Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Theological Insights on Why We Eat

The upcoming Christmas season is a good time for an article about eating, for many of us will be enjoying especially good food with family and friends at dinners or parties over the next month or so.

However, the specific question I will address was inspired by a friend who raised the question "Why did God make humans so that we have to eat to survive?"

My friend implied that this was a stupid way for God to design humans. Instead, my friend said that God should have made humans so that we can either absorb energy right from the sun, or have some sort of a built-in perpetual energy source, like some sort of nuclear battery.

Basically, God should have made us in a way that frees us from the risk of dying from starvation, and of having to spend many long hours working or farming to provide enough food for ourselves and our families, and also free us from the inconvenience of having to cook. (My friend hates cooking).

There are interesting scientific studies on why eating (and cooking) is the most efficient and practical way for humans to take in energy. For example, some scientists have concluded that humans need to cook to provide enough energy to sustain our brain size; foraging for raw food would require too much time and wouldn't provide enough calories.1

And imagine: if we were plant-people and had to stand outside for hours to get energy, then it would severely reduce the environments we could survive in. We couldn't easily go to space, underground, or in dark areas for long periods of time. Winter would be tough, unless we were coniferous plant-people (although that would be really weird).

But the fact that eating is an efficient way to get energy still doesn't answer my friend's question of why God made us so that we have to eat at all.

Eating in the Garden of Eden

As I thought about this question, certain Biblical facts started to come to mind. Let's start at the beginning.

The Bible tells us Adam and Eve had to eat in the garden of Eden, even before they sinned (Gen. 1:29; 2:16). This would not have been a problem for them, for fruit and vegetables would have been readily available (Gen 2:9).

We don't know for sure what would have happened if they didn't eat. Would they get hunger pains? Could they potentially die if they refused to eat?

We could suspect that Adam and Eve would never have gotten to that point, because food is enjoyable, and there would have been no reason for them to deny themselves when surrounded by many types of fruit trees.

In fact, since God loves us and wants what is best for us, then refusing to eat would be an act of rebellion against God's good will for our well-being. So, if Adam and Eve had remained obedient to God, they would never have willingly starved themselves.

We could suspect there was some sort of physical indication of when it was time to eat, but it might not have been experienced as painful or unpleasant. Plus, the very moment they got the slightest bit peckish, they would have had wonderful fruit within arm's reach.

Of course, in the garden there was also the very special Tree of Life. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were kicked out of Eden specifically so that they would no longer have access to the Tree of Life, so that they would not live forever in their sinful state (Gen. 3:22-23 NRSV).

This is actually very merciful - can you imagine how terrible the world would be if every evil person who has ever existed was still alive today, and had endless years with which they could perfect their cruelty and exercise their destructive ways? Having evil people's time on earth limited by death is a very good thing.

Eating on the New Earth

Now, let's skip to the complete opposite end of the Bible: Revelation chapters 21-22 which describes the New Jerusalem, on the New Earth.

This city will have a river running through it, and Trees of Life are once again planted on the sides of this river and down the main street, and they make a different type of fruit each month (Rev. 22:1-2).

I presume these Trees of Life are not just decorative, but will serve the same purpose they were meant to serve for Adam and Eve, that is, for people to continually eat their fruit in order to live forever.

This raises all the same questions as for Adam and Eve in the garden: What if we don't eat? Do we get "hangry" in heaven if we don't eat enough? Could we potentially die from starvation if we choose not to eat?

The same answers previously mentioned can still apply here. We won't have any shortages of food or of the special fruit of the Tree of Life on the New Earth, for it would not be heaven if that were the case. Fruit will be tasty and plentiful and we will enjoy eating it, and no one will have any desire to harm themselves by not eating.

Eating Is An Indication That We Are Not Self-Sufficient

But my friend's question has still not been answered: why did God design us to have to eat?

To answer this, we should look at what happens when we don't or can't eat: we die.

We can also look at what happened when Adam and Eve sinned.

God told Adam "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:17-19).

So, the punishment for disobeying God was that Adam and Eve now had to work hard for their food, instead of God providing it for them.

I think the reason for this makes total sense. When they sinned it was because they wanted to be like God (Gen. 3:4-5). But God is self-existent - He can't cease to exist, and depends on nothing for His existence.

In contrast, Adam and Eve do have to eat, or they will die and turn back into what they were formed from: dirt. Now, they have to use their own energy and work to partly sustain their own existence.

Thus, having to work for their food in order to eat to stay alive is a constant reminder to them that they are not God. They are not self-sufficient, but instead, they are entirely dependent on God's continual provision of food through giving them rain and sun for their crops.

While they should have realized this in the garden, having that easy source of food taken away from them when they were expelled from the garden would have made them even more aware of their finitude and dependence on God.

It's as if God partly backed off and said to them (and by extension, to us), "Ok, let me show you what life is like when you think you don't need Me, even though I am the very source of your life and I uphold you in existence. Go ahead and try sustaining yourselves with your own power, and see how much fun that is."

Therefore, I think we can say that the reason God designed us so that we have to eat to stay alive (even in Eden, and even on the New Earth) is because it gives us a constant reminder that we are contingent creatures who are entirely dependent upon God's sustaining power and provision for us.

Realizing this should keep our pride in check, and should humble us enough to realize that we are not the sovereign masters of our own fate that we tend to think we are, and remind us to turn to God for all our needs. It also reminds us that we need to be constantly grateful for God's provision, recognizing that without it we would cease to exist.

But Won't Our Resurrected Bodies Be Immortal?

This idea that we might have to eat even in resurrected bodies on the New Earth rejects the Greek philosophical idea that our souls are inherently immortal. Often, an argument for why heaven and hell are eternal is that God cannot destroy our souls, and so we have to exist somewhere forever.

In contrast, Jesus says that God could destroy us both body and soul (Matt. 10:28), which shows that there is nothing about our bodies or souls/spirits that is inherently immortal or indestructible.2

Even though Paul describes our resurrection bodies as 'imperishable' and 'immortal' (1 Cor. 15:53-54), does it mean that once we're resurrected we will no longer depend on God to continually uphold our existence so that we can't ever die? Alternatively, maybe Paul just means that we won't ever die, because God will ensure it will never happen.

So I don't think the term 'immortal' contradicts the idea that we may still have to eat, since eating will be an eternal reminder of our dependence on God even after we are resurrected. After all, we never actually become divine; we will still be finite creatures and God remains our creator and sustainer.

I'll finish this article with a few interesting implications of this discussion.

Prayer Before Meals

When I was a child, I was taught to pray before meals. I didn't really understand why, other than that my parents wanted me to, and I wanted to be an obedient child.

Other times, I've heard people say praying before meals is just a good way to fit some prayer in during the day, because otherwise we get too busy and forget.

When I moved out of my parents' house I fell out of the habit of praying before meals. No one else at university did that, and I figured as long as I went to church and prayed at night before bed, that was good enough.

But now, I see that it definitely makes sense to pray before we eat. Once we realize how dependent on God we are, we should enthusiastically thank God for his provision for our daily food, to keep us alive and healthy for a little longer. I'm trying to get back into the habit of praying before meals.

It's fairly easy for most who are moderately well-off in our Western culture to not have to worry about having enough food. Most of us are not farmers and it's easy to think the food will just keep appearing on the shelves of our grocery stores.

But it can be good to think about the reality of where our food comes from, including all the processes and work of other people that we are dependent on, as well as the risk of unpredictable and uncontrollable factors such as the right weather and protection from disasters that our food supply depends on.

This reflection humbles us and reminds us that it really is such a blessing to have enough food to eat and to not generally have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We should be so thankful for God's provision for every thing that we eat, and not take any of it for granted.

Relationship to the Lord's Supper

Based on all this, isn't it interesting that Jesus chose to use food - bread and wine - to represent the life that Christians gain when we trust in Jesus' as our savior?

Repeating the Lord's Supper until Jesus' return (1 Cor. 11:26) continually reminds us that our eternal life is dependent on God's provision of Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection for us, in the same way that our physical life is dependent upon God's provision of physical food for us.

Eating and Relationships

Additionally, there is a relational dimension to eating. We enjoy eating with others as an expression of relationship. We usually only want to eat with people whose company we enjoy. We don't really want to go out for dinner with our worst enemy, or with people that we hate talking to.

Scripturally, relationship and eating go together.

Abraham dined with the Lord (Gen. 18:3-8), and the 70 elders and Moses also dined with God on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:9-11).

Jesus created food for the multitude (Matt. chapters 14-15, with parallels in Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6), ate with sinners (Luke 19, Matt. 9:11; Luke 15:2). Jesus ate with his disciples many times, including at Bethany (John 12:1-2) and also before his death at the Last Supper (Luke 22:14-20), and also after the resurrection (John 21:9-14).

Jesus also told many parables about the kingdom of God as being like a wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14; Matt. 25:10) and promises his disciples will eat and drink with him in heaven (Luke 22:30).

In contrast, the Laodicean church thought that they were completely self-sufficient (Rev. 3:17), and Jesus asks for them to metaphorically let him into their lives and to dine with him (Rev. 3:20).

Therefore, eating simultaneously enables both our existence and loving relationships between people, and even with God!

So we might say that God doesn't only want us to exist, but also wants us to enjoy perfectly loving relationships with Himself and with each other, forever. This is what I suggested in my article about why God created the world.

So when we eat, we can be reminded of all these things: 1) that we are completely dependent upon God for our existence, and thus, 2) to be thankful for God's provision for us, and 3) that God wants to know us and for us to be in loving relationships with Him and all others.

Footnotes:

  • 1.. Rebecca Boyle, "Eating Cooked Food Made Us Human", Popular Science, October 22, 2012.
  • 2. Some good discussion of the origin of the immortality of the soul and its incorporation into Christian theology can be found in Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 19-32.

Feeds