Reflection: Dominion Over the Earth

Throughout church history and for some Christians in certain theological circles today, there is a certain emphasis on the calling to have “dominion over the earth” as commanded in the creation story of Genesis. There are two statements of the creation story create many interesting theological interpretations: that we, unlike other creatures, are God’s image-bearers, and that at least part of what this means is that we have dominion over the earth. If we bear the image of God, then we are to look like God in our day-to-day lives. The same theme is expressed in New Testament language corporately when it calls the church “the body of Christ.”

We are to be God’s outworking in the world, but what does this mean for the idea of dominion? Some take this idea to be a free-for-all license to do as we please – after all, we are in charge. Most reject this, and one response to this is that we aren’t really ultimately in charge. Instead, we are only stewards, so we are still under God’s plan. While I agree with this objection as well, I’d like to focus on another one that extends that idea further. If we, as image-bearers of God, have dominion, then our definition of dominion should be like God’s definition. I believe that God’s dominion, or more commonly called God’s Kingdom in the language of the New Testament, is a radical shift in the concept of kingship from a top-down abusive power to a servant leadership. I have no problem with people using the language of humans having dominion over the earth so long as we are using God’s definition of proper dominion, not the world’s.

God’s Kingdom is one of redemption, not destruction and not escapism. Either of the two latter options is dangerous and I would argue contrary to Scripture as well as most of church tradition. Throughout Scripture as is well-discussed throughout the readings, there is a common theme of healing the earth. As I understand it, it is only fairly recently in history that some segments of the church have developed a theology that Christians will be removed from the earth and it will be violently destroyed (the Rapture and Tribulation). This is a theology of escapism and of destruction of the earth, neither of which I see any justification of in Scripture, reason, or church tradition. Instead, Scripture is pretty clear that the ultimate goal – the eschaton – is when “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven”.

Jesus, in declaring this Kingdom as come, had the opportunities to escape or to destroy. Instead, he redeemed. He even points out to his accusers that he could summon legions of angels to fight for him, to destroy everything that opposes him in one fell swoop. He doesn’t. Neither does he call for angel chariots to sweep him away from his trial so he didn’t have to endure the suffering. This is an example of God’s Kingdom at work. If we are to be bearing God’s image, to be the body of Christ, we are to continue in his footsteps with this vision of the Kingdom. Not only is it consequentially problematic to destroy the earth or simply wait to escape it, it is also contrary to the very Christ that we claim to follow. With Christ, we must be redeeming the earth, which means bringing healing.

This provides the main themes of God’s definition of dominion to me as it applies to ecological issues: service rather than abuse and redemption rather than escape or destruction. This can provide a starting point for many of the specific issues that arise. For example, Wells and Quash (347) mention the idea of giving the land a break, and I found it intriguing as I remembered that in the Old Testament law, the Israelites were commanded to do just that: give a Sabbath year for the crops. Another issue I have not settled on, however, is eating meat. I believe God’s kingdom is non-violent between humans, and we see in the creation story and in prophetic eschatological visions that there is no animal violence in God’s ideal. On the other hand, while animals do have neurological responses to pain, they are not aware of pain as humans are, so from a consequentialist perspective, I can understand saying that God allows us to eat meat (all other consequences like the remaining population of the species being positive or neutral) is also still in effect in this fallen world.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.