Biblical traditionalists often tell us that both humans and animals were limited to a vegetarian diet until the Fall (capital F) of Adam. (See, for example, Ken Ham et al., The Answers Book, ch. 6). Despite clear teaching throughout the Bible that everything in this world is temporal and naturally subject to decay and death (Heb. 1:10-12, etc.), the assumption on which the assertion in question is based is that there was no death in the world until Adam sinned. This assumption is clearly false and arises from a false interpretation of Romans 5:12 which refers to rational man alone, for only he could break the law and earn death as wages (Rom. 6:23). What else, however, can be said by way of reply?
First, the traditional view is an argument from silence. Though Genesis 1:29 says nothing about meat, it does not necessarily exclude it. Even if it is argued that it does, Isaiah 40:6 tells us that all flesh is grass and so is potentially on the menu.
As products of a temporal creation (Gen. 1:1) grass and green plants symbolise transience and death throughout Scripture (Gen. 1:29; Num. 22:4; 1 K. 18:5; Ps. 37:2; 92:7; 102:4,11; Isa. 40:6-8; 51:12; Luke 12:28; Jas. 1:10f.; 1 Pet. 1:23-25, etc., and note especially Job 40:15, Ps.106:20 and Isa. 31:3 which also point to the inherent or natural perishability of the flesh). We need to remember this when Jesus talks of the food which perishes in John 6:27 (cf. 4:14, and note Mt. 15:17!), for he is contrasting earthly material food with the heavenly spiritual variety. In his temptations in Matthew 4 he quotes Deuteronomy and underscores the fact that man made in the image of God who is both flesh, like the animals, and spirit needs to feed not simply on bread, or perishable food, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. And elsewhere, like the prophets, he contrasts the natural or material and intrinsically ephemeral creation with the abiding word of God (Mt. 24:35). This is why it is of paramount importance for us to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven (cf. 6:19f.; 1 Pet.1:4,7). If we are what we eat and our diets consist exclusively of perishable food, then they herald certain death as they do in the animal world. On the other hand, if we foster the spiritual side of our nature, then eternal heavenly life is our prospect (cf. Gal. 6:8). This is what was implicitly promised in Genesis 2:17 as the Westminster Confession of Faith recognised, at least in principle (7:2).
It follows from all this that the attempt by fundamentalist traditionalists to distinguish between vegetable and animal death on linguistic grounds is bound to fail (cf. e.g. The Answers Book, pp.32,92. Ham et al. claim, without proper support, that there is a ‘theological’ rather than a natural distinction between plant and animal life. Cf. Isa. 40:6 again, and see e.g. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, p.1283.). The truth is that the Bible links death with food in general. Both vegetable matter (manna) and flesh (quails, see Ex. 16), as Jesus makes indisputably clear in John 6, are perishable food that cannot possibly perpetuate fleshly existence indefinitely, least of all sustain the spirit. They do not endure to eternal life (6:27) as the death of herbivore, carnivore and omnivore alike testifies (Ps. 49:12,20; Eccl. 3:18-20; 12:7, cf. Rom. 8:19-25). .
Next, Genesis 9:3 certainly legitimises the eating of meat by man. There is no suggestion here, however, that it has any connection with sin (see further below.) A more probable explanation is that it reflects a natural extension of diet for those growing in maturity. The progress from milk to meat is natural to many mammals. In view of what is said, even metaphorically, in 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12-14 and 1 Peter 2:2 this cannot easily be denied. After all, the word ‘Adam’ refers to both the individual man and mankind, so what is true of the individual is doubtless true of the race.
There is another problem with the fundamentalist view. First, we are told in Psalm 104:21, set in a passage strongly reminiscent of Genesis 1 prior to Adam’s sin, (cf. vv.27f.; 145:15f.; Job 38:39-41) that it is God who provides prey for the lions, and the impression we can hardly fail to gain from this is that the process is entirely natural, that is, designed by God at creation, and totally unrelated to sin in a world ruled by divine providence. If we deny this, then presumably we have to posit a naturalistic evolutionary process that gave lions teeth, claws and a change in diet. In other words, the fundamentalists who are supposed to epitomise anti-evolutionism are hoist on their own petard!
Second, and much more importantly, we read in Mark 7:19 that Jesus made all foods clean (cf. Acts 10:10-15); in other words, the dietary restrictions imposed on the Jews in their immaturity under the law (cf. Gal. 3:23; 4:1-7) were brought to an end. It needs to be carefully noted, however, that meat as such figures conspicuously on the Israelites’ menu. Far from being even remotely connected with sin it is to be eaten, blood and natural death apart (Lev. 17:15f.), with joy and celebration as God’s good gift (Dt. 12:15, 20-23ff.; 14:26,29; 16:11,14f.; cf. 26:11; 28:47; Mt. 22:4; Luke 15:29f.). Even the priests enjoyed their portion (Lev. 7:6,28-36, Num. 18:18, cf. 1 Sam. 9:24 for special guests, 1 Cor. 9:13; 10:18). At a later date Paul goes on to argue that as Christians we are free to enjoy the fullness of the earth (Rom. 14; 1 Cor.8-10). In fact, he goes even further and maintains that those “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving” are liars (1 Tim. 4:3, ESV). And Peter (2:2:12) and Jude 10 (cf. Jer. 12:3), whose view of the flesh is most definitely depreciatory, can liken lawless men to irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed.
My inclusion of the reference to marriage may at first blush be regarded as both superfluous and irrelevant, but I have deliberately included it because it too was a bone of contention among the Jews. When the subject of divorce was broached by the Pharisees, Jesus promptly told them that Moses permitted it because of the hardness of men’s hearts. He went on to point out, however, that at the beginning it was not so and that God’s intention was that man and wife should be one and inseparable. Now since this is the case with regard to marriage, why, on the fundamentalist assumption, did Jesus not produce a similar argument to criticise meat eating? Should he not have said that at the beginning God did not allow meat eating, least of all encourage it (cf. Acts 10:10-15), since it inevitably involved the (sinful) death of animals, and so does not permit it now? The plain fact is that he did nothing of the sort. Rather he implicitly promoted it by going fishing and earning the disparaging title of a wine bibber and a glutton in contrast to John the Baptist who was still under the law and a Nazirite to boot. Truly is wisdom justified by her deeds (Mt. 11:19)!
Reference to blood above brings up another subject. It seems passing strange that if animal death as such was the consequence of Adam’s sin, God should use animal sacrifice so extensively in his people’s cultic worship. If animals, along with the entire created world, are the victims of sin in some sense, they are clearly not without blemish (cf. Dt. 17:1) and so are unfitted to foreshadow the innocent and perfect Lamb of God himself (1 Pet. 1:19). Would their use then not suggest sin being used to cast out sin or Satan to cast out Satan (cf. Mt. 12:24ff.)? It is no use here appealing to the fact that Jesus was made sin (2 Cor. 5:21). He was indeed, but, like the scapegoat in Leviticus 16:20ff., he was able to bear away sins (Ps. 103:12) only because he himself was completely innocent (Isa. 53:6f.; 1 Pet. 2:23-25). If we accept the traditionalist presupposition that the normal death of animals is itself the result of sin, then spilling their blood in sacrifice cannot possibly serve as a fit substitute for the death of sinful man. *
So, speaking personally, I have no qualms. I feel completely and thankfully free to eat both meat and vegetables as the products of a still ‘good’ creation (1 Cor. 10:30-33; 1 Tim. 4:4), and, provided it is not a stumbling block to others, I will have a glass of wine too (Rom. 14:14,21)!
* Since writing this article I have noted that S.B.Ferguson, in “After Darkness, Light”, ed. R.C.Sproul Jr. p.77, writes as follows: “By means of the sacrifice of an impeccable animal in the Mosaic economy, God pointed his covenant people forward to the reality of an impeccable incarnate sacrifice as alone adequate to bear the weight of the exchange (Heb. 9:6-14; 10:1ff.).” It might be added, in case the point is lost on the reader, that the word ‘impeccable’ literally means ‘sinless’, ‘faultless’, ‘not liable to sin’.