Preaching the gospel to animals

A post on Clark Bunch’s blog recently included Biblical quote indicating that the gospel is to be preached to “every creature“. Naturally, this conjured some amusing images of Christians talking to rabbits, so I could hardly resist commenting.

lonelypilgrim replied to me, explaining that the interpretation was not reasonable, because early Christians apparently did not preach to animals.

Of course this isn’t the only strange or ambiguous passage in the Bible. For a few examples, see Ebonmuse’s article on Biblical absurdities, in which it becomes apparent that God is also “against pillows”. I’m sure that many Christians are aware of some of these oddities, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. In cases where more than one Biblical interpretation is possible, they simply assume the one which fits with their opinions must be correct. They don’t all agree, either; for instance, some Christians think there is a literal hell, others don’t.  In cases where one interpretation would be completely impractical, nonsensical or doesn’t fit with the way they see their religion, they simply ignore that interpretation.

To be fair to lonelypilgrim, he’s done a bit more than that. He’s also considering the actions of early Christians. Because there is apparently no evidence of early Christians preaching to animals, he argues that the author must’ve meant something different. On the face of it, this might be a reasonable way to understand an ancient text. The earliest readers of scripture would probably have read something closer to the original author’s words, with fewer hops, skips and jumps in the form of copying and translation. So their understanding might well be better than ours. This still leaves a few problems, however.

Firstly, can we be sure of what early Christians understood about the Bible – if some of them did believe they should preach to animals would we necessarily know about it now? Accounts of their lives must have been translated and copied with at least as much chance of error as the translation and copying of the Bible.

Secondly, if modern Christians must rely on historical evidence to interpret the Bible, that makes the Bible no better than any other historical text. In any case, most people reading the Bible don’t consider the opinions of early Christians – except when asked facetious-sounding questions on the Internet.

Thirdly – although I haven’t researched this thoroughly – let’s assume that early Christians didn’t preach the gospel to animals – even if it is a great image. I don’t think that would solve the problem entirely for Christians. As I responded to lonelypilgrim,

“…If we do have evidence that “creatures” meant “only humans”, then presumably the fact that we ended up with this English wording is the result of naive translation – by people not aware of this evidence. In this case, as you pointed out, it’s fairly obvious which interpretation makes most sense, so the error introduced at some point has no effect (at least I doubt anyone has tried to preach to animals as a result of this). But if errors or misunderstandings like this can creep into the text through the copying or translation process it casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the text. In other areas such changes might not be so obvious…”

It seems that they’re working from the assumption that the Bible makes sense and contains sensible advice relevant to modern readers. This could be seen as an appeal to consequences. If something in the Bible is nonsensical, that would make Christian beliefs seem flawed and Christians would no doubt consider that a bad thing. Therefore the whole Bible must make sense.

On the other hand it could be a form of the argument from incredulity. Christians find it impossible to imagine that any part of the Bible might be nonsense. The word of God, the holy book of the one true religion contains things which sound completely ridiculous? Unbelievable. There must be some other explanation.

They’re not just putting their faith in the Bible being accurate, but that their interpretations of the Bible are the right ones. I think the assumption that the Bible makes sense is unwarranted.

19 thoughts on “Preaching the gospel to animals

  1. I had intended to write a series of posts on my blog entitled “KJV bad english” to address the sometimes silly wording in the KJV. This is diffintely a verse to write on, later. Other examples of strage words used in a strange context include Philemon 1:20. Paul says, “refresh my bowels in the Lord.” In Revelation 2:23, Jesus says he will “kill her children with death”. Well, what else would he use to kill children with?

  2. Maybe it’s their God calling for better animal rights?

    Some Christians believe preaching to be about more than just words – you preach through your actions as well. So perhaps their God wants them to treat all creatures as lovingly and respectfully as they (are supposed to) treat their fellow man.

  3. Matt M, sounds like you’re letting modern ethics influence your interpretation. ;-)

    the chaplain – Well I’d call that a success! Praise be! ;-)

  4. “sounds like you’re letting modern ethics influence your interpretation”

    Well, according to some of most famous Christian thinkers (Augustine, Aquinas, etc.) that’s what you’re supposed to do. Augustine – in the 4th century! – argued that if the Bible comes into conflict with reason it’s the latter that should win out. You can just imagine him slapping his forehead in despair at the Biblical literalists around nowadays.

  5. Preaching to rabbits, eh? Yes, that is amusing. But why only include the cute, fluffy mammals? Don’t parasitic nematodes deserve the chance for salvation, or amoebas or bacteria or sea sponges or flatworms? I can just imagine someone preaching to the bacteria on his skin. What a pity that no one actually does that!

    Matt M, I’m not so sure about that. It’s easy to say that reason should take precedence when the closest that exists to science is still called “natural philosophy,” before the use of reason can threaten some of the most integral concepts in the texts. Suppose Augustine were suddenly to spring into existence again, and see the divergence between the Genesis story and modern evolutionary theory. That’s quite a larger conflict than the ones Augustine probably dealt with, and I don’t think it’s safe to assume that someone who said reason should prevail, when the biggest conflicts were probably small textual quirks like the one addressed in this post, to carry over that principle in the later centuries, in much bigger issues.

  6. That’s true – I was perhaps exaggerating slightly, but I still think that the likes of Augustine would have had less of an issue with modern scientific theories than some of the current Biblical fundamentalists. Once he’d had a chance to digest it all.

  7. I’ve no doubt it probably wasn’t wide spread but there are stories of it happening.

    St Anthony preaching to fish.
    St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and other creatures.

  8. This discussion is long dead, but I came across it after Googling my name. Yeah I do that sometimes.

    “I think the assumption that the Bible makes sense is unwarranted.”

    Either 1) the Bible is a message to us from the true God, so if he is indeed communicating with us it would have to make sense.
    Or 2) the Bible was created to deceive people into believing a false religion. If you were making the Bible up, knowing that it wasn’t true, why would create something that didn’t make sense? Nobody would fall for that. If you’re telling a lie, wouldn’t you want to tell a good lie?

    I’m propossing the Bible makes sense whether it’s true or not. If it’s not true it would almost be required to make more sense, in order to attract the billions of followers it has drawn from throughout history.

  9. Clark,

    Welcome! Firstly, my apologies if I failed to notify you about this post – I always try to do so when I quote someone or reference their blog.

    I’m propossing the Bible makes sense whether it’s true or not. If it’s not true it would almost be required to make more sense, in order to attract the billions of followers it has drawn from throughout history.

    What you are suggesting would imply that other religions which (from what I’ve read) are equally as confused and self-contradictory as the Bible, must also be true. Surely if Hinduism was a lie, they’d have written a better lie, no?

    If the Bible is a message from God, intended to communicate a message to all of humanity, then it is most surprising that it has failed to do that consistently. It seems that there are many Biblical matters, some important, some less so, on which Christians cannot agree. I think these people are sincerely trying to understand what they think God is telling them, but they come to very different conclusions. We may not be able to tell which (if any) of them are right, but we can tell that most of them must be wrong. A little under a 3rd of the world population self-identify as Christian, within which there are still widely differing beliefs. It’s safe to say that if God is trying to communicate a consistent message to humanity, He’s failing.

    So why should a book so apparently nonsensical be so popular? Over on Daylight Atheism recently, commenter Scotlyn brilliantly suggests:

    Perhaps unreadable, contradictory, infantile holy books work so well because they can function as a Rorschach test – what readers see on the page reflects whatever happens to be in their heads. If such books were more lucidly written, they might force the reader’s attention away from “what they want to see” towards “what is written there” and trigger a more critical approach.

  10. The Celtic Christians have lots of stories about their saints preaching to the animals and I believe there is a story of St. Francis did the same thing. The psalms talk about all of creation, the stars, the mountains, the seas, the animals, the angels, and humans – all nations. I think we understand that this doesn’t mean we try to teach a mountain how to sing “How Great thou Art”, but rather the works of creation praise the Creator just by being present in all its glory. A human standing in the midst of all that beauty praising God because they are struck by the Awesomeness of it all is preaching the Good News to all creatures. Yes, I have genetic Celt in my soul and flesh.

  11. Please excuse my interjection, but we must look at context here. If we are merely reading and interpreting the Bible assuming that these words were used and meant the same way that they are used today, we would be fools.

    With that being said, let’s look at the verse: “And He said to them, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15).
    There is a vital point that must be made: In this time period, many people were not considered humans. The blind, the lame, those disabled, the slaves, etc. The list goes on. When Jesus said, “every creature,” He used that word so that His disciples knew no human was excluded from hearing the good news.
    Now, if you all would like to preach the gospel to your poodle I’m not going to stop you, but that just isn’t what Jesus is saying here. (Yes even as much as you all would like to imagine Christians preaching the gospel to their pet lizards) sorry, not exactly Biblical ;)

  12. A good point by Stacy Salles about Celtic Christians preaching to animals. In several early Christian tales like “The Hawk of Achill”, we see that the Celts firmly believed that animals have souls. St. Patrick is said to have preached to wolves which, in the Celtic worldview, are good and noble animals and not the evil creatures of Germanic folklore. According to his hagiography, Ciarán of Saighir’s first monks were animals.

    Le gach dea-ghuí / Best,
    Gearóid / Jerry

  13. I bless and pray for critters all the time. God created them. Of course, He loves them, too. I had a wolfdog catch parvo. I read the Bible to him in the vet cage & hand fed him. The next day I took him home!!
    Some people just hate animals and want to reconcile that hatred.

  14. Cynthia,

    That’s not really the same thing. That’s just being kind to animals, in your Christian way that means praying for them. The post is more about the question of whether you need to preach to them.

  15. LoverofChrist, That’s certainly a plausible possibility. However, it only underlines the point I originally made to lonelypilgrim.