Ask GOE: Were all animals vegetarians before the fall of man?

"Sorry, buffalo, our bad" — Adam and Eve (photo by Luca Galuzzi, via Wikimedia Commons)

A short and sweet letter from Paul Pinos, via Facebook:

“How would you respond to someone citing Gen 1:29-30 as evidence for animals being vegetarian prior to the fall?”

Ah, Adam and Eve, bless them. The original hippies, they were! Think about it: They lived in harmony with nature, were naked all the time, and they were vegan! All they needed was an acoustic guitar and they’d have been made in the shade.

But I digress. Paul had a question, and it’s a good one. Here’s Genesis 1:29-30, as rendered in the NIV:

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground — everything that has the breath of life in it — I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

The context begins with God addressing newly created humans, but he broadens out his statement in verse 30. I admit that a cursory reading does appear to indicate that all animals must have been vegetarians in Genesis 1 — but only if you believe the account was meant to be understood as literal history. Which I don’t. However, looking more deeply at the text, one of the first things I notice is that God’s statement does not actually prohibit humans or any other animals from eating meat. It only specifies that the fruit-bearing trees and green plants are his “gift.”

What does that mean, exactly? There’s a lot that could be unpacked. But to conclude that this short passage says, for certain, that animals did not eat meat until after the fall of man, is to read something into the text that is simply not there, in my opinion. It would be like me saying, “Here’s the salt,” and you interpreting it to mean you can’t use pepper.

To understand God’s true perspective on a question like this, we must also look at what he has revealed elsewhere in scripture. For example, other Old Testament passages not only acknowledge but seem to celebrate the carnivorous qualities of meat-eating animals: e.g., lions and ravens (Job 38:39-41), hawks (Job 39:29-30), the Leviathan (Job 41:14) and lions again (Psalm 104:21; also see verses 27 and 28). Most of these passages seem to directly credit God as the source of food for the carnivore being discussed, and Psalm 104:27 says, “All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time.” All creatures — including, presumably, the meat-eating ones.

If carnivorous animals are the result of a creation gone rogue thanks to Adam and Eve’s hankering for forbidden fruit, it seems unlikely that the Holy Spirit would later inspire writers to describe God as blessing the behavior in these ways.

Under the new covenant, those who trust in Christ find justification and new life that Romans 5 seems to describe as not just restoring us to, but actually surpassing, our prelapsarian (pre-fall) state. So, if we had originally been created to eat nothing but plants, one might reasonably expect the New Testament writers to consistently abhor the eating of meat. But that’s not what we find. Consider the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:3-5:

They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

Paul’s position in 1 Corinthians 8 seems to be more take-it-or-leave-it when it comes to meat, but it’s pretty clear that his only hangup is when it has been sacrificed to idols. (Even then, he’s cool with it, but warns his readers to be careful in how their behavior might influence other believers.) Also of note is Peter’s vision in Acts 10, which is centered around the killing and eating of animals. Yes, the vision was most likely intended as a metaphorical demonstration that the gospel is for everyone, including non-Jews — not a ringing endorsement of barbecues and McRibs. Still, it seems a strange choice of analogy if God is a vegan.

But, in the end, what I find to be the most persuasive scriptural evidence against this idea is the example of Christ. If carnivorism is a direct result of sin, then of all people, sinless Jesus would have been a vegetarian. And yet, we see him eating fish, miraculously multiplying fish for human consumption, twice, and participating in and eating the Passover, which, by law, required the roasting and eating of a lamb.

Finally, we should not completely ignore what science has shown us, because this is a biological question. There are lots of animals that eat meat, but some that eat only meat (or virtually nothing but meat). Interestingly, all of the animals mentioned in the OT that I referenced before fall under this category, with the exception of the raven. We don’t know exactly what the Leviathan is, but if it is a hyperbolic description of a crocodile or an orca, as some scholars have suggested, it would fit as well.

This group, “obligate carnivores,” also includes all other cats, snakes, sharks and all other raptors. The young-earth/literal Genesis model would necessitate that a massive and fundamental overhaul of these animals occurred (not just outwardly, with their sharp teeth and claws), but in the makeup of their brains (hunting instincts), senses and basic physiology (cats, for example, are unable to absorb some of the nutrients they need from vegetables. They must eat meat, or they die).

I fail to see why such a significant (and if it were true, very tragic) change would not have seemed worth mentioning by God when he is describing the curse in Genesis 3, or the author of Genesis, when he is describing the overall events. You would think he might have taken a quick break from the pages and pages of genealogies to add a blurb, like, “And, by the way, the curse also turned cuddly lions and playful sharks into killing machines.”

God, of course, is free to judge however he likes (it is his universe, after all), but it does strike me as bizarre and unfair to give a handful of creatures a Freddy Krueger makeover as a way to punish us for our sin.

For those of you who normally dwell in a more sane and reasonable world, the answer to the question you might be pondering is, “Yes, creationists really do believe this vegetarian lion stuff.” Here’s a link to a recent article on the subject by the venerable Institute for Creation Research.

Tyler Francke

  • Marcio A. Campos
  • zach

    Well done! I only have one critique though: you didn’t address the passage in Isaiah about the lion chilling with the lamb and eating straw like the ox. I’d be curious to know how you address that.

    • Hey Zach! A valid critique. I didn’t mention the passage because I felt the article was getting long enough, but yes, that text is commonly used by biblical literalists in support of their “vegetarian carnivores” claim — including in that ICR piece I linked to at the end.

      Basically, most prophetic books, perhaps especially Isaiah, are bathed in deep metaphor. That same chapter (Isaiah 11) begins by describing the Messiah as a tree. Young-earth creationists don’t take that part literally, of course, but they do believe the animals that are mentioned later in that passage refer to real animals. I don’t. I think they represent humans (it is not at all uncommon for the Bible, and even Jesus, to describe people as animals), and the overall message is about the age of transformation, reconciliation and redemption that the “prince of peace” will bring.

      My question for those who would take these things literally is, if it is meant to describe a restoration to a previously established creative order, why doesn’t it once contain the word “again”? How easy would that have been? “The cow and the bear shall graze once again; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox again, as it was in the beginning.”

  • Elisa

    Thank you, this is certainly food for thought (excuse the pun!). I am finding it hard though to believe that God created a world where death existed before the fall of man. It’s difficult for me to reconcile a God who created the world and stated that it was “good” with a world where an animal could be chased, torn up (and in some cases eaten alive) experiencing intense fear, pain and suffering. I don’t see eating meat as a sin, my view is that killing animals for food hadn’t even occurred to them as they had bountiful nutritious food all around them. After the fall, man had to work for their food and therefore animals became a useful and convenient food source, no sin in eating them but pain and suffering as a result of man’s actions.

    • Hey Elisa! You raise some really valid points, and I understand your concerns. The existence of what is sometimes called “natural evil” is indeed a difficult topic, though I would argue that the issue doesn’t just disappear by taking the Genesis creation accounts literally. As I tried to show in this article, I think the idea that a world with no physical death ever actually existed is a fantasy that’s not actually even supported by scripture. I believe it is a doctrine that was developed to make sense of the young-earth creationist worldview and provide an easy answer to the question of pain and suffering. But that is a question that I don’t believe has a really easy answer. Jesus did not respond to the existence of suffering by telling people to sin less so they’d be happy; he came in the flesh to bear the worst kind of suffering himself. Rather than giving us a simple answer, he chose to leave his heavenly domain and suffer alongside us.

      The cross is how Jesus answered the question of suffering, and I know I, for one, would not wish to minimize his sacrifice by saying, “Actually, there is an easy answer for the existence of suffering. It’s the fall of man.” Not to imply that I think that’s what you’re trying to do, Elisa. Like I said, I totally understand why the idea of God calling suffering “good” would make you uncomfortable. I’m just sharing my thoughts. If you have time, I would suggest you check out this BioLogos essay that addresses the problem of natural evil. It’s a little long, but it is excellent and very in-depth. I’d be interested to hear what you think if you get the chance to read it.

      • Also, the idea that there was no death or suffering kinda makes the God of Genesis out to be someone that doesn’t consider the big picture. I mean think about it, why would God create a limited planet if he intended for all of creation to live forever AND be fruitful and multiply. I’m not saying we would run out of resources (God provides) but we would certainly run out of space on earth. In fact, that flys in direct contest with the idea that God gave plants as food. Studies show that plants respond to pain, any plant that is eaten would die… and honestly, why would humans and animals need food if both were immortal as claimed by YEC.

        • Excellent points! Thanks Alex!

          • Honestly, the only way I see to rectify the problem I pointed out is to say that God planned for the fall which also flys in the face of the YEC commentary. I mean, the idea is that God would not create a world that had suffering and death because he is a good and just God. However, God placing his immortal creation on a limited planet (and at that, a garden somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates… most likely in Modern Day Turkey, based on the loose biblical evidence) and then telling them to “Be fruitful and multiply” seems like God was planning for the fall. Which causes problems with the idea that a benevolent God would create suffering since he apparently set us up to fail according to the YEC interpretation.

          • It’s worse than that. Not only did he set up a biological system in which physical death is a necessity; he supposedly (according to the YECs) instituted the necessity of death only as a punishment for a single act of disobedience — and all without ever once mentioning to the sinner that this would be the consequence of his action. Remember, he told Adam he would surely die if he ate from the tree, but he certainly didn’t say such disobedience would also result in the death of every animal currently in existence, as well as all future generations of humans and animals that would ever exist. Not very considerate of God, eh?

          • And apparently God just doesn’t care about the plants that he looked at and saw was good. Since, you know… the plants are the only thing that were able to die prior the fall (By being eaten and whatnot).

          • I’ve had a couple young-earthers try to answer that by saying silly things like, “Plants don’t really die like animals do, since the life is in the blood (Lev. 17:11) and plants don’t have blood.” Never mind that plants do possess a vascular system that is roughly analogous to the vertebrate circulatory system. I suppose this means animals like sponges, jellyfish and flatworms don’t “really die” either, since they also do not have blood.

          • Well, some Jellyfish have the potential to live forever (wait… isn’t there a curse about that?)

            Actually it’s kind of awesome. Like a phoenix… except with less fire and more living in the ocean.

  • Darwin Bloise

    Hey Tyler. I’ve had a question concerning this post before, but never really asked it and kinda forgot about it. The thing is, in Genesis 9, God tells Noah that he will give him all animals to eat, just as he gave him the green plants. I feel like this would imply that humans were prohibited from eating. Can you please give your take on this, as its been bothering me for a while.

    • Hey Darwin! I think you’re right: The passage could imply that, or it could imply something else, as I think Genesis 1:29-30 does. My interpretation is that if you read the text literally, it’s not that humans didn’t eat meat until after the flood, it’s just that God hadn’t expressly given the practice his blessing. After all, even Abel was a shepherd. Why in the world would he raise flocks if not for meat? And why would he offer the best meat to God as a sacrifice if he thought eating meat was a sinful practice?

      Another point that must be made is that, unlike Genesis 1:29-30, Genesis 9 explicitly refers only to humans — not animals. So, if the verses in Genesis 1 must be taken to mean all animals were vegetarians, then, when the heck did today’s carnivores start eating meat? Because it certainly wasn’t in Genesis 9.

      • Darwin Bloise

        Oh yeah! I almost forgot about Cain and Abel. *facepalm*. Well, that’s what I get for skimming the context.

        • No worries! Poor Cain and Abel get left out of these discussions all the time. The only people anyone ever wants to talk about are their parents 🙂

  • Nick Hodgetts

    Reckon it’s significant that the resurrected Jesus ate fish too. Not what one would expect from him in his resurrection body if carnivory was something sinful that appeared only after the Fall!

    • Absolutely! But one also wouldn’t have expected him to eat meat prior to his death and resurrection (as he did with the Passover) either, if carnivorism were really the punishment for some godless, sinful act of antiquity, since Jesus himself was without sin (Heb. 4:15).

    • Oscar Manley

      It appears to me that eating meat (killing animals) is not a sin, but rather, a result of the fall into sin. For example, getting old is not a sin, but it IS a result of sin.

      • Fascinating! Where in the Bible, may I ask, does it say getting old is a result of sin?

  • Allen Miller

    I’ve come to wonder if Genesis 1:29ff was part of God’s initial instructions to Adam in that special garden reserve in the Eden region. It wasn’t meant for the entire planet, it applied to the ERETZ (traditionally translated “earth” but remember that “earth” was the opposite of “sky”. It referred to a particular land/country/region just as it did with the flood of Noah. To the ancient Hebrews, “the circle of the ERETZ” was the disk of land defined by the horizon as you looked in all directions!)

    So as part of the Edenic lifestyle, only vegetarian animals were there in the special botanical park. Adam was spared the full risks and realities of life outside of the garden reserve.

    • It’s an interesting thought. I definitely agree with you about the word “eretz.” It is often mistranslated and misunderstood. It’s one of the main reasons I believe the flood account was meant to be understood as a local event, and not a global one.

    • Oscar Manley

      According to the Bible, death entered the world through sin, therefore, the ENTIRE creation was pure and devoid of death until the fall into sin.

      • Again, Romans 5 is explicitly limited to humans. You can wildly extrapolate from scripture all you like, but that doesn’t make your wild extrapolations true, nor does it mean other Christians have to agree with you.

      • Through sin, death entered the world—kosmos, the world of humanity, not ktisis, the entire creation. As John Murray observes in his commentary on this text, “When [Paul] says ‘entered into the world’ he refers to the beginning of sin in the human race and ‘the world’ means the sphere of human existence” (Murray 1965, 181). Moreover, not only the second clause of verse 12 (“death spread to all people“) but also verse 18 (“condemnation for all people . . . life for all people“) tell us clearly that the context of “the world” specifically refers to mankind or the sphere of human existence, as Murray indicates and so does Paul’s theological point about federal headship and imputation. The context does not include the animal kingdom or creation on the whole.

        ———-

        Murray, John (1965). “The epistle to the Romans.” In F. F. Bruce (ed.), New International Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 1 (Eerdmans Publishing Co.).

        • scrletngray7

          But there is also Romans 8 which states that “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” and that “the whole of creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” signifying that this loss of God’s intention infiltrates all of creation, not singularly humanity. On top of that Isaiah 65:25 says “the wold and the lamb will feed together and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” and again in Revelation 21:4 that “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

          Seeing that restoration (back to God’s intention) includes the removal of not only death but also peace between warring animals, it seems more plausible to reason that animals weren’t against each other in the first place.

          • The Romans passage you reference (Romans 8:18-30) is not about sin. It does not even vaguely reference sin, the punishment for sin, the consequences of sin, or anything that is remotely connected to sin in even the most indirect, tangential way. It is a passage that is leapt on by the Genesis literalists, not because it actually fits, but because it is one of the very few passages in the Bible that might fit, and they need something biblical to support their unscriptural views.

            What Romans 8 actually says was that creation was subject to a temporal, transitory existence, not as a punishment, but “in hope” that God would use it to reveal something even greater. And, contrary to the YEC reading, the “he who subjected” creation to this existence is obviously not Adam, but God.

            As to Isaiah 65:25, the vast majority of commentators agree that this passage is a metaphorical reference to people, not a literal representation of animals. As expositor John Gill notes, the “lambs” and “oxen” are the people of God, while the “wolves” and “lions” and “serpent” refers to the wicked. Since, in its proper context, the entire chapter refers to people — particularly, the nation of Israel — it seems likely that the final verse would continue this trend, rather than doing a complete about-face and describing God’s intentions for a handful of animal species.

            As you probably know, metaphor is pretty darn common in the prophetic books. For example, Isaiah also calls the Messiah a “shoot” and a “branch.” Surely, you see these as metaphor, right? Or do you believe Jesus wasn’t really God’s annointed one since he was a man and not a plant?

            And finally, Revelation. Yes, Revelation 21 says — and most Christians believe, trust in and eagerly hope for — that in the future, there will be no more death. … So what? Just because the text says something will be a certain way in the future in no way necessitates that it was that way in the past. Revelation 21:1 says there will be no longer be seas in the new earth; does that mean there were no oceans in God’s original design? Because that makes Genesis 1:9-10 awful confusing.

            Revelation 21:4 simply says what it says: There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain in the future. That is surely enough. It says nothing about the past, and asserting that it does is exactly the kind of extrabiblical supplementation that Revelation later condemns (22:18).

    • Oscar Manley

      Also, I find it very interesting that the Bible establishes that earth was round thousands of years ago, before man could discern it.

      • You mean Isaiah 40:22, which refers to the earth as a flat disc, like a coin or plate? Ancient Hebrew had a word for a sphere; in fact, Isaiah uses it to refer to a ball in 22:18, but in describing the earth, he uses the word for a flat disc. Weird, isn’t it?

  • Oscar Manley

    Being that death did not enter the world until AFTER the fall of man would mean that animals did not kill other animals for food.

    • Hey Oscar, what you believe is your business, but the Bible does not say anywhere that animal death is the result of human sin. Romans 5:12-21, which you appear to be alluding to here, is explicitly limited to mankind. I’d encourage you to research what scripture actually says on the matter before trumpeting your theological opinions as absolute fact, which comes off a teeny bit arrogant.

  • In the book Three Views on Creation and Evolution (1999), Nelson and Reynolds suggest in their chapter on young-earth creationism that this view makes a better case regarding animal suffering and death than an evolutionary view could. They explain how the young-earth view is better:

    After the Fall, this difficult problem can partly be laid at the feet of human beings. Our sin caused the pain of the world and its creatures. The naturalistic scientist, theistic or otherwise, has no such out. If death and extinction came before human sin, we cannot receive the blame for the millions of years of brutal suffering by countless beings! If the standard scientific chronology is true, then God willed it that way in an unfallen world. (47-48)

    Given an evolutionary history, the authors wonder how we are supposed to explain animal pain and death. On the young-earth creationist view—where there was no animal pain and death before the fall of Adam and Eve—this is not really a problem: “Our sin caused the pain of the world and its creatures.” Scientific explanations do not have this neat and tidy solution, they write—without seeming to recognize that this so-called solution actually creates a far more egregious problem. It is a leap from the pot straight into the fire. Instead of trying to explain why animals are made to suffer pain and death, now we have to try explaining why they are made to suffer on account of what humans did. The animals themselves never did anything wrong, at any point, yet for some reason they went from idyllic immortal tranquility to suffering pain and death. This is not a solution to the problem, but a deepening of the problem.

    (The authors also posed what they considered a dilemma. If physical death came before human sin, then human sin is not what caused it. To this I would respond by posing a related dilemma. If salvation came before Christ’s atoning sacrifice, then his atoning sacrifice is not what caused it. Hrmm, a bit of a problem with their logic.)

    ———-
    Nelson, P., and Reynolds, J. M. (1999). “Young Earth Creationism.” In J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds (eds.), Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

    • That’s a good point, Evolutionary Creation. Thanks!

      • Nick Hodgetts

        I’m not sure we need to ‘explain’ animal pain and death. Physical pain is a necessity for survival, and animal death is qualitatively different from human death, as animals are not, as far as we know, spiritual beings as humans are. We need to be on our guard against anthropomorphism when we think about animals.

        • That’s fair, and I tend to lean toward your view. I think that is also the biblical view: The authors of scripture rarely mentioned animal death, and never did they write about it as though it was an evil or some type of punishment. Honestly, and I’ve said this before, I think the evangelical church’s view of animals and animal death is taken far more from Disney (think “Bambi” and “The Lion King”) than scripture. However, I still think it is important to discuss the matter, since it’s an argument so prevalent in the teachings of YEC proponents, and used to great effect.

          • Nick Hodgetts

            Did you ever read about the famous incident when
            Dr. David Livingstone was being mauled by a lion? The great missionary later
            wrote, “Growling horribly close, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The
            shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after
            the first grip of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there is no
            sense of pain nor feeling of terror”. He was ultimately saved by his
            companions, but the point is that the pain and suffering in this horrific
            experience were minimal. Could it be that one of God’s many gifts to us (and to
            animals generally) is to minimise this necessary pain and suffering by the
            release of numbing chemicals into the bloodstream? Just a thought!

          • Interesting! No, I was not familiar with that story. It’s a lovely thought, and I certainly can’t refute it, but I will simply add that I do believe there’s a strong biblical indication that God does, at times, allow suffering, and that he uses it for growth and for good.

        • chris

          There is no anthropomorphism when you watch a boar or buffalo calf wail in pain while some wild dogs or jackal eat their intestines while they are alive. It’s real pain. You don’t have to be a human to experience pain.

          • Matthew Funke

            It seems to me that he’s not questioning whether or not we should regard animal pain as pain so much as questioning whether or not it’s meaningful to ask about the purpose of animal pain (in the same way we might ask about the purpose of human pain).

  • Mike S

    Please listen to this as an alternative to what this blog is teaching

  • Cy Pontuo

    Glad you brought his up —
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christianityischanging/2015/01/penal-substitution-is-dying-thank-god/

    A lotto the ways you examine scripture you need apply to your presumptions and confirmation bias about sin and the original fall etc… Good short read !!! Most of what anyone heard about Christianity is not fully accurate until we as individuals begin to unpack – of course I also feel the Spirit has a much larger role in our lives regardless and works out mysteries despite our full comprehension – there is a curse in the mix— you also mentioned ” forbidden fruit” however read it again – it’s the tree of knowledge of good and evil . I see it all a a pardon shift the Word leaves out details there was a shift sure and we ask that but it’s probably irrelevant enough – like you said the Lord filled it in for us later and always showed love and grace and preserved free will

  • chris

    THAT’S your explanation? That God created everything perfect and because of the fall of man, animals then decided Hmm, I’m going to eat meat now, the heck with these plants? Really? That’s what happened? So God created the earth, said hey this is good now I’m just going to sit back and watch how you guys screw things up. And HE’S let that happen for thousands of years now?

    • You seem to be very confused.

      • chris

        Well, since you have all of the answers, why don’t you un-confuse me?

        • Why don’t you take a few minutes and get acquainted with my actual position — which your original comment does not remotely resemble — and maybe we’ll go from there.

          • chris

            That’s ok, I can tell by your elitist attitude that you don’t really have any answers and a discussion, debate or further interaction would be pointless. Oh and when you call someone else ‘arrogant’ on this website, since you enjoy quoting scripture, you may want to re-read Matthew 7:5.

          • Yes, I am quite the elitist. Actually, I’m glad you’re not looking for a longer discussion after all because I have an early afternoon tee down at the country club that I need to get to.

            And thanks for the tip about the Bible verse. My tip to you is to find out what a person actually believes instead of asking them about why they believe the opposite of that. That way, you don’t look like an idiot.