Climate change presents the greatest existential threat to human existence in history.
The alleged worldwide flood of Noah pales in comparison. A group of politicians and preachers who should know better, and perhaps do, have responded as if they were hosting a dance on the Titanic before hitting the iceberg. Their message reeks of a “death drive,” a mass suicide, that tragically includes all humanity.
The issue that best describes these New Zealots is the case of climate change denial. The overwhelming evidence of science is that the earth is getting hotter and drier, yet New Zealots bring their rhetorical weaponizing to bear on denying this reality.
The window of opportunity for changing our relentless, profit-driven march toward the annihilation of the planet has shrunk to less than 40 years. Yet the New Zealots fully embrace the fantasy of their alternate universe. They end up believing simply what they want to believe. Since they don’t want to accept the realities of American history, they deny them. Now the same with climate science, but their denial is a death sentence.
“They end up believing simply what they want to believe.”
Climate and geological research have coalesced in consensus about a precarity that threatens humanity as a species. Our fossil-fuel dependent culture, upheld by our fundamentalist market culture, looks down its collective nose at the people occupying the bottom rungs of humanity. Blinded by the arrogance of affluence, people don’t notice that the precarity has now spread to most if not all humans.
The challenge we face is that the scale of danger increases with each instance of climate denial. We have become geological agents disturbing conditions needed for our own existence. As Kundai Chirando argues in Precarious Publics, climate denial makes all publics precarious.
The New Zealots put the entire planet in danger and not just themselves. When the truth is that we are going to have to rein in some of our appetites if we are to bequeath a habitable world to our children, then climate denial is not only murder; it is suicide.
Stanley Hauerwas remarks: “Nothing could be more scandalous than for Christians to kill one another. When we do so it is not only murder, it is suicide.” Since God has made of one flesh all humans, I would extend Hauerwas’ claim to include that nothing could be more scandalous than for humans to kill one another. It is murder, but it is also suicide. The New Zealots are marching us into a genocide so unspeakable, horrific and huge as to defy imagination.
“The New Zealots are marching us into a genocide so unspeakable, horrific and huge as to defy imagination.”
What is the attraction of climate denial? I think it has to do with the idea of the rapture. Evangelical preachers have been promoting the imminent rapture of the church for the last 50 years.
A word about the notion of a rapture. Dispensationalism is an end-times doctrine invented in the 19th century by the Irish-Anglo theologian John Nelson Darby. Darby’s theology explained neatly the epochs of God’s dealing with mankind. It also freed Christians from creating the millennial kingdom because believers would be taken out of the world until Christ came to establish that kingdom himself.
Dispensationalists offer a “literal” interpretation of the Bible that sells a detailed chronology of the impending end of the world. One of the most anticipated events of this reading of the Bible is known as the rapture. Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, says, “The American obsession with the second coming of Jesus — especially with distorted interpretations of it — continues unabated. Seen from my side of the Atlantic, the phenomenal success of the Left Behind books appears puzzling, even bizarre. Few in the UK hold the belief on which the popular series of novels is based: that there will be a literal ‘rapture’ in which believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving empty cars crashing on freeways and kids coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been ‘left behind.’ This pseudo-theological version of Home Alone has reportedly frightened many children into some kind of (distorted) faith.”
The rapture, despite many predictions of the date of Jesus’ return, obviously has not occurred. This has led to a shift in the emphasis of the rapture preachers. Now they seem to be saying, “If Jesus will not come back and rescue us and save our culture, then we will burn it down.”
Either we rule the planet, or we destroy it. American historian Randall Balmer says evangelicals have morphed into postmillennials because they sense a chance to oversee the nation politically. Therefore, they are asking Jesus to postpone his return so they can enjoy, in all their scary cruelty, the fruits of overseeing everything. They seem like a crazed man holding a gun to a woman’s head and announcing, “She’s either mine or she dies.”
“They seem like a crazed man holding a gun to a woman’s head and announcing, ‘She’s either mine or she dies.’”
The most crucial attraction of climate denial is that it involves rapture believers in a way of participating in their own prophetic delusions. Climate denial gives adherents the fantasy of being able to say, “I told you so. I told you the world was going to hell.”
Climate denial, if it succeeds in inhibiting global action, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The idea that the world is going to hell, a beloved idea among some evangelicals, receives a stark literal support with the rising temperatures of the earth. The “over-heating” of the planet, the rising fever of the atmosphere, does more than suggest hellfire and brimstone. It makes it frighteningly real.
Ultimately, climate denial is fake news. We are in a rhetorical environment so soaked in danger that we must make the harsh judgment that rapture theology is untrue, unbiblical and harmful. That preachers would continue to insist on the rapture is a sure sign that many Christians no longer know how to recognize truth. The “Christianity” represented by rapture preachers is not in fact Christian.
Why does the rapture/climate denial loop have such a grip over the minds of so many millions of evangelicals? Their preachers have invested everything in their teaching of the rapture. From Hal Lindsey to Robert Jeffress, the rapture crowd has bet the planet and its demise on the rapture. These teachings make it almost impossible to organize a sane, democratic response to the challenges of climate change facing us in the next 40 years.
The rapture preachers are attempting to hold the planet hostage to get their way in a variety of issues that have no bearing on the future. These issues are here-and-now issues that evangelicals insist on to make the nation a place more in line with their politics. In other words, on the one hand, they preach the end of the world in good premillennial fashion, but they also work politically to create what they would consider “heaven on earth” in the present.
“They don’t know whether to wish on the stars to make all their dreams of power come true or pray for Jesus to cause the stars to fall from heaven.”
They can’t seem to make up their minds. Do they want to go or stay? This is a muddled and conflicting time for evangelicals. They are involved in every imaginable kind of conspiracy theory, from the Big Lie to QAnon, but they keep hammering away at denying climate change. Evangelicals live in a torture chamber. They don’t know whether to wish on the stars to make all their dreams of power come true or pray for Jesus to cause the stars to fall from heaven.
New Zealots are actively participating in a concerted political effort that threatens to turn the world into a living hell. The United States is on track to get hotter, poorer and less free. NPR recently reported: “This very weekend, crops are burning, roads are buckling, and seas are rising, while lakes and reservoirs recede or even disappear. Ice sheets melt in rising heat, and wildfires blitz forests. People are dying in this onerous heat. Lives of all kinds are threatened, in cities, fields, seas, deserts, jungles and tundra.”
The climate deniers have a host of flamethrowers:
- Ken Ham has written, “There’s not a ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency,” but there sure is a ‘spiritual crisis.”
- Mike Huckabee, playing the role of a stand-up comedian, makes fun of climate change: “There’s a standard joke line every time another problem is blamed on climate change. It’s ‘climate change’: Is there anything it CAN’T do?”
- Robert Jeffress, never one to miss the opportunity to try to embarrass a teenager, infamously told climate change activist Greta Thunberg to read the Bible and stop worrying about the “imaginary crisis” of global warming because God has promised never to destroy the world with rising sea levels. Jeffress insists that religious freedom is a bigger issue than climate change.
- Lance Wallnau has ranted against climate activists, claiming they are controlled by “demons.” He said: “The environmentalists are crazy. They are more fanatical than al Qaeda.”
- Franklin Graham mocks climate change science: “If we have an unusually warm summer, they say climate change is to blame. If we have a harsh winter, it’s due to climate change. If it’s wetter than normal, it’s climate change. If it’s drier than normal, climate change. The Bible records climate change over 4,000 years ago.” Predictably Graham adds, “I believe we are one minute to midnight — not regarding climate change, but on God’s clock, when he will bring judgment on those who have rejected him and his Son, Jesus Christ.”
Now the New Zealots seem determined to make their prophecies come true by aiding and abetting climate change. If you don’t believe what we believe, we will send you to hell one way or the other. That other way is terribly frightening. It turns the United States into a desert.
Rodney W. Kennedy serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
The fantastical world of the New (evangelical) Zealots | Analysis by Rodney Kennedy
Christians and climate change: A chance to take the Bible seriously | Analysis by Chris Conley
Oregon is burning while most white Christians deny climate science | Opinion by Susan Shaw