change or prevention of habitat loss are missional actions that enable restoration.
As we look at our damaged and degraded world, we can remember the words of the Psalmist ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Psalm 24:1). In our theology we should remember that the Earth belongs to the Lord and in all our actions we should seek to witness to the Lord who longs to bring fullness to his creation.
Revd Margot R. Hodson is Director of Theology and Education at The John Ray Initiative
This blog is a reflection from the paper: Hodson, M.R. (2020) Christian Discipleship in the Environmental Crisis: An exploration of fullness as an environmental ethic, Crucible, the Journal of Christian Social Ethics, July 2020 pp.38-47.
Image: Vicarage Rose by Margot Hodson