By / Jul 5

On June 14, 2022, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in a 5-2 decision that Happy was not a human. Happy is a 51-year-old Asian elephant who has been kept at the Bronx Zoo for the past 45 years, having spent the previous 15 years in isolation in her enclosure due to a hostile relationship with other elephants at the zoo. The Nonhuman Rights Project representing Happy in the case contended Happy ought to be legally considered a person, thus possessing the ability to invoke habeas corpus which would free her from isolation at the zoo. The court, while acknowledging that “dialogue regarding the protection and welfare of nonhuman animals is an essential characteristic of our humanity,” ultimately disagreed with Happy’s defense, asserting that Happy is, in fact, only an elephant. 

There is certainly merit within the public square, and particularly among Christians, to deliberate and discuss how we can best care for creation and animal life. The first commandment God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden was to have dominion over the rest of what God created (Gen. 1:28), a responsibility characterized by cultivation and stewardship. Yet, this case, rather than demonstrating how best to care for creation, can serve as a warning to Christians who seek to define what is or is not a human being especially since this question strikes at the core of many of the most pressing social questions of our day.

Defining a human being 

Integral to The Nonhuman Rights Project’s argument to free Happy was the human-like qualities elephants possess. They asserted that “elephants are intelligent beings, who have the capacity for self-awareness, long-term memory, intentional communication, learning and problem-solving skills, empathy, and significant emotional response.” This appeal was unconvincing to the court because “the selective capacit[ies] for autonomy, intelligence, and emotion of a particular nonhuman animal species . . .  are not what makes a person.” They continued their disagreement by stating, “the right to liberty of humans because they are humans with certain fundamental liberty right recognized by law.” 

In these meager two sentences at the core of the court’s opinion, we find the crux of the matter: there is something more to being human than mere rational capacities, intelligence, or emotional capabilities. Even though the court rightfully never attempted to define what it means to be a person, their reticence to do so serves as an example of wisdom for Christians seeking to ensure human dignity for each person. 

Genesis 1 communicates that persons are different from the rest of creation because we are made in the imago Dei, or in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Theories as to what the imago Dei might include range from having rational capacity, creative freedom, walking on two legs, or self awareness. Yet, these definitions fall into the same trap as The Nonhuman Rights Project—by ascribing what it means to be a person to a set of attributes, these potential definitions are both underinclusive and overinclusive. They are underinclusive in that some persons who do not have the defining capacity can be excluded; and overinclusive in that some non-persons possess certain capacities traditionally associated with humanity.

If the New York Court of Appeals had agreed with The Nonhuman Rights Project’s definition of what it means to be human, persons with mental disabilities, those who are preborn and newly born, and persons with cognitive diseases would have been excluded from personhood. Christians can fall into the same trap. Whether it be rational capacity, emotional capabilities, social disposition, or any other well-intentioned articulation of the principle found in Genesis 1, groups of persons who are made in the image of God will invariably be denied their dignity if one attempts to define the image of God. When this happens, we desecrate the image of God because we refuse to affirm it in others simply due to a lack of the specified quality we have come to value. Such patterns of thought disorder a Christian theological anthropology because it locates human dignity in an attribute rather than the status of the imago Dei that is the very root of what it means to be human. 

3 lessons from this case

While the Christian who is concerned for the inherent value of other beings can celebrate the court’s decision to unwittingly protect the rights of all persons regardless of ability, three lessons are to be gleaned from this case: 

1. The world is composed of human beings with a range of abilities and perspectives. Each of these persons is to be celebrated because they are created in the image of God and loved by him. Further, church communities ought to be constituted of persons of all abilities and all stages of life, as each person teaches and instructs us on the love, creativity, intelligence, and care of the Creator. 

2. Creation is marvelous. The fact that an elephant can possess all these traits similar to humans should be worthy of our praise to the Creator. Allowing ourselves to find wonder within creation permits even more opportunities to worship God. Such an ability found in a non-person in creation simply points to the creativity and intelligence of our Creator. Yet, even as amazing as creation is, let us not confuse an animal as what it means to be a person.

3. Christians valuing and advocating for every person’s inherent dignity ought to use this case as a clarion call for our vigilance in protecting the vulnerable. Theologically, we ought to use this case as a reminder to be cognizant of what it means to be a human being and what it means to be made in the image of God. Politically, this case should serve as a reminder to Christians in the public square to remain vigilant in our defense of others who have their human dignity threatened. Because all people are created in the image of God, the rules and laws governing our country should respect the inherent dignity of all persons. 

As we go forward, let us think carefully about our emotions, language, and actions. 

We can enjoy God’s kind gifts, such as amazing animals, without disrupting the value of each human being made in the image of God and abandoning God’s design for the created order. Sometimes, in our culture of confusion, events that might seem silly to some of us, such as the legal trial of an elephant at a zoo, can mount a significant challenge to what it means to be a person, and thus, what it means to be made in the image of God. Let us be a people who meet these temptations and challenges with the truth of God’s Word, a ready answer, and a commitment to uphold the special value God has bestowed on every human being. 

By / Mar 15

Modern life has a disturbing habit of resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Take, for example, the 2000 sci-fi thriller ‘The 6th Day’ which featured a pet cloning company called RePet that allowed customers to graft their animal companion’s DNA onto a pre-grown biological blank and within a matter of hours have an exact replica of Spot or Fluffy. RePet promised pet owners: “Should accident, illness or age end your pet’s natural life, our proven genetic technology can have him or her back the same day, in perfect health, with zero defects, GUARANTEED.”

While same-day service is not yet available, pet cloning has been a real—and really expensive—option for more than a decade.

Scientists have been creating genetically identical animals in the laboratory since 1979. But it wasn’t until 1996 that Scottish researchers cloned the first mammal, a sheep named Dolly, by using a mature cell from an adult animal. Six years later, researchers at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences produced the first cloned cat, CC, short for “Carbon Copy.”

By 2004, a California company began taking the first orders for clones of pet cats. Five customers paid $50,000 a piece to have Genetic Savings & Clone perform the cloning procedure. Today, the procedure still costs about $50,000 for dogs but only $25,000 for cats. In a recent interview with Variety, singer Barbara Streisand said she had two dogs cloned from “cells taken from the mouth and stomach of her beloved 14-year-old dog Samantha, who died in 2017.”

Wealthy pet lovers may be disappointed with the results, though, since what they get for their money is not the pet they lost but a genetic replica. As the CEO of the first pet cloning service said,

There are people out there who use the statement that cloning is reproduction not resurrection. But the interesting part from the genetic perspective is that this is resurrection. It is not in terms of a level of consciousness, but in terms of genetics you are getting the same animal back. Personality-wise there are differences.

The result of the “genetic resurrection” is that cloned animals do not necessarily even look like the original pet, much less have the same personality or behavioral characteristics. As David Magnus, co-director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, noted in 2004, “The people who want this are spending huge sums of money to get their pet immortalized or to guarantee they’re getting a pet exactly like the one they had before—and it’s simply not possible.”

Exploiting the bond between pet lovers and their animals is troubling, especially since genetics has little impact on the characteristics that make animal companionship worthwhile—lovability, personality, shared memories. Arguments against taking advantage of wealthy eccentrics are unlikely to convince people that cloning should not be allowed. The relative rarity of the process also makes it an issue of seemingly minor concern.

But the best time to address the ethics of pet cloning is now, before the process becomes cheaper and more popular. As with many technological advances (think, for example of the cell phone), products and services once limited to the rich eventually become more affordable and more ubiquitous. If pet cloning is unethical, we should develop arguments now to reduce future potential demand.

A primary and biblically justifiable reason for opposing pet cloning is that the cloning process increases the amount of unnecessary animal suffering in the world.

In the process of reproductive cloning, a mature somatic cell, such as a skin cell, is taken from an animal to be copied and its DNA transferred into an egg cell, or oocyte, that has had its own DNA-containing nucleus removed. An electrical current is often used to

fuse the entire somatic cell with the empty egg. After the fusion, the early-stage embryo is implanted into the womb of a surrogate, adult female animal.

Veterinarian Katy Nelson says the cloning process involves a “really expensive, highly scientific puppy mill.”  “These animals are being kept against their will,” adds Nelson “They’re being kept hormonally supplemented, so that they can create these embryos at will.” And as John Hopkins bioethicist Hilary Bok explains,

Cloning causes animals to suffer. Egg donors must have their ovaries artificially stimulated with hormone treatments and their eggs surgically harvested. Given the unusually high rates of late-term miscarriages and high birth weights among clones, the surrogate mothers are at greater risk of dying or suffering serious complications than animals who become pregnant naturally. The clones, themselves, however, suffer the most serious problems: They are much more likely than other animals to be miscarried, have birth defects, develop serious illnesses, and die prematurely.

No pet owner should be willing to allow hundreds of other animals to suffer needlessly just so they can obtain a “genetic replica” of an animal they love. As the book of Proverbs says, “The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel” (Pr. 12:10).

The loss of a family pet can be traumatic and painful. Animals can provide love and companionship, and their effects on their owners should never be mocked or dismissed as a silly, contrived attachment. But nothing fallen humans can do—not even “genetic resurrection”—can bring back that which is lost to the finitude of death. Cloning is not the answer to such loss and grief; it only leads to more unnecessary suffering and death. While beloved pets can’t be replaced, the love they provide can be. It doesn’t require a team of scientists, tens of thousands of dollars, or a morally specious process. All it takes is a trip to the local animal shelter.

Note: In a future article, I’ll examine the moral implications of cloning animals for other reasons.

By / Jun 3

Last weekend, a toddler climbed over a barricade at the Cincinnati Zoo, tumbled over a cliff into the moat, and was carried away by a male gorilla. To save the boy, the gorilla was killed. It was a sad turn of events that could have turned out far worse.

The mountain gorilla is an endangered species, as are all gorillas today. According to National Geographic, only 700 mountain gorillas exist on the earth. Now that population has decreased by one. There are millions of little boys on earth today, yet we can rejoice that the life of just this one was saved because the gorilla was sacrificed. In God’s economy, all the gorillas in the world are not worth the life of one child who bears his own image and likeness.

Yet, we cannot, in our armchair reflections, simply vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” for the gorilla or the child and be done with it. Rather, such a harrowing and emotional event should prompt us to think through what it means to be made in God’s image, how that fact shapes our values and views, and how those values and views, in turn, affect our work as stewards of all of God’s creation.

The gorilla’s death is, of course, a great loss, both to the zoo and the world. We should be sad over the premature death of such a magnificent creation of God. We certainly don’t prove our love for human beings through callous disregard for the lesser creatures. As Tom Buck, a Southern Baptist pastor from Texas wrote recently in Leadership Journal, God can use the death of an animal to draw us to him: “Death entered the world because man sinned. We are the moral agents who brought the death that we see all around us. Therefore, death—even the death of an animal—can point us to our need for a savior.” We ought to mourn with those who feel the loss of the animal the most personally. The zookeeper who raised Harambe says that losing the animal was “like losing a family member.”

Of course, the word “like” is key—because no matter how much animals may seem to be like human beings (ask me about my dogs sometime!), they are not human beings. Human value does not come from our affinity (or lack thereof) to one another or to anything except our affinity to our Creator.  After all, we know from Scripture that we do share a special affinity with animals, one indicated by God when he assigned Adam the task of naming the animals. But we know, too, from those same Scriptures that only human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Animals are no more equal to human beings in sharing some likeness with us than we are equal to God in being made in his likeness.

To anthropomorphize animals, as many critics of the gorilla’s shooting have done in assigning benign or even benevolent intentions to the animal when such cannot be certainly known, not only dishonors the imperiled child made in God’s image, but it dishonors animals as well. If in our love for animals we find it necessary to distort their nature by giving them human attributes, then we do not love animals for what they actually are. To love animals as they are, as God made them within the order of creation, is the purest kind of love we can have for them. And to love people—every single person, from the oldest nursing home resident, to the President of the United States, to the welfare mom, to the delinquent teenager, to the defiant toddler, to the unborn child—more than animals simply because they are made in God’s image is also to love the God who has so loved us.

We reflect God’s image as we rejoice over the life of this little boy that was saved, just as we reflect God’s image in feeling anguish over the loss of the beautiful animal he made. And we reflect God’s image as we reconsider the risks required whenever we place animals and people together in situations made dangerous because they so counter God’s design. When we view animals merely as lesser creatures that are ours to overpower and dominate, we act like animals ourselves rather than reflecting the image of God. (You can find more of my thoughts on this here and here.)

Weighing all this is a way to reflect, as J. I. Packer puts it, “at our creaturely level, what Genesis 1 shows God is and does.” Packer explains that to reflect the likeness of God,

. . . we should always act with resourceful rationality and wise love, making and executing praiseworthy plans just as God did in creation. He generated value by producing what was truly good; so should we. We should be showing love and goodwill toward all other persons, as God did when he blessed Adam and Eve. And in fellowship with God, we should directly honor and obey him by the way we manage and care for that bit of the created order that he gives us to look after, according to his dominion mandate.

As we think about the value of gorillas, zoos, little children and their imperfect parents, let we who are God’s image bearers reflect his character through the abilities unique to human beings: resourceful rationality, wise love, praiseworthy plans, goodwill toward others and careful stewardship for the created order as God designed it.

By / Nov 20

In September, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in conjunction with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Clapham Group, released Every Living Thing, an Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals.

The statement modestly points out that it is not “a doctrinal end and it doesn’t prescribe specific action.” Rather, it is intended to provide “a framework for conversation about the redemptive work of God’s grace.” This is an important conversation for the contemporary church to have. As Russell Moore explains,

Our treatment of animals is a spiritual issue. The Bible is clear that our being created in the image of God does not lessen our responsibility to steward the physical world well, but heightens it. This statement is a reminder that the gospel transforms our use and care of animals as we see all of God’s glory reflected in his good creation.

As tempting as it to credit Moore and the other signatories with being pioneering visionaries, the fact is that the statement is not adding to Baptist legacy, but rather, reclaiming it. And perhaps no voice in Baptist history has weighed in more boldly or more passionately on the issue of animal welfare than the “Prince of Preachers” himself, the nineteenth century Reformed Baptist, Charles Spurgeon.

Following a couple of highly-publicized cases of animal cruelty, in 1873 Spurgeon published the article “A Word for Brutes Against Brutes” in the magazine he founded, The Sword and The Trowel. The article begins by describing these two horrific instances of abuse, one involving a coachman who drove a horse for miles on bloody and broken feet, the other involving a businessman who pricked out the eyes of birds with a pin to make them into better songbirds.

Of the first case, Spurgeon exclaimed, “If there be no law which would award the lash to such a fiend incarnate an Act ought to be passed at once, or Mr. Justice Lynch might for once be invoked to give the demon his reward in an irregular Manner.” The second case, the cruelty to birds, even tempted Spurgeon to reconsider his considered rejection of the death penalty: “if we were not averse to all capital punishment we should suggest that nothing short of a rope with a noose in it would give him his deserts.”

Like the evangelical reformers who came before him, including the evangelical abolitionists William Wilberforce and Hannah More, Spurgeon considered humane treatment of animals to be an issue central to both personal morality and civil society. Spurgeon was adamant that active opposition to animal cruelty is the duty of all good citizens:

Cruelty to animals must be stamped out. Each case must be earnestly dealt with. Where the laws are violated humane persons must undertake the unpleasant duty of prosecuting the offenders, or must at least report them to the proper authorities: and where no law exists to protect the 'unhappy victims, instances of cruelty should be reported by the press, that shame may be aroused and a right public sentiment treated.

But even more than mere good citizenship was at stake for Spurgeon. He viewed animal welfare as a matter of spiritual welfare for human beings:

It is not only for the sake of the creature subject to cruelty that we would, plead for kindness, but with a view to the good of the person causing the pain; for cruelty hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul. The most eminently spiritual men display great delicacy towards all living things, and if it, be not always true that "he prayeth best who loveth best both male and bird and beast," yet the converse is assuredly the fact, for the man who truly loves his Maker becomes tender towards all the creatures his Lord has made. In gentleness and kindness our great Redeemer is our model. …. In proportion as men decline from the highest standard of goodness their sympathies become blunted, they lose delicacy, and tenderness, and becoming more selfish become also less considerate of others. He who dwells in God has a great heart which encompasses all creation, and as it were lives in it all like the soul in. the body, feeling akin with all, yea, one with all life, so that it joys in all true joy, and sorrows in all sorrow. The man of dead heart towards God has a heart of stone towards the Lord's creatures, and cares for them only so far as he can make them minister to his own wealth or pleasure.

Because we in contemporary America no longer (openly) countenance the forms of  animal cruelty that were rampant in Spurgeon’s day (such as bull baiting, cock throwing, dog fighting), we are lulled into thinking the problem no longer persists.

But as a recent news story reveals, systemic animal cruelty persists in our culture today. Undercover video footage taken at one of Hormel Foods’ suppliers, according to the Washington Post, depicts

… pigs being dragged across the floor, beaten with paddles, and sick to the point of immobility. By law, pigs are supposed to be rendered unconscious before being killed, but many are shown writhing in apparent pain while bleeding out, suggesting that they weren’t properly stunned. "That one was definitely alive," a worker says.

Rather than taking place openly in the village square as blood sports once did, animal cruelty continues, now hidden in the recesses of industrial farming operations that produce much of the food we eat. It’s easy to turn a blind eye, because it seems, like other systemic wrongs, to be a “necessary evil.”

Considering how neglected animal welfare issues have been within modern American evangelicalism, it is almost astonishing to learn that Spurgeon went so far as to tie true Christian conversion to care for animals, boldly declaring that,

…. we will go the length of affirming that no person really penitent for sin can be cruel, that no man who feels the love of God shed abroad in his heart can find pleasure in giving pain, and furthermore that wanton cruelty to an animal may be that last deadening deed of ill which may for ever leave the heart callous to all the appeals of law and gospel.

Spurgeon’s words in the nineteenth century are just as relevant to the church in the twenty first century: how we care for and steward animals is a gospel issue because the gospel applies to every aspect of the believer’s life and the witness of the church body.

By / May 8

Daniel Patterson: Welcome back to the Questions and Ethics program with Russell Moore. I am here with Dr. Moore this morning and he has an interesting question for us today.

Russell Moore: You know, I was talking to a couple of veterinarians the other day, Daniel, and they were at the Gospel Coalition meeting, and they said we have an ethical question for you. They said we are veterinarians. We are Christians. And we have a lot of people who come in and they have a dog or a cat and they are treating this pet like a child. And so, what they are wanting are really extensive medical procedures that these veterinarians said they really would be much better off euthanizing this pet rather than spending all of this money on that. And so, they said how do we handle this as Christians when we are working as veterinarians out there in the public square. I thought that was a really good question because it is true that we have a sort of downgrading of children in some parts of American culture, and with that comes a raising up of pets to the level of children.

And sometimes what I think we as Christians want to do when we see that sort of thing is to ridicule it. You know, I’ve seen people pushing baby strollers with Chihuahuas in the baby stroller and talking to those dogs as though they are children. I remember when Maria and I were adopting our first two kids and we were going overseas there was a woman who was also going to adopt and she kept talking about her four-year-old and sort of the way that she handled discipline with her four-year-old, and we listened to all of her parenting tips for half a day before we realized that her four-year-old was a border collie. And it didn’t even register with her at all.

And I think there’s a sense in which we can look at that and we can say now isn’t that ridiculous the way that people are wanting to treat pets as children? And in many cases it is. But in some cases I think what is happening is you have people who may have a genuine longing for children and the children aren’t there because of maybe they never married or they had infertility or something like that. And so, they are kind of putting those maternal or paternal drives toward this pet. And I think for the most part that can be harmless within the life of that person.

I think when it becomes more dangerous is when we have at a societal level people who are fearful of children or phobic of children and who are then wanting to transfer that to pets and to treat pets as though they were children. At the societal level, I think that becomes harmful.

At the level though of a veterinarian, I think that the veterinarian has a responsibility to someone that he is discipling—so if this were someone in a church context, someone that the veterinarian is leading to maturity in Christ, someone that you would have the sort of relationship with that you could give a word of counsel about something else—about marriage or about friendship or about a sin in that person’s life—then that would be the sort of relationship where I think you could offer a word of wisdom and say you know, I think maybe it would be better to euthanize this pet than to spend this amount of money on this procedure. But beyond that, I think as long as it’s not a procedure that’s morally problematic, morally unethical, then I don’t really think that a veterinarian ought to feel a burden of conscience simply because a patient or actually I guess a patient’s owner is spending money that you would not see as being the best stewardship of funds. You don’t have responsibility to do that.

I think where it would become unethical is if the veterinarian were preying upon people—and I’m sure that the temptation is there in any kind of business—to come in when you have someone who has a sick pet to come in and say you know, if you really love Fluffy, then what you are going to do is you are really going to get the liver transplant in order to do that. Or if you really care about Flossy, you are really going to want to come in and do this extensive back surgery for her. I think that would be wrong for a veterinarian to do that in the same way that it would be wrong for a funeral home owner to take advantage of a grieving widow by saying if you really care about your husband, you really want this high-level, top-of-the-line casket that that widow can’t afford.

But if you have people who are coming in and they are using their money in order to act more generously than you would act, but not in a way that’s going to prolong the suffering of this animal or treat this animal with cruelty, and it’s not the sort of relationship that you have where you could actually disciple and shape that person, then I don’t think there is a problem with a veterinarian doing those things.

Patterson: Thanks for joining the Questions and Ethics program. If you have a question that you would like Dr. Moore to answer, email it to [email protected]. Join us next time as we help you apply the gospel to the pressing issues of the day.

By / May 6

Dan Darling interviews Randy Alcorn about how the Bible informs our care for and value of animals.

By / Jan 5

I grew up in the city, without pets. My appreciation for animals developed much later in life. In fact, if it weren’t for a Golden Retriever named Rusty that I got for my children in 2004, I might never have made my journey toward animals. Rusty was the dog everyone should have—loving, playful, and eager to please. He was no Lassie, but he was plenty smart. Before long, Rusty was part of the family.

Rusty made a convert out of me. He taught me that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners who make dogs, and many other animals, bad. Animals do what they do. They are innocent even in their cruelty because they have no concept of morality. Morality is the territory of humans. We have the knowledge of good and evil, and we can choose between the two.

Rusty taught me that animals deserve my respect and care. He helped me understand that animals are also uniquely God’s creatures. When I considered the teaching of the Bible about animals from the perspective of my relationship with Rusty, I gained a new appreciation for all animals.

The Bible teaches us that God created animals. They aren’t the product of happenstance or fortuitous natural processes any more than humans are. Genesis 1:24-25 says God created the animals, from the beasts of the earth to the creeping insects. Scripture even tells us that the breath of life resides within them (Gen. 7:15). By virtue of our creation in the image of God, we humans are uniquely special in comparison to all of creation, but that does not mean the rest of creation has no value to God or that he doesn’t enjoy it.

When God created animals, he declared their creation to be “good” (Gen. 1:25). At the conclusion of the creation account in Genesis 1, God looked at “all he had made” and declared it “very good” (v. 31). Creation was “very good” when considered in its totality, not only in reference to humans. Humans are the crowning achievement of God’s creative activity, and as his image bearers, we possess something of the divine that nothing else in creation possesses, but we should not let that truth cloud our appreciation for the rest of creation or diminish our responsibilities toward it.

Here, I offer ten biblical truths about animals that should affect how we think about them and how we treat them.

1. God communicates with animals

This is the best explanation for the migration of the animals to Noah’s ark. In Genesis, God told Noah to build an ark in order to save himself, his family, and the land-dwelling creatures from the coming flood. However, he didn’t tell Noah to go out and round up the animals. He told him to bring them into the ark (Gen. 6:19), which meant to simply receive them. When it was time for the flood to begin, the text says the animals “went into the ark to Noah” (Gen. 7:9). The only explanation for the actions of the animals is that God drew them to the ark. God communicated with them directly, and they responded.

Another example of God communicating with animals can be found in the experience of the prophet Elijah. When Elijah fled from Ahab, king of Israel, he went to an area east of the Jordan River. The Bible says God commanded ravens to bring him food while he was there, and they did (1 Kings 17:4-6).

These examples don’t tell us that God is in regular communication with the animals, but they make clear that such communication has occurred. It is certainly plausible that God interacts with animals more than we realize.

2. God cares about the well-being of animals

We often quote Matthew 10:29-31 to emphasize God’s concern for humans. In this passage, Jesus helped his listeners grasp the extent of God’s concern for them: If God cares about the death of a common bird, he certainly cares about the needs of humans. That isn’t all we learn from this passage, however. Jesus also gave us insight into God’s attitude toward animals. True, humans are “more valuable” than a common little bird, but Jesus didn’t say that animals have no value to God. In comparison to humans, the little sparrow has little value, but God still values the life of that little sparrow enough to be moved by its death.

It isn’t just that God notices the sparrow’s death, like one might notice that the wind is blowing. Jesus wanted his listeners to understand that God is emotionally invested in that sparrow. He cares about what happens to it; he just cares more about what happens to people. Once we acknowledge that God is emotionally invested in birds, i.e., animals, as well as humans, we are now talking only about a difference in the degree to which he is, not whether or not he is.

The story of Jonah also offers insight into God’s concern for animals. After Jonah preached and the people of Nineveh repented, Jonah expressed his displeasure at God’s decision not to send destructive judgment on the people. In confronting Jonah about his hard-hearted attitude, God reminded Jonah that not only have 120,000 people been spared, “many animals” were also spared (Jonah 4:11). The well-being of these animals mattered to God.

In addition, Scripture teaches that God is personally involved in feeding the animals. Psalm 104:14 is instructive here. It says God “causes” the grass to grow for the cattle. The Hebrew text uses the causative form of the verb “to grow” to reveal this. God isn’t simply passively watching nature take care of its own. Verse 21 continues this theme when it says the young lions “seek their food from God.” Pulling these individual examples together, the psalmist speaks of animals in general, saying, “They all wait for You (God) to give them their food in due season” (v. 27).

3. God enjoys animals

In Psalm 104:31, the psalmist declared, “Let the Lord be glad in his works.” Clearly the statement speaks broadly of all that God has created, but it is preceded by a long description of God’s interaction with animals—wild goats, rock badgers, beasts of the forest, young lions, animals both small and great (see vv. 18-30). In a few more verses, the psalmist used this same word translated “glad” to describe his own joy in God. He said emphatically, “I shall be glad in the Lord” (Ps. 104:34).

It isn’t difficult to fathom that animals bring God joy when we consider the joy we get from watching our own children. We even enjoy watching animals with whom we have no creative connection. Given that, it is understandable that the one who created all things would enjoy them.

4. Animals reveal God’s sovereignty

When Job complained that God had mistreated him, God pointed to creation to help Job understand his sovereignty. Animals figure prominently in his response to Job’s attempted indictment. God reminded Job that it is he who provides for the animals (Job 38:39-41). He appointed them their place in creation (Job 39:6). God also pointed out that he is more powerful than the feared Behemoth and Leviathan by the very fact that he is their creator (Job 40:19; 41:10). While they may be beyond Job’s reach, they are not beyond God’s.

In response, Job acknowledged God’s sovereignty. He said, “I take back my words and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). The fact God used examples from the animal world to convince Job of his sovereignty suggests strongly that this is part of God’s intended purpose for his creation of animals. God has built wonder into animals, and by design, they point humanity to him as the great and only sovereign.

5. Animals bring glory and praise to God

In Psalm 148, the psalmist called on everything to praise the Lord. He included in this call sea monsters, beasts, cattle, creeping things and birds (vv. 7, 10). The final verse of the final psalm of the entire psalter reads: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!” (Ps. 150:6). Even though they don’t do so with words, animals still bring glory and praise to God.

By their very existence animals: (1) Point to God as creator. Animals are as much the product of God’s creative energy as any other part of creation. (2) Point to God as love. God loves life so much he creates it in seeming endless variety. (3) Point to God as designer. Animals fill a crucial part of the symbiotic relationship between all of creation. (4) Point to God as artist. Animals are a living display of the natural beauty God has built into creation.

6. Animals are reasoning creatures

Some deny that animals are capable of reasoning. They prefer to credit instinct for their decision making skills. They believe that animals are “as smart as they need to be” to survive. I believe this is simply not accurate. Animals are smarter than they need to be. I have witnessed my dogs on many occasions trying to communicate with me. They make up for their lack of language by finding other ways through their reasoning abilities to communicate their will.

In the Bible, God reveals animal intelligence through the unusual encounter of Balaam with his donkey (Num. 22:21-33). In that incident, the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way and moved aside. Balaam became angry with the donkey because it wouldn’t obey him. Yet the Angel of the Lord credited the donkey’s quick thinking for Balaam’s deliverance. He declared, “The donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you” (v. 33). The donkey recognized the danger and made a decision to get out of the way of the Angel, whom Balaam couldn’t even see.

Furthermore, we have all seen animals use tools to get food. They don’t need to use tools to eat. They have sources that don’t require the use of tools, but they have the reasoning capacity to know that a tool will help them get food. Also, we have all seen animals run from danger. How does an animal know it’s in danger? It must understand something about life in order to seek to protect itself. We credit reason for human responses to avoiding danger. Why wouldn’t we credit animals with reason when they do the same thing?

We cannot completely eliminate the concept of instinct as we think about animals, but at the same time, we shouldn’t rule out the evidence that animals are also capable of reason.

7. Animals may have a more acute awareness of spiritual reality than we realize

The incident of Balaam and his donkey brings into focus another insight about animals. It reveals that it is possible for animals to see angels (Num. 22:21-33). In that incident, Balaam was spared death at the hands of the Angel of the Lord because Balaam’s donkey “turned aside” when it saw the angel. The text does not say the Angel of the Lord revealed his presence to the donkey. It tells us simply that the donkey saw the Angel.

Humans see angels when the angels want to reveal themselves. The donkey saw the Angel of the Lord without his self-revelation. In fact, judging from the Angel’s comments to Balaam (see v. 33), the donkey was actually acting contrary to the Angel’s intentions. We could understand it if the Angel said he wanted the donkey to help Balaam avoid the fate he had planned for him. But the text does not say that. A plain reading of the text suggests that the donkey was actually frustrating the plan of the Angel. The donkey saw the Angel without the Angel’s assistance.

This conclusion gains further support when we see that the Lord had to empower the donkey to speak (v. 28). If Moses recognized the need to tell the reader the Lord empowered the donkey to speak, he could just as easily have said the Lord enabled the donkey to see the Angel of the Lord. Yet, he doesn’t tell us that.

While we should not attempt to develop a major doctrine around this single event, it still raises significant questions about our understanding of the relationship of animals to the spiritual world.

8. Animals have the capacity to enjoy life

The psalmist was lighthearted when he described the joy animals feel. In Psalm 104, he said God formed the sea creature Leviathan “to play” in the sea (v. 26). The Hebrew word translated “play” occurs fairly regularly in Scripture. King David used this word to describe his celebration as the ark of God was being brought to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:21). He was ecstatic. The psalmist said this beast of the sea can also be ecstatic.

The book of Job supplies additional insight. There, God, himself, described the joy animals experience. He mentioned the ostrich flapping its wings “joyously” (Job 39:13), and the beasts of the field “playing” in their surroundings (Job 40:20).

This isn’t some foreign concept to us. We have all seen animals playing. The testimony of Scripture and our own experience remind us that animals are more than automatons driven by instinct. They are beings with the capacity for joy.

9. Animals teach us about the nature of justice

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More delivers a brilliant summation of God’s purpose for creating the angels, animals, plants, and humanity. Regarding animals, he observes God created them “for their innocence.” It is difficult to find a better description of animals than this. Animals appear to lack the capacity for moral reflection. They simply do what they do. Scripture supports this understanding. It was humans who ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not animals (Gen. 3:1-7).

This observation of animal innocence is not only important for our understanding of animals. It also helps us understand our sense of justice. When we ask why we are offended by cruelty to animals, we recognize we are reacting to an innate sense within us that is repulsed by wanton violations of their innocence and vulnerability. This recognition helps us understand some of our motivations for our criminal justice system. When we punish acts of aggression against our fellow humans, we are responding to violations of their innocence and vulnerability. Such violations should be punished. Our sense of justice demands it.

Furthermore, we learn about divine justice from animals. Israel’s biblically mandated practice of substitutionary atonement provides this lesson. Scripture teaches that rebellion against God is sin. God’s holiness demands a penalty in response to this rebellion. In other words, God requires justice. Either the guilty person or an acceptable substitute must answer for human sin. God created the sacrificial system in Israel to help his people understand this reality. He commanded that this system regularly kill innocent animals in order to satisfy the demands of his divine justice (Lev. 16:1-34). The innocent animals would bear the sin of the people. This bloody display served as a symbol for what was yet to come—when the innocent Son of God would offer himself as the true, eternal, substitutionary sacrifice for the sin of all humanity (Rom. 3:21-26; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 10:1-18).

10. Animals belong to God

Psalm 24:1 states without reservation—“The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.” This fact is repeated regularly in Scripture. While God commanded the first man and woman to “rule over” every living thing (Gen. 1:26), He was not relinquishing ownership of every living thing.

In fact, God did not relinquish ownership of anything (Col. 1:16; Rom. 11:36; Heb. 2:10). He put the man and the woman in the Garden to “cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). He even gave humans authority over it, and after the Flood, he gave us all of the rest of creation for food. But none of this assignment of authority and power included a transfer of ownership. Humans serve a stewardship role toward creation, not an ownership role (Gen. 2:15). This stewardship pertains to everything and is intended to include an attitude of respect (Lev. 25:3-5; Num. 35:33). The animals are subject to humans, but they are not ours to do with as we will. They belong to God (Job 41:11; Ps. 50:10-11).

Conclusion

The reader will no doubt notice that most of my biblical references are from the Hebrew Scriptures. When one looks to the New Testament for evidence of the place of animals in God’s creation, there is less to work with. There are good reasons for this dearth. First, the New Testament is built on the revelation before it. It assumes the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures. So, there is no need to repeat what has been previously stated. Unless the New Testament affirms that its teachings supplant the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, we are to accept their infallible guidance and truth as we do those of the New Testament. Second, the New Testament is dealing principally with the establishment of the church. The writings that comprise it are mostly related to the immediate demands of this endeavor.

Drawing from this entire biblical witness, we can make some important conclusions about how to think about animals. First, we must recognize that animals may very well be co-inheritors with us of the new creation. When we consider that animals were part of God’s original design for his creation, it is plausible that they are part of his eternal design, as well. In his letter to the church at Rome, the Apostle Paul said all of creation was subjected to the corrupting effects of the Fall and that the day is coming when it too shall be freed from this corruption (Rom. 8:18-22). There is no reason to suspect that animals are not part of this vision of a redeemed creation. The prophet Isaiah saw a day when humans and animals would live once again in perfect harmony (Is. 11:6-9). The Apostle Paul may be telling us this is a vision of eternity, not only of the millennium.

I’ll confess that I am not one who believes that animals go to heaven when they die. I don’t see any biblical evidence for this. But given these statements from Isaiah and Paul, we should give more consideration to the place of animals in eternity. They may not be the same animals we have come to love in our lifetimes, but it seems they have a future beyond the Fall. Whether we are talking only about the millennium or about all of eternity, animals deserve to be treated with the dignity such a future bestows.

Second, we must lose some of our anthropocentric view of creation and replace it with a theocentric view, where God is engaged with all of creation, not only humanity. While a theocentric view of creation should not cause us to equate humans with the rest of creation, it should cause us to treat the rest of creation with more respect. God is interested in all of creation, not only humans. After the Flood, he covenanted with all flesh on the earth, including the animals, never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Gen. 9:11-17). The fact that God would enter into a covenant with the animals tells us something of his love for them. We, therefore, should be more concerned about all of creation, including animals, too.

Third, these biblical truths about animals mean we should be engaged in activities that help the rest of creation fulfill God’s design and interest in it. Possibly, we don’t know all that means. For example, who would have guessed that God would use the ravens to feed his prophet? He might very well be doing similar things in some part of the world today. Consequently, we should help to empower creation, not as its slaves or its equals, but as its caretakers.

Fourth, we must abandon unbiblical notions about animals and embrace a more biblical view of our animal co-inhabitants. The Bible compels us to develop a better appreciation and respect for them. I’m glad science is revealing many enlightening truths about the animal world. But it is clear that Scripture has already revealed much of what science is discovering. Animals are much more complex than they at first appear to be. We should do all we can to better understand them and their place in God’s creation. It will not only be good for them, but us as well.

God put animals on the planet and gave them a mandate as well. Part of the human calling is to help them fulfill this mandate in a way that enables them to reach their full potential in creation. They not only enrich our lives. They point to the creator of all things. Animals are not only worthy of our respect. They deserve it.

By / Jan 23

I have known since I was a child when life begins. I learned this first from the rabbits I kept as pets. Later, I understood the magic moment we were hoping for when we took my little mare to visit the farmer’s stallion down the road. I understood, too, that the damp, mewling mounds of fur my cat birthed in my bedroom one morning had begun their little lives some weeks before.

Perhaps this is why I’ve never understood when people say they don’t know when human life begins. Or why the United States Supreme Court opined in its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion-on-demand, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” To deem this a difficult question seems only a way to make crooked the straight paths of the Lord (Acts 13:10). An acorn isn’t an oak tree, pro-choice people say. True—but a sapling is.

Of course, I understand that by “human life” people are often referring to dimensions of our humanity that go beyond biology—onset of consciousness, ensoulment, intellect, sociability and so forth. While interesting and important, however, such questions are not a sufficient basis for depriving another human of life. So I continue to hold to my childlike conception of when life begins.

A couple of years ago, a National Geographic documentary called “Extraordinary Animals in the Womb” used small cameras, dimensional ultrasound scans and computer graphics to offer a glimpse into other wombs. The images are stunning. In them we can see that even in embryonic form, an unborn dog is a little dog, an unborn dolphin is a miniature dolphin and an unborn elephant is a teensy elephant. From the beginnings of all these creatures, there in the womb (or the petri dish, as the case may be), each is made according to its own.

It is no different for human lives. Simply “ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you” (Job 12:7).

Editor's Note: ERLC and Focus on the Family are hosting the first ever Evangelicals for Life event next year in Washington DC on January 21-22nd, featuring Russell Moore, Roland Warren, David Platt, Eric Metaxes, Kelly Rosati, Ron Sider and others.