Several years ago I read an intriguing book by Alan Weisman titled The World Without Us. In what the New York Times called a “morbidly fascinating non-fiction eco-thriller,” Weisman explores humanity’s impact on the planet by asking us to envision our earth without us. As the flyleaf to the book details, “Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence…how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York’s subways would start eroding the city’s foundations, and how, as the world’s cities crumble, asphalt jungles would give way to real ones. It describes the distinct ways that organic and chemically treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us.”

No time for the book?

Just click the links below to watch the media. In less than ten minutes, you can watch all three, and gain the heart of the book’s contention.

The animated “Earth without Humans” from the Scientific American.

Animation of your house over the course of 500 years.

A slideshow of Manhattan over the course of 15,000 years.

The book prompts a powerful and provocative question for those of us who follow Christ: If all Christian influence were withdrawn from the world tomorrow, how long would it be before the world felt the effects? What would the results of that withdraw be?

It should be dramatic. Indeed, the spiritual impact of the removal of Christians should be far more telling than the ecological impact of the entire human race from the face of the planet. At least, if we are to take the metaphor Jesus Himself suggests in the Sermon on the Mount: 

“You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13a, NIV).

In Jesus' day, salt was one of the most useful and important elements you could possess, but not for adding flavor to food. The main use of salt was as a preservative to keep food from spoiling. Without refrigerators or freezers, canned goods or packaging, salt was used to keep food from spoiling. So if you had a piece of meat that you couldn’t eat right away, you would take some salt and rub it into the meat, which would prevent the meat from going bad.

As John Stott writes,

The notion is not that the world is tasteless and that Christians can make it less insipid…but that it is putrefying. It cannot stop itself from going bad. Only salt introduced from outside can do this. The church…is set in the world…as salt to arrest – or at least to hinder – the process of social decay….God intends the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society to be his own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people.

Stott, however, continues by noting the obvious – namely, that this is conditional. Meaning that for salt to be effective, it must retain its ‘saltness.’ As Stott writes, “For effectiveness the Christian must retain his Christlikeness, as salt must retain its saltness….The influence of Christians in and on society depends on their being distinct, not identical.” Even further, this difference must be applied to what is, in fact, decaying. Unless the salt penetrates the culture, the decay cannot be arrested.

Which raises another, perhaps even more penetrating, question which I once recall reading, but cannot recall the source: “If the Holy Spirit were to withdraw Himself from your life tomorrow, how long would it be before you recognized it?” 

So thanks to Weisman for asking what would happen to the world without us. It serves to challenge those of us who follow Christ in ways Weisman probably never intended.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Alan Weisman, The World Without Us.

“Starting Over: What would happen if earth’s most invasive species – humans – were wiped out?”, Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, September 2, 2007, p. 12.

For media and animated videos, see worldwithoutus.com, and from the Scientific American, see sciam.com.

John R.W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount.

Editor’s Note

This is an update to the blog that was originally published in 2007. James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.