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Animals and the Peacable Kingdom

By Dean Ohlman


The pleasant feelings we all seem to have when we are trusted by wild animals may be an indication that in the heart of every person is a longing for the harmony that once reigned in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the Bible describes not only that lost paradise, but also a future paradise.

This future paradise is dramatically pictured in the paintings of Edward Hicks. An itinerant Quaker minister who lived during the first half of the nineteenth century, Hicks sought to express his religious beliefs in his art, and his most famous work is The Peaceable Kingdom, of which he produced almost one hundred versions.

Hicks' paintings illustrate the prophecy in Isaiah about the manner of life prophesied in the future Messianic kingdom promised to Israel — a promised also claimed by Christians. Among other things, his illustrations picture children playing with formerly carnivorous animals and a lamb lying beside a wolf.

In the present age this desire for harmony in nature is often observed in the animal rights movement. Though there are animal rights advocates active in nearly every religious tradition, the movement itself seems to center on the non-Christian religious belief that it is possible in this present day for human beings to live in complete harmony with the rest of nature. Interestingly, two Christian beliefs also predominate in the movement:
1.  Animals have intrinsic worth regardless of their value to human beings.
2.  Human beings ought to care for animals.
Added to these convictions, however, are these non-Christian beliefs:
1.  Human beings are merely advanced animals.
2.  Human beings have no right to use and/or kill animals.
3.  If human beings stopped their abuse of animals (and the rest of the environment), harmony would result.
The first of these latter convictions, of course, has long been the position held by secular humanism. Much of the research utilizing animals is based on the conviction that man is merely the animal highest on the evolutionary ladder. It is not in secular humanism, however, that the second and third non-Christian beliefs have their origin. In fact, secular humanism finds itself in heated debate with pantheistic animal rights activists over the issue of using and killing animals in research.  

Animal researchers religiously assert that human beings are more valuable than animals and that laboratory experimentation on animals is morally justified. At the same time, antivivisectionists religiously declare that man is not more valuable than animals and that he has no right to use animals in this manner.

G.K. Chesterton described this blind acceptance of religious creed:
"The special mark of the modern world is not that it is skeptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it. It says, in mockery of old devotees, that they believed without knowing why they believed. But the moderns believe without knowing what they believe — and without even knowing that they do believe it. Their freedom consists in first freely assuming a creed, and then freely forgetting that they are assuming it. In short, they always have an unconscious dogma; and an unconscious dogma is the definition of a prejudice."
In a world with no absolutes, people often find purpose and security in arbitrarily adopting some idea or principle and making it a religious cause. Many animal rights activists obviously do this.

Since paleontology, biology, anthropology, and nearly all other fields of scientific study provide little evidence that there ever was a time this side of Eden when humanity and the rest of nature were in harmony, it is difficult to understand where the belief in such harmony originated except in Christianity. Pantheism certainly does not provide it, because the very nature of pantheism must conclude, as Francis Schaeffer has declared, that "what is, is right" — the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade.

Pantheism provides no reason for man to act humanely. And although the refusal to kill and eat animals is frequently associated with the pantheistic view of life, throughout history pantheistic vegetarians have done horrible things to each other. Hindus, who refuse to kill animals, have throughout India's past maimed and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.

During most of recorded history it has been the Christian religion that has provided the world with past and future visions of a peaceable kingdom in which all of nature lives in harmony. And orthodox Christianity has been behind most of mankind's organized efforts to compel society to treat animals kindly. In addition, Christian beliefs provide the answer to the question, "Why does disharmony characterize the relationship between God and man, man and man, man and animals, and even man and plants?" The answer is the Fall of Man.

It is in the Bible and in the stories told by ancient civilizations that we find reference to the original peaceable kingdom in Eden. It is the Bible also that describes the future time of peace when children will be able to play with formerly carnivorous animals and that the wolf and lamb will lie down together.   Scriptures, however, don't gloss over the entrance of sin and the account of paradise lost. No doubt even in the heart of sinful man the vision of this paradise remains, compelling him to dream of its future restoration.    

Non-Christians in the animal rights movement stand, as it were, on the edge of Eden. They peer into the peaceable kingdom and delight at the thought of all nature being in harmony. They covet paradise, but forget (or deny) the fact that paradise was lost because of the same sin they continue to commit: refusal to honor the Creator.

Allowed by the Creator this vision of peaceful harmony and daily demonstrations in nature of His power and Godhead, they still refuse to acknowledge their sin and meet the obedience requirement for entering paradise. They are trying to live by the laws of Eden when they don't live in Eden.  

Furthermore, to think one can live in paradise and deny the God of paradise is the epitome of human arrogance — a constant repetition of the same pride that led to the Fall of Man in the first place. In essence they are adopting concepts of a religion that they basically reject. By refusing to accept the remainder of the biblical worldview, they actually have no objective, authoritative truth on which to base their beliefs.  

What are the components of the worldview which Christians believe provides the correct approach to man's treatment of animals? Though not exhaustive, the following brief statements summarize this worldview:
1. God created the animals, called them good, and continues to care for them. (Gen. 1:21,25; Psa. 50:10-11; Matt. 6:26; 10:29)

2. God created man in His image; thus man inherited spirit, personhood, and the ability to make moral choices. Animals do not have these attributes. While man and animals are equal in sharing finite "creaturehood," man is more valuable than animals(assumably because of the attributes he shares with God.) (Gen. 1:26-28;  Psa. 8:3-9, Matt. 6:26)

3. As an indication of his superior position in nature, man was given by God the "dominion" responsibility to tend the garden — a responsibility that extends to the care of animals. (Gen 1:26,28; Psa 8:3-9)

4. Eden was thus the original peaceable kingdom in which human beings and animals lived in harmony with one another and the rest of creation. (Gen. 1:27-31)

5. As a result of man's act of disobedience and his desire to be as God, this harmony was lost and the peaceable kingdom ruined. Animals were the innocent victims of the Fall. (Gen. 3)

6. The immediate outcome of this sin was physical and spiritual death for man and physical death for animals because of mankind’s sin (and the use of their skins to provide a covering for sinful Adam and Eve). (1 Cor. 15:20-28, Rom. 5:12; Gen. 3:21)

7. Sin eventually led to the judgment of the Flood, after which God gave to mankind the right to kill and eat animals and caused animals to fear mankind. (Gen. 6; Gen. 9:1-3)

8. The shedding of animal (innocent) blood was essential before the death of Christ to provide a temporary atonement for the sin of mankind. (Lev. 1: 1-9; Heb. 10:8-10; Heb. 9:18-22)

9. Through the death of Jesus Christ, God's Son, eternal atonement was made for the sin of mankind, and the shedding of innocent animal blood was no longer required. (Isa. 53:10-12; Heb. 10:18; Heb. 12:24)

10. The word "rights" appears in Scripture (NKJV) only in reference to human beings — likely indicating that rights are a gift of God's grace to mankind only. Some of the rights clearly given to man are the rights to kill, use and displace animals. (Rev. 22:14; John 1:12; Gen. 9:1-3; Ex. 23:29)

11. Along with the gift of rights, God has given man the task of stewardship which includes the care and keeping of the land and its animals. (Gen. 1:26,28;  Psa. 8:3-9)

12. It is the consensus of Scripture that human beings ought to treat animals with kindness and respect since they are created by God to serve His purposes — which may or may not be related to man's purposes. Deut. 25:4; Ex. 23:10-12; Psa. 104; Prov. 12:10)

13. The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ extends to all of creation, which is described in Scripture as "groaning" as it awaits the final restoration in the coming messianic "peaceable kingdom." (Rom. 8:19-23, Isa. 11:6-9)

14. The doctrine of sanctification indicates that while man will continue to struggle with the sin nature until the bodily return of Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit motivates and empowers us continually toward true holiness. In other words, there can now be a partial restoration of the harmony once known in Eden, and the more Christians allow the Holy Spirit control in their lives, the greater will be that harmony. (Rom. 6:1-7; 7:6)
There can be no complete and proper Christian animal welfare ethic without understanding and accepting these truths. And believers deeply concerned about the present welfare of animals must be certain they understand these truths. Christian animal rights activists sometimes appear to have adopted the non-Christian positions mentioned earlier: That human beings are not more valuable than animals, that we have no "right" to use or kill animals, and that the peaceable kingdom can be obtained in a world still in rebellion against the God of that kingdom.

Likewise, some Christians seem to have adopted vegetarianism in line with these errant convictions. Although there may be good reasons nutritionally, environmentally, and even spiritually to reduce significantly the eating of meat, there are few clear biblical reasons for doing so.  

However, while true Christianity does not condone groundless sentimentality and the granting of personhood to animals, it does speak consistently of man's responsibilities regarding them. In fact, one of the results of considering the welfare of animals from the Christian perspective is that while man remains in authority over animals, he actually finds himself serving animals.

This is illustrated in the human responsibilities of parenthood. Every mother or father knows that although she or he is in the position of authority over the child, in the day-to-day tasks of parenthood, most of the time is spent serving the needs of the child. In fact, Jesus demonstrated such service in His own life and often spoke about it in his teaching. One of the leading theologians in the field of animal rights, Andrew Linzey, stated that "the uniqueness of human beings consists of the fact that they can become the servant species. . . . That Christological paradigm — power expressed in humility — is the model of how we should exercise our lordship or dominion over animals."

Also speaking in affirmation of this point is Loren Wilkinson of Regent College:  "The animal rights movement unwittingly recovers two profound biblical truths. The first is that we are responsible for the animals. Indeed, we have a legitimate power over them. Whether we use them (gently or harshly) or seek to keep them free and wild, we are reflecting the image of God. The second truth is that our power is to be exercised in service. As Christians, we express power in this way because that is the way our Creator and our Lord express power, in whose image we are made."

With the biblical perspective clearly in mind, then, is our present treatment of animals justified?  Many of the questions regarding our treatment of animals are complicated by the results of the Fall of Man — results that are not fully known or understood; therefore, difficult choices and compromises are a necessary part of our actions. Let's examine very briefly the apparent biblical justification of the following practices [The word "apparent" is italicized because most of these require a much longer look to be fully evaluated in the light of Scripture.].
1.  Killing animals for human food and survival: obviously justified.
2.  Killing animals in research regarding the survival of human beings: justified.
3.  Killing animals for clothing and essential needs: partially justified.
4.  Killing animals for species control: partially justified.
5.  Killing animals for sport or entertainment: not justified.
6.  Killing animals for vanity products: not justified.
7.  Killing animals for religious purposes: no longer justified.
8.  Inflicting pain for sport or entertainment: not justified.
9.  Inflicting pain for research regarding vanity products: not justified
10. Confining animals: partially justified.
11. Destroying an animal species: no clear biblical viewpoint. (species is a manmade distinction)
This is only a partial list of human practices regarding animals, but it is likely that not a single individual is able to read it without questioning in some way the conclusions made. Some of the questions that may arise are these:
1.  Are  gnats, termites and mosquitoes to be accorded the same degree of respect as dogs, monkeys and whales?
2.  Modern technology has made it possible in many instances to have manmade substitutes for what formerly required animal products (e.g., vinyl in the place of leather); therefore, should these synthetics always be used when possible?
3.  Domestication of animals has made hunting virtually unnecessary for food, but the impact of humanity has drastically altered natural animal populations and cycles; therefore, is hunting  justified only on the basis of species control?
4.  Is fishing for sport different from hunting for sport?
5.  What is a human need for animal products as opposed to a human want?
6.  Confining condors to save the species is probably good, but what about caging parakeets and hamsters for our amusement?
These questions should convince us that man's relationship to the world of animals requires a great deal of prayerful study — study of Scripture and of the animals themselves. Those who believe in the divine origin and authority of the Bible — evangelical Christians — will have conclusions about our dealings with animals clearly in opposition to most animal rights activists. At times we will support their efforts and conclusions. At other times we will oppose them. But when we do, we must act out of Christian compassion and share with them our reasons for disagreement. We can at the same time be uncompromising and loving in our confrontations.

In conclusion, keep in mind these words of Loren Wilkinson:
"All people have something that no animal has: a responsibility to the Creator. It is in this capability of a responsible relationship with God — more than in God's gifts of language, intelligence, and creativity — that human uniqueness is contained. . . . We can begin to exercise our powers over the beasts with care, as though they were indeed our fellow creatures. Stewardly care is called for whether we raise animals for food or use them for science or for our delight — like God himself — in their wildness."
Although the true peaceable kingdom is yet to come, Christians can yield themselves to the Holy Spirit and work to restore what harmony we can between man and animals and the rest of God's sin-stained yet marvelous creation.

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