2nd Century Church Fathers: God will make lions vegetarian again
In the early church, the doctrine of creation was important. This affected not only the way they looked at this world, but also how they saw God, as well as what they expected of Him for the future.
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. AD 180) and Theophilus of Antioch (c. AD 168) believed that the beginning and the end of this world belong together. It was their conviction that the paradise once lost through the sin of mankind would be regained. The suffering and death of animals did not come with God’s good original creation, but only later as a consequence of human sin. These church fathers specifically claimed that God’s future will do away with violent death and suffering for animals.
The early church in the time after the Apostles speaks very explicitly about man as the cause of suffering in the animal world. Irenaeus left little room for misunderstanding on the subject. As a student of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, he plainly states that animals were not carnivorous in the original creation. He also brings creation and eschatology together when he writes about God’s future plans in his five books, Against Heresies. The church father believed that the original goodness of God’s creation will be restored in the completion of the kingdom of Christ.
Irenaeus took Isaiah’s prophecies as the basis for his expectation that God will restore things to a paradise-like state in the end time. Lambs and wolves will feed together and lions will be vegetarians again (Isaiah 11:6–9, 65:25). Irenaeus says:
“I am aware that some try to refer these texts metaphorically to savage men who out of various nations and various occupations come to believe, and when they have believed live in harmony with the just. But though this now takes place for men who come from various nations into the one doctrine of the faith, nevertheless it will take place for these animals at the resurrection of the just, as we have said; for God is rich in all things, and when the world is re-established in its primeval state all the animals must obey and be subject to man and return to the first food given by God, as before the disobedience they were subject to Adam [Genesis 1:28–30] and ate the fruit of the earth.”1
The church father addresses the condition of the animal world before the Fall, and connects this with the future when God’s promises will be fulfilled. The animosity between present carnivores and their prey will be something of the past. A defenceless little boy will be quite safe in the company of bulls and lions. They will even do his bidding.
Irenaeus wrote that God’s new heaven and earth will be a re-creation of the old, re-established in its original state (Irenaeus speaks about a “conditione revocata”). This will be true of the animals as well.
They will revert to their original food, the fruit of the earth, which God gave them at first. The original diet of animals was vegetarian (Genesis 1:29–30; cf. 9:3), and so it will be again.
Irenaeus also indicates that the new creation will be far superior to this present world. For this reason, God’s plans are hard to imagine for mere mortals now.
Irenaeus is not really concerned about whether lions will eat straw specifically; his main point is that these animals will no longer eat each other, but will consume “fruit of the earth”.
But the church father does suggest that the ability of this vegetarian diet to satisfy a lion indicates the power of this future food and its lavishness.
Theophilus: nothing was made evil or venomous by God
The church father Theophilus of Antioch had similar views on the subject of animal suffering and the ultimate restoration of all things in a perfect state. From ancient sources we know that he became Bishop of Antioch (Syria) in the eighth year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (c. AD 168). He states that nothing was created evil or venomous by God:
“And the animals are named wild beasts, from their being hunted, not as if they had been made evil or venomous from the first—for nothing was made evil by God, but all things good, yea, very good,—but the sin in which man was concerned brought evil upon them …. When, therefore, man again shall have made his way back to his natural condition, and no longer does evil, those also shall be restored to their original gentleness.”2
For Theophilus, wild beasts were a consequence of mankind’s fall into sin. Indeed, the Greek word for beast (θηρία/thēria) is derived from “being hunted”. He takes care to explicitly state that animals were not created violent or even venomous. The church father specifically uses a Greek word (κακὰ/kaka) that can be translated as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. It was the sin of man that brought this evil on the animal world and caused their nature to become bad. Theophilus also believed that with the redemption of man in the fullness of time, the evil consequences of the Fall for the animal world will be undone as well.
Because the early Christians believed God’s message about Paradise and a good creation, they trusted him for the future of this world, for humans and animals alike. Their expectations of God’s coming kingdom may inspire Christians today to trust that God really is good. He will ultimately do justice to all His creatures.
Why does it matter what the early church fathers believed about what animals ate? It relates to the attempts by many today to combine Christian orthodoxy with belief in millions of years of earth history. Such long-ageism necessarily holds that most of the fossils are millions of years old, and hence existed long before people appeared. But the fossils show widespread death, disease, carnivory and suffering among animals. This means that if they were millions of years old, not only would they not be the consequences of the global Genesis Flood, but the death and bloodshed they evidence could not have been the consequences of the Fall and the resultant Curse on all of Creation (Genesis 3, Romans 8). This would undermine the Bible’s whole teaching of an originally good world which was ruined by sin and will be restored in the future, through the sacrificial death of Christ the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15), resulting in the removal of that Genesis Curse (Revelation 22).
For this reason, a common refrain of long-age teaching within the church is that it is a ‘misinterpretation’ of the Bible to claim that the Fall brought violence and suffering to the animal kingdom—despite it being obvious from the text. Some even go so far as to claim that it is a modern-day aberration. So it is important to hear from an expert in early church history that the orthodox understanding of the church from its inception was that the present state of the animal kingdom “red in tooth and claw” was the consequence of man’s sin.
References and notes
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5(33), AD c.180; translation Robert McQueen Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, p. 179, Psychology Press, London, 1997. Return to text.
- Theophilus, Ad Autolycum 2(17), AD c. 180. Ante Nicene Fathers, volume 2, Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria. Online: ccel.org. Return to text.