The God of the Bible is a god of justice, which is why Christians have historically fought for justice for marginalized populations, whether that be the poor, oppressed, or the unborn. I believe the protection of animals aligns with this traditional Christian ethic. For these vulnerable groups, the danger is not that society hates them, but is instead apathetic about their sufferings. Thankfully God has used Christians in history as voices for the voiceless, to raise awareness and work towards justice. One famous example is William Wilberforce, an evangelical, who not only campaigned successfully to end the British slave trade, but also helped create the first animal welfare organization.
Human beings are called by God to be good stewards of his creation. As such, we are to balance our dominion over animals with the duty of caring for and respecting their lives. The past century has brought about significant changes in our global treatment of animals that I believe should cause us to strongly reconsider our personal and societal responsibilities towards animals. I’ll briefly discuss an uncontroversial Christian view of animals, then argue for a more obliging view of animals given our 21st century situation.
Why care about animals? The creation account in Genesis gives Christians the most straightforward reason for caring about animals: God cares about animals. They are a valuable part of his creation. Before creating humans, God creates creatures to fill the skies and waters. God tells this first set of animals to, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth” (Genesis 1:22). This constitutes both a blessing and a command, implying that at least before the fall, God had a direct relationship and seemingly a shared language with the animals he created. Then God creates creatures to fill the land also, and sees that it is good, independently of humans.
After creating animals, God creates humans. He distinctly creates humans “in our image, after our likeness,” with the imago Dei, and gives them a divine injunction called the cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). God uniquely entrusts humans to be his vice-regents over the planet, to “subdue” the earth and to “have dominion over” every other living creature in it. This authority we’ve been given by God and the command to steward his creation should be taken seriously and exercised humbly. God then tells them, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on 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 heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (1:29−30). God graciously sustains animals, which are said to have “the breath of life” like humans. We also see here God’s perfect plan for creation; before sin and death, God gave only plants as food for both humans and animals.
Then humans sin. As a consequence of the fall, their relationship to nature is disrupted. They would no longer enjoy the abundance of the garden of Eden but have to toil for their food (Genesis 3:17−19). After the flood, God tells humans for the first time that, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:3−4). Right after this, God establishes the Noahic Covenant with humans and animals together (9:8−17). (Because of sin, animals would also be offered as sacrifices, but Jesus’ ultimate atoning death ended that sacrificial system.) Even in the postlapsarian world, Proverbs 12:10 reflects God’s hope for how humans are to treat animals: “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast.”
There is no biblical justification for saying that meat-eating is sinful. The Levitical dietary laws meant for the nation of Israel were included in the fulfillment of the law by Jesus (Matthew 5:17, Hebrews 9:8−10), and on top of that Jesus declares all food clean (Mark 7:19, Acts 10:9−16). Paul reiterates that God accepts men regardless of what they eat (Romans 14:3). However, there are additional factors to weigh when thinking about animals today.
Historical and cultural context helps us in our understanding of Christian ethics. The Bible’s references to historical cultural realities are not equivalent to endorsements; just because something took place in the Bible does not mean it should be practiced similarly today. Applied today, the subjugation of women and acceptance of slavery present in the Bible would be appalling. I’ll look at the contexts of women and slaves in biblical times to make a similar comparison between the treatment of animals back then and our treatment of animals now.
Old Testament regulations and practices appear unfair towards women, with shocking laws like those concerning rape found in Deuteronomy 22. Polygamy and concubinage were also common, practiced even by Israel’s patriarchs and kings like Abraham, David, and Solomon. These facts are generally understood to be factors of the patriarchal society in ancient times rather than God’s intention for women or marriage. The Apostle Paul even makes a prescription for women to wear head coverings as a sign of submission to their husbands’ headship (1 Corinthians 11). Despite his appeal to creation, most Christians disregard this practice, citing a difference in culture. In today’s society, where women have achieved equal rights, we can contextualize the unjust treatment of women found in the Bible and understand that it not intended for us to replicate.
While God forbade the Israelites from kidnapping (Deuteronomy 24:7) and slave trading is a sin (1 Timothy 1:10), slavery in general is not condemned in scripture. That’s why the Bible was used to justify slavery in the past. Paul directs slaves in Colossae, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22), and he also returns the runaway slave Onesimus to his master Philemon (Philemon 1:8−20). Slavery was endemic in the ancient world, but the debt-slavery we read about—while still harsh—was very different from the racist Western chattel slavery which people today are most familiar with. So, while slavery does not receive the condemnation we might want or expect in the Bible, no Christian would defend slavery as we know it today.
Seeing how historical differences are sufficient to shift Christian opinion about issues found but not necessarily endorsed in scripture, I think we can apply that same logic to the treatment of animals. In antiquity, animals were livestock: used as food, material, labor, and transport. All of these uses were necessary given the technological limitations at the time. Livestock meant livelihood and subsistence for many. We live in the 21st century, where most people rarely need to come into contact with animals. The necessity of personal animal use like that of antiquity is long gone. Today we have factory farming (where 99% of US meat comes from). We perform awful experiments on animals. We hunt them for sport. We use their fur and skin for fashion. These and other practices of today’s animal−industrial complex cause immense animal suffering, and our physical separation from the practices themselves doesn’t lessen their severity. Modern society’s detached animal usage has undeniably diverged drastically from the animal husbandry of biblical times, and I believe that it warrants a sincere reexamination of our relationship to animals and what we accept.
If Jesus visited a modern slaughterhouse, filled with animals we’ve bred into captivity only to slaughter, do we think he’d compliment us on our ingenuity and ruthless efficiencies? Is that what he meant by dominion? I think the answer is clearly no. We know that God created animals and cares for them as he does all of his creation, and shows them the same common grace as humankind. To obey God’s mandate we must take our dominion seriously, but unfortunately we tend to exhibit cognitive dissonance when it comes to animals’ suffering. I believe our view of animals can be restored though. In addition to avoiding direct harm, protecting animals today would also involve opposition to their current treatment and proportional activism on their behalf. Today it is easy to live a comfortable life while avoiding most animal products, so one simple way to take action is by not financially supporting and creating demand for industries that kill, abuse, or exploit animals on a massive scale. I choose to do this by being vegan. Anyone can do this with a few small changes to their habits.