In these twenty-first century days when Australian Professor Peter Singer of Princeton along with others would have us believe that animals are on a par with humans, some Christians contend that there are major biblically-based objections to the eating of meat. While there is doubtless good cause to question certain practices adopted by the meat industry and the amount of meat that we humans consume, the attempt to deny the legitimacy of meat eating as such from a Christian standpoint is in my view quite forlorn. It is based on a false theology, an aberrant worldview and a general failure to understand the basic teaching of the Bible.
Genesis 1 tells us that God created the world ‘good’. Traditionally, under the influence of Augustine this word has been given a moral connotation and regarded as a synonym for ‘perfect’. All the evidence suggests that this is profoundly mistaken and many today recognize that the word (Gk kalos) means beautiful, useful or fit for service like all material things (cf. Ps. 119:91). (1* See, for example, Collins who says that ‘good’ means “pleasing to him, answering his purpose, Gen. 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31”, p.69, and Berry, who denies perfection and appropriately says “God judged creation as fit for his purposes”, p.10.) The very first verse of Genesis indicates that creation in contrast with its Creator is temporal as opposed to eternal (cf. Ps. 90:2; 102:25-27). This is confirmed by Paul who tells us that all visible, that is, all material things being temporary (2 Cor. 4:18) will ultimately reach their use-by date (cf. Col. 2:22) and be destroyed (compare Rom. 1:20 with Heb. 12:27 and note 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). In other words, only the Creator is perfect and what he has manufactured or ‘made by hand’ (Gk cheiropoietos) is necessarily imperfect (cf. Heb. 3:3). (2* See my Manufactured Or Not So)
As flesh all animals including man stem from the earth and are inherently corruptible as Paul emphasizes in Romans 8:18-25 (cf. Heb. 1:10-12) (3* Under Augustinian influence this passage which like John 3:1-8 does not even mention sin has been sadly misinterpreted. See further my Romans 8:18-25, Another Shot at Romans 8:18-25) It is because we are flesh (dust) that our life span is limited to 120 years (Gen. 6:3). In other words, man was created both mortal and corruptible (cf. Rom. 1:23; 6:12; 2 Cor. 4:11) and it was not until Jesus had completed his work on earth that immortality and incorruption (Gk.) were revealed (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10). Man was created like a baby without knowledge of (the) law (Dt. 1:39, cf. Rom. 9:11) and was thus amoral like the animals. He was also made potentially in the image of the God. This meant that when the commandment eventually registered on his emerging mind, he was able to receive the promise of (eternal) life. However, its precondition was that he gained righteousness by keeping that commandment (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). In the event he failed, so he died and underwent final corruption as a sinner (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). And it was not until in the fullness of time the Lord Jesus came as the second Adam that anyone succeeded in keeping the law, becoming legally righteous and gaining promised life. He uniquely received the Spirit at his baptism and thus made it possible for all who put their faith in him to become (be accounted) righteous like him and so gain eternal life. (4* It is absolutely vital to understand that justification by faith must of necessity precede regeneration. See my The Order of Salvation in Romans, The Order of Salvation, Cart-Before-The-Horse Theology, etc.)
As animated dust (Ps. 78:39; 103:14; 1 Cor. 15:47-49), even when it is not directly associated with sin, flesh is regarded pejoratively throughout Scripture (see e.g. Isa. 31:3; Jer. 17:5). Isaiah informs us that all flesh is grass (40:6-8). John’s gospel notes the fundamental difference between being born according to the will of man (flesh) and being born of God (1:13). Then in John 3:1-8 Jesus tells us that it is necessary for us to be born again to enter the kingdom of God. In 6:63 he adds that flesh in itself is profitless. Paul says more or less the same thing when he tells us that there is nothing good in his flesh (Rom. 7:18). While we cannot please God in the flesh (Rom. 8:8), we can, however, do so when we exercise faith which is his gift (Heb. 11:6, cf. Rom. 7:5; 2 Cor. 5:7). Almost needless to add, Paul emphasizes the fact that flesh and blood along with all that is naturally perishable (corruptible) cannot inherit the (spiritual) kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50).
In light of this, traditional attempts to argue that sin (5* Sin is defined as transgression of the law, James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4. As indicated above, Adam like a baby did not receive the commandment until he had undergone some development. In view of this, we are compelled to infer that the idea that he “fell”, rather than lost his innocence, is yet another Augustinian invention totally alien to the Bible. When Paul himself went through the same experience and sinned in his turn, Rom. 7:9f., he did not call his sin a “Fall” as if he had been created righteous. He implies that he simply recapitulated first Eve’s, 7:11, then Adam’s experience, 14-25, as we all do in effect. See my Interpreting Romans 7) led to a cosmic curse that altered the very constitution of creation are profoundly misguided. When Adam sinned, he lost any hope he had of eternal life. His moral delinquency and disorientation (cf. Heb. 2:2) also meant that his immediate environment, outside the Garden of Eden where he had been carefully nurtured, proved unduly recalcitrant and difficult to work (Gen. 3:17-19). It did the same when Cain sinned (Gen. 4:12, cf. Prov. 24:30, etc., and note Gen. 5:29). The same is true today in what Paul tells us is still a ‘good’ creation (1 Tim. 4:4, cf. 1 Cor. 10:26-30, etc.). Abuse and/or neglect have inevitable consequences on an earth that from the start required habitation and cultivation (Gen. 2:15, cf. Isa. 6:11, etc.). On the other hand, if we are willing and obedient, we eat the good of the land (Dt. 28:1-14; Ps. 128:1f.; Isa. 1:19; 3:10, etc.). We who have benefited from the work ethic of the Christianized West have much to be grateful for.
The Destruction of the Land
This brings us back to the question of animals and meat eating. God’s displeasure with Adam’s immediate offspring arose from the fact that they matched their natural corruptibility with moral corruption. They were in other words even as adults spiritually barren (cf. Isa. 5; Heb. 6:7f.). And this spelt death. (See additional note below.) But there was a problem. If God dispensed with man himself, he would necessarily have to dispense with his environment since the land would be useless without him (cf. Ezek. 36:34f., etc.). It would in fact be desolate like Sodom and Gomorrah and the temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians and again by the Romans in NT times (Mt. 23:38). Why, it may be asked, should the land be destroyed? The answer is implied in the accounts of both the flood and of Sodom and Gomorrah as Jesus indicates in Luke 17:26-30 – because without man it loses its very purpose, its raison d’etre. If Christ was to redeem man, then the creation by which man was sustained and nurtured had to remain until that redemption had been achieved. In this sense all material things were created for him (cf. Col. 1:16). The earth was created to be inhabited (Gen. 1:26-28; Isa. 45:18) and to be the testing or proving ground of man’s spiritual development in the image and likeness of God (cf. Ps. 8; Heb. 2:9). Without man creation is futile and meaningless. Noticeably, it is initially uncovenanted. This suggests that until man begins to take on the image of God, to bear God’s likeness and to produce spiritual fruit, it lacks basic significance. So with man’s salvation ultimately in mind, God made a covenant with Noah guaranteeing creation’s preservation, but only until that plan of salvation was fulfilled (Gen. 8:22, cf. Isa. 54:9f.; Jer. 31:35-37; 33:20-26). In other words, animals along with their environment at best serve the interests of man. In themselves, like all flesh they are profitless. As Jesus was at pains to point out, birds (Mt. 10:29,31; Luke 12:24) and sheep (Mt. 12:12) lack the intrinsic value of man who can be destroyed both body and soul (Mt. 10:28). That it is why it is legitimate to kill animals but not man who acquires the image of God and is potentially like God (Gen. 9:6) as his child (Rom. 8:12-17; 1 John 3:1-3). When a man’s animal is killed, it is just a question of money (Ex. 21:33). In the same way only a fine is imposed when a foetus is killed (Ex. 21:22, contrast v.29. Note also the a minori ad maius (from the less to the greater) argument in Luke 14:5). This would seem to prove conclusively, despite what many anti-abortionists say, that an unself-conscious baby is not a person. It is only potentially so. (6* See further my Creation and / or Evolution)
In case we have missed the point, Jeremiah 12:3, 2 Peter 2:12 and Jude 10,13 (cf. Phil. 3:19) all indicate that exclusively fleshly animals were made to be caught and killed. After all, in the last analysis all flesh is grass (Isa. 40:6-8). As a famous Lincolnshire poet, near whose birthplace I myself was born, once pointed out, nature is red in tooth and claw. Thus, not only do profitless animals (cf. Heb. 9:9-14) serve as sacrifices in Israel’s cultic system, but both priests and people eat them with joy before God (Dt. 12:15-27, etc.). Like the carnivores themselves they receive their food from God (Job 38:39; Ps. 104:21, etc.). From this we must draw the conclusion that while animals as sentient beings have nervous systems similar to ours and clearly feel pain without which they could not survive, like babies they do not know it. They manifestly do not have self-consciousness. Their perceptions are purely sensory. If this is denied, it is hard indeed not to charge God with cruelty on a massive scale.
It may be replied of course that originally man was intended to feed solely on green plants (Gen. 1:29). This is hardly surprising since as children (7* In Genesis it would seem that Adam gained physical maturity, cf. 1 Cor. 15:46, but was never more than childlike spiritually, as Irenaeus suggested long before he was eclipsed by Augustine. Initially, like a baby Adam knew nothing, and since he lacked knowledge of (the) law, he was amoral like the rest of the animal creation. Later, however, as he developed like a child he received only one commandment which he broke. Since he was the paradigm, cf. Gen. 5:1-3, of all his posterity, they in their turn followed transgenerationally in his tread. In their childhood they are taught the commandment by their parents, cf. Dt. 4:9; Ps. 78:5f.; Prov. 1:8; 4:1-9; 6:20, and, needless to say, they break it. Paul is a case in point, Rom. 7:9f. Pace those who say he teaches original sin!), after being initially nourished on milk, they tend to find meat-eating somewhat beyond their capacity. It was because like all animals he had developed physically that man was later granted the privilege of extending his diet. That same development was evident earlier in the case of Eve who as she gained self-consciousness and moral awareness became increasingly aware of pain in childbirth. After all, how could her pain ‘increase’ if she had never experienced any (Gen. 3:16)? Clearly as a corporate figure in the flesh she had experienced minimal birth pangs as all animals apparently do. In other words, sin has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation except in the sense that awareness of good and evil reflects growth in both moral and physical self-consciousness. The two are concurrent and interconnected.
The Two Adams
It is at this point that we recognize just how ludicrous is the fundamentalist idea that God created Adam in one literal day yet made him appear to be fully mature. If he did, deception apart, then he was not the father of the second Adam who was born in his image as a baby (Luke 3:38, cf. Gen. 5:1-3). The obvious truth is that Adam, like Eve, though conveniently portrayed as an individual, was also a corporate figure who had fleshly forebears lacking self-consciousness like babies. The development or evolution of both the individual and the corporate man (Adam) is intrinsic to the human condition. If the one is subject to development and growth, so is the other (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; Eph. 4:11-16). In scientific language, ontogeny reflects phylogeny and recapitulates it. Denial of this implies that the individual does not belong to the race. Worse still, if the individual Jesus did not paradigmatically portray and represent the race, he could not have died for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2, cf. Eph. 1:10) which happens to include an innumerable multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language (Rev. 7:9).
So when it is announced in Genesis 9:3 in contrast with 1:29 that meat is on the menu the reason is not the effect of the “Fall” and the Flood as Augustinians argue but human development. Furthermore, it is not exactly without significance that spiritual food is metaphorically regarded as flesh in Scripture (John 6:55, cf. 1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12,14). Nowhere is it suggested that human carnivorousness is a concession like divorce to sinful man. After all, Jesus himself was accused by his enemies of being a wine bibber and a glutton, and it was precisely he who declared all meats (food) clean (Mark 7:19, cf. Acts 10:12, etc.). He was by no means under an OT Nazirite oath as John the Baptist was. Furthermore, like Paul who clearly learned from him, he was not one of those spiritually immature people who thought that human diet should be purely vegetable (cf. Rom. 14:13-23; 1 Cor. 8-10), though, as we saw above, at the end of the day all flesh is grass (1 Pet. 1:24). (According to Paul a person has a right to be vegetarian provided he/she is not critical of those who do not wish to be.)
Sensitive Christians who love animals are not unnaturally anthropomorphic in their attitude. But while abuse of animals ought to be offensive to us who are intended to be the stewards of creation, as Christians we must guard against unbiblical thinking. The picture of the animals painted by Isaiah in chapter 11:6-9 may appeal to the sentimental but it is symbolic not literal. It is an OT intimation of the harmony of heaven, the ultimate restoration (Acts 3:21), but hardly realistic in itself. For in the kingdom of God, corruptible flesh cannot dwell (1 Cor. 15:50), not ours and certainly not that of Jesus who though he is still man shares the glory of God (John 17:5,24; Phil. 3:21, etc.). (See additional note below.)
The tragedy of the church is that it is governed more by tradition than the Bible. The sin-saturated Augustinian worldview is manifestly false. It needs to be recognized that the physically visible ‘hand-made’ material creation including man and animal alike (Is. 45:11f.) is temporary, corruptible and destructible by nature irrespective of sin (Rom. 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 15:42-50; Heb. 1:10-12; 12:27, etc.). Far from needing to be redeemed because it has been marred by man’s rebellion, the temporary creation which includes all flesh was destined to destruction from the start. What has a beginning must have an end. And the sooner we realize this, the better. With massive earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and the rest, the sheer shakability of creation ought to be obvious to all who read the Bible, especially the book of Hebrews. We have been amply warned and like the OT saints we ought to find our refuge in God himself (Ps. 18:2,31,46, etc.). Now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).
Finally, with animal predation in the wild displayed almost daily before our eyes on TV (Sir David Attenborough and his ilk), we need to learn its lesson while there is time.
Parents, mothers especially, are obviously distressed by the death of their babies. However, their death has no moral significance. Since unself-conscious babies do not know the law, they are not accountable (Rom. 3:19; 4:15). Like animals, they are simply victims of a corruptible creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12). Like Adam and Eve, by definition they initially have no knowledge of law and of good and evil (cf. Dt. 1:39). So while as flesh they are certainly not damned as Augustine imagined, by the same token they are not ‘saved’ since (a) they do not know the law that promises life, and (b) they cannot exercise faith in order to please God (Heb. 11:6). They are at the start unprofitable flesh (John 6:63) and flesh does not go to heaven (John 3:1-8; 1 Cor. 15:50).
On the other hand, the Bible presents God as being distressed by his ‘babies’ in Genesis 6:6. Why? Because they were adult rational ‘babies’ and clearly sinners. They were like fruitless trees even in autumn, the time of harvest (Jude 12, cf. 2 Pet. 2:12-16). As such they deserved to be destroyed (cf. Heb. 6:7f.). The same will be true at the end of the age when all those who have pandered exclusively to their flesh like animals will reap inevitable corruption (Gal. 6:8; 1 Cor. 6:9f., etc.).
R.J.Berry, Real Scientists Real Faith, Oxford, 2009.
C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4, Phillipsburg, 2006.