by Rich Milne

Animal rights is much in the news. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protests against the furs Hollywood stars wear. There are new revelations about the conditions animals are kept in before they are slaughtered for food, or how rabbits have hair dye put into their eyes for days on end, testing their reactions. Are these moral issues? Is this an apologetic concern? Does the Bible shed any light on these arguments? Do our lives either reflect or rebut the answers we offer?

Apologetics map out two parallel paths for believers in a world desperately in need of consistent answers. One is the road of honest, substantial, carefully constructed, biblical answers that actually intersect and interact with questions and concerns like those raised by animal activists. The other, equally important road, is the way we live our lives. For how we live gains the attention of an unbelieving world, showing what we really believe. We are to provide answers with our mouths, but the attitudes of our lives will speak even louder. If we proclaim a Gospel of peace, do we live lives that promote it?

Christians are often pictured as those with all the answers, but inconsistent lifestyles. We are seen as people who get worked up about one message on the first day of the week, only to spend the rest of the week working out a very different message. Jesus, challenging His disciple, says we are to live so that the world may “see you good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”1 It is what people see us doing that may be bring glory to our Father in heaven.

“Six million people died in concentration camps, but six billion boiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”2 Is there really a moral equivalency here, as Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PETA, states? How does one arrive at legitimate moral principles to answer moral questions? Are the Christian scriptures even a legitimate source of moral principles? How should we, as believers, live our lives in relation to animals, if we believe God created all creatures great and small? Is cruelty to animals like cruelty to people? How should we live our our apologetics if we say that cruelty is wrong?

In the realm of moral philosophy, the primary question is “What is the basis for answering moral questions?” Tom Regan is an American academic philosopher whose book, The Case for Animal Rights,3 is considered one of the few books to “significantly influence the animal-liberation movement.”4  This widely praised and penetrating book devotes significant space to “Ethical Thinking and Theory.” Regan’s goal is to consider what would charac­terize an “ideal moral judgment’ and to examine and evaluate competing moral theories and their application to human/ animal relations.

Regan begins his discussion with “Some Ways Not to Answer Moral Questions.” Answers based on personal preference or personal feelings are quickly dismissed as obviously subjective. Appeals to what we think is right or what statistics show people as a population feel is right are also summarily dismissed as being without a reasonable or appropriate basis. But perhaps surprising­ly, appeals to a moral authority, such as a god, are dis­pensed with in a mere three paragraphs.

Whether there is a god (or gods) is a very contro­versial question, and to rest questions of right and wrong on what an alleged god says . . . is already to base morality on an intellectually unsettled foundation . . . . (and) very serious questions must arise concerning whether people have understood or can understand) what this authority says about right and wrong. 5

After going through a few of the conventionally disputed issues in biblical ethics, he concludes: “In view of the fundamental and longstanding disagreements concerning the correct interpretation of the Bible, [knowing what God thinks] would be no easy matter.” He then administers the coup d’ grace:

Even if there is a moral authority, those who are not moral authorities can have no reason for think­ing that there is one unless the judgments  of this supposed authority can be checked for their truth or reasonableness, and it is not possible to check for this unless what is true or reasonable can be known independently of reliance on what the sup­ posed authority says. . . . That is why we will dis­pense with appeals to a moral authority through­ out this work. 6

Having summarily dismissed all appeals to a moral authority, including the God of the Bible, Regan offers his own views.   “Which among the many possible moral principles we might accept are the correct or most reasonable ones? . . . . What is needed are criteria for rationally evaluating and choosing between compet­ing ethical principles.” 7     The criteria Regan proposes are indeed “eminently wise and rationally well found­ ed”8  but they are neither necessary nor compelling.

The cogent and critical work of apologetic philosophers who are also believers in a Moral Absolute are urgently needed at exactly this point.  Regan’s system for evaluat­ing possible moral principles, while helpful and quite comprehensive, is open to attack at each point. If Christian apologists can show that Regan’s breezy dis­ missal of God as a moral authority is both unsophisti­ cated and unfounded, then the door is open to show that an absolutist moral theory, based on God’s words in the Bible, is both possible and necessary.  This is one side of the apologetic coin that Christians need to consider, and have.  For our purposes it suffices to say that Regan’s arguments all have answers, and a compelling case can be made for the God of the Bible as a moral absolute. 9 The other side of the coin is applying that Moral Authority: how do we live out our moral values, once we understand them?



The Bible is filled with moral imperatives, moral sto­ries, and moral wisdom. These moral principles are often most pointedly portrayed in the simplest of pronouncements.  To be merciful is good, to be cruel is to harm. 10 Cruelty and righteous are oppo­sites. The verse that most compellingly clarifies this is an interesting one: “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast, But the compassion of the wicked is cruel” (Prov. 12:10). It is righteous  to be concerned about the life of our animals. We can imagine that enlightened self-interest should make us concerned about the welfare of animals that earn us money, or provide transportation. But this definition of righteousness points to something deeper. Righteousness is revealed by how we treat either people or animals. Any cruelty is unrighteousness.

What in the life and teaching of Jesus demonstrates His concern for animals as well as humans?  Both Matthew  12 and Luke  14 record Jesus healing on the Sabbath. 11    Whether one takes the story as it stands in Matthew, or the more interesting version in Luke, Jesus knows His audience takes as a given that anyone would help an animal that had fallen into a well, even on the Sabbath.  The life or death of the animal is not at stake, only the cruelty of allowing it to remain in the well until evening.  If the reading of Luke that has “a son or an ox” is correct 12  then it is even more instruc­tive: Jesus says the helpless ox would be like their own son. But the message in either case is clear: Jesus’ lis­teners were concerned about the plight of animals in their care-and might even respond to them as they would to their own son. Jesus both recognizes and approves a culture where animals are treated with basic dignity, where it could be proverbial that “a righteous man cares for the needs of his animal.” 13


What’s  So Bad About Eating Meat?

You may be thinking, “Well, that may all be true, but what’s that got to do with me?  I’m not cruel to animals, nor do I know anyone who is.”  But in fact we are all, almost without exception, guilty of this very crime. We eat meat.  Of course, it is clear from scripture that God permits us this form of food. 14   But eating meat is not the issue. It is the way the animals that provide that meat live and die that belies our preaching a kingdom where cruelty is to be reduced rather than intensified.

Few of us know much about factory farming. But a visit to any bookstore, or a quick search on the web will turn up pictures, videos, and horrific accounts of just what factory farmed animals endure before they are slaughtered. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation 15 was one of the first books, back in 1975, to lay bare the cru­elty inflicted on animals in testing laboratories and fac­tory farms. This cruelty is well-documented,  but most of us either do not know or do nothing about what we know. The animals that become this afternoon’s Big Mac are treated as if they were machines to be manip­ulated purely for our use, not independent creations of a good and loving God.



Have Christians in the past made this connection between cruelty to animals and the preaching of the Gospel? They have.  Two English Christians of the eigh­teenth and nineteenth century are widely remembered for lessening human cruelty to humans.  William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) was part of a small group of English evangelicals who brought about the abolition of slavery in England over fifty years before American legis­lation. 16   It was one of evangelical Christianity’s most profound triumphs in reducing human cruelty and mis­ery. Less well-known is his pivotal role in the founding of another organization to combat cruelty to animals.

In 1824 Wilberforce was the most prominent founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Why was Wilberforce concerned about the welfare of animals? Because for him, animals were also part of God’s creation, but like slaves had no advocate against the cruelty inflicted on them. Neither group had a voice. So he gave them both a voice of advocacy. Wilberforce saw that cruelty in both cases had the same root-greedy and selfish hearts-and that Christ had come to change the human heart.

In nineteenth-century England Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801 – 1885), was another such comprehensively active humanitarian. 17 Lord Shaftesbury, widely lauded for using his political power to oppose the cruelty of unregulated factory work by women and children, championed not only a ten hour work day, but schools for poor children, humane treatment of the mentally ill, better working conditions for garment workers, and the elimination of small boys as chimneysweeps.  But he also undertook a crusade against cruel treatment in another form: vivisection. Widely practiced, but seldom discussed, vivisection is the “cutting of or operation on a living animal.” 18  In the nineteenth century, and continuing to this day, it was not unusual to perform painful procedures on an experi­mental animal that was then kept alive for days or weeks, in great pain, to evaluate the results of the proce­dure.  This is cruelty horribly extended.

Lord Shaftesbury became the first president of the first organization to protest against vivisection. In his view, while animals and people were clearly different, both deserved to be treated with dignity, and not cruelty. As Lord Shaftesbury declared: “I was convinced that God had called me to devote whatever advantages He might have bestowed upon me to the cause of the weak, the helpless, both man and beast, and those who had none to help them.” 19


Lewis and the Problem of Animal Pain 

Probably the mostly widely known and frequently read Christian apologist is another English Christian, C. S. Lewis.  Lewis was always a voice of quiet reason, often in the midst of a sea of more desperate, less thoughtful voices.  When Lewis first spoke, and later wrote, the words that would become Mere Christianity, he was one of the few Christians who were respectfully listened to. Just after the Second World War, in 1947, Lewis wrote a short pamphlet for an obscure American group. He was already well-known as a writer of straightforward, logi­cal, devastatingly insightful answers to questions Christians were frequently asked, or asked themselves. But this short piece was on a topic few Christians had ever thought about: vivisection.  In a few short pages, Lewis’s usual ruthlessly logical reasoning demonstrates that those who inflict pain must justify it.

A rational discussion of this subject begins by inquiring whether pain is, or is not, an evil.  If it is not, then the case against vivisection falls.  But then so does the case for vivisection.  If it is not defended on the ground that it reduces human suf­fering, on what ground can it be defended?  And if pain is not an evil, why should human suffering be reduced? We must therefore assume as a basis for the whole discussion that pain is an evil, otherwise there is nothing to be discussed. 20

He then develops the argument: “We are not saying that pain ought never to be inflicted . . . it can rightly be inflicted for a good purpose . . . .The point is that it always requires justification . . . . . [I]f we find a man inflicting pain it is for him to prove that his action is right.   If he cannot, he is a wicked man.”21  Then by deconstructing the arguments a Christian might make that animals have no souls, that perhaps  “they have no moral responsibilities  and are not immortal,” Lewis demonstrates that “all the factors which render pain more tolerable or make it less totally evil in the case of human beings will be lacking in the beasts.”  Without a soul to profit in another life or gain morally from the pain inflicted upon them, “‘Soullessness’  . . . is an argu­ment  against vivisection.” 22

But on the superiority of man over animals, and whether or not our possible superiority should in fact “consist in not behaving like a vivisector,” Lewis admits we may dif­fer and still hold honest opinions. “If on grounds of our real, divinely ordained, superiority a Christian patholo­gist thinks it is right to vivisect, and does so with scrupu­lous care to avoid the least dram or scruple of unneces­sary pain, in a trembling awe at the responsibility which he assumes, and with a vivid high mode in which human life must be lived if it is to justify the sacrifices made for it, then (whether we agree with him or not) we can respect his point of view.”23     Possibly we may inflict pain upon an animal, but only after we have painfully counted the cost.  Have we counted the cost in pain of testing toilet bowl cleaner on the eyes of rabbits?


But how should our lives be different once we recognize this cruelty in our culture and desire our lives to be an apologetic alongside our words?  Apologetics provides an able defense of both God and the Bible.  But how should the believer, trying to reach out to those who are sick of the violent culture surrounding them, and the violence within their own natures, live?  What actions can believers offer a world tired of violence, and look­ing for a lifestyle that attacks the problem at its root? We may have great verbal apologetics, capable of with­ standing the most withering attacks from utilitarians and humanists alike.  But does our lifestyle buttress or betray our apologetic?

The meat we eat is usually raised with only one con­cern: what is most cost effective?  Their lives, their pain, their stature as fellow creations of a loving God is irrel­evant.  What will make that chicken cheaper to sell? And so battery cages give chickens between seven and eight inches on a side to ‘live.’24     Does it matter to us? It is not cruelty to humans, but it prepares us to ignore it.  We have the apologetic words, but do we live the reality of those words? Does our treatment of animals in testing laboratories or eating animals raised on facto­ry farms confirm our preaching of a Gospel of peace, or convict us of hypocrisy?  Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, and Lewis all opposed cruelty whether to animals or people, consistently.  Is it central to our Christian principles and mission in the world to exercise our liberty to eat meat?  Or should we demonstrate the compassion of   Christ by curtailing this unnecessary cruelty?

Rich Milne (Th. M ) is a missionary with East- West Ministries and a former research associate for Probe Ministries.


1 Matthew 5:16 (New American Standard Bible).

2 Ingrid Newkirk (cited in Charles Oliver, “Liberation Zoology,”

Reason (June 1990): 22.

3 Tom Regan, The Case or Animal Rights (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983).

4 See internet entry at http:/ /

5 Regan,  The Case of Animal Rights, 125.

6 Ibid., 126

7 Ibid., 130

8 Ibid., 147.

9 See, for example, Mark Linville, Is Everything Permitted? Moral Values in a World without God (Norcross, GA: Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, 2001).

10 Proverbs 11:17 ( NASE). See also Jeremiah 6:23.

ll Matthew 12:9-14 and Luke 14:1-6.

12 I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1978), 579-80.

13 Proverbs 12:10 (New International Version).

14  Genesis 9:3, though both this verse and Genesis 1:29 make clear than humans were originally vegetarians.

15 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1990).

16 See internet article at http:/ / /historic_fig­ ures/wilberforce_william.shtml, and elsewhere.

17 See internet article at http:/ / display. php? ID= 125&type= article, and elsewhere.

18 Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster’s Incorporated, 1993).

19 Andrew Linzey, Animal Gospel, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 13.

20 C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 224.

21 Ibid., 225.

21 Ibid., 225-26.

23 Ibid., 226.

24   Singer, Animal Liberation, 109, 111.