Modern animal-based diets tend to significantly harm our health, the environment, the world’s poor and hungry, and God’s animals.
In order to promote better stewardship of God’s Creation, this Q&A booklet encourages moving toward a plant-based diet and includes recipes and resources for healthful, convenient, and tasty eating.
ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE, God granted humanity “dominion” over God’s Creation. More and more, faithful Christians are coming to see “dominion” as a sacred responsibility, rather than as a license to do whatever we want with the earth or God’s animals. Our dominion over God’s Creation should be patterned on God’s loving, compassionate dominion over us. If we fail to show love for God’s Creation or mercy for God’s creatures, should we expect God to protect us from the consequences of our own heartlessness and self-indulgence?
How is vegetarianism good stewardship?
In Genesis 2:15, God instructed Adam to “till” and “keep” the Garden of Eden, and by analogy we may see caring for God’s Creation as our sacred task. The typical meat eater’s diet can require up to 14 times more water and 20 times more energy than that of a vegetarian. Indeed, current use of land, water, and energy is not sustainable; resource depletion threatens to cause hardships for humankind this century.
A 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change and air pollution; land, soil, and water degradation; and biodiversity loss. According to the report, the livestock sector is an even larger contributor to global warming than transport (cars, trucks, airplanes, and so forth). Huge quantities of the potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide are emitted by farmed animals and their waste. Animal agriculture is also a key factor in deforestation, which releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The total area used for grazing and the production of feedcrops accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the earth’s land surface. About 20 percent of the world’s pastures and rangelands have been degraded (over 70 percent in the dry lands), mostly through overgrazing, compaction, and erosion created by livestock action.
Jesus preached, “For I was hungry and you gave me food.… [A]s you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:35, 40 RSV). Yet, while tens of millions of people die annually from starvation–related causes and close to a billion suffer from malnutrition, 37 percent of the world’s harvested grain is fed to animals being raised for slaughter; in the United States, the figure is 66 percent.
Only a fraction of what chickens, pigs, and other animals eat makes them grow edible flesh—most is needed to simply keep them alive or to grow body parts that people don’t eat. Consequently, farmed animals consume much more food than they produce. Converting plant foods to meat wastes 67–90 percent of the protein, up to 96 percent of the calories, and all of the fiber. Because land, water, and other resources are limited, the world can support many more vegetarians than meat eaters. As worldwide demand for meat has grown, the net effect is that the world’s poor have become increasingly unable to afford food of any kind.
Jesus said that God feeds the birds of the air (Matt. 6:26) and does not forget sparrows (Luke 12:6). The Hebrew Scriptures forbid inhumane slaughter or cruelty toward beasts of burden (Exod. 23:5; Deut. 22:6–7, 25:4). Yet, in the United States, virtually all food derived from animals is obtained through intensive factory farming methods. In fact, nearly ten billion land animals are slaughtered each year, over a million every hour, and the number of aquatic animals killed for food is far greater. These animals suffer greatly from stressful crowding, barren environments that frustrate their instinctive drives, mutilations and amputations without pain relief (including debeaking, dehorning, tail docking, and castration), and other painful procedures (Bernard Rollin, Ph.D., Farm Animal Welfare).
For example, farmers crowd egg–laying hens in cages so small they can’t spread their wings. Some birds are immobilized when their feet get caught in the wire mesh; unable to reach food, they starve to death. Millions of chicks are mailed via the U.S. Postal Service each year. Although mortality rates are high, chicks are deemed cheap and not worth the cost of humane transport. It seems that contemporary farmers embrace any practice that increases productivity, regardless of how much animal pain and suffering it inflicts.
During transport to slaughter, animals are often handled roughly and exposed to extremes of heat or cold. Finally, slaughter typically involves terror and, often, great pain (Gail Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse). Illustrating the industry’s callousness, animals too sick to walk are painfully dragged to slaughter rather than humanely euthanized. Typical of the industry’s attitude, Hog Farm Management advised, “Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory.”
If we eat the products of factory farming we are, Fr. John Dear notes, “paying people to be cruel.”
The apostle Paul wrote that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and it follows that we should care for our bodies as gifts from God. The largest organization of food and nutrition professionals in the United States, the American Dietetic Association, has endorsed well-planned vegetarian diets. In 2003, the ADA noted, “Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.”
In contrast to the predominantly plant-based Mediterranean diet that Jesus ate, modern Western diets (heavily laden with animal products) put people at risk. For example, animal foods tend to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which elevate blood lipids and increase the risk of heart disease—by far, the number one killer in the West. Because farmed animals are bred to grow quickly and given little exercise, their flesh is particularly high in saturated fats. In contrast, unsaturated fats in plant foods generally improve one’s lipid profile and reduce heart disease risk.
Numerous studies show this. The Cornell-Oxford-China Project found that rural Chinese people, who eat much less animal fat and protein and derive the bulk of their nutrition from plant sources, have far less heart disease mortality and much lower cholesterol levels than Americans or urban Chinese people who eat a more Western diet.
Regarding obesity and diabetes, fiber in fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans), oats, and barley helps people feel full, which discourages overeating. In study after study, vegetarians weigh less and have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight than their meat-eating peers.
Does the Bible support vegetarianism?
The Bible depicts vegetarianism as God’s ideal, and the diet conforms to the central biblical principle of steward-ship. In Eden, all creatures lived peacefully, and God told both humans and animals to consume only plant foods (Gen. 1:29–31). Several prophecies, such as Isaiah 11:6–9, foresee a return to this vegetarian world, where the wolf, lamb, lion, cow, bear, snake, and little child all coexist peacefully. Christian vegetarians, while acknowledging human sinfulness, believe we should strive toward the harmonious world Isaiah envisioned—to try to live in accordance with the prayer that Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
Did God put animals here for our use?
Adam’s “dominion” over animals (Gen. 1:26, 28), we believe, conveys sacred stewardship, since God immediately afterward prescribed a vegetarian diet (1:29–30) in a world God found “very good” (1:31). Created in God’s image of love (1 John 4:4), we are called to be care-takers of God’s Creation, not tyrants over God’s creatures.
Genesis 1:21–22 relates that, before God created humanity, God regarded the animals “good” and blessed them. Further evidence that we should consider animals as inherently valuable comes from Genesis 2:18–19, which indicates that God made animals as Adam’s helpers and companions: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them…” (RSV). Adam named the animals, which we believe shows concern and friendship. We don’t name the animals we eat.
God endowed pigs, cattle, sheep, and all farmed animals with their own desires and needs, which is apparent when these animals are given an opportunity to enjoy life. For example, pigs are as curious, social, and intelligent as cats or dogs. Pigs can even play some video games better than monkeys. Similarly, chickens enjoy one another’s company and like to play, dust bathe, and forage for food. Jesus compared his love for us to a hen’s love for her chicks (Luke 13:34).
Why did God give Noah permission to eat meat (Gen. 9:2–4)?
Virtually all plants were destroyed by the Flood. Alternatively, God may have allowed Noah limited freedom to express human violence, since unrestrained violence was responsible for the Flood itself (Gen. 6:11–13). Importantly, this passage neither commands meat eating nor indicates that the practice is God’s ideal. Indeed, eating meat came with a curse—animals would no longer be humanity’s friends: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast…” (Gen. 9:2). While eating meat was not prohibited, it represented a complete break from God’s ideal of animals and humans living peacefully together, as depicted in Eden and by the prophets.
Does God care for animals?
Proverbs 12:10 teaches, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast,” and Psalm 145:9 reminds us that “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”
The Bible describes God’s concern for animals repeatedly (Matt. 10:29, 12:11–12, 18:12–14) and forbids cruelty (Deut. 22:10, 25:4). Importantly, after the Flood, God made a covenant, stated five times, with animals as well as humans. All creatures share in the Sabbath rest (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14). The Bible describes animals praising God (Pss. 148:7–10, 150:6), shows animals present in eternity (Isa. 65:25; Rev. 5:13), and affirms that God preserves animals (Ps. 36:6; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20). Animals and humans look to God for sustenance (Pss. 104:27–31, 147:9; Matt. 6:26; Luke 12:6) and deliverance (Jon. 3:7–9; Rom. 8:18–23). God’s covenant in Genesis 9, in all five instances, is with all flesh, not just humans.
Does vegetarianism equate human and animal life?
Vegetarianism simply reflects respect for Creation—the diet benefits humans, animals, and the environment.
What about animal sacrifices?
The Bible relates that God accepted animal sacrifices. However, several later prophets objected to sacrifice, emphasizing that God prefers righteousness. Animal sacrifices are not required or even desired now, for at least two reasons. First, Paul encouraged self-sacrifice, writing, “[P]resent your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Second, traditional interpretations of Jesus’ death affirm that, because of him, animal sacrifice is no longer necessary. Christians, being new creations in Christ, may model Christ by choosing a loving relationship with all Creation. Indeed, Jesus twice quoted Hosea (6:6), saying, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7).
Didn’t Jesus eat meat?
Luke 24:43 describes Jesus eating fish after the Resurrection. However, Jesus’ diet 2,000 years ago in a Mediterranean fishing community does not mandate what Christians should eat today. Similarly, what Jesus wore does not dictate how we should dress today. We are blessed with a wide range of healthful, tasty, convenient plant foods, much like in Eden. Meanwhile, we believe that the way animals are treated today makes a mockery of God’s love for them.
Are meat eaters sinners?
The Bible does not prohibit eating meat in all circumstances. While many people have eaten meat for nourishment, most Christians today have ready access to a wide variety of healthful plant foods. Many Christian vegetarians find modern factory farming particularly objectionable because it is unnecessary and merciless.
What does the Bible say about eating meat?
Diet is a major theme in the Bible. At ChristianVeg.org/hgc-replies.htm, we discuss biblical passages frequently cited by those who defend meat eating.
Have there been many vegetarian Christians?
Our numbers are increasing rapidly, just as vegetarianism is growing in the general population. Also, many early Christians were vegetarian, including the Desert Fathers. Since then, the Trappist, Benedictine, and Carthusian orders have encouraged vegetarianism, as have Seventh-Day Adventists. In the nineteenth century, members of the Bible Christian sect established the first vegetarian groups in England and the United States.
Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, John Wesley (Methodism’s founder), Ellen G. White (a Seventh-Day Adventists founder), Salvation Army cofounders William and Catherine Booth, Leo Tolstoy, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rev. Dr. Albert Schweitzer were Christians who became vegetarian, as is the musician Moby.
Don’t laws ensure the welfare of farmed animals?
In the U.S. and many other countries, standard procedures on farms are specifically exempted from all humane legislation, regardless of the pain and suffering they cause. Practices such as bodily mutilations, which would warrant felony animal cruelty charges if done to a dog or cat, are perfectly legal when done to a pig or chicken. At the slaughterhouse, “humane slaughter” laws are weak and poorly enforced for pigs, cattle, and sheep; the slaughter of birds is completely exempt. We support efforts to improve conditions on farms, but for many reasons, including our desire not to pay others to do things we would not do ourselves, we feel compelled to be vegetarians.
What would happen to those whose livelihoods depend on animal agriculture?
If people ate less animal foods, farmers would adapt to changed consumer demand for vegetarian foods..
Since animals eat each other, what’s wrong with humans eating animals?
Christians are not called to follow the law of the jungle (where “might makes right”), but to follow Christ—to be compassionate, merciful, and humble, and to respect God’s Creation.
Are we natural meat eaters?
While humans can digest flesh, and it is likely that our ancestors consumed some meat, our anatomy much more strongly resembles that of plant-eating creatures. For example: like plant eaters (but un-like meat eaters), our colons are long and complex (not simple and short); our intestines are 10–11 times longer than our bodies (not 3–6 times longer); our saliva contains digestive enzymes (un-like carnivores); and our teeth resemble those of plant eaters—for instance, our canines are short and blunt (not long, sharp, and curved).
The millions of healthy vegetarians (who tend to outlive meat eaters) demonstrate that it is neither necessary nor desirable to eat meat.
What if I don’t think vegetarianism should be my priority?
Adopting a healthy vegetarian diet requires very little extra time and commitment and can improve one’s sense of well-being. Anyone can choose a cruelty-free diet while continuing other important activities.
What can I do?
To the degree that you move toward a plant-based diet, you significantly help humans, animals, and the environment. As Christians, we are called to be faithful, which includes living in accord with our core values as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Being faithful also includes showing fellow Christians, in loving and compassionate ways, that non-animal foods promote good steward-ship of God’s Creation and, fortunately, are tasty, convenient, and nutritious.
Find out more at ChristianVeg.org.