Toward a Theology of Animal Care (Part 1)

Tizon, a resident of the Saint Louis Zoo.

Tizon, a resident of the Saint Louis Zoo.

After graduating from Covenant Theological Seminary, I had the privilege of working at the Saint Louis Zoo for a summer. I would often arrive at work early, so I could stroll around the zoo and observe the amazing variety of animals from around the globe. My favorites were the red pandas, the sea lions, and the big cats. One of the cats, a beautiful black jaguar named Tizon, had a particularly heart-breaking story. He had been rescued from a Mexican roadside circus, where he had lived in a cage not much larger than himself. As a result of his mistreatment, he suffered from irreparable psychological damage. On one occasion, the zookeepers tried breeding him with a female, but had to rescue her after he bit into her skull in an effort to kill her. Tizon will likely spend the rest of his days in solitude. [Update: Tizon passed away in January 2015.]

Stories like this make me ponder about the purpose of animals in God’s grand design, and what our responsibility is toward them. They are a glorious part of God’s good creation, and yet Scripture teaches that we are of greater value than they (Matt. 10:31). In light of these realities, how do we arrive at a proper Christian view of animal care? This is not a new subject, and I would encourage readers first to take a look at the two-part series at byFaith Magazine entitled, “The Chief End of Animals” by Ron Lutjens and Mike Williams. My goal here is to supplement the insights of these men, by offering a two-part post of my own on animal care. The first part will deal with the biblical and theological foundations of a proper view of animals, and the second part will deal with modern-day applications.

Biblical passages on animal care

The first place to turn in Scripture is, naturally enough, Genesis 1. In this passage, we read that animals are a part of God’s good creation. In their own unique way, they manifest the glory of God. The universe is designed as a place fit for their habitation, just as much as it is for our own habitation. Likewise, they are described as nephesh chayyah (“living soul/animated being”)—a term also used of humans. It is therefore inaccurate to say that humans have souls while animals do not. Rather, what distinguishes us from them is the fact that we alone have the image of God. There have been endless debates over what precisely constitutes the imago Dei. Is it some inherent property we possess? Is it some function we exercise? Or is it the relationships in which we share? I would refer readers to chapter 4 of C. John Collins’ commentary on Genesis 1-4, but the short answer is that we don’t have to see all these options as mutually exclusive. What is relevant for our purposes, however, is that humanity’s image-bearing entails exercising “dominion” over the creatures and “subduing” them (Gen. 1:26-28). We are not to exercise dominion in a careless or tyrannical way, but rather in humble recognition that these creatures are gifts from God. In other words, our dominion should reflect God’s dominion.

The biblical story progresses in the Noahic covenant of Genesis 9. As Williams observes, God’s judgment in the flood is followed by a covenant of peace in which all creatures (not merely humans) are participants. God reaffirms his commitment to his creation, vowing never again to destroy it. He also reaffirms humanity’s role as his image-bearers, but the relationship between humans and animals is now transformed in fundamental ways. Animals are now filled with fear and dread of humanity; and in turn, humans are now authorized to eat their meat. This raises some peculiar questions: were humans originally meant to be vegetarians? Is meat-eating a concession in light of our fallenness? I will return to these questions below, in the section on animal death.

There are a myriad of other biblical texts that address God’s concern for animals, many of which Lutjens and Williams cite. For example, Deuteronomy 25:4 commands Israelites not to muzzle an ox as it treads out the grain, indicating that working animals are entitled to some (though not all) of the same privileges as human laborers. The final line of the Book of Jonah describes God’s care for the animals of Nineveh: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle” (4:11)? And Proverbs 12:10 explicitly declares, “The godly care for their animals” (NLT). Moving into the New Testament, the picture of God’s care for animals remains the same. In Luke 12:6, Jesus says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.” Jesus is here employing a Hebrew rhetorical device known as qal wahomer, or an argument from lesser to greater. The greater point is that God cares for humans most of all, but we still shouldn’t miss the lesser point! Animals have value in God’s eyes. And therefore they should also have value in our eyes.

So the consistent teaching of Scripture is that animals have intrinsic worth, but they are also here for our own benefit. They may be used for agricultural labor, for food, for clothing, and so forth. But in all of these respects, use must never turn into abuse. The manner in which we regard them reflects the manner in which we regard their Creator.

The goodness of animal death?

A trickier question is whether animal death and predation belong in God’s good creation. Was nature, as the saying goes, “red in tooth and claw” from the beginning, or is that a result of the fall? Cornelius Plantinga summarizes the difficulty well:

And so we have old questions without good answers: Is carnivorousness a part of God’s original design? Judging by the fossil record and the incisors of carnivores, it seems so. Judging by the scriptural prophecies of shalom and by our own hearts and minds, it seems not so…. Here’s a place where Christians who read Scripture, read the fossil record, and consult their own sensitivities may come up with more questions than answers. If carnivorousness is part of God’s original design, is God less sensitive to animal pain than we are? If not, why do we have what looks like a design for it?[1]

This is a point where Lutjens and Williams part ways. Lutjens does not believe that animal death can be a part of the good created order, whereas Williams thinks that it can be. Since this question bears directly on the question of how we as humans should treat animals, I will offer my own thoughts on the matter. In truth, I’m probably in the minority here, because I tend to side with Williams. I think that Scripture, when read carefully and thoroughly, points to the possibility of the goodness of animal death. Let me offer some biblical examples.

Psalm 104 is a classic hymn of praise, extolling the glory of God as it is manifest in the proper functioning of his universe. He stretches forth the heavens, he sets the boundaries between water and earth, and he raises up the mountains. He waters the ground, he feeds the animals, and he gives wine(!) to man. These are all examples of the goodness of God’s created order, which continue despite the impact of humanity’s rebellion. And then we come to verse 21, which reads, “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.” This is no lamentable byproduct of the fall; it is cause for rejoicing and celebration! In a similar vein, Paul in 1 Timothy 4:1-4 warns of certain false teachers who forbid marriage and the eating of certain foods. But Paul appeals to the order of creation to affirm the goodness of both. If marriage is a creational good, is not eating meat as well? Can we not receive meat with thanksgiving?[2] More tellingly, we have the example of Jesus himself, who in his glorified state shared a meal of fish with his disciples (John 21:13-15). Surely this meal of seafood didn’t somehow corrupt or compromise his resurrected body. This seems to suggest that our bodies were designed to eat meat.

Readers might also be surprised to learn that John Calvin himself was untroubled by the idea of prelapsarian meat-eating (though he does express some ambivalence). In his comments on Genesis 1:29, he writes:

Now, because it is particularly mentioned that God gave man all plants and all fruits of the earth, some think it was not permitted at that time to eat meat, for it seems that God wanted to give a particular regulation to show men what they were permitted to eat. That is likely because we will see later that when Noah left the ark, God gave him leave to eat meat, but not the blood (Gen. 9:4). That permission served as a sign that previously men were not permitted to use meat for food and nourishment. But there are apparent reasons to prove that at this point God did not establish the restriction that man should not be given leave to eat meat, since God is speaking of fruits, herbs, and similar things. In fact, men have always sacrificed animals to God. Now we can only sacrifice what he has given us and what we have in hand. We can say that the sacrifices were holocausts, that is, they were burned. However, if God had not permitted men to kill animals, the sacrifices would have been abominable to him. For, as I have said, we must engage the principle that what we offer to God is from his free goodness, as if we were paying homage with what we receive from his hand. On the other hand, we know that men have dressed in skins from the beginning. For that they had to kill animals. Therefore, it is likely they were free to eat meat.[3]

To be sure, there are a number of biblical passages that seem to belie the goodness of animal death. Chief examples would be Isaiah 11:6-7 and 65:25, where we read of apocalyptic visions of the wolf lying down with the lamb, and the lion eating straw. But a careful reader always knows to pay attention to literary genre. The Old Testament prophets often used metaphors and images to convey eschatological realities, and we should avoid pressing too strict a literalism upon the text. And it is worth pointing out that Paul alludes to Isa. 11 in Rom. 15 as a reference to peace between Jews and Gentiles, not animals. Further, Isaiah elsewhere describes the new creation as a great banquet in which believers will enjoy the finest wines and choicest meats (shemanim memuchayim, or “well-marrowed fatty foods;” 25:6). Again, this is a prophetic vision, and we shouldn’t take the imagery too far. But if Isaiah is able to use meat-eating as an illustration of the goodness of the new creation, then perhaps it is also part of the goodness of the original creation.[4]

Some might not be fully persuaded by the passages I have adduced here, and that is quite understandable. When we observe the animal kingdom and see such seemingly gratuitous cruelty and suffering (even apart from humanity’s own actions), we wonder how this could be what God intends. And doubtlessly we have grounds to say that the fall has impacted the animal world in some way. Even Calvin conceded this point: “And if lions sometimes range with greater liberty, this is to be imputed to the fall of Adam.”[5] So Lutjens is right to remind us of the importance of distinguishing between interpretation and speculation. But the basic point I hope to establish here is that humans should have no biblical qualms about killing animals, when it is done in the right way and for the right reasons. I will elaborate on this principle in my next post.


1. Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Eerdmans, 2002), 65.

2. So if eating meat is a creational good, why is it that God apparently only gave humanity permission to eat meat in the time of Noah? Here I can only offer one observation and one educated guess. First, it is worth pointing out that God’s statement in Gen. 1:29 (“I have given you every plant yielding seed…”) is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive. That is, God is not saying, “You may eat this, and only this.” So it’s possible that this doesn’t rule out eating meat. Second, even if it does rule it out, one might suppose that eating meat was a privilege that Adam and Eve were meant eventually to mature into, as long as they continued in obedience.

3. John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor (Banner of Truth Trust, 2009) 109-10.

4. Lutjens and Williams also cite Calvin’s commentary on Romans 8:20-21, another popular text used against the idea of the goodness of animal death. For helpful comments on this and similar passages, I would refer readers to the excellent article by Lee Irons, “Animal Death before the Fall: What Does the Bible Say?” (accessed August 6, 2014).

5. Calvin, commentary on Psalm 104:21. Available online here (accessed August 6, 2014).

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

2 Responses to “Toward a Theology of Animal Care (Part 1)”

  1. Good post, but I think you need to be more careful to separate the questions of animal death and human diet, since you seem to treat them as part of the same thing. And actually, you really need to separate animal death and animal diet, as well.

    One could acknowledge that animals died before the fall, but that the animals weren’t carnivorous. Or one could argue that animals were carnivorous, but maintain that humans were not permitted to eat meat prior to Gen 9. Furthermore, one could even claim that animals were carnivorous before the fall, but that in the eschaton they won’t be. In other words, part of “subduing” and “having dominion” was meant to include teaching the animals peace (just an idea, not necessarily my belief).

    Appealing to genre in Isa 11 and 65 glosses some of the problems with insisting on only a “metaphorical” reading of these passages. For one, it could be both metaphorical and “literal.” For two, there isn’t just one “metaphorical” reading. So, for instance, Joel 3 promises that “the mountains shall drip sweet wine.” Is this literal or figurative? Well, probably not literal. But there is a spectrum of figurative meanings: 1) abundance of wine; 2) abundance of culturally/geographically appropriate agricultural bounty; 3) abundance of material blessings; 4) spiritual blessings; 5) a general image of God’s good intentions for his people (these five do not exhaust the possibilities). For Isa 11 ought we to assume that sometime in the future one single child (which one?) will lead wild animals? Or that the serpent will literally continue to eat dust (Isa 65)? No, obviously not. However, having rejected the “literal” meaning does not thereby mean that the figurative meaning is obvious, nor that we need to necessarily choose only one meaning. Future vegetarianism among the animals is still technically a “figurative” meaning of Isa 11 and 65. Genre doesn’t really help us here, except to reject the obviously wrong “literal” meaning.

    And FWIW, I don’t understand how anyone can think that humans prior to Gen 9 were permitted to eat meat. If Gen 1 were all we had, perhaps it would be ambiguous, but this verse makes it clear: “And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” (Gen 9:3) God first gave plants (Gen 1). Then he gave “everything” (Gen 9). The idea of Irons (Kline, actually) that because of some similarities between the commission to Adam and Noah, the provision of meat to Noah must have also been given to Adam is indefensible and obscures the fact that the post-lapsarian world was a new world with new rules. Similar but different.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Peter. You are correct that, strictly speaking, animal death, animal predation, and humans’ meat-eating are distinct issues (although they are connected). My basic point was that if carnivorousness was part of God’s original design, then it necessarily follows that animal death cannot be regarded as an inherent natural evil.

      As far as Isa. 11 and 65 go, my point was not really to establish what the texts do mean, but merely to show that they do not require the end of animal predation in the eschaton. That may indeed be the case, but these texts are insufficient to prove the point, and therefore they are also insufficient to prove that meat-eating cannot be a creational design.

      I am inclined to agree with you about humans not being permitted to eat meat before Gen. 9. I’m not so sure the text demands that in an absolute sense, but it does seem to be a much more natural reading. So then how does that square with Paul’s apparent claim in 1 Tim. 4 that eating meat is a creational good? See my second point in footnote 2 above.

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