I’ve been a vegetarian since 1979. My dietary choice is a personal conviction, not a test of doctrine. However, I have found compelling reasons to adopt this lifestyle. I have attempted to briefly explore the connections between vegetarianism and Scripture, and I would like to conclude by addressing whether my dietary choice could be incompatible with the message of the Gospel. Though the Bible does not speak directly to vegetarianism, it is filled with rich theological principles for meaningful reflection on the topic. Those who think that the Scripture is irrelevant to the modern world should consider reading it again with new eyes.
Much of my current reading of Scripture is inspired by David C. Steinmetz’s observation that reading the Bible is like reading a story—even if the story contains apparent tension and contradiction when taken at face value, the full meaning is disclosed through what happens at the end, connecting and explaining everything that came before. How the story ends should influence our interpretation of the Old Testament and even the New Testament, telling us what God was doing all along. Revelation’s close ultimately reveals what has been happening all along by providing a picture of a completely healed world according to God’s ideal (Revelation 21 & 22). Midway through this apocalyptic vision, we encounter a heavenly messenger loudly reporting an enduring gospel to those who live on earth. The angel announces a valid message of good news that contrasts with the terrible damage happening on earth. He also brings an additional piece of good news that many Christians forget today. The call to worship God is formed around His creation message:
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.Revelation 14:6–7, ESV
The angel’s announcement carries a connection between Gospel and creation, extending theology’s ecological implications. It gives voice to heaven’s clarion call to revive our concern and respect for God’s non-human creation. The book of Revelation proclaims God’s healing message for the inhabitants of the world along with a sharp criticism of the prevailing injustices and devastation happening on earth. It calls the inhabitants of the earth to “worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of waters.” To worship God, we must respect His creation. We don’t need a set of programs for managing the earth as much as we need a clearer understanding of the Creator and our role within His creation. If God cares about His sky, His land, His rivers, and His fountains of water, then it’s important that we treat God’s creation with care. After all, it is the source of all that we eat. When we become sensitive to God’s self-giving love and commitment to the world, we see the interconnection between theology and creation, which includes caring for our bodies. This God-sensitized view does not ignore the human dimension of working for the sake of mending the world (Isaiah 58:6-12). Considering this heaven-born call, we should seek to relate to creation in a way that not only alleviates human suffering but also brings God’s promise of mercy and hope to non-human creation—as a way of honoring God’s message of liberation and healing for the world.
This motivation is not geared towards preventing tragic outcomes—as if nature primarily needs to be protected and self-contained—but towards choosing to live in a way that reflects a broader view of God’s other-centered love for His creation community. Christians are not immune to the concerns and disorders of the world, so an escapist theology that separates body and earth from Gospel will not suffice. Headlines tell us that our world is in serious trouble with news of pervasive hunger, natural disasters, toxic pollution, and the loss of land, fresh water, and many living creatures. Fearing extinction through ecological collapse or fear of ingesting unhealthy substances is not the best approach. We must be inspired to include the worship of the Creator in our pursuits. Recognizing this dimension contributes profound theological significance to the issue of ecology. Theologian Dr. Kathryn Greene‐McCreight states:
The Christian cannot speak of the “environment” or “environmental issues,” for creation cannot be reduced to the environment. If creation is loosed from the narrative framework of the Bible, we are left with absolutely no warrants to care for the created order. This is largely why we are in the “environmental” crisis in which we find ourselves. In public discourse, creation has in fact been loosed from its Biblical narrative framework. The only warrant that the secular world gives us to care for the “environment” is a thinly veiled version of self‐concern: our children will suffer unless we change our habits. Divorcing creation from redemption leaves us alone in the world with our own only companion. The message of ecologists is far more powerful when framed in terms of the Biblical narrative: the waters we pollute and the land we poison were created by the one who made, reconciles, and redeems us.The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness, edited by William. P. Brown, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, pp. 234–235
I believe in the pursuit of health and the benefit of adopting a plant-based diet. We should continue to eat for strength rather than our gastronomical urges, but we need not go further back than the Old Testament narrative for ecological wisdom. As mankind has largely made a mess of the earth by not fulfilling the responsibility to care for God’s creation, we cannot expect to fix the world by focusing on isolated consequential outcomes (Romans 8:20-21). We shouldn’t aim merely for the environmental improvements we can make by reducing energy or avoiding meat from factory farms. To maintain a sacred interconnectedness with creation and God, we must identify with the creation framework which delegates responsibility, care, rest and blessing, so we don’t lose the narrative’s true power to transform us. The mandate to take care of the earth and its animals is unrelated to sociopolitical factors (Genesis 1:26–28). This does not mean we have a right to exploit nature; on the contrary, it elevates our motivation to care for the earth to an act of worshipping the Creator. We are to worship and honor Him because we are compelled by His love for the world. We need no other argument than this. Our motivation is found in the simple fact that this is God’s world—His land, His sky, His animals, His waters—thus making caring for it an experience of worship, of bringing to the daily, the common, the mundane, and the earthly a sense of sacredness. Promoting a healthy and eco-friendly diet must not be reduced to a restriction narrated from propaganda separate from God’s healing message for the world. It is not based on desire or fear but set squarely within the central theme of worshipping the Creator.
This unique awareness can contribute to overcoming some of the most massive issues of our day. If we are to be exponents of God’s hope in a dying world, we dare not speak of providing that hope for the future while living in a way that contradicts it. God’s unexpected other-centered way of living is leading this world to the place where every tear is wiped away; where all suffering and death are ended; where poverty, disease, and hunger are abolished forever. Such a healed vision of the end should illuminate the present. Our challenge in this age is to do the best we can as we identify God’s love and compassion as our directional anchor. My choice to maintain a vegetarian diet is not held captive by the legalism versus grace polarities found within Christian argumentation; rather, it is my personal choice embedded in a theological paradigm of enduring good news. It is my choice to participate in God’s creation intentions, which are now only partially fulfilled but will someday be complete. I am not trying to convert anyone to my dietary choice, but it is my conviction that offering hope for the promised future cannot have significant effect without underscoring God’s pledge of compassion for humans, animals, and the earth. Including the worship of God in my lifestyle is the highest ethic I can have, and it remains the best way to address ecological matters in a lasting way. It helps us to bear witness to His glory by caring for the world as God intended. It also helps me eat for the glory of God rather than for my selfish pursuits (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 10:31).
Animal and ecological suffering came on the coattails of human rebellion, so we can’t look to the natural world—which is currently subject to frustration and decay—to answer the array of problems that we now face. We are called to look to the Creator’s loving intentions for His creation to orient us. If we are compelled by God’s commitment to the world, we will take His clarion call seriously. The message invites us to step in the direction of God’s promised future, towards a new environment where the wolf and lamb will graze together, the lion will eat straw like an ox, and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:6; 65:17–18, 25). This climactic fulfillment of a renewed earth unfolds against the backdrop of creation in Genesis. Consequently, the message of creation provides refection on how we should respond today and lays the proper foundation for a comprehensive dietary theology. Revelation’s close emphasizes hope for a sustainable world flourishing with crystal clear rivers, fountains of water, animals, and beautiful trees bearing an abundance of life-generating food for the healing of the nations. We are called to anticipate the new heavens and earth by seeking peace, compassion, and healing on earth now. If the two bookends of Scripture are to have any meaning for our world today, we must work towards a vision of hope for human and non-human creation. May we recapture the eschatological vision of hope for all creation by eating the best we can on this side of the Tree of Life until it reaches it’s final destination in the long-awaited completion of God’s creation. The way we choose to eat should serve as a pointer to God’s promised future. I realize that vegetarianism may not be the practical choice for everyone now, but someday it will be. In this light, my dietary choices are an apology for hope that God’s creation will someday be fully and freely realized without cruelty or oppression.
May we all become better participants in God’s loving intentions for the world!
Craig Ashton Jr.