The Bible repeatedly stresses God’s concern for animals. After creating the earth, the animals, and humans, Genesis relates that God declared everything “very good”. After the Flood, five times God makes a covenant with humans and all the animals to never flood the earth again. The Psalmist declared, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (145:9). Jesus taught, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6). Among the numerous other examples of concern for animals, in the of Jonah, God spares Nineveh for the many cattle there as well as the people (4:11).

Many early Christian fathers, saints, and contemporary spiritual leaders showed care and respect for animals. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria and the Desert Fathers were vegetarian. St. Francis preached to the birds and said, “Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission – to be of service to them wherever they require it.” St. Antony of Padua preached to fishes, St. Brigit protected cows and St. Columba told his monks to care for a crane. John Wesley (Methodism’s founder), Ellen G. White (a Seventh Day Adventist founder), Salvation Army cofounders William and Catherine Booth, Leo Tolstoy, and Rev. Dr. Albert Schweitzer were Christians who became vegetarian.

The Bible never endorses cruelty to animals. In biblical times, survival often required the use of animals for food and labor. The Hebrew Scriptures, in particular, prohibit animal abuse, including yoking an ox and a donkey together because the smaller animal would suffer trying to keep up with the larger one (Deut. 22:10) and muzzling an ox while treading out grains (Deut. 25:4). Animals intended for food had to be slaughtered quickly and could not be beaten on the way to slaughter. Kosher slaughter mandated that the animal must die from a single cut with a sharp knife, or the flesh could not be eaten. Proverbs 12:10 relates, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.”

The Bible describes a plant-based diet as the ideal. In the paradise depicted in Genesis, God prescribes plant diets for all humans and nonhumans (1:29-30). Isaiah prophesies that the Messianic time will feature a world in which all creatures coexist peacefully “and the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” (11:6-9).

Jesus’ ministry repeatedly stressed care and service for others, particularly those who are weak and vulnerable. He denounced those who amassed wealth while widows, orphans, and those with disabilities struggled to survive. He told his disciples that they should love each other, and he dramatized the importance of service by washing their feet. The principles articulated on the Sermon on the Mount and throughout Jesus’ ministry are incompatible with wantonly harming animals. Jesus would surely have condemned modern factory farming, which is unprecedented in human history in terms of the amount of suffering humans inflict on animals.

If the members of the world’s most populous religion took Jesus’ core message of love, peace, and compassion seriously, we would reconsider our treatment of animals as individuals and as a society and, perhaps, effectively address the current threats to human civilization posed by animal agriculture.

By Steve R. Kaufman M.D.