Finally, a Theology of Food!

What does the Bible teach about eating food? (Strange question, right?) Is eating meat allowed for a Christian? The following is an email I received and my reply to it:


Can you help me? I would like to be saved and know that I will receive the gift of eternal life. But I find it very difficult to believe in a God that created man to be vegetarian, and then later told man that it is okay to eat meat (the Flood seems like a very weak excuse when you think about it logically). According to the Bible, not only did God tell man it was okay to eat meat, but He too ate meat. Jesus did also. It seems like He/They would want to at least set good examples for mankind to follow.

Doesn’t eating meat cause a large amount of damage to the human body (the 'temple of the Holy Spirit') even if you factor out the numerous diseases like Mad Cow and many others? Isn’t it clearly linked to heart disease, cancer (especially colon and breast), diabetes, and other ailments too numerous to list? When people eat meat don’t they support animal abuse (castration, de-horning, de-beaking, etc., etc. without anesthetics)? Animals are stuck into tiny cages in giant, stinky warehouses for the entirety of their miserable lives. Hearing about the outrages on factory farms and in slaughterhouses seems like it would make most compassionate people cry. Also, when people eat meat don’t they endorse environmental damage and excessive consumption of limited resources (gas, water, soil)? Aren't they directly contributing to malnutrition and starvation around the world?

Do Christians just not know about the problems that they are causing? Or do they just not care because God says that it is okay to eat meat (and ergo it is okay to inflict this harm on animals, man, and the environment)? I like to hope it is the former, but from what I have observed it sure appears to be more of the latter.

Anyway, it is very difficult for me to believe in this supposedly 'loving', 'caring', 'compassionate' God when I see so much pain and suffering going on and the justifications I generally hear are, 'if it is good enough for Him...', and 'it is no sin...', and 'the Bible says...'

I have been asking this question repeatedly, but I generally receive no answer. When I get an attempt at an 'answer', it usually doesn't make a lot of sense. But I will keep trying.

Thanks, Chuck

Here's my reply:

Dear Chuck,

Thank you for writing. I apologize for taking so long in replying, but you asked some good questions that I wanted to research. I hope that I can begin to answer some of your questions.

As I read your email, it seems that your concerns are focused in two areas, both of which deal with the issue of being a vegetarian. You summarize the problems with eating meat in the following categories: diseases, cruelty to animals, environmental damage and malnutrition/starvation.

First, you have a concern that God seems to be inconsistent on the issue. He originally makes man a vegetarian, and later tells Noah that it is okay to eat animals. Likewise, Jesus—whom Christians and the Bible claim to be God in the flesh—eats meat. You also mentioned that God Himself (as in God the Father, I presume) eats meat. I’m not sure if I know what you are referring to in regard to this last example. Nevertheless, the first two examples stand on their own.

Your second concern is that Christians are either ignorant or apathetic on the issue of vegetarianism.

I will deal with the second concern first by making the following points: (1) Many Christians are ignorant on the issue. They have never given the issue much thought. (2) Many others are apathetic. Their apathy stems from unbiblical beliefs (e.g., “God gave man dominion over the animals, so we can abuse them if we want to”), uncaring attitudes (e.g., “Who cares? It’s just a dumb animal!”), or weaknesses in overcoming their desires (e.g., “I hope God doesn’t want me to be a vegetarian. I just love steak too much!”). None of these responses take the issue seriously.

There is a third option that you did not mention: Some Christians simply disagree with the idea that God intends people to be vegetarians. Most of these Christians would also disagree with the idea that eating meat is damaging (or at least as damaging as you claim).

Christians are to be a witness to those who are searching for God. Sometimes, however, they get in the way. This may be difficult, but let me encourage you to not confuse the way Christians behave with the way God intends for them to behave. God still gives Christians the freedom to disobey Him. The better Christians obey God, the easier it is for those who are searching to find Him. So I apologize on behalf of my fellow Christians if they have made it more difficult for you to find your faith in God.

This brings us to the first concern: Is God inconsistent on the issue of eating meat? Does God allow for the human consumption of meat? If so, how should this impact our lives and world?

I do not believe the Bible ever portrays God as inconsistent. (The primary issue, in my opinion, is your belief about God, not your belief about vegetarianism—Is God consistent or not? But since the linkage of the two seems to be a stumbling block for your belief in God, we need to address both.) The issue of vegetarianism may appear to be an inconsistency on God's part, but I do not believe it is.

Peter Leithart summarizes my own theological position in his article, “The Way Things Really Ought to Be: Eucharist, Eschatology, and Culture" (Westminster Theological Journal, 59 [Fall 1997], 168-9):

Eating also signifies humanity’s dominion over the creation. When I eat, I incorporate a part of the world into myself, and therefore to eat a once-living thing is to say that its life is rightly subordinate to my needs, that it exists (at least in part) to serve and sustain me, that I have a right to make it mine in the most literal and intimate sense. Throughout the food chain, to eat something is to claim superiority over it: Herbivorous animals eat what is lower on the chain, while more complicated and advanced animals eat lower animals. The exceptions to this rule—man-eating lions, cannibals, Polyphemus—are horrific not only for their goriness but because they disturb our sense of right order. At the top of the food chain is man, anatomically equipped, as Leon Kass has pointed out, to eat nearly everything. Kass writes that humanity’s place in the food chain is a sign both of proper dominion and of the potential for irresponsible domination:

The expansion and indeterminacy of human appetites—reflected in human omnivorousness—are greatly problematic, as is man himself…. Human omnivorousness is the bodily mark of man…as deformer and transformer. It is the unpremeditated, strictly natural sign of our dominant and mastering posture in the world, a posture of great danger as well as great promise, not only for the world but also for man himself (Kass, The Hungry Soul, 92).

Several passages in the Bible show this connection between eating and authority. In Gen 2:16–17 the Lord grants Adam the world to eat, while in Gen 1:26–28 he presents the world to man and woman as the domain they are to fill, subdue, and rule. To be made in God’s image means not only to be given every herb for food but also to be given dominion over the earth and other living creatures. After the flood, the Lord’s promises to the new Adam, Noah, bring dominion even more directly into connection with diet:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant” (Gen 9:1–3).

God promises effective rule over animals at the same time he gives permission to eat flesh.*

As a preview of the shalom of the new creation, the Eucharist manifests man’s proper place in the creation and his relation to what we must insist on calling the lower creation. Much more than Christian theology has recognized, man is part of and inseparable from the created order, inserted into his environment, shaped by it, dependent upon what it offers, and responsible for its care. God also created man as the omnivorous ruler of the world, to whom every tree, as well as every beast and creeping thing, is edible. Man’s position as ruler is part of the created order that God pronounced “very good,” not a part of the curse on sin, and the new creation brings fulfillment, not a cancellation of his position.

While it seems to be a fact that Adam and Eve were vegetarians prior to their sin, God nevertheless gave them dominion His creation at that time. (To have dominion over something means to manage it or be a steward of it.) Implied in the management of creation is the freedom to eat of it. God made man to rule over creation. God’s word to Noah in Genesis 9 complements (and not contradicts) this. This is also consistent with Jesus’ actions, the actions of the apostles, and the explicit teaching of the New Testament: “Some will depart from the faith… They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods that God created to be received with gratitude by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing should be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, since it is sanctified by the word of God and by prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1, 3-5; HCSB).

Should the consumption of meat occur with as little suffering, environmental damage, and other harmful effects as possible? Yes. Ultimately we will answer to God for how well we managed His creation. But is the consumption of meat intrinsically wrong? Basing my opinion on my understanding of the Bible, I do not believe it is.

I hope this will help you in your search for answers. Feel free to contact me again if I can be of help to you.

Sincerely, David Rhoades

* By way of contrast, it is significant that the feast of the new creation involves only vegetable fare. I would not wish to use this to make a case for vegetarianism, but the food of the Eucharist seems to reflect biblical prophecies that the new creation will bring not merely peace from animals but peace between man and the animals.