Becoming a vegetarian seems to be the ongoing trend today, especially as a moral issue. If one is vegetarian for primarily health or sacrificial reasons, this is permissible, but if instead one is a vegetarian for primarily moral reasons, then this is where one becomes at odds with the biblical view on this matter. Genesis 9:3 makes this clear: “Every living creature will be food for you; as I gave the green plants, I have given you everything.” Since God is perfect and cannot command evil, it follows then that eating animals for food must not be intrinsically evil. This is reaffirmed in the NT where Jesus eats lamb (Luke 22:8-15) and God told Peter, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” (Acts 10:13) with respect to unclean animals. The Bible even says that you “may eat as much of [meat] as you want” (Deut. 12:20). Seems you can’t get anymore clear that eating meat is permissible.
The Ideal World
It might be argued that while eating meat is not intrinsically evil, it is still not the ideal and like divorce, it was simply allowed because of the wickedness of men. Prior to the flood, it seems only the plants were given for Adam and Eve to eat (Gen 1:29-30). So a vegetarian could defend their moral argument by supposing that animal eating is a consequence of the fall and plant-eating is a return to the ideal world that God set up at the beginning. The problem with this is that Jesus Christ just is the ideal Adam that the first Adam should have been. So if eating plants is a return to God’s ideal, then you would think that Christ, who is the perfect man, would have commanded that we should eat only plants. But we find Jesus doing the exact opposite.
That alone should tell you there’s something wrong, but that only scratches the surface to an otherwise more fundamental problem with the objection: there is no indication that eating meat was prohibited prior to the fall. There is a difference between provision and prohibition. The Genesis texts talks about God providing all plants as food for every creature, but He does not say that eating other animals was prohibited. He never said only plants are given for food, He said that every plant is given for food. God’s was emphasizing his general provision for all animals by focusing on a kind of food all animals can eat. Every animal can eat plants, but not every animal can eat meat.
It is nevertheless probably be the case that plants were the dominant food type but meat was becoming more dominant in the time of Noah – which explains why God would mention it after the flood when a new covenant was established. In fact, we know that Noah must have eaten meat prior to the flood because God commands to him take clean / unclean animals on the boat (Genesis 7:1-3). An animal is clean or unclean in relation to consumption. But it is possible that Adam and Eve exclusively ate plants because they lived in a Garden, but there is also nothing in the text that makes this clear. Lastly, it’s not even clear that eating animals is equivalent to divorce. Divorce is justified because it is the result of some sin (unfaithfulness), but what sin would suddenly permit the eating of animals?
The Moral Argument
As can be seen, there is no biblical case against eating meat. A vegetarian could perhaps insist upon there being a moral argument that’s independent of Scripture, but not outright inconsistent with it. The fact that animals can experience pain gives them some kind of moral status, and since industrial farming is cruel to animals, meat should not be eaten because we’d be supporting a cruel industry. So while it is not wrong in itself to eat animals, it just so happens that the current way of killing animals is cruel so we should not eat animals from such industries. This kind of moral argument will be fully dealt with later in another post, but suffice to say here, the fact that animals experience pain is not by itself sufficient to endow moral status to an animal. Only beings made in God’s image have moral status, as proven when God explains why it is wrong to kill an innocent person (Genesis 9:6).
That does not mean we can treat animals however we like. The Bible clearly argues that a “righteous man cares about his animal’s health” (Proverbs 12:10). It is clear then that we should not cause animals to needlessly suffer. But if killing animals for food required some suffering given our current technology or methods, then it is permissible because it is not needless suffering if that suffering serves some good end of ours: namely for our nutrition and enjoyment of its taste. While humans should be good caretakers of creation, we also have rulership over creation in that these creatures serve our ends (Genesis 1:28). Animals are not ends in themselves because they do not have the image of God. So the end can justify the means with respect to animals as long as that end is good.
It could nevertheless be argued that eating animals for meat is not needed because we can always acquire nutrition and enjoyment of food through other means, so the suffering of animals remains gratuitous. But the argument here is not that we need that particular food type, only that that particular food type is sufficient to satisfy our general need and that is good enough reason to eat it. That general need is a desire for good tasting nutritious food. No particular food is strictly speaking necessary in that one can always imagine another particular food offering the same nutritious value. If someone were to eat this particular food rather than that particular food, you would not object, “Stop it. You have no good reason to eat that one over the other one.” Well who cares, it’s not fully arbitrary. That particular food satisfies a general need. Similarly, eating meat is not arbitrary or gratuitous, it is done for the purpose of satisfying that general need. Satisfying that general need is clearly good for us, so eating meat is clearly permissible because it fulfills that general need.
Animals can therefore be used as a means toward some good end, thereby showing that their suffering is not gratuitous but purposeful. Of course if their suffering could be alleviated by implementing more humane methods, this should be preferred over other methods. We should not intend animals to suffer more than they need to, but if these other methods would be too costly, it may not be practical for the industry to adopt them just yet. Or if the company itself is intentionally cruel, then it is more effective to rally people to boycott or regulate them rather than guilt-tripping the common person for eating a burger. As long as the person who eats a burger does not intend the cruelty that resulted in acquiring that burger, he is not guilty. If you want to be a vegetarian, that is completely up to you, but note that the affect you will have on the industry is next to nothing because you’re not changing the industry, you’re attempting to do away with the meat-eating industry altogether. That’s not going to happen.