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  • Writer's pictureChapman Chen

How Karl Barth Sanctifies and Sugarcoats Animal Abuse. By Dr. Chapman Chen

Abstract: Karl Barth is arguably the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th Century, who allegedly stressed the “wholly otherness of God” over the anthropocentrism of 19th-century liberal theology. In reality, Barth just tried to unabashedly and sophistically sanctify and sugarcoat the killing of animals to serve the selfish, carnist desires of humans by (ab)using the name of God. The atrocities committed against trillions of guiltless creatures of God in hunting lodges, slaughterhouses, and medical labs are barefacedly described by Barth as potentially sacred, considerate and understanding. Barth's strategy is to associate the killing of animals with animal sacrifice to God and ultimately with Jesus Christ's sacrifice of Himself, ignoring the fact that God Himself detests animal sacrifice, that both God and Christ have explicitly said "I desire COMPASSION, not sacrifice!", and that Jesus even died for the cause of animal liberation.

1. Who's Karl Barth?

Karl Barth (1886 – 1968), Swiss Reformed theologian, "probably the most influential of the 20th century" according to Britannica. Barth is regarded by many to have stressed the “wholly otherness of God” over the anthropocentrism of 19th-century liberal theology.

Barth's influence expanded well beyond the academic realm to mainstream culture, leading him to be featured on the cover of Time on 20 April 1962. He influenced many significant theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who supported the ConfessingChurch, and Jürgen Moltmann, Helmut Gollwitzer, James H. Cone, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Rudolf Bultmann, Thomas F. Torrance, Hans Küng, and also Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacques Ellul, and novelists such as Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, and Miklós Szentkuthy.

Among many other areas, Barth has also had a profound influence on modern Christian ethics, influencing the work of ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, Jacques Ellul and Oliver O'Donovan.

2. Sanctification of the Killing of Animals

In Church Dogmatics, vol. III/4, Karl Barth (1936) desperately tries to justify the killing of innocent sentient creatures of God:-

The killing of animals in obedience is possible only as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner in face of the One who is the Creator and Lord of man and beast.

3. God Detests Animal Sacrifice

To Karl Barth (1936:352-355), the killing of animals as a "reverential act of repentance" means animal sacrifice to God:-

The point... according to Gen. 4 [animal sacrifice offered by Abel] and 8 [animal sacrifice offered by Noah] is not that the use of animals by man for his own sustenance and enjoyment has been increased by this act of violence, but that animal life should be brought to God as an acceptable sacrifice for the life of man forfeited by his transgression....Only subsequently in the form of the sacrificial meal, when he receives back something of what has been surrendered to God, does he then participate himself in the flesh of the animal, and therefore in the atoning meaning of its sacrifice.

However, God Himself loathes the cult of animal sacrifice in the first place (cf. Chen 2022) and He ahs said so unequivocally:-

I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. (Amos 5:21-4 NIV)

“Of what value to me is the abundance of your sacrifices? saith the Lord: I am full of whole-burnt-offerings of rams; and I delight not in the fat of lambs, and the blood of bulls and goats: neither shall ye come with these to appear before me; for who has required these things at your hands?” (Isaiah 1:11-12, Greek Septuagint Bible).

4. Barth Breaks the 1st, 2nd and 6th Commandments

As a matter of fact, Karl Barth (1936:352-355) unscrupulously justifies the killing of animals by claiming that it can be done with a good conscience with the "authorisation" of God:-

The killing of animals, when performed with the permission of God and by His command, is a priestly act of eschatological character. It can be accomplished with a good conscience [note 1]... Man must have good reasons for seriously making such a claim [on an innocent victim's life for human use].... He must be authorised to do so by his acknowledgment of the faithfulness and goodness of God, who in spite of and in his guilt keeps him from falling as He saved Noah's generation from the flood and kept it even though it was no better as a result. Man sins if he does it without this authorisation...

By making this claim, Karl Barth breaks at least the First, the Second and the Sixth Commandment.

4.1. Barth Violates the Second Commandment

By (ab)using God's name to justify the killing of innocent creatures of God to fulfill humans' carnist, lowly desires, Karl Barth breaks the Second Commandment "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain". In fact, in the following passage from Church Dogmatics Volume III/4, Karl Barth indicates that humans may legitimize their killing of a living beast with a view to obtaining what they self-interestedly desire from the poor creature by pretentiously surrendering it to Jehovah first:-

If that of his lordship [note 2] over the living beast is serious enough, it takes on a new gravity when he sees himself compelled to express his lordship by depriving it of its life. He obviously cannot do this except under the pressure of necessity [note 3]... He can only kill it, knowing that it does not belong to him but to God, and that in killing it he surrenders it to God in order to receive it back from Him as something he needs and desires.

4.2. Barth Violates the First Commandment

Eating animal flesh in itself violates the First Commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" for the act means sacrificing innocent animals' lives to the idol god of the belly (Philippians 3:19), or to gluttony (Proverbs 23:20-21) (cf. Hicks 2018; Chen 2022a), thereby worshipping a false god in place of the Almighty God.

4.3. Barth Violates the Sixth Commandment

And taking the life of an innocent sentient being, of course, violates the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill"!

Surprisingly, Karl Barth (1936) himself confesses that when humans sin in the killing of animals without God's authorisation, they are already guilty of murder, though he cunningly negotiates it by shifting the burden to God:-

He is already on his way to homicide if he sins in the killing of animals, if he murders an animal. He must not murder an animal. He can only kill it, knowing that it does not belong to him but to God, and that in killing it he surrenders it to God in order to receive it back from Him as something he needs and desires.

The reason why by having guiltless animals killed, Barth breaks the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," is because, as put by Reuben Alcalay (1981), one of the greatest contemporary linguists cum author of The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary, the 6th Commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13 KJV; Matthew 19:18 KJV) means "any kind of killing whatsoever." The original Hebrew, he points out, is לֹא תִּרְצָח Lo tirtzakh, which requires us to stop ourselves from killing any sentient beings altogether (see Rosen 2004:87).

5. Jesus Died for the Cause of Animal Liberation!

Above all, from Karl Barth's (1936:352-355) perspective, the killing of animals has to be done in remembrance of Jesus Christ who offered Himself as a sacrifice for the world.

Nor is the reminder that the animal's life does not belong to man but to God suppressed by all this. On the contrary, it is awakened, and with it the reminder of the provisional and transitory nature of the whole interim period to which these substitutionary sacrifices eventually belong, until these are ended by the suffering and death of the man who will effect the promised reconciliation and in whom God Himself will directly take to Himself the forfeited life of man and offer Himself as a sacrifice.

It can be achieved only in recollection of the reconciliation of man by the Man who intercedes for him and for all creation, and in whom God has accomplished the reconciliation of the world with Himself.

However, as aforementioned, Jesus Christ explicitly said, "I desire mercy, not (animal) sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13 NIV, Hebrews 10:8), quoting God (Hosea 6:6 NIV).

Actually, Jesus died for the cause of animal liberation as well as human liberation (Akers 2020:113-134). When he drove out from the Holy Temple those vendors who were buying and selling animals for cruel sacrifice (Matthew 21:12), he offended the chief priests and teachers of the law, for the reason that he was disrupting their revenue stream. Immediately afterwards, "the chief priests and the teachers of the law heard about this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him because the whole crowd was amazed at his teachings."(Mark 11:18)

7. An Honourable Butcher??!!

In a convoluted way, Karl Barth (1936:356) barefacedly argues that hunters, butchers and vivisectionists could be good and honourable in their murderous acts!

A good hunter, honourable butcher and conscientious vivisectionist will differ from the bad in the fact that even as they are engaged in killing animals they hear this groaning and travailing of the creature, and therefore, in comparison with all others who have to do with animals, they are summoned to an intensified, sharpened and deepened diffidence, reserve and carefulness. In this matter they act on the extreme limits where respect for life and callous disregard constantly jostle and may easily pass into one another. On these frontiers, if anywhere, animal protection, care and friendship are quite indispensable.

Here, Barth (1936: 356) even unabashedly claims that hunters, butchers and vivisectionists should assume that their groaning and travailing victims are earnestly expecting liberation together with their human victimizers.

Wherever man exercises his lordship over the animal, and especially across every hunting lodge, abattoir and vivisection chamber, there should be written in letters of fire the words of St. Paul in Rom. 818f. (relevant, as I see it, in spite of A. Schlatter) concerning the "earnest expectation" of the creature-for what?-for the "manifestation of the children of God," and therefore for the liberation of those who now keep them imprisoned and even despatch them from life to death. The creature has become subject to vanity, not willingly, nor according to its own destiny, but because of man, its subjugator. And it, too, is determined for liberation from the bondage of corruption together with the liberation of the children of God, so that for the moment it groans and cries with us in the birth-pangs of a new aeon.

Karl Barth's attempt to exonerate, exculpate and defend hunters, butchers and vivisectionists is blatantly brazen because to an animal being hunted, there are no good hunters, to a creature being butchered, the butcher in question cannot possibly be honourable; to a rabbit being cut open, there is no such thing as a conscientious vivisectionist! There is nothing humane, considerate, friendly or caring about taking the life of someone who doesn't want to die and doesn't need to die!

Ed Winters (2021) eloquently and convincingly debunks "humane slaughter" as follows:-

So then we might make the argument that the act of killing is moral in a slaughterhouse because it’s done humanely. However, synonyms for the word humane include compassionate, benevolent and kind. Would you say it’s benevolent to take the life of someone who doesn’t need to die? Or, to put it another way, to cut the throat of someone needlessly.

The very act of taking someone’s life when they don’t need to die is the polar opposite of being compassionate, benevolent and indeed humane. Humane slaughter is an oxymoron that seeks to reassure us that we don’t need to worry about the animals, even though we would never want the bloody knife in our own hand.

8. One of the Most Shameless Theologians in History

In conclusion, Karl Barth argues that when we kill animals for food and/or other human ends, we have to do it as "an reverential act of repentance", wherein we first sacrifice the animals to God in atonement for our sins, after which we retrieve what we want, just like how Abel and Noah offered animal sacrifices to God in Genesis; and, on top of that, in remembrance of Jesus Christ who sacrificed Himself for humanity's sake. In this way, we obtain "authorization" from God. Otherwise, we will be guilty of murder for animals belongs to God instead of humans.

Similarly, "good" and "honourable" hunters, butchers and vivisectionists have to do their jobs with carefulness, considerateness and friendliness, and thus "with a good conscience", while assuming the "groaning and travailing" creatures to be earnestly expecting "liberation" together with their human subjugators. The atrocities committed in hunting fields, slaughterhouses, and medical labs, the bloody, painful and degrading deaths inflicted upon trillions of guiltless sentient creations of Jehovah there, are therefore described by Karl Barth as potentially sacred, solemn, religious, friendly, considerate and understanding.

In actuality, Karl Barth is trying to unabashedly and sophistically sanctify, beautify, mystify, justify, consecrate, and sugarcoat the murdering, torturing and consuming of innocent creatures of God to serve the egoistic, carnist cravings of humans.

Karl Barth's tactic of sanctifying the killing of animals is to associate it with animal sacrifice to God and ultimately to Jesus Christ's sacrifice of Himself, ignoring the fact that God Himself detested animal sacrifice, that both God and Christ have explicitly said "I desire COMPASSION, not sacrifice!", and that Jesus even died for the cause of animal liberation.

Isn't it scandalous that such an influential theologian as Karl Barth should go to such lengths -- grossly disguising the truth in the name of God -- in order to justify animal abuse?


1. Karl Barth's "good conscience" comes straight from Paul the apostate, who insists that we can eat any meat sold in the market without any "questions of conscience" (1 Corinthians 10:25 NIV). By contrast, Jesus warns against meat-eating:- “Be on guard, so that your hearts do not become heavy with the eating of flesh" (Luke 21:34, Evangelion Da-Mepharreshe — Old Syriac-Aramaic Manuscript of the New Testament Gospels). And He admonishes the Pharisees, quoting Hosea 6:6, "Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13 CSB).)

2. Apparently, Karl Barth misinterprets the word "dominion" in Genesis 1:28 (KJV) as "lordship". "Dominion" there actually means not domination or despotism but "stewardship" (Linzey 2016; Chen 2021) and "protection" (Halteman 2007), because 1. In Gen. 1:29, humans were given a vegan diet; 2. In Gen. 2:15 NIV, humans were instructed by God to "take care of" the Garden with all the animals in it; 3. God made His covenant with not only humans (Noah and his descendants) but also animals (Gen. 9:8-17); 4. God has compassion for all creatures (Psalm 145: 9). 5. Animals are our folk (Gen. 1:30). 6. Christ always sided with the marginalized (Matthew 25:40 NIV); 7. Jesus died at least partly for animal liberation. (Mark 11:18); 8. Via Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, God reconciled himself to all groaning creatures and offered them hope of redemption (Colossians 1:19-20).

3. With respect, even the prominent contemporary theologian Prof. David Clough (2018) seems to be taken in by Karl Barth's sophistry and believe that the latter is steering away from anthropocentrism, which is most mainstream churches' tendency, to genuine respect for animal life:-

Karl Barth, influenced by Albert Schweitzer’s vision of reverence for all life, recognised the serious ethical attention Christians need to give to fellow animal creatures, stating that animals belong to God, not to human beings, and that therefore any human treatment of other animals must be ‘careful, considerate, friendly and above all understanding’. While Barth considers that this could include killing other animals for food, he judges that such killing could only be obedience to God where it is done under the pressure of necessity. Otherwise, Barth comments strikingly, such killing is nothing less than murder.


Alcalay, Reuben (1962). The Complete English-Hebrew Dictionary. Tel Aviv: Massdah Pub.

Barth, Karl (1961). Church Dogmatics, Vol. III/4. Ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. Trans. A.T. MacKay et al. Edinburgh: T& T Clark.

Chen, Chapman (2022). "Meatism is Animal Sacrifice Detested by God." HKBNews, Jun. 29.

Chen, Chapman (2021). "Does Dominion in Genesis Mean Stewardship or Despotism?" HKBNews, July 12.

Clough, David (2018). "Objections to a Christian Food Ethic Treating the Consumption of Animals." Creature Kind, March 6.

Halteman, M. C. (2011). "Varieties of Harm to Animals in Industrial Farming." Journal of Animal Ethics, 1(2), 122–131.

Keith, Akers (2020). The Lost Religion of Jesus. NY: Lantern Publishing & Media/Woodstock & Brooklyn.

Linzey, Andrew (2016). "Christian Theology and Animal Rights." FRA.

Rosen, Steven J. (2004). Holy Cow: The Hare Krishna Contribution to Vegetarianism & Animal Rights. New York: Lantern Books.

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