Vegetarianism, Animal Rights and Christian Ethics

A visit to a neighborhood pet store may not often be the scene for raising profound theological questions, but that is exactly what happened to me several years ago. The store featured an impressive collection of exotic reptiles, including a number of large snakes. The largest of these snakes was a sixteen foot Burmese python whom the store’s employees “affectionately” referred to as “Big Maw.”

As it happened, it was also feeding day for the snakes. Although I knew that they were to be fed live rodents, I really was not prepared for the spectacle as a large rabbit was places in “Big Maw’s” cage. Immediately, the huge snake grabbed the rabbit and for the first (and hopefully, the last) time in my life, I actually heard a rabbit scream in pain. I continued to watch for about twenty minutes as the python lay there, coiled around the rabbit’s now lifeless carcass. This sight stayed ingrained in my mind for quite some time, giving even this lifelong meat-eater reason for pause: Since animals are God’s creatures, why must the weaker animals suffer and die to serve the needs of the stronger ones?

From a biblical standpoint, we see that sin and death entered the world through Adam (Romans 5:12). Consequentially, the world lies under a horrible curse which brings untold suffering to every creature that inhabits it. Animals, who had no part in man’s sin, are innocent victims who suffer the consequences of the fall. Like us, they eagerly anticipate the day when this curse will finally be lifted (Romans 8:19-23).

The character of animals is a reflection of God’s glory (Job 39:20-28; Romans 1:20). In reading the creation account in the Book of Genesis, note that the animals were created before man. Their role was to be a helper to him. Also notice that the animals were the only part of the creation that Adam personally named. This would imply a very special relationship. Consider the following:

Animals were to be included in the celebration of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8).

God rebukes Balaam for abusing his donkey by giving the donkey the ability to speak (Numbers 22:30).

The prophet Nathan uses a family’s relationship with a pet to confront King David’s sin (2 Samuel 12:1-3).

God uses ravens to feed the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17).

A fish becomes an instrument of God’s provision for Jesus and His disciples. (Matthew 17:27)

During His time of temptation, Jesus receives comfort from the wild animals.(Mark 1:13)

The dogs show compassion to the beggar, Lazarus. (Luke 16:21)

In the meantime, however, the eating of meat remains a God-ordained practice. Jesus Himself was not a vegetarian. He ate fish (John 21:10-13), and He observed the Jewish Passover which involved the eating of lamb (Exodus 12:6-11). Furthermore, the Apostle Paul assures us that we are free to receive with thanksgiving the creatures God has given us to eat and enjoy (1 Timothy 4:1-5). While vegetarians were to be freely welcomed into the church family, it was still seen as a sign of weak faith (Romans 14:1-4). Nonetheless, “…from the beginning it was not so.”

God’s original diet for man was, in fact, a vegetarian diet (Genesis 1:30). The reason for this, obviously, was that death had not yet entered the world. Even after the fall, man continued to simply eat wild plants (Genesis 3:18,19). It was only after the flood that meat began to be used as food (Genesis 9:3). Later, the Levitical Law continued to allow the eating of meat, but with strict guidelines concerning “clean” and “unclean” animals (Leviticus 11:3-22, Deuteronomy 14:4-9). These are known as the Jewish laws of kashrut, or kosher. In addition, all meat animals had to be slaughtered in a swift, humane manner (Deuteronomy 12:21), and the eating of blood was strictly prohibited (Leviticus 7:26-27; 17:10-14) (1).

However, these laws were primarily a part of God’s Old Covenant dealings with the Jews. Although they may possess some practical health benefits, the kashrut laws were lifted in the New Testament, making all meats permissible as food (Acts 10:9-16; Romans 14:1-23: Colosians 2:14-17). So yes, it’s OK to have a BLT!

This is where balance is key. Man was given a position of dominion and authority over creation, including animals (Genesis 1:26, 28). Humans and animals are not equal. God sees humans as being of much higher value (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:7). At the same time, we must seek to view all of God’s creation, including animals, through His eyes. Yes, we are to have dominion but this is rooted in being a servant and a steward.

Which brings us to the question of what happens to animals when they die? Will our beloved pets be with us in Heaven? While the Bible does not give a concrete answer to this question, it does describe animals having a very prominent role in Christ’s future kingdom on earth:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf 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 cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6‭-‬9 ESV).

This beautiful future will one day be a reality for those who belong to Christ. Friend, if you have never opened your heart to Him, why not now?

Keep It Real,

James

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