I am a dedicated vegetarian. I do not eat meat of any kind and have maintained this lifestyle for over two years. Although Christian vegetarians are rare, my faith plays a predominant factor in my lifestyle choice. Of course, it is true that I have a significant emotionally-driven concern and love for animals. It has been this way ever since I was young. However, as an individual who believes I am living in God’s creation, respecting all life upon this planet God has graciously given us is of ultimate concern to me. For this reason, I strongly condemn ecological exploitation and destruction, advocate against violence, and call for the ethical treatment of all animals. Earth belongs to God, not me, so I wish to treat it respectfully as his sacred possession.
Interestingly enough, my vegetarianism has recently presented a kind of paradox for my faith. If vegetarianism is so great, why did God create through a process of evolution that involves so much predation? Is predation against God’s ideal for creation? And significantly: how do I handle the fact that Jesus wasn’t a vegetarian? (I have a post coming soon about the issue of God creating through evolution, so I will answer that question later).
The problem can be summarized in the following argument:
- Actions that fall short of God’s ideal are sinful.
- Predation (i.e. killing another animal and consuming it’s flesh) falls short of God’s ideal.
- Jesus engaged in predation (i.e. Jesus ate the flesh of another species that had been killed for food).
- Therefore, Jesus sinned.
Premise 1 is a well-familiar position within Christianity. It is often taught the word “sin” literally means “missing the mark.” What mark is missed? God’s ideal. For example, many debates about the issue of homosexual marriage within the church revolve around the problem of whether or not heterosexual marriage is God’s ideal design. Often, individuals say that since homosexual marriage does not conform to God’s ideal design for marriage, it is then sinful. (Notice: I am not taking a side for or against homosexual marriage. This is merely an example).
The support for Premise 2 is derived from the creation accounts in Genesis and from common Christian hope of the eschaton. Genesis 1 and 2 portray God’s created plan involving fruits and vegetables as the only food source. Consuming meat is not given approval until after the Fall in Genesis 9:3-4 (more on this later). Furthermore, Christians hope that in the eschaton God will establish a peace so profound that “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” (Isaiah 11:6 ESV). Considerations from the end of the book of Revelation (and perhaps other passages that I will not now take the time to list because this is only a blog post; feel free to fact check me, though) seem to picture a world free from suffering. If the world is truly meant to be free from suffering, it is hard to image that the current, predatory state of affairs will also exist.
Premise 3 seems true in all probability. Jesus was a devout first-century Jew, which means he most definitely partook in the Passover meal, which involved eating lamb. It is, of course, hypothetically possible that Jesus never actually ate any lamb during the Passover. And maybe he also refrained from eating meat of any kind, and the Gospel accounts just never mentioned this. But I find such a position highly improbable.
Premise 4 is obviously wrong if one accepts orthodox Christianity, which maintains that Jesus was without sin. I personally believe Jesus was sinless. Therefore, since Premise 3 is true, we must deny either Premise 1 or 2 to avoid 4.
Most Christians, by their lifestyle if not consciously, deny Premise 2. It is commonly held that predation does not fall short of God’s ideal. Many Christians maintain that God provided us with animals to eat, and we have dominion over them, so we should have no problem consuming meat.
Another option is to take a Young Earth Creationist position, and maintain that meat-eating was never originally part of God’s plan. Predation is the result of the Earth being cursed by humanity’s sin. In dealing with humanity’s sin, God allowed humans to consume flesh — albeit in a limited sense (Genesis 9:3-4).
Those are possible responses, and definitely the most popular, but I find them unsatisfactory. First, I believe we possess authority over animals the way parents possess authority over their children. Just like in parental situations, there are legitimate and immoral ways to express that authority. Likewise, there are both legitimate and immoral ways to inact authority over animals. Much of human predation — at least in modern society — falls under the immoral category.
Second, the idea that God created animals for humanity to eat is found neither in the Bible nor in our evolutionary history. As mentioned earlier, the biblical testimony only includes vegetarianism/veganism as created by God. Nowhere does it state that God created animals for food. That is an accommodation to the sin of Adam and Eve, not God’s ideal.
Furthermore, from an evolutionary perspective, we know that predation existed hundreds of millions of years before humanity ever emerged. Thus, millions of predatory years ensued without serving any purpose for humans.
And from a theological standpoint, I do not accept Genesis 1-11 as literal. I strongly doubt Adam and Eve existed (though I respect some still believe in them while also believing in evolution; that’s just not a position I take). And we have no certainty as to whether or not Noah existed as a literal figure in history. Thus, it is far from certain (maybe, perhaps, even doubtable) that God actually gave a specific commandment to eat meat.
Additionally, I do not believe God actually commanded animal sacrifice. I will not get into arguing this point now, but I take Jesus seriously in Matthew 9:13 when he says: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice'” (ESV). I also believe there is biblical witness stating that animal sacrifice is not God’s desire (e.g. Isaiah 1:11 and Amos 5:21).
I strongly believe there are many ways we can unethically treat animals. One of the primary ways we do this today is through the meat industry, in which millions of animals live in inhumane conditions and then are slaughtered in an unethical manner. Such instances of predation strike me as blatantly immoral and disrespectful to creatures that God loves, cherishes, and cares about. After all, not a sparrow will fall to ground without our heavenly Father knowing about it (Matthew 10:29). Unfortunately, animals in the meat industry don’t merely fall to the ground, but are often violently slaughtered after numerous days of psychological torment. I assume their screams are not pleasing to God’s ear.
Perhaps, then, we could reformulate Premise 2: “Refraining from the slaughtering of animals is God’s ideal.” Thus, the issue is not eating meat, but the actual killing of animals. Consider the instance of Jesus feeding the five-thousand. There seems to me nothing morally wrong with God miraculously creating some dead fish that people eat. Quite literally, no animals were harmed in that production.
We have no record of Jesus killing any animals. It’s possible he only ate meat of animals he didn’t kill. But this brings up another issue: Does it fall short of God’s ideal to purchase meat from others who kill animals? Whether or not we answer this question may depend upon context and circumstance.
For example, I — as a vegetarian — believe it is not moral to purchase meat from a company that treats animals inhumanely. However, such a stance may only apply to us moderns. Perhaps consuming meat is morally permissible in a situation where it is not an option to avoid eating meat without risking starvation or serious malnutrition. It is possible that Jesus, as a poor peasant, was in such a situation.
This point may be illuminated by another example. Stealing is thought to almost always be wrong. But is purchasing items that were acquired by the tradesman via theft a sin? It may possibly be morally permissible if the individual purchasing some stolen food has no other option. If a single mother is struggling to find food for her children, and her only option is to purchase food from a thief, most people would not condemn her.
Maybe, since Jesus was so poor, a vegetarian diet was not feasible to him. It may still then be immoral for us in our context to consume meat from inhumane companies, but this does not apply to Jesus. Thus, Premise 2 can be changed, and we can avoid Premise 4. That seems a legitimate route to take. However, I actually have inclination to deny Premise 1.
First, we must consider what is meant by “God’s ideal.” If God’s ideal refers to what God requires in a given circumstance, then ‘God’s ideal’ is a term that will be relative to various contexts and cannot be ascribed a priori but must be assessed ‘in the moment.’ Thus, talk of ‘God’s ideal’ is not a definite term and only makes sense if there is a concrete example in front of us. In regards to our meat-eating problem, this would lead us to a similar solution to one we’ve already arrived.
However, it seems more probable to maintain that God possessed an ultimate goal/ideal in creating the universe, which would be an a priori, teleological end — rather than merely a term applying to individual circumstances within the creation. Christian theology typically hold’s that God’s ultimate plan is a world of justice and happiness in accordance with morality. Thus, our first conception of God’s ideal may not be entirely accurate.
The other option in defining God’s ideal is to follow Immanuel Kant’s notion of the Highest Good. Kant believed that the Highest Good is when justice and happiness are instantiated in the world in direct appropriation to morality. This Highest Good is a morally binding imperative at all times, but it is impossible to realize in our finite existence — it awaits us only at the eschaton. Our inability to actualize the Highest Good in this age might be considered a form of ‘total depravity.’ If we wish to live according to God’s ideal, we would have to perform the best possible action in every context (‘best possible’ here should be understood in the broad, metaphysical sense, not just in an individual situation). This seems impossible because (1) the best possible action may not be available to us (think of Sophie’s Choice). Or, more persuasively, (2) the Highest Good involves an equal distribution of justice and happiness in accordance with morality, and bringing about such consequences of our actions is impossible. That is why we await for this moment as an act of God at the eschaton).
Consequently, if falling short of God’s ideal qua the Highest Good is a sin, then it means Jesus was a sinner (contra orthodoxy) because Jesus performed certain actions that did not result in an equal distribution of justice and happiness. For example, the temple protest most likely did not ultimately stop the money exchangers, and it certainly did not make everyone happy.
We may avoid this unwanted conclusion by stating that not all instances which fall short of God’s ideal are sinful (contra Premise 1). Therefore, we have a moral imperative to work towards the ideal, and we are sustained in God’s mercy as we fail, but not every instance of falling short of the Highest Good is a sin. We must make do with what is given to us and attempt to make progress toward the Highest Good. Thus, even though Jesus’ life did not instantiate the Highest Good, he was still not sinful.
Additionally, it seems to me that there are plenty of non-moral instances which fall short of God’s ideal. Examples may include body deformities or illness (especially pre-existing conditions).
Also, consider a victim of any form of abuse. Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse causes much psychological trauma to the victim. Undoubtably, possessing such psychological trauma is not God’s ideal. However, we would not maintain that a victim is sinning for being traumatized. A similar example would be a victim of a terrorist attack struggling with PTSD. Thus, there are many instances that fall short of God’s ideal that are not sinful (contra Premise 1).
If this is the case, then Premise 1 is false, which allows us to avoid Premise 4.
There are two final objections I will discuss. The first of which comes from a vegan perspective. The second concerns vegetarianism.
Some of my vegan friends may take further issue with the concept of Jesus consuming animal products of any kind, e.g. cheese, milk, and eggs, which a first-century peasant would have likely eaten. Some propose that animals possess a strong autonomy over the productions of their bodies, and for humans to consume those products violates the animal’s autonomy. Such violation is said to be immoral. Thus, if Jesus violated an animal’s autonomy, then he sinned.
First, one might reply that the solution to our problem of meat eating given earlier simply applies to all forms of consuming animal products. Limiting a first-century peasant to a vegan diet seems an almost unsurmountable burden.
However, we may also deny that animals have absolute autonomy over what they produce. May I first clarify that what I am NOT proposing is that we may use any means necessary to obtain e.g. milk from cows. Keeping cows in inhumane living conditions to obtain their milk is morally wrong. However, in a more natural living condition (as would be the case for a first-century peasant), we might consider the consuming of animal products like milk to be part of a symbiotic relationship. The owner of the cow or goat provides food, shelter, protection, and potentially a relationship for the animal. In return, the animal provides milk. Personally, I don’t see anything morally wrong with such a picture if the cow or goat is treated ethically.
We might say that since falling short of God’s ideal is not a sin, then predation in-itself (which seems to fall short of God’s ideal) is not sinful and thus vegetarianism is pointless. However, I object that just because one falls short of God’s ideal does not mean that one automatically sinless. Murder most definitely falls short of God’s ideal, and it is sinful.
We may clarify the first objection to vegetarianism by stating that Jesus ate meat, so it is a particular instance of falling short of God’s ideal that is not sinful.
Contrarily, actions are performed within a given context, which can have a profound effect upon whether or not those actions are morally wrong. For example, feeding your child broccoli is a morally good thing to do because broccoli is good for his or her health. But if your child is deathly allergic to broccoli, the action is now morally wrong. My point is this: merely stating that Jesus performed a certain action does not automatically give us permission to likewise perform that action if it is being performed in a drastically different context. If Jesus purchased or traded for clothing in the first-century, it does not mean it is permissible for me to purchase clothing if obtaining such clothing provides financial support to a company that oppresses children overseas in sweatshops.
The moral question confronting us is the issue of consuming meat in the 21st century. The basic vegetarian position is that it is morally wrong to provide financial support to a meat industry that keeps animals in inhuman living conditions and slaughters them via unethical means. Jesus did not face such circumstances. Furthermore, although we have no historical access to this hypothetical, it may be reasonable to postulate that a compassionate, loving, and moral person like Jesus would have refused to support butchers in his own day if they engaged in some kind of unethical treatment of animals. We don’t know that for sure, but it seems well within his character.
I’d like to end with a quote from C.S. Lewis’s Problem of Pain (pg. 142): “Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right.”