If hot dogs were made of dogs, would you still eat one? If you’d asked me that question seven years ago (when I still ate meat), I would’ve answered with a firm (though puzzled) ‘no’. My previous answer fascinates me now because it highlights that our beliefs about what is (and is not) acceptable to eat typically derive from our cultural inheritance, rather than any Biblically informed ethic. After all, if, as we Christians might initially be tempted to think, it is okay to eat lambs and pigs because humans were given dominion over God’s creation (Genesis 1:26-28), then it will also be okay to eat cats and dogs, for nothing in Genesis (nor any other book in the Bible) suggests that lambs and pigs are for eating while cats and dogs are for cuddling. Yet most of us find the idea of eating cats and dogs horrific.
Recognising that such a mixed attitude towards animals – a desire to eat pigs and cuddle dogs– is a cultural inheritance which doesn’t obviously square with the Biblical idea of human dominion over animals is helpful; it gives us the chance to distance ourselves from those cultural beliefs and ask ourselves afresh what attitude towards animals the Bible most clearly teaches.
In sketching an answer to this question, let’s begin at the beginning, in the book of Genesis. Perhaps the portion of the Genesis creation narrative most relevant to this topic is Genesis 1:29-30:
God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.
In these verses, God institutes a plant-based diet for both humans and non-human animals alike. God, in other words, created the world vegan. And it is this vegan world which God proceeds to declare very good (Genesis 1:31).
What, then, of human dominion over all other creatures (Genesis 1:26-28)? Some have used the idea of human dominion to justify the eating of non-human animals: humans are allowed to eat other animals because humans were given dominion over other animals.
While we cannot deny that such thinking has been influential, there is one simple point which counts decisively against any such interpretation of ‘dominion’. This point is that humans are given dominion over other animals immediately prior to and as part of the very same narrative in which God gives humans a plant-based diet. Whatever ‘having dominion over’ means, then, if God’s subsequent institution of a plant-based diet is to make any sense, it cannot involve the permission to kill and eat animals: dominion simply does not mean complete and utter domination.
Just as the Bible’s account of creation’s beginnings depict an initial scenario free of violence, so does the Bible’s depictions of God’s intentions for the goal of creation. This is captured in the idea of the Peaceable Kingdom: a time in which the Messiah will reign, bringing universal peace and harmony: shalom. One of Isaiah’s descriptions of this Kingdom is particularly apt (Isaiah 11:6-8):
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
Here we see a clear statement that this Messianic Kingdom – for Christians, the Reign of God inaugurated by and to be summed up in Jesus – will feature no killing animals for food. This foreshadows the book of Revelation, where the renewal of all things is pictured as the new Jerusalem descending to this earth (Revelation 21-22). God’s ultimate project is to restore this creation to Himself, not to replace this creation with something else entirely. God values this creation, and every creature it contains – a point Jesus underscored when he noted that even sparrows, sold for mere pennies, were known to God (Matthew 10:29).
The Bible’s account of creation’s beginnings and its account of creation’s ultimate summing up both speak of peaceful living, peaceful eating. This is not to deny that there are passages which can and have been used to justify eating animals. These passages are best interpreted, however, in light of that overarching theme of peace, a theme embodied, of course, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible makes clear that at every turn, Jesus actively, though non-violently, resisted oppression and evil. He stood up for the marginalised, loved his enemies, and preached peace in the face of Roman violence and hostility.
How does this affect things? Well, in the light of Jesus’s life and work, we might, for example, be inclined to see God’s giving Noah and his family permission to eat some animals (Genesis 9:3) as a temporary concession to fallen, sinful humanity (especially given God’s repeated inclusion of animals in the Noahic covenant). Similarly, while Peter’s vision of the animals descending from heaven in Acts 10 might at first seem to justify the eating of “unclean” animals, when read in context and the light of Jesus’s mission, we see that Peter was actually being taught that the Gospel was for all peoples, even “unclean” Roman Centurions (what better way to get the attention of a hungry person (see Acts 10:10) than to use a food-based analogy?).
Most importantly, by focusing on Jesus and the ethic he embodied, we can situate ourselves in God’s story. We were made to live peacefully, and will one day inhabit God’s Peaceable Kingdom. Recognising these things, and remembering that many of our beliefs about animals stem not from the Bible but from cultural habit, might enable us to evaluate honestly the violence we are now implicated in, not so that we can condemn ourselves or be condemned by others – but so that we can turn from it, and join with God in seeking that Peaceable Kingdom. As we read the Bible, our prayer should be that God would deliver us from the evil of causing unnecessary violence to animals.
Dr Simon Kittle is a Christian philosopher with interests in philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, and a member of the Anglican Church.