This article first appeared on the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Advocacy for Animals site and is reprinted with permission of the editors.
Most Christians in the Western Hemisphere eat meat. Though a small vegetarian/vegan minority exists, for the most part Christianity in North and South America is a meat-eating religion.
When asked about the morality of killing animals for food, the response from most self-described Christians is almost always the same: the Bible teaches that humans have dominion over animals, and that killing them for food or any other service to humans is allowable. However, despite the general acceptance of this ethos of domination within Western Christianity, the fact remains that when all scriptural passages pertaining to animal welfare are viewed within the larger context of the Christian message of grace, atonement, and mercy developed throughout the Bible, there exists an even stronger argument that promotes the humane and compassionate treatment of animals. As a matter of fact, a very strong biblical case for complete abstinence from meat and all animal products has been taught for years.
Contrary to the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas, some of the most celebrated Christian leaders, theologians, and teachers of all time were/are vegetarians who espoused the view that meat consumption is contrary to the Biblical message of love and compassion and is not healthy, either for the individual or for the planet.
These acclaimed leaders include John Wesley; Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth; American pastor Tony Campolo; theologian and physician Albert Schweitzer; Seventh-day Adventist Church founder Ellen G. White; Leo Tolstoy; St. John Chrysostom; St. Clement of Alexandria; and St. Basil. Famous Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis and St. Francis of Assisi, though not strict vegetarians, both took great pains to teach the moral obligation of Christians to treat all animals with compassion and mercy. Even the iconic Fred Rogers of the public-television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, an ordained Presbyterian minister, was a vegetarian and avoided any products derived from animals.
Conflicting biblical statements about animals
There are hundreds of conflicting passages in the Bible concerning how animals fit into Creation and how we as humans are to interact with them. Throughout the Old Testament, texts describing animal sacrifice and animal subservience (Genesis 9:2-6, Deuteronomy 14:4, I Kings 18:25-38, Exodus 12:1-13) intermix with other verses about the purity of animals and their ability to reason and praise God in His glory. (Job 12:7-10, Psalms 36:6-7, Isaiah 43:20, Psalms 148:7-10). Chapter 22 in the Book of Numbers tells the interesting story of the Israelite Balaam, whose faithful donkey sees an angel with its sword drawn blocking the road and wisely chooses to turn off into a field.
Because Balaam is impure and can’t see the angel, he beats the donkey with his staff, imploring her to get back on the road. After numerous attempts and beatings to no avail, the donkey actually speaks to Balaam and explains that if he would open his mind and his eyes, he would see that there is a very practical and urgent reason why, after years of service, she has abruptly stopped. At this point, the angel becomes visible to Balaam (who falls to the ground trembling) and sternly asks him, “Why have you beaten your donkey? If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but spared her.”
In the New Testament the contradiction of the teachings continues. In numerous verses, animal imagery is used to reflect not only righteous attributes but even God himself. In countless passages, Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God. Mark 1:9-11 says the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove: “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove.”
In Matthew 23:37, Jesus compares his own love of Jerusalem to that of a mother hen gathering her chicks: “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” In John 10:14, Jesus simply says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” However, according to Luke 24, Jesus ate fish with the disciples. On another occasion he worked a miracle so they could bring in a huge catch in their nets. John 21 even has Jesus cooking fish for breakfast over an open fire.
Biblical hermeneutics helps resolve textual conflicts
So, how is it possible that so many notable Christian theologians and scholars like John Wesley, Tony Campolo, and Leo Tolstoy have concluded over the years that the Bible teaches abstinence from animal products? The answer lies in a basic, but very important, scholarly discipline that few Christians outside of seminaries discuss very often. It is this: biblical hermeneutics.
Broadly defined, biblical hermeneutics is the study of deducing eternal biblical truths from texts which were written by authors at a specific moment in time, within a specific cultural and moral context, for a specific audience, and with a specific intent. Biblical hermeneutics analyzes all the historical factors of these writings and searches for eternal truths that last beyond the culture or time in which the texts were written.
Scholars have known for thousands of years that the Bible is full of literal and thematic contradictions from book to book and from passage to passage. In many of the historical books of the Old Testament, as well as in the Gospels, major discrepancies exist in various reportings of the same event. Elements of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, for example, are reported somewhat differently in all four Gospels.
However, amidst these inconsistencies that naturally result from the different historical and literary contexts in which they were written, there are unmistakable themes that emerge when all elements of hermeneutic criticism are taken into consideration. A poignant example of this is the biblical account of the institution of slavery. Most modern-day Christians would be surprised to know that not once in the Bible is slavery condemned. As a matter of fact, throughout both the Old and New Testaments, slavery is fully accepted as a legitimate economic institution. Over and over, slaves are admonished to obey their masters even if they are harshly treated.
Today one would be very hard pressed to find any church leader or scholar, brutally conservative, wildly liberal or anywhere in between, who would endorse the idea that one human being has the right to own another human being. (For that matter, I can’t imagine coming across any rank-and-file Christians who would endorse slavery, either.) While we no longer champion the validity of the institution of slavery, until a mere 150 years ago countless numbers of Christians believed otherwise. The dramatic doctrinal change that we now take for granted occurred gradually over the course of the last 1,500 years as biblical scholars hermeneutically wrestled their way to the conclusion that the overall message of the Bible, culminated by Christ’s atonement for all people regardless of race or gender, prohibits the ownership of one human over another, despite specific biblical passages that contend the exact opposite.
Another hermeneutic transformation that has taken place in the Church regards the role of women. Again, most relevant passages throughout both the Old and New Testaments relegate womens’ role in the church to an auxiliary or nonexistent one. The apostle Paul on numerous occasions speaks quite bluntly about the subject. “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (I Corinthians 14:34-35). He reiterates the same sentiments in a letter to Timothy (I Timothy 2:8). However, over the course of the last 500 years, biblical scholars have taken into consideration the historical and literary context in which Paul was writing and began to come to a very different conclusion about the role of women in the Church hierarchy in relation to the overall spirit of the Bible, not the actual text of the Bible. Polygamy is another example of biblical hermeneutic change over the course of history.
Hermeneutics applied to Bible verses about animals
No respected biblical scholar would deny that, according to the biblical account as laid forth in Genesis, the Garden of Eden (and hence the essence of God’s vision of Creation) was vegan. Genesis 1:29-30 states, “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.’”
Likewise, virtually all scholars agree that the prophetic passages in the book of Isaiah describe the eternal Kingdom of God as a place where there will be absolutely no killing of any kind and all facets of existence will be at peace: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together…. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 6-9).
Through the Genesis description of the Garden of Eden and the Isaiah account of the eternal Kingdom of God, we vividly sense that God desires a world without killing. The ideal has clearly been set for us. What excuse then do we have to kill animals for food or other products, when we are fully capable of leading a life without killing them and we know that we shouldn’t kill them? Moreover, it can be argued that killing another living creature goes against our human nature — the God within us. As Tolstoy said, “So strong is man’s aversion to all killing. But … by the assertion that God has allowed it, and, above all, by habit, people entirely lose this natural feeling.”
Living a life that best respects God’s creation
In researching this article, I interviewed Dr. Richard Alan Young, a biblical scholar and author of the book Is God a Vegetarian? Time and again during our conversation, Young came back to the fact that in biblical times, the horrors of modern factory farming and vivisection (the use of animals in scientific experiments and product testing) did not exist. He maintains that in light of the unimaginable suffering inflicted upon His creatures by these barbaric practices, there is no way a merciful God could condone either.
Moreover, he contends that, because a plant-based diet is extremely beneficial for the human body as well as the planet, there is no excuse for us to eat meat. Scientific research has shown that, on average, vegetarians and vegans lead longer, healthier lives, and has linked meat consumption with heart disease, colon cancer, and many other health problems. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the world’s meat-producing industry contributes more greenhouse gases (which cause global warming) into the Earth’s atmosphere than the emissions of all cars, trucks, airplanes, and trains put together. Animal agriculture is also the main factor in deforestation and water pollution throughout the world. Converting plant food into meat wastes approximately 78 percent of the protein, up to 96 percent of the calories, and all of the fiber.
It is no wonder that more church leaders are finally beginning to view the production and consumption of meat as an outright sin. Eating meat is the worst way imaginable to sustain our bodies and our planet. It destroys both, and just as importantly, it inflicts incalculable anguish on the lives of innocent animals who were created by God to enjoy their freedom just as much as we humans.
The Bible implores us to produce fruit with our repentance (no pun intended). Virtually the entire New Testament is based upon the idea that as sanctified members of the body of Christ who have experienced God’s grace, Christians are called to lead a godly and righteous life to the best of their ability. The righteous life, not surprisingly, is also, I believe, the most healthy, compassionate and fulfilling life. And it is merely a matter of time before the condemnation of meat consumption and any ill treatment of animals becomes a widely held doctrinal tenet of the Christian Church.
Author’s Note: For historical context I mention both vegetarianism and veganism throughout this article, but it should be noted that there is a big difference between the two. “Strict vegetarianism” is the same as dietary veganism: abstinence from all animal-derived foods. But today, the term vegetarian is largely interchangeable with “lacto-ovo vegetarian,” or one who consumes dairy and eggs but no meat. However, dairy and egg farming inflict immeasurable suffering on billions of cows and chickens every year. As noted in the article, it is clear that the Garden of Eden was vegan and that animals were not exploited in any way. Ethical veganism, the avoidance of all animal products — including food, clothing, cosmetics, and any other products derived from animal exploitation — is the purest way to honor God and his Creation. It is not only an outward expression of compassion, grace, and justice, it is the healthiest lifestyle for our bodies, community, and the planet. It is the way intended by God.
To Learn More
The International Vegetarian Union’s archive of articles on religion and vegetarianism (scroll down for Christianity)