Whenever I talk about God’s love for animals with a fellow believer, the discussion often hinges on the concept of permission. It becomes about what God permits rather than what God wants. In matters pertaining to stewardship of animals, I have come to notice an almost tangible resistance to doing more than the minimum that is required to get into heaven. This is disheartening to me because in my estimation it holds us back from a greater understanding of God and his awesome power of love for all creation. It also hinders us from giving a more accurate witness toward those who don’t know God and who desperately need salvation in their lives. I have a lot to say on this topic, so let’s begin by addressing the question head-on.
Do we have permission to kill animals and eat them?
“Every moving thing that lives will be food for you. As the green plants, I have given everything to you” (Genesis 9:3).
First of all, it is unclear in this passage whether God is granting permission to eat animals or whether he is merely warning us of what will happen. The context of this passage is Noah exiting the ark and immediately killing animals as an offering to God, without any prompting by God for Noah to do so. God then warns Noah that the animals will be afraid and that this fear is tied to Noah seeing them as food. It makes sense to read Genesis 9:3 as part of that warning rather than to read it as permission, but most defenses of killing animals for food point to this passage first and take it to be incontrovertible evidence that God desires us to kill and eat animals. Or even worse, they ignore Genesis 1:29 and claim that the sole purpose for God creating animals was for us to kill and eat them!
Secondly, even if we assume God is granting permission to eat meat, the very next sentence emphatically qualifies the previous one. God says, “However, you are not to eat meat with its life—that is, its blood—in it!” (Genesis 9:4). Based on this qualification, it sounds as though God is warning us not to eat animals that are alive. It would make some amount of sense for God to permit Noah to eat the dead bodies of the animals that were destroyed in the flood, i.e. to allow for people to be scavengers for a period of time before the trees began producing fruit again for them to eat. But nowhere here does God grant us permission to kill animals.
Jews interpreted this passage as meaning God just wants us to drain all the blood out of the animal’s body after killing them, before eating them. This interpretation became the basis of their animal sacrifice laws that were intended to cover up (i.e. “atone for”) their transgressions, which according to God were very many. But anyone who thinks about the matter for more than a few seconds or who has attempted to do this will realize that it’s impossible to completely drain an animal’s body of all its blood. So either God was permitting something impossible and therefore not actually permitting it at all or God was actually referring to something other than a peculiar request to drain the blood from the animal’s body before eating it. My reading is that God was clarifying that we are not to kill animals to eat them.
Thirdly, even if we assume God was granting permission to eat animals and we also assume that the qualification was simply to drain the blood out of the animal’s body before eating it, all that has been established is that God has permitted it. It says nothing about what God desires us to do or what God prefers. In fact, when Noah started killing animals and God warned him of the animal fear that would result from him seeing them as food, God described the state of affairs as evil, saying “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21), which is exactly the same description God gave about the world in Genesis 6:5 that resulted in the flood in the first place!
If we compare this description to that of Genesis 1:31 in Eden where God created all things and placed man and woman in charge as stewards over all creation, God described the state of affairs as “very good”. So even though Noah was described as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time” and that “he walked faithfully with God (Genesis 6:9),” God still described every inclination of Noah’s heart as evil! This leads me to believe that whatever permission may or may not have been granted, God still very clearly prefers us to be merciful toward animals and to not see them as food, just as the way things were in Eden when everything was, according to God, very good.
Doesn’t the New Testament also grant us permission?
“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4).
A primary concern for the apostles was to avoid divisions from occurring within the early churches. Jewish and Gentile converts carried very different traditions with them and were raised with some very different beliefs around what practices are acceptable or unacceptable to God. One such practice that was common at the time was to sacrifice animals as an offering to idols or to pagan gods just as the Jews would offer such sacrifices to their own God. In the eyes of the Jews, it was seen as blasphemy not only to make such sacrifices to idols or to false gods but also merely to eat foods that had been offered in this way. There were also strict dietary laws among Jews concerning which animals were “clean” and which were “unclean” to eat. These issues were pressing and were a major point of contention in the early churches. The apostles would often play the role of peacemakers and offer perspective to both sides that would allow them to continue on as brothers and sisters in Christ instead of being divided.
Concerning the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols or to false gods, or food considered to be unclean due to Jewish traditions, Paul made it clear that none of these dietary restrictions were of concern to God as long as the food was eaten from faith and with thanksgiving. I laid out the context of this debate because it’s important to know that it centered around idolatry, not around mercy for animals or God’s love for animals. So if someone uses such passages as justification for killing animals and eating them, they are taking the passage out of context and at best extrapolating from some underlying principle. The fact of the matter is that Paul said nothing at all about whether God loves or doesn’t love animals or whether we should act violently or mercifully toward them. It simply wasn’t an issue that came up. With that said, even if we assume Paul was suggesting that killing animals and eating them is permissible, let’s consider what Paul said we ought to do in order to overcome issues surrounding food.
In Romans 14:15 Paul says, “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.” This was again referring to eating food offered to idols. If a Gentile convert would do this and it caused a Jewish convert distress, that Gentile convert is no longer acting from love. And even if we grant that what Paul had to say about food in the context of idols also applies to those who kill animals merely for the pleasure of eating their dead bodies, the prescription would be to stop doing it out of concern for your brothers and sisters who are distressed over the suffering of the animals being slaughtered.
I stopped eating meat nearly fifteen years ago, shortly after I became baptized as a believer, and I have since talked to literally thousands of animal advocates who almost universally have turned to atheism or some other form of new age spirituality as a direct result of the church’s complete lack of concern for the suffering of animals. I hear over and over again from people who grew up in the church and then fell away, saying that if we serve a merciful God whose essence is love, then why do we not extend that love to animals? My only response is that we absolutely should and that we are falling short! We are causing people to fall away from the faith because we use scripture to justify our acts of cruelty toward animals. We would do better to follow the advice Paul suggested when he says, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall” (Romans 14:21).
If you accept the authority of scripture, you would likely agree that Paul’s advice is good and noble, but you might still appeal to the notion of permission, claiming that God has given you the right to do it and so you feel free to continue in the practice of killing animals to eat their flesh. In his treatment of the issue to the church in Corinth Paul wrote, “’I have the right to do anything’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). After admitting that we are free in Christ to do all things, he tells us to use discernment to guide our freedom.
If we are using our freedom to create a stumbling block for others, in this case fulfilling the desires of our flesh to eat meat at the cost of keeping others from coming to know Jesus, are we really being guided by God’s holy spirit? Can we honestly say we are acting out of love? I can tell you for certain from my own testimony that many today are turning toward atheism because they have a heart for animals and because every believer they talk to justifies their lack of concern for animals by pointing out a scripture that makes it sound like God doesn’t care about animals. We would do much better to respond the way Paul did when he says, “if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:13). And what greater sin could someone possibly fall into than to turn away from God altogether!?
What would Jesus do?
While it could be interpreted that Paul granted us permission to kill and eat animals, he also said it is better not to if doing so causes people to fall away from God. And as I have mentioned, there are many people in the world today who want nothing to do with God solely because of how believers portray him. Such people genuinely have a heart for animals and a desire to be merciful toward them. Yet they see the church as fighting against them and justifying acts of cruelty toward animals in the name of God. This is a travesty in so many ways! Apostle John said, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). So if atheist animal advocates are fighting on the side of love and mercy toward animals and the church is fighting on the side of cruelty and oppression toward animals, then how in the world are these atheists going to come to know Jesus? If that weren’t bad enough, the truth of the matter is that God does want us to love animals, to be merciful toward them, and to not kill them or eat them! God wants our mercy to extend toward animals, as it says in Proverbs 12:10, “The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.”
Jesus gave us an overarching principle by which to guide us in all we do when he said to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, when Jesus was asked in Luke 10:29 by an expert in the law, “And who is my neighbor?” he responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, a story in which a priest and a Levite avoided a person who was robbed and in need of help, but then finally a Samaritan stopped to offer help. Jesus asked the questioner, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). The questioner replied, “The one who had mercy on him,” to which Jesus responded, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Notice how Jesus did not directly answer the question? He didn’t say that every human being within a one mile radius is your neighbor. Instead he told a story with carefully chosen characters. In his time the priests and the Levites were considered the holiest people in the land. They were essentially seen as mediators between God and God’s people. In contrast, Samaritans were considered third class citizens that shouldn’t even be associated with, let alone have any standing with God. Yet Jesus highlighted the contrast in attitudes between the characters to drive home the point that God is primarily concerned with us acting mercifully toward others and, by comparison, could not care less about our standing in society or our titles within the religious establishment.
If I were to retell the story of the Good Samaritan but change the characters to highlight the same point today that Jesus made to the expert of the law in the Gospel of Luke, it would go something like this:
A baby calf was born on the dairy farm of a well-respected pastor of a church. The baby was too feeble to stand on her own, so the pastor threw her into a wheelbarrow and then dumped her by the side of the road to be picked up by a transport truck and brought to the slaughter house the next morning. As the baby calf lay alone by the roadside, a church elder happened to come jogging by. Hearing the cries of the baby calf, he diverted his path to the other side of the road and continued on. Then an atheist was riding her bicycle along the road and saw the calf clinging to life by the side of the road. So she stopped, crouched down, and held the calf in her arms and gave her a kiss. She then hurried home to get her truck and returned to pick up the calf and drove her several miles to the nearest animal clinic, pleading them to nurse her back to health and agreeing to pay all the expenses. The next day the atheist made phone calls to local animal sanctuaries until she found one that could take her in. And so she then picked up the calf from the clinic and drove her to the sanctuary where the calf lived out a full and happy life for many years. Which of these three was a neighbor to the baby calf?
Our neighbors aren’t just the people who live next door. We share the earth with all of God’s creatures. God did not create the earth just for mankind. He created it for people and animals to inhabit together (Genesis 1:20-31). If God is love and his holy spirit is described in Galatians 5:22-23 as “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” then as temples of the holy spirit and ambassadors of Christ, we ought to take the lead in showing love toward all of God’s creatures.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:41 to go the extra mile, doing more than is required. God loves animals. He makes covenant promises with them (Genesis 9:15, Hosea 2:18), just as he does with us. He watches over them (Psalm 147:9, Matthew 6:26), just as he does us. He receives praise from them (Revelation 5:13, Psalm 150:6), just as he does from us. And he wants us to love them (Genesis 1:26-31, 1 Peter 4:8), just as he loves us.
Now is the time to put away our cruelty toward animals and to open our eyes and our hearts to the love God has for all creation. Putting the desires of the flesh above mercy has gone on long enough. It is time to show the world how real and how powerful God’s love truly is. The animal advocate atheists don’t know about the future God promises when he says, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the baby goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). They believe the world is forever doomed to a perpetual state of war and predation. They don’t remember how things were in the beginning in Eden, nor do they know that Jesus is the way out of this fallen world. While they have compassion in their hearts, they have no hope. We have an opportunity to bring these lost brothers and sisters of ours back to God and all that is required is to love animals the way God does.
Brothers and sisters, let us stop making it about permission and start making it about love—
For those who are lost and without hope,
For the animals living in fear, and
For God who loves us all.