Why I Don't Drink Alcohol
By Tom Shepherd
From time to time one reads in the popular press that a daily glass of wine helps prevent heart disease. To many people this affirms the common belief that the Bible approves of the moderate use of alcohol. They wonder why Seventh-day Adventists are so strongly opposed to its use. I’m writing to explain why from both a biblical and health perspective.
Wine and Beer in the Old Testament
Several Hebrew and Greek terms referring to wine and beer are used in Scripture. Both positive and negative statements are made about these beverages. Most references about wine in Genesis speak of very negative events—Noah becomes drunk in Genesis 9, Lot’s two daughters practice incest with their father after getting him drunk with wine (Gen. 19), and Jacob deceives Isaac with food and wine (Gen. 27). However, one can also find some positive references such as Numbers 18:12, “All the best of the fresh oil and all the best of the fresh wine and of the grain, the first fruits of those which they give to the Lord, I give them to you.”1 Usually, positive comments about wine appear mostly as a reference to an abundance of the typical food products of Palestine—olive oil, grain, and wine (Deut. 7:13; Jer. 31:12).
Yet negative comments persist: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). Proverbs 23:29-35 provides a striking description of the woes of alcoholism.
What About Jesus and Wine?
Some may respond that this is simply an indictment of the abuse of alcohol. Didn’t Jesus make an abundance of wine at the wedding of Cana (John 2)? Indeed, He made something like 150 gallons (about 600 liters) of wine (Greek oinos) for the festivities. However, like many of the positive statements about wine in the Old Testament, the reference to oinos in this context is within a description of a festival event where an abundance of food and drink highlights a joyous occasion. Furthermore, note the words of the superintendent that sound much like a proverb: “Every person first puts out the good wine and when people have drunk well, the inferior.”2 He then continues tellingly, “You have kept the good wine until now.”
This “proverbial saying” is seen by many as a shrewd insight on the stupefying effect of alcohol. When people first begin to drink they can perceive the wine’s quality. But after they have become drunk, everything seems the same, so why waste good wine on drunk people?3
However, this misses a key element in the passage and misinterprets the significance of food and drink in a festival setting. The key element it bypasses is the fact that the superintendent of the feast could still tell the difference between good and inferior wine. He obviously was not drunk and just as obviously had been drinking what had been served earlier, since he noted the difference. The significance of food and drink in a festival setting was that the abundance was part of the rejoicing. Tied intimately with this was a deep traditional emphasis on hospitality. With such a set of social norms, the placing of the “good wine” before guests at the beginning of the feast would be done to honor them.
Furthermore, there are instances in Greek literature where oinos is clearly nonalcoholic in nature and thus it is reasonable to believe that, in its context, this is exactly the kind of beverage Jesus provided.4
Is Abstinence a Moral Imperative?
Some may concede that, given these explanations, one could logically support the value of a Christian life devoid of alcoholic beverages. But is it a moral imperative? Several lines of evidence combine to suggest that it is. First, World Health Organization statistics present the heavy toll alcohol produces.5 It accounts for approximately 1.8 million worldwide deaths annually (3.2 percent of total deaths) and 58.3 million disability-adjusted life years (4.0 percent of the total). It accounts for 20 to 30 percent of worldwide deaths from esophageal cancer, liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, homicide, epilepsy, and motor vehicle accidents. Its consumption is on the rise in developing countries with mostly no infrastructure for prevention and treatment of the problems associated with alcohol’s effects. If for no other reason than Christian concern for our neighbors, we have a moral responsibility to preach and teach total abstinence from alcohol.
Being Ready for Christ’s Return
But there is an even more pressing reason to support total abstinence. It is the soon return of Jesus Christ! The New Testament is replete with warnings to stay alert and sober in light of the Lord’s soon return (Luke 21:34-36; 1 Peter 1:13). I call this concept eschatological temperance. In contrast, alcohol puts the mind to sleep! Its use conflicts with Jesus’ instruction to stay alert at all times.
People sometimes ask if this or that Bible command still applies to us today. Often, the question implies that the command does not apply any longer. Rarely do people consider the possibility that some commands may apply to us even more today than in the past. I believe this is the case with abstinence from alcohol. In the ancient Mediterranean world alcoholic beverages existed, but for most people were not available in great abundance. Furthermore, their alcoholic content would not be greater than 10 to 15 percent in the case of wine (only 4 to 6 percent for beer), and wine was usually diluted with one to three parts of water in normal usage.6 The situation is vastly different in today’s world, in which alcohol is much more readily available and at much higher concentrations in distilled spirits (commonly 40 to 60 percent). The WHO statistics tell the sad story of the woe that alcohol has brought and how its dark shadow is spreading across the globe.
I am a Seventh-day Adventist looking for the soon coming of Jesus! In light of this great event, I believe I must keep my mind and body ready and alert for action at all times. I believe I have a responsibility to help my neighbor prepare for our Lord’s return and that a healthful lifestyle is consistent with Scripture and incumbent on the Christian. That’s why I don’t drink alcohol.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2 My translation.
3 The Greek verb is methusko, which can mean either “become drunk” or “drink freely.”
4 See Aristotle, Meteorologica 384.a.4, 5 and 388.b.9-13 for the generic use of the term oinos.
5 Statistics from the World Health Organization Web site,www.who.int/substance_abuse/facts/alcohol/en/index.html.
6 “Unmixed wine” in Revelation 14:10 would be wine with no water added. In the dramatic warning of Revelation 14 God’s wrath is poured out, unmixed with mercy. For references to wine dilution see David E. Aune, Revelation 6-16, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52b (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 833.
Tom Shepherd, Ph.D., Dr.P.H., professor of New Testament interpretation in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University