Is Jesus good news for animals?

“I could never read this story with my people,” said James, one of the few Christians among his Buddhist people group, as we read the Old Testament story of The Flood.

I will never forget his reaction to the biblical account of how God rained death and “blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens.” (Genesis 7:23)

… The bits in the Bible about animals seem pretty weird.

James stopped reading, shocked, perhaps even ashamed. “How could God kill all of these innocent animals?”

How would you have answered James? And have you ever stopped to consider what the Bible actually teaches about animals?

Perhaps you’re sceptical. After all, the bits in the Bible about animals seem pretty weird. There are talking animals, sacrifices, food laws, cattle that repent and beast-like kingdoms erupting from the sea. Are there really any answers worth finding?

On the other hand, if there are answers, do you really want to find out what they are? To be honest, I don’t want to stop eating animals. But would I be willing to, even if I discovered God wanted me to?

Sadly, we cannot avoid questions concerning animals. People continue to wonder whether they will be reunited with their pets in heaven, and the ‘green’ culture considers Christianity irrelevant to its campaign for vegetarianism, veganism, and animal rights.

God’s honour and our holiness is also at stake in this area.

His honour, because the creator’s goodness is brought into question when his creatures suffer. Our holiness, because whatever we do, whether eating or drinking, we are to do it for the glory of God.

So, this is not an abstract question for foreign cultures or friends, but an intensely practical one for deciding how we are to live – every time we walk into the supermarket.

Whether we like it or not, we are part of a humanity that consumes more than 60 billion animals per year. While we once lived in interdependent proximity with animals – like my friend James still does – most of us now engage with them as packages or pets. We either play with them, or buy them as conveniently wrapped morsels.

Even more, we are driving them out of their habitats and into extinction. Is this domination what God envisaged when he blessed us with dominion? Was American historian Lynn White right in claiming that the Bible is “the ideological basis for the arrogant and aggressive domination of nature which has led to the ecological destruction of modern times?”

When James stopped in shock, I had no simple answer. So I suggested we look again, more closely, to see if The Flood story had anything to say about animals – and to ask of the Bible if Jesus is good news for animals?

We found that…

  • In the beginning, God ordered the world for his own glory. He made humans to rule his creation (including the other animals) lovingly – like him.

Humans are not the centre of creation. God is. And we were made to rule for God’s purposes, not ultimately our own. And yes, humans and the non-human animals are both animals. We are both animated flesh: formed from the ground, animated by the breath of life, feeding upon the plants, and blessed to multiply.

Of course, humans are distinct from the other animals. We alone are created like God, made for and gifted with the responsibility to rule on his behalf (as the early chapters of Genesis indicate).

Our rule, and the enduring life it should have entailed, was facilitated by the giving of God’s word.

And when it was fully expanded, God’s word detailed his will for human rule: not selfish domination but, instead, ‘whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast’ (Proverbs 12:10).

  • But humans rejected God. Instead of ruling like him, they followed their disordered desires. They disobeyed God and instead obeyed (and failed to subdue) the serpent – a once clever animal who rejected both human and divine rule, and is identified with spiritual evil. So, God’s good order was thrown into corrupt chaos. This is our world, where all animals participate in violence and suffering.

The serpent puzzles me. Later identified in the Bible with Satan, the original account emphasises the creature’s animal nature. Immediately after Adam names the animals, ‘serpent’ slithers up. And ‘serpent’ is introduced as wiser than the other animals, before later being cursed above the other animals. So what? Well, consider how the serpent rises against the woman, who rises against the man – the one responsible for God’s word, who himself rises against God? Although more complex than this, we see that creation is order and sin is chaos.

All creatures act corruptly. While the term sin isn’t applied to their actions, non-human animals are held accountable for law-breaking and – most significantly – for corrupt violence. Animals are not necessarily ‘innocent’.

  • Despite its corruption, God still loves his creation. And so he came first to judge the violence of animals. He cursed the once clever serpent, promising that one day a human would subdue him. And he condemned humans to reap what they had sown, to suffer and die in estrangement to the God of life. Whether judging humans or non-human animals, God’s judgments are just. In fact, God will hold all humans responsible for the way we have ruled creation.

This is the story of The Flood. All flesh had corrupted their way on the earth, filling God’s earth with violence. So, God rained retributive justice, washing his world clean. What doesn’t matter doesn’t get judged. And all animals receive what they deserve and are stopped from committing further despicable violence.

  • However, God still loved his creation. And so God promised to restore loving human rule over a reordered creation. In time, God sent his Son to become an animal that suffered and died in order to bear human judgment, forgive all humans who repent, and to give them new, obedient hearts.

How did this happen? After the first humans rejected him, God covered their shameful sin with the skins of non-human animals. Because of human sin, the lives of precious and innocent non-human animals – for which humans were responsible – were sacrificed. Animals died in the place of humans. These sacrifices taught humans how costly was their sin and how generous was God to provide a way for forgiveness. However, such sacrifices were only temporary symbols, because non-human animals could not sufficiently cover human sin. Instead, they pointed towards the time when God himself would become an animal.

As a human, Jesus lived the perfect human life. He never rejected God and always showed righteous care for non-human animals. So, Jesus did not deserve the judgment of suffering and death. However, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice, the perfect human life dying in the place of corrupt human life, to completely cover shameful human sin. Thus, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes the sin of the world.

By focusing on restoring human rule, we follow Scripture’s solution to creation’s groaning. As Romans 8 tells us, creation groans for the revealing of sons who will rule like their Father. Human restoration in Christ will gloriously free the entire creation, non-human animals included, from bondage to corruption.

  • Then God raised his Son from the dead as the first animal of a new creation where suffering and death are no more. After sending his followers to share this news and its implications, Jesus ascended to heaven. Just as God promised, Jesus now frees humans from the serpent’s lies, forgives their rejection, and gives them spiritually new hearts eager to do good. Thus, God has begun restoring loving human rule. When Jesus returns soon to complete God’s judgement and salvation, God promises to finish his creation of a new world where there will be no more suffering and death. There will be peace for all animals.

It seems quite clear. There will be animals in heaven. While there are many reasons to think so, my favourite is Isaiah’s animal emphasis in Isaiah 11:1-9 and Isaiah 65:17-25. The animals which God delighted to create in the beginning will be recreated anew for everlasting peace.

  • We have this choice: either trust Jesus and be freed from corruption for the sake of loving rule; or reject Jesus and remain in suffering and death, failing to truly care for all animals.

Whether we feel guilty for mistreating non-human animals – or whether we should – Jesus is able to forgive and empower us for loving rule. And he will return to accomplish what no activism can: the judgment that ends evil and the recreation of everlasting peace.

Although many questions have been left unanswered for you to puzzle upon, this much is clear: Jesus is good news for animals.

And as the great hymn-writer Charles Wesley wrote, considering God’s love for animals may ‘soften our hearts towards the meaner creatures, knowing that the Lord careth for them’.

By remembering that ‘not one of them is forgotten in the sight of our Father who is in heaven’, we might ‘habituate ourselves to look forward, beyond this present scene of bondage, to the happy time when they will be delivered therefrom, into the liberty of the children of God’.

*The author is a missionary in Buddhist Asia.