Eating meat versus abstaining from meat is an issue that many Christians think about. Some believe that God intended for humans to be vegetarian, while others think the Bible supports eating meat. This article will examine key biblical passages about diet and analyze what the Bible teaches regarding vegetarianism and meat-eating.
Diet is an important topic for Christians. Many want to eat and live in a way that honors God and follows biblical principles. Vegetarianism is practiced by a minority of Christians today, usually for health, ethical or environmental reasons. Most Christians probably don’t give much thought to the biblical foundation behind their dietary choices. Does God call Christians to be vegetarian? Or does the Bible affirm the practice of eating meat?
This article will walk through the Bible’s teachings to uncover God’s perspective on vegetarian diets versus meat-based diets. We’ll look at critical passages in the Old Testament and New Testament, study examples of major biblical figures, and examine the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Our goal is to understand what the whole of scripture says about diet, rather than isolating a few out-of-context verses.
Here are the key points that we’ll cover in more detail throughout this article:
- In the beginning, God gave Adam and Eve a vegetarian diet in the Garden of Eden
- After the Flood, God permitted humans to eat meat
- Laws given to Israel regulated their meat consumption, but did not prohibit it
- Jesus ate fish and likely ate lamb at the Passover meal
- In the early church, meat eating was allowed but not required
- Paul taught that Christians are free to choose to eat meat or abstain from meat
- The Bible does not explicitly command vegetarianism for all believers
The overall biblical perspective seems to be that vegetarianism is permitted but not mandated for Christians. The decision about eating or abstaining from meat should be guided by spiritual wisdom, health considerations, and love for neighbor. With the key points summarized, let’s now look at how the Bible develops this theme from Genesis to Revelation.
God’s Original Diet for Humankind
To start from the beginning, we can go back to the Garden of Eden and God’s original dietary plan for mankind. In Genesis 1:29, God said “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.”
So before the Fall, it appears that God’s intended diet for Adam and Eve was vegetarian. Genesis 1 paints a picture of the kingdom of God in its original perfect state. Many theologians teach that this passage reflects God’s ideal dietary wish for humankind. The Bible scholar Telford Work writes: “As originally created, humans were to eat only plants.”
Genesis 2:16 confirms this by stating: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden…” The only prohibition was from eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There are no statements in Genesis 1 or 2 about God granting Adam and Eve permission to eat meat.
Therefore, many Christian groups that advocate for vegetarianism, such as Seventh-day Adventists, view God’s original plant-based diet for humankind in Genesis 1-2 as evidence that God did not intend for meat to be regularly consumed. It was only after sin entered the world that death and permission to eat meat followed, perhaps as a concession to humankind’s sinful state.
After the Flood, Meat Eating is Permitted
While the original diet in Eden appears to have been vegetarian, this changes after the Flood in Genesis 9. Genesis 9:3 says “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”
Here for the first time, God explicitly permits humans to eat meat. Bible scholar Gordon Wenham notes on this passage: “The most striking innovation is the permission to kill animals for food. In Genesis 1 the only food allowed man was plants…Though killing animals was permitted from now on, bloodshed was forbidden.”
Why did permissions change between Genesis 1 and Genesis 9? The Bible does not explicitly give a reason, but many propose it was a disciplinary action after increased sin in the events leading up to the Flood. Regardless of the reason, after the Flood God definitively ends the vegetarian-only diet.
Laws Regulating Meat Eating in Israel
Moving ahead to the time of Moses and the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, the Levitical laws placed regulations on meat consumption but did not prohibit it altogether.
For example, Leviticus 11 outlines categories of clean and unclean meats: “These are the creatures which you may eat from all the animals that are on the earth.” It proceeds to define which animals, fish, birds and insects are permissible and forbidden to eat. Clean meat options included cattle, sheep, goats and clean birds.
The Mosaic Law prohibited consuming blood or eating fat and certain organs of animals. But with the blood drained and these portions removed, eating meat itself was allowed. As Bible expositor John Walton summarizes it: “The kosher law distinguishes between clean and unclean animals and cuts of meat as well as prohibiting the eating of blood, but it does not prohibit the eating of meat.”
Within these Old Testament regulations, meat could be eaten at sacred festivals and celebrations. For instance, Deuteronomy 12:15 says, “you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns whenever you desire,” denoting meat consumption as an acceptable joyful activity. The Passover feast featured the slaughter and eating of an unblemished lamb, pointing toward Christ’s sacrifice.
Overall, the Mosaic Law guided and restricted Israel’s practice of meat eating without prohibiting it altogether. Vegetables, grains, breads and nuts also composed key parts of the ancient Israelite diet along with meat.
Examples of Meat Eating in the Old Testament
Many major figures in Israel’s history ate meat according to biblical accounts. Here are a few examples:
- Abraham: In Genesis 18, Abraham prepared a meal for three visitors that included bread, curds, milk, and a tender calf.
- Jacob: In Genesis 27:3-4, Isaac instructs Jacob to hunt game and prepare a meat dish of savory food to receive his blessing.
- Moses and Israel: In Numbers 11, the Israelites complain about only having manna to eat in the wilderness. Moses becomes angry and the Lord sends quails for them to gather meat to eat for a whole month.
- David: 1 Samuel 25:18 records how Abigail “took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep already prepared, five seahs of parched grain, a hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and loaded them on donkeys.” David’s army planned to eat this festive meat and food.
- Solomon: 1 Kings 4:22-23 describes the abundant provision for Solomon’s royal table: “Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl.”
So while vegetarianism alone is not modeled by any major figures,Plant-based foods were regularly eaten along with meat, according to the Old Testament examples of godly Israelites we have recorded.
Jesus and Meat in the Gospels
In the earthly life of Christ, the Gospels record Jesus eating meat on certain occasions. Several examples include:
- Eating Fish: Luke 24:41-43 describes the disciples giving Jesus a piece of broiled fish, “and he took it and ate before them.” John 21:4-13 also has the account of Jesus cooking and eating fish with the disciples after the resurrection.
- Multiplication of Fish and Bread: In both Matthew 14:13-21 and Mark 6:31-44, Jesus miraculously multiplied 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed the five thousand. Had Jesus objected to eating fish, he presumably would not have created more fish to eat on these occasions.
- The Last Supper: The Passover that Jesus ate with his disciples before his crucifixion very likely included roasted lamb according to tradition. No scripture forbids Christ from participating in eating the sacrificial Paschal lamb.
At the same time, it does not appear that Jesus ate meat frequently. As an observant Jew, Jesus would have followed kosher dietary laws. Certain sects of Judaism such as the Essenes ate very little or no meat. So while Jesus certainly ate meat at times, he likely ate a mainly plant-based, Mediterranean diet consistent with his Jewish culture.
Regarding vegetarianism specifically, Jesus did not explicitly command or model complete abstinence from meat. But his ministry emphasized compassion for all of creation. For example, Matthew 6:26 states, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Jesus was concerned with caring for animals, birds and all living things.
Teachings on Diet in the Early Church
What instructions did the apostles give the early church on diet? Here are a few key passages:
- Romans 14: The disputes in Roman church included disagreement among Jewish and Gentile believers over eating meat. Paul writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. But to anyone who thinks something is unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (v.14) He teaches that each person should follow their own convictions.
- 1 Corinthians 8: Here Paul nuances instructions on meat offered to idols. He clarifies that food itself is spiritually neutral: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” (v.8) But believers should restrain their freedom in love to avoid harming others’ consciences.
- 1 Corinthians 10: Paul points Christians to avoid participating in feasts for pagan temple gods, but says food from the market is acceptable: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” (v.25)
- Colossians 2:16: Paul again affirms personal freedom: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink.” The kingdom of God is not defined by diet but by righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
In summary, these apostolic teachings allowed meat but emphasized that diet choices should be guided by love, conscience and avoiding offense. Neither vegetarianism nor meat eating was required, but room was given for individual freedom. Abstaining from meat was permitted if it was one’s personal conviction.
Applications for Today
As we attempt to apply biblical principles to this issue, several implications seem clear for Christians today:
- The Bible does not explicitly prohibit all meat eating. From Genesis to Revelation, meat eating within proper Old Testament boundaries was allowed. Jesus ate meat during his ministry. While the original Edenic ideal may have been vegetarianism, after the Fall meat was permitted.
- Vegetarianism is also permitted. Though the Bible allows meat, nowhere does it require it. Christians desiring to pursue a vegetarian or vegan diet for health, ethical or environmental reasons have biblical freedom to do so.
- Motives matter more than diet. Romans 14 teaches that which foods we eat are spiritually neutral. The kingdom of God is about righteous living, peace and joy, not dietary laws. What really defiles a person comes from within their heart, not what enters their mouth (Mark 7:20).
- Decisions about diet should be guided by love. All believers have freedom in Christ to eat meat or abstain from meat. But in either case, one’s choices should be tempered by a desire to avoid offending others or causing them to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:11-13). Love should fuel believers’ dietary choices more than demanding one’s rights.
- Moderation and thanksgiving are key. Those who eat meat should do so in moderation and with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-4), rather than to excess or with a lack of compassion. Additionally, no Christian should judge or despise those of a different persuasion regarding meat or vegetables (Romans 14:3).
This thorough biblical overview has uncovered evidence supporting both vegetarian and meat-based diets at different times in God’s story. The Bible does not give a strict command one way or the other for all people for all time. Principles of love, caution, thanksgiving and moderation can guide modern believers. Romans 14:5 offers wisdom to close: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Let each follower of Christ become fully convinced in their own mind regarding diet, for the glory of God.