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The Pope Says Earth Needs a Sabbath

The Pope Says Earth Needs a Sabbath

Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics—and a moral voice admired by millions more outside of that church—says Earth needs a break.

According to an Associated Press report from Vatican City, “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how the Earth can recover ‘if we allow it to rest’ and must spur people to adopt simpler lifestyles to help a planet ‘groaning’ under the constant demand for economic growth, Pope Francis said [September 1].”

In remarks released by the Vatican, the pope declared, “In some ways, the current pandemic has led us to rediscover simpler and sustainable lifestyles.” He added, “Already we can see how the earth can recover if we allow it to rest: the air becomes cleaner, the waters clearer, and animals have returned to many places from where they had previously disappeared. The pandemic has brought us to a crossroads.” 

Interestingly, the pope links the pandemic and letting the Earth rest with the biblical sabbath of the land, found in Exodus 23:10, 11 and Leviticus 25:1–7. God commanded the Israelites not to cultivate the land during that seventh year, and Francis, at first glance, appears to agree. However, a look into the pope’s reasons portrays an underlying difference.

God’s land sabbath indubitably points back to the Sabbath instituted at the end of the Creation week: “On the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:2, 3); that “seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:10).

There is one fact that is repeatedly made clear in the Sabbath commandment: God is the Creator. And the Sabbath—including the land sabbath—jogs our memory to think on our Creator.


Pantheism from the Pontiff?

Pope Franics

But Francis continually equates this time of rest to a special connection between humans and nature, this time again quoting from his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Sí,” which spoke extensively about the environment: “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.”

If the words “brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” sound a bit unusual, it’s perhaps because they come from a worldview that, frankly, isn’t Bible-based. According to Scripture, we are not family members with nature, though, contrariwise, “we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).

In fact, God instructed Adam and Eve to “subdue” and “have dominion over” (Genesis 1:28) this planet. He then gave even more explicit instructions to Moses regarding the land sabbath: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its fruit; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard” (Leviticus 25:3, 4).

Note that this concern for the land is vastly different from worship of it or a sense of brotherhood with it. The earth is the earth, and it is here to sustain us. Treating the land respectfully by letting it rest every seventh year is sensible—not to mention in obedience to God. Considering the earth to be our “relation” in any manner is pantheism, something believing Christians must reject.


How to Live on Earth Now

Clearly, we should be respectful of the planet and avoid practices that harm the ecosystem. Our God-given responsibility to subdue the Earth does not give us license to pillage it without regard for its condition afterwards. Fighting pollution is important. There is no denying the damage done to the soil and air by chemicals or to rivers, seas, and oceans by plastic waste. That’s not to say there isn’t a role for those substances in agriculture and other areas of our daily lives, but care must be taken with their use. Safe, responsible methods must always be employed.

The idea of a land sabbath may seem impractical, but it is founded on biblical principles. Indeed, according to the advocacy group Global Agriculture, “Our most significant non-renewable geo-resource is productive land and fertile soil. Each year, an estimated 24 billion [tons] of fertile soil are lost due to erosion. That’s 3.4 [tons] lost every year for every person on the planet.”

However, the pope’s pantheistic motivations for a land sabbath pose a real issue. That view focuses on the Earth as the main object of our attention. May we not “[worship] and [serve] the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Romans 1:25). Let us instead arrest our gaze upon God, the One who created the Earth.

How are we to do that? Look no further than the Sabbath instituted at Creation. This was the day God expressly made for us (Mark 2:27); and the command to remember and observe it is found in Exodus 20:8–11 and Deuteronomy 5:12–15. The Bible has much to say about this “sanctuary in time,” as one scholar called it, that helps to restore us to and reflect on our blessed Creator.

If you’d like to learn more about this rest, take a look at our free, online article, “Discovering the Gift of Time,” one of the many resources on our website devoted to the true seventh-day Sabbath.

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