As a pastor I am often asked if pets go to heaven? The question may sound childish, or even sentimental, but it is extremely important for those who ask it. As the owner of a beloved German Shepherd myself, Winston, I know the deep love we can have for our animal companions. The good news is, that God not only shares the same type of love for animals we do, his love exceeds our own. Animals are his creation and as such, beloved of God.
The question of our own pets being in heaven is simply not answerable with any assurance. The Bible does not say and tradition has tended to argue, “no.” Still, while there can be no definitive certainty of our animals in heaven, I do think there are good grounds to hope in God raising our deceased friends. And as St. Paul says, “Hope does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:5). If anything we can rest on two certain truths: Whatever heaven is like, and whatever God has decided on this or any issue, it will be perfect, wise, good and without error. If our pet friends aren’t in heaven, we won’t mind because now we see through a mirror darkly, but one day we will fully know. In other words, when we get to heaven we will see that God had his reasons for why things are as they are, and we will rejoice and be glad in those reasons. Secondly, God loves animals and uses them to tell his story of salvation. Because they mean a lot to God, and because he has shared their joy with us, even making us caretakers of them, there are grounds to hope that God will do what our hearts ask, and raise them in the hereafter.
Here are five reasons we can hope in God’s goodness that we may see our pets again.
1) The biggest objection to animals in heaven is itself based on a lot of speculatory assumptions that may or may not be correct.
This is the most complex of my points and part of a much larger and detailed discussion on the nature of souls that we don’t have time to get into. In short, Theologians have always debated the nature and origin of souls. Where do souls come from? Are they made at conception or before time? Are there different kinds of souls and if so how can we classify these? And so on…
Traditionally, animals were seen as having souls but not the same type as our own. In its most plain sense “soul” (nephesh in Hebrew, psuche in Greek) derives its meaning from the word for “breath” (as does its closely related semantic cousin, “spirit” -ruach/neshamah/pneuma or “life”). Animals have souls in the sense of an animus or life-force, (but not a soul fashioned in the Image of God which only humans have).
But woe to the person who assumes that theologians know what they are talking about when they talk about “the Image of God” at least in any universally agreed upon sense. Disagreements have been long and complex. Catholics and Orthodox tend to see the Image as being fundamentally “reason” or what is called the rational soul, a spiritual gift that humanity shares in lesser part with God but that animals lack. This is the view Augustine and Aquinas took, though they admitted the Image had been damaged by the Fall and was no longer perfect. Reformers like Luther and Calvin had a different view, seeing the Image as the original righteousness of humanity prior to the Fall, but totally lost after the fall (though Calvin thinks the Image is restored by Christ for those who believe the Gospel).
Why does all this talk of souls matter? Because sin and atonement are concepts related to body and soul. They also are related to animal sacrifice. In short, the argument is that because animals don’t have the same type of soul as humans, and do not inherit Adam’s guilt in Original Sin, and because the promises of Jesus attach only to humans, animals are not capable of being saved (even this “saved” language is a bit awkward).
While I agree that animals are not “saved” the argument about souls is itself founded on a lot of philosophical and metaphysical categories that may or may not be true. The reality is, the Bible doesn’t flesh out a clear view of the nature or origin of the soul even though it may give us some potential insights.
2). God loves the animals and has ensured their survival:
The greatest threat to animals is not God but ourselves. In the creation narrative God shares a blessing first given to the animals with us, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters and seas, and let birds multiply on the earth (Gen. 1:22). This blessing of progeny is later given to us (Gen. 1:28) with the added gift of “dominion” over the creation (most likely because we have the Image of God and they do not).
Later in the Noah/flood account, when God decides to destroy the earth for its wickedness, God makes a covenant with Noah, “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your son’s wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark and keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female” (Gen. 6:18-19). The blessing of “be fruitful and multiply” is reaffirmed in the covenant with Noah, a covenant that connects humanity and creation. In the flood story God ensures the animal’s survival.
In Isaiah 65 the prophet speaks of the New Heaven and New Earth where, “the wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food(v. 25)” inferring animals will remain a part of life with God and humanity.
3). Animals make a way for atonement sufficiently, but not perfectly:
Sin kills. It demands death. Because we are sinners and it is so common to us, we tend to forget the true nature of its destructive power. Sin, as Augustine observed, unmakes the creative act of God. Death is the unmaking of life. It is the return to nothingness that God spoke to life. Paul tells us the, “wages of sin are death” (Rom 6:23). He continues, “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen! Jesus wins our salvation by becoming Sin for us—by dying—by shedding his blood. Blood is the only payment against sin’s demands because blood is necessary for life, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev. 17:11). And Hebrews 9:22 adds, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” What is the blood spoken about in Leviticus that, “make[s] atonement for your souls?” animal blood.
Animal blood is sufficient to atone for sins even though it is not perfect. When we sin again, it is costly, and another animal must die. But because of Jesus, the perfect “Lamb of God” his once-and-only sacrifice is perfectly sufficient. No longer do animals have to die in our place because of what Jesus did.
But directly to the point at hand: animals acted as substitutes for us, giving their life-blood over to satisfy sin’s demands until the right time when God would send his own more costly sacrifice, his own Son, Jesus. What does this mean for our point? If animals were used as substitutes for our sin, might it not be possible that our redemption would include them? For if Christ is the New Adam, the True Human, if in his incarnation He forever united himself with humanity, taking on, eternally, human flesh, would not the animals who are connected to us, who road in the ark with us, who share the blessing of progeny with us, who gave their lives for our sin, would He not restore them as well along with us? For as go we, it seems go they. Is this possible? Yes. And we can hope in it even if we cannot be certain.
4) Animals are an integral part of the story of Scripture:
You can’t tell the story of the bible, nor the story of the cross, without animals. They are interwoven into the narrative of Scripture both as actual actors and important metaphors. We’ve already talked about the flood story, but here are some important reminders:
~ The Devil takes the form of a serpent, an animal, in order to seduce our first parents. Animals have a strange affection and attraction for us. We have emotional connections to them. To be human is to be caretaker of creation.
~ Animals are used in the Old Testament sacrificial system and kosher laws. They, in short, give meaning to what it is to be “atoned” and “holy.”
~ Many of the plagues of Egypt include animals as servants of God’s will
~ Elijah goes into hiding and is fed twice a day by faithful ravens, as well as seeing heavenly chariots of fire with horses
~ Jonah is swallowed up by a large sea creature
~ Balaam’s donkey displays the power of God by speaking.
~ David is first and foremost known as a shepherd—a title that will later be applied to Jesus demonstrating that care for animals can translate into care for people.
~ The Passover, and later the Lord’s Supper connect the sacrificial lamb to the Lamb of God who takes away the Sins of the World. Jesus is often described by animal imagery,” The Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd etc.
~ Jesus rides into Jerusalem, as King, on a donkey (which by the way is a far more affectionate animal than a horse!)
~ One thing we know—heaven has horses! Lots of them! There are four horseman, Jesus returns on a white horse, and the heavenly army rides on horses.
With all these references to animals, many integral to the story of Scripture, it seem strange God would not make a way for them to be with us. Again, God obviously loves animals, and he knows that we do to. They are part of his story, and therefore ours. They are caught up in this drama of God saving the world.
5) God is good, and knows your love…
Perhaps the most missed point in these kinds of discussions, God, our Father, loves us! Friends, he really loves us! He wants to see us happy. What that means to us as sinners and what it means to God as all-wise is oftentimes different. Sometimes we can’t understand why God won’t give us the things we ask for and think are best. But He does want to see us happy. He, to quote Zephaniah, “Rejoices over you with singing” (Zep. 3:17). And God demonstrates his love by dying for us, He so loves the world that he sent Jesus. I italicized “world” for a reason. Jesus’ work on the cross not only restores us to God, but all creation back to God. He makes all things new. His Kingdom is here and advancing, a kingdom of peace and worship, love and joy. Will that kingdom have our pets? I do not know. But I confidently think so.
When I look into my dog’s deep brown eyes, eyes that offer a gentle peace amidst a frantic world, when his eyelids are just slightly crimped and his slow panting gives the whole experience a gentle and calming rhythm, I can’t help but smile. In those moments, I often pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God, to be entrusted with so great a loyal and loving friend. Sometimes when Winston lies down next to me I catch his scent, it’s unique to him and each dog has their own, a mix of sandalwood and musk, it is strongest just behind his ears. This is the scent that you only get up close, or perhaps on his blanket. It is not the stinky or wet/dirty dog smell, it is his smell. Sometimes I wish I could capture it in an essential oil so that I can keep it forever, for it calms me. But I cannot. Winston is a gift from God, but I cannot possess him. He is here for as long as God allows him, and not a day goes by I do not give thanks.
Of course I wish and hope and pray I will see him again when it is his time to go. And yet, when I look into those eyes and think about all God’s promises to me—Promises sealed in a cross, promises that were insured with the costly sacrifice of his own Son, with the shedding of Holy blood and body…I just take a deep breath and say, “I trust you God. If I am to see Winston again, that will be amazing. And if not, how can I complain? For in your presence I will have what my heart has always really wanted—You. Thanks to Jesus.”
So that is where I leave it friends. I do believe I will see Winston again after he has passed. I have not scriptural assurance for this, but I do have a hope based on who God is as revealed in Scripture. And I know no matter what, it will be what’s best.
Until then, I don’t want to take a moment for granted. So I’m off to pray, with my buddy, calmed and contented in those deep brown eyes of promise that seem to say, “God loves me too master, it will be all be OK. He is good.” Amen.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.