Dr. Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and the chairperson of the international Christian Vegetarian Association. The author of Good Eating: The Bible, Diet, and the Proper Love of Animals, Webb describes himself as an "evangelical theologian" whose vegetarian lifestyle is biblically based. He spoke with Beliefnet about reading the Bible "with the eyes of animal compassion."

How did you become involved in the Christian vegetarianism movement?

I started thinking about animals when I started thinking about the daschund who sat on my lap as I read and wrote. I made the step a lot of people make: if my dog had so much value, how could I think other animals had no value?

I started reading the Bible again from a perspective of compassion for animals, and I felt like I was reading it for the first time. I discovered a whole world of passages about animals.

The trick is to see the Bible framed in terms of God's love for all of creation and the shared destiny of humans and animals. Animals are a crucial part of God's creation. They're there when animals are shown in heaven in the great visions of the prophets.

In your book, you don't lay down any hard-and-fast rules, but you say we should spiritually evolve to a place where we're not eating a lot of meat.

I would say that vegetarianism is the diet of hope, an eschatological diet. It's not morally obligatory, though it's morally commendable, because it's an impossible diet. No matter what we eat, we're going to take away food from other animals. Even if we turn all of America into cropland we will inflict suffering on animals because you have to keep animals out of the field.

One problem with vegetarianism is that it often gives rise to self-righteousness, a sense of holier-than-thou purity. It can be schismatic, which I think is why the church has seldom embraced it.

It's a diet of witnessing to your hope that, in the end, God will restore the entire world to God's original intentions. That God will redeem humans and animals alike.

Redeem animals from what? Not their own sins?

You have to rethink heaven. It's not just for people who sin--it's for any creature who has suffered, whose life has been incomplete, who's been a victim. Heaven is about the restoration of all things to their original goodness.

I wouldn't want to go around judging everyone who eats meat, but I do think vegetarianism is an act that witnesses to our faith.

When you say that the Bible mentions animals in heaven, do you mean a verse like "the lion shall lie down with the lamb"?

In the Hebrew prophets, definitely. A lot of people know that Isaiah passage, but there are many more such passages in Amos, Micah, and Ezekiel that portray the Kingdom of God as a restoration of the world to its Edenic state. It portrays that world as entailing peace between humans and animals, not just peace between humans.

I interpret the four "living beings" who surround the throne of the Lamb in Revelation as evidence that heaven will be populated with non-human species. Some Bible translations say "creatures," but the Greek is zoon—it clearly should be animals.

So when the kingdom of God comes, animals and humans will be together?

Yes. There is a Bible passage that says "You save humans and animals alike, O Lord" (Psalm 36:6). And Jesus not only drove the animal sellers out of the temple, but he compared God's creation to a hen taking care of her chicks.

I thought Jesus was driving out the moneychangers?

Mark says they had turned the temple into a "den of robbers." That's where you get the idea that Jesus was angry at the economic transactions. But if you read Matthew 21 and Luke 19, it's also very explicit that Jesus drove out the animals from the temple.

We often forget that the temple was a slaughterhouse. The main point of it was to be a place where animals could be sacrificed to mediate humanity's relationship with the divine.

The point was to lay your hand on an animal. Many scholars think that symbolized the transfer of sin or guilt to the animal. Then the priest would sacrifice the animal. There were also complicated regulations about the blood. So the temple would have been a loud, noisy, and bloody place, full of the sound of animals dying.

It would have sickened most people today.

So Jesus goes there to cleanse it and run out the animal sellers. That scene has been interpreted as Jesus not wanting the temple polluted with money. But when you read the text with the eyes of animal compassion, it's clear that Jesus is putting an end to animal sacrifices. In one of the gospels it says Jesus drove out the animal sellers and the animals—it's almost like he's freeing the animals.