The reference to Adam and Eve invites us to start with the book of Genesis.
God allowed Adam and Eve to eat plants and herbs, a privilege he granted also to the animals (Gen. 1:29-30). And humans and animals enjoyed a peaceful and friendly relationship in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:19-20).
It was only after the Flood that permission was granted to eat animal flesh, and only then under the condition that the blood was drained out of the meat (Gen. 9:3-4). We may take this as indication that meat-eating was not ideal, although God certainly blessed the eating of meat in other times and places (Lev. 6:24-29 Acts 10:9-16).
The Bible's description of the new earth and new heaven uses categories that hark back to the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Life will bear 12 different types of fruit year-round, one for each month, and its leaves will heal the nations (Rev. 22:2). There will be no need for temple or sacrifices, sun or moon, because God's presence will provide all that is needed. The Bible ends as it began, with a luscious garden in which God rules supreme and his people enjoy him forever.
A vegetarian diet appears to be the ideal before the fall of Adam and Eve, and our lives in the New Jerusalem will reflect that paradise in many ways. How do Isaiah 11 and 65 fit in? They identify the new world order established by a king from the line of David (). This new order will be one of peace and tranquility. Since it also brings peace to predator and prey (), perhaps this means we will not eat meat in the fulfilled kingdom.
On the other hand, Isaiah's portrait of the messianic age is making a different point. The prophet is stating that when the Messiah's reign fully arrives, peace will permeate everything; there will be no room for destruction or death. In this light, the Isaiah passages are not necessarily implying anything specific about our dietary practices in the age to come.
Also, before asking whether we will be eating meat in the new heaven and the new earth, we might ask: Is it certain we will be eating anything at all? Even though the risen, glorified Jesus ate this world's fish, to this question we must answer: Who knows?
We should remember that when the Bible describes our blissful existence in the age of the new earth, it consistently uses metaphorical language; indeed, it must because the next life can only be seen through a glass darkly, even for the inspired authors (1 Cor. 13:12). So most descriptions of streets of gold and pearly gates are metaphors for a life that is beyond our abilities to comprehend.
Through such figurative language, the Bible teaches that our life in eternity will be one of peaceful (re)union with God, where we will enjoy him forever. Not all the language of the coming age is figurative, however, and the Bible also speaks of existence in heaven in very physical ways. Heaven is not some sort of shadowy, disembodied existence.
Rather, it is the transformation of life as we know it today; a genuinely renewed creation, in which our resurrected bodies and this renewed earth enjoy peace and bliss eternally. The great Creator of heaven and earth will not abandon his material creation but transform it.
Jerry L. Walls, in his Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford University Press, 2002), suggests that everyday, joyful experiences are a reflection of our longing for God. A beautiful sunset—and, yes, perhaps a well-seasoned salad—are glimpses of our blissful enjoyment of him forever. As far as we know, the pleasures of this life are not obliterated by union with, and enjoyment of, God in heaven. Rather, it seems likely that all such pleasurable experiences are enjoyed in heaven in a holy way that acknowledges God as their source.
Whether or not this means we shall eat meat is something we will have to wait to see—the idyllic connections between Eden and the world to come do not provide definitive answers. Because animals in the new heaven and new earth will not experience death, presumably any meat-eating would be transformed and unlike anything in this life. Pleasures will no longer depend on death and dying as their source, because God will supply all needs.
Bill T. Arnold is director of Hebrew Studies and professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Asbury Theological Seminary.
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Each of the verses referenced in this column are available from this BibleGateway page.
Other Christianity Today articles on vegetarianism and care for animals include:
Creature Discomforts | A conservative Christian makes the case for animal mercy in Dominion. (July 31, 2003)
Evangelicals Embrace Vegetarian Diet | If you ask George Malkmus, a North Carolina minister, why Christians become ill, he will tell you they have neglected eating an apple a day. (Sept. 6, 1999)
Was the Messiah a Vegetarian? | Jesus is appearing all over America with a giant, shining orange slice as his halo and a billboard banner that proclaims, "Jesus Was a Vegetarian—Follow Him." (Aug. 9, 1999)
Articles on vegetarianism from our sister publication Books & Culture include:
Do All Good Dogs Go to Heaven? | What do you say when your child loses a pet and asks you if her dog will go to heaven? Or, more likely today given the faddishness of vegetarianism, what do you say when your teenager asks you why you eat meat? (January/February 1999)
Lord of the Pets | It is doubtful that the brutal, if economical, treatment of food animals in the industrialized world's factory farms is anything less than an affront to God's creation. (Summer 1998)
An article in the Adventist Review says a study found Adventists live healthier and longer in part because of a traditional low or no meat diet.
The Christian Vegetarian Association believes a vegetarian diet can add meaning to one's faith, aid in one's spirituality, and enhance one's moral life.
If you're an animal lover, all-creatures.org has information on animal rights, a Christian perspective on vegan living, and doctor's perspective on Christian vegetarian activism.
If that's too much, Veg4Lent promotes vegetarian eating during Lent.
Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Earlier Good Question columns include:
Are some people lost "just a little bit" in the same way that others are saved "only as through fire"?
How can I reconcile my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture with comments in Bible translations that state that a particular verse is not 'in better manuscripts'?
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