Ecclesiastes 3:19-21: A View of the Souls and Spirits of Humans and Animals


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Ecclesiastes 3:19-21: A View of the Souls and Spirits of Humans and Animals
By Robert - 23 Jul 2011

I had a quick look at this today and just wanted to add a few things.

Firstly, it is not correct to say that Genesis 9 directly teaches that the entitlement to eat animals is a 'blessing' to man. Genesis 9:1 says: ‘God blessed Noah and his sons. And he said to them…’ This tells us that God blessed them and that he allowed them to eat meat. It does not tell us that eating meat was the blessing or even a part of it.

As regards the position of animals more generally, many religious people point out that the Bible makes no reference to an after life for animals, and only tells us that man was made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). It also teaches that we are more important than animals (Psalm 8:6-8; Matthew 10:31; 12:12), and that we may kill other creatures for food (Genesis 9:3; Acts 10: 9-16; 1 Timothy 4:3,4). All of these facts, it is often argued, are incompatible with the idea that animals have souls or an afterlife.

However, the scriptures do not actually say that animals do not have souls. In fact, the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are used in relation to animals on a number of occasions. In some instances it is fair to say that the words simply mean ‘life’ (Deuteronomy 12:23, Philippians 2:30) and ‘breath’ (Job 15:30, 2 Thessalonians 2:8). In other contexts, however, they are clearly used in a spiritual sense. For example, Ecclesiastes 3:21 refers to what happens to the ‘spirits’ of man and animals after they have died.

There are also numerous statements in the Bible which indicate that animals are conscious. They are said to experience fear (Genesis 9:2; Psalm 104:29; Joel 2:22), desire (Psalm 145:16), confusion (Joel 1:18), pleasure (Job 39:21) and pain (Romans 8:22). They also said to possess qualities associated with consciousness, such as subtlety (Genesis 3:1), cunning (2 Corinthians 11:3), knowledge (Isaiah 1:3, Jeremiah 8:7), and understanding (Jude 1:10).

In addition, there is specific illustration of animal consciousness in the well-known passage in Numbers 22:21-34. Here, we are told that prophet Balaam’s donkey rebukes him for kicking her after an angel had blocked their path. Although it is clear from the account that the donkey’s ability to speak was miraculous, it is equally clear that the donkey was conscious of having been kicked and of the presence of the angel.

Furthermore, as I have pointed out previously Proverbs 12:10 says that ‘the righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, but the compassions of the wicked are cruel.’ This proverb contrasts the actions of the righteous and the wicked man. It only makes sense, therefore, if the good man’s behaviour is an act of compassion. If it is an act of compassion, however, then his animal must be conscious. It is clearly impossible to be compassionate towards something that is unconscious and incapable of suffering.

As regards the reference to man being created in the ‘image of God’, this could refer to other attributes, such as man’s creativity or his ability to reason, rather than to the possession of a soul. These qualities, coupled with man’s greater capacity for mental suffering, might also explain why he was given dominion over animals, and why Jesus said that a person is ‘worth more than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10:31).

It is, of course, true that the Bible says little about an after life for animals. Having said that, the scriptures do also tell us very little about the creation of angels or their salvation. The reason for this perhaps is that the Bible was written for human beings. In addition, as Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us -

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children for ever, that we might follow all the words of this law.

Despite this, the Bible does tell us that God’s plan of redemption includes animals. We are told that His grief about creation included the animal kingdom, as a result of which both man and animals were punished by the Deluge (Genesis 6:7). After the Flood, the covenant and the laws that were given to Noah also applied to animals (Genesis 9:5,10-16), as did certain Mosaic laws relating to the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:14) and to sexual conduct (Leviticus 20:15,16).

Later in the Old Testament, we are told about animals repenting (Jonah 3:8) and honouring God (Isaiah 44:20), and in Isaiah’s famous prophecy animals are portrayed as an integral part of God’s vision of the perfect world -

The wolf also will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear; their young ones will lie down together: and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child will play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s nest. They will neither hurt nor destroy in all of my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Later in Isaiah we are told that this vision will be fulfilled when God ‘creates a new heaven and a new earth’ (Isaiah 65:17-25), a prophecy which the New Testament identifies with the reign of Christ (Romans 15:12). The same epistle emphasises that the ‘the whole of creation will be liberated to the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21), and Revelation contains this vision of heaven -

Then I heard every creature that is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea and all therein, say, ‘Blessing and honour and glory and power be unto him that sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever’. (Revelation 5:13)

Whilst the Bible does not refer to the after lives of individual animals, therefore, it does clearly teach that animals are not only included in certain covenants and laws, but also in God’s plan for the redemption of the world.

This leaves one final question: why have man and carnivores been permitted to eat animals if they have souls? To answer this question, I think it is important to note that the Bible effectively divides history into three periods –

1. from creation to the Fall - man and land animals eat plants (Genesis 1:29, 30)

2. after the Fall - man is allowed to kill and eat animals (Genesis 4:4; 9:3)

3. from the new creation - meat eating is prohibited for all (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:17-25).

Eating animals, therefore, was not part of the original creation and it will not be part of the new heaven and earth. Consequently, it is obviously not an ideal state of affairs, but only something that was permitted after sin had entered the world.

The Bible does not tell us why eating meat was permitted, but the reasons are not hard to see. Sin brought death and decay into the world (Roman 5:12) and with this came a new set of moral problems. Death was now inevitable for all, so speeding up that process was no longer the worst thing that could happen. There was something potentially much worse – suffering.

Had we not been allowed to eat animals, many people would have died slowly of starvation. This would have occurred during periods when there was insufficient plant food, such as after the Flood or following serious crop failures. This would also have been a serious problem in very hot or cold areas of the globe where there was little or no vegetation.

If herbivores had been allowed to reproduce without any restrictions, they would also have depleted the plant food until both they and human beings died of starvation. Without predators, sick animals would also have been able to spread disease to other members of their species much more easily.

If people and animals had been allowed to die slowly from old age, sickness, and starvation, this would have resulted in much more suffering than allowing some of those creatures to be killed for food. As animals have a lower level of consciousness than man, the least cruel option was to allow us to eat animals. Some carnivores were allowed to survive the Flood, therefore, to keep the number of herbivores under control, particularly in areas where human population levels were low.

The effect of this was to create a balance in nature that prevented excessive suffering. This balance, however, also serves as a permanent reminder to us that we live in a world, which is far from the paradise that God originally created. Violence and death are now an indelible part of our existence.

Some people, however, disagree with this analysis. They point out that Genesis 1:29,30, does not actually say that land animals could not have eaten meat as well as plant food. It also says nothing to prevent sea creatures from eating meat, and many of these creatures are now carnivores. In addition, the Hebrew names for some of the carnivores have meanings that appear to allude to violence and predation. As Adam named all of the animals (Genesis 2:19,20), it is argued, he must have witnessed animals killing one another before the Fall.

A further argument that is advanced is that the Bible only refers to death entering the human world as a result of sin (Romans 5:12). Consequently, there is no reason to believe that there was no death of any description before the Fall. The wages of sin may be death (Romans 6:23), but that does not mean that all death is the result of sin. After all, plants were eaten from day one of creation, so some of them presumably died, together with creatures such as fungi and bacteria. If some of God’s creatures died from day one, there is no reason to believe that higher animals did not also die before the Fall.

However, the fact that eating meat was not prohibited in Genesis 1:29,30 does not mean that it was permitted. It is worth noting that these verses applied the same dietary conditions to both man and animals alike. If they did not permit man to eat meat before the Flood, they could not have allowed animals to do the opposite.

As regards the names Adam gave to the animals, any trace of the linguistic roots of these words could easily have been lost following the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). Moreover, the carnivorous connotations of some of the names might may only reflect the natures these animals developed after the Fall (Genesis 6:11).

It is also clear from Isaiah 11:6-9 that killing is not acceptable in an ideal world where the earth is ‘full of the knowledge of the Lord’. If no creatures killed one another before the Fall, however, the only way they could have died would have been by means of accidents, disease or old age.

Disease and fatal accidents are incompatible with a world that is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). As well as being described as ’the wages of sin’ (Romans 6:23) death is also referred to as an ‘enemy’ of God that will be destroyed in His new world (Isaiah 25:8;1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 20:13, 21:4).

The idea that animals died from old age before the Fall is also inconsistent with Romans 8:18-23. This passage refers to creation being subject to ‘the bondage of decay’ under which it will suffer until it is liberated ‘into the glorious freedom of the children of God’. It is clear from this bodily decay and death from old age can have no place in an ideal world.