People love their pets, and want to know what will happen after they die. The Bible provides an answer.
About two weeks ago I saw John at a riverboat party. The general mood was light, but he stood alone in the shadows, his face stained with dry tears. John and his wife, their children long out of the house, had been forced to put their beloved dog, Gracie, to sleep. I listened long and said little as he shared his heart, and soon the party was over. A few days later he approached me at another gathering.
“Mark, you are a minister, right?”
“Yes, I was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.”
“Will Gracie go to heaven? I have heard both – some people say that she will, and others say that since she doesn’t have a soul, she won’t.”
He paused. There was silence as I considered my reply. John was still visibly distressed, and I had to be right, but I equivocated.
“Well, the bottom line is that no one knows for sure.”
John’s face fell.
Scrambling to recover, I said “but I think that the best Biblical answer is that they will.”
His face brightened a little, but I knew that I had lost my chance to comfort and encourage a friend. I dove into a long explanation, ranging from the nature of the soul and the image of God (Imago Dei) to the nature of God and heaven. I enlisted the help of scholars from Moses to C.S. Lewis. I was unsure how much John understood, and even how much he was listening. When I finished, John said “thanks”, mustered a weak smile, and walked away. John did not need an academic discourse – he needed comfort in his pain. But he also needed the truth, so I set out to find it.
The Options After Death
Some people believe that after people, animals, or plants die, they cease to exist. Their organic and inorganic substance returns to the earth and is reused by succeeding generations. It is true that biological material is reused over generations, but these people also hold that no personal, non-material essence, such as a soul or spirit, exists. Nothing endures after death, and there is no immortality – no eternal existence. Atheistic naturalists fall into this category.
Others affirm that people, animals, and plants are reincarnated (reborn) as other people, animals, or plants, in a succession of lives. Eventually, every living entity will escape the cycle of rebirth and enter a state of blissful nothingness. Some who believe in reincarnation, especially Hindus, believe that each individual creature has an immaterial and immortal element. These elements merge into the Universal Spirit. Others such as Buddhists do not.
The Hebrew Tanakh (Torah – “Teaching, the Five Books of Moses”, Nevi’im – “Prophets”, and Ketuvim – “Writings”), the Koran, and the Bible do not support either annihilation or reincarnation. Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian scriptures teach that humans have an immortal, immaterial (spiritual) element that lives on. After death the spirit goes to either a good place (heaven), a bad place (hell), or an intermediate place (purgatory).
Other religious and philosophical traditions fall into one of these three categories, although individual beliefs vary. Those who believe in heaven or hell generally have three criteria to determine if a created being ends up in heaven or hell after death.
- The being must have an enduring personal soul/spirit – an immaterial part that survives death.
- There must be evidence of that type of being in heaven or in hell. The Bible records that angels, humans, animals, and plants are all seen in heaven, while only angels and humans are seen in hell.
- The morally good go to heaven, and the morally bad go to hell.
Creatures with an enduring spirit or soul, with others of their type in heaven, and moral goodness go to heaven. Those that are bad go to hell. Those that don’t meet criteria 1 or 2 may not go anywhere – we cannot know.
Christianity is traditionally dualistic, positing the existence of separate but related realms – the physical world and spiritual world. Bible scholars have argued about how strict this separation is, what it actually means, and where it came from, but few doubt that it exists. Jesus Himself said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).” If the common definition of the soul is “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal,” then Jesus is teaching a form of dualism. John adds “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).” Many other New Testament passages and even a few in the Old Testament (i.e. Daniel 12:2) support the existence of separate but related realms of matter and spirit; a dualistic world view. These and other Scriptures teach that man has an individual soul, just as he has an individual body. Humans, therefore, meet the first criteria for going to heaven or hell.
God breathed life into Adam, thus making him a “living soul (Genesis 2:7).” There is no mention of God “breathing life” into animals or plants, or them becoming a “living soul.” The distinction between “having a living soul” and “being a living soul” can be very large, but is out of the scope of this article. Restated, the progression for humans was “formed”, then “God breathed”, then “became a living soul”. The progression for every other creature was “created”. This is the main reason some people believe that animals do not have a personal, everlasting soul.
However, animals and plants have some kind of life force; otherwise they would not be alive. That life force may be general and impersonal, shared by all non-human living things, similar to “The Force” of Star Wars fame. Or the life force that inhabits plants and animals may be personal – unique to each individual. Native Americans believed that animals, trees, and other creatures had individual spirits, or at least individual manifestations of the “Great Spirit”. Medieval German hunting customs honor the individual spirits of the departed game and thank them for their sacrifice with a Strecke Legen and Letzte Bissen ceremony after each hunt. Ancients from across the globe also believed that plants and animals had individual spirits.
Scientists, trainers, zookeepers, pet owners, and others who work closely with animals recognize that each animal has its own personality. Animals are friendly, nervous, energetic, or fearful in varying degrees, just as humans are. They adapt well, or not so well, to their environment, just as humans do. As a physician who has occasionally cared for animals, a volunteer at the Memphis Zoo, and a pet owner, I see distinct evidence of personality in animals. Some people argue the same for plants.
Since the existence of a “soul” or “spirit” is not measurable with scientific observation in any creature, including humans, science cannot tell us anything about the soul or the spirit. The fact that every living thing has a “life force”, and that animals, and perhaps plants, demonstrate individual personality, provides strong if circumstantial evidence that living creatures besides humans have individual spirits or “souls.”
In his article from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Barrett Duke lists ten things that the Bible clearly teaches about animals:
- God communicates with animals (Genesis 7:9, 1 Kings 17:4-6)
- God cares about the well-being of animals (Psalm 104, Jonah 4:11, Matthew 10:29-31)
- God enjoys animals (Psalm 104)
- Animals reveal God’s sovereignty (Job 38-42)
- Animals bring glory and praise to God (Psalm 148, 150)
- Animals are reasoning creatures (Numbers 22:21-33)
- Animals may have a more acute awareness of spiritual reality than we realize (Numbers 22:21-33)
- Animals have the capacity to enjoy life (Job 39, 40, Psalm 104)
- Animals teach us about the nature of justice (Leviticus 16)
- Animals belong to God (Job 41:11; Ps. 50:10-11)
Balaam’s interaction with his donkey suggests that animals have a personal spirit. After all, the donkey was able to see the angel and Balaam was not. She judged the danger and tried to evade the angel for Balaam’s benefit. Then she complained when he beat her. The text said that “God opened her mouth” and then the donkey spoke, suggesting that she had thoughts and a personality (Numbers 22:21-33). This passage reads as straight narrative, not as allegory, so there is no reason to interpret it otherwise.
The presence of a life force, a personality, and human-like characteristics does not prove that animals, much less plants, have a personal, eternal spirit. But such facts certainly increase the likelihood that they do.
Are animals pictured in heaven?
Animals and plants were present in God’s initial creation and in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1 and 2). Furthermore, God stated that the animals and plants were “good”, and even “very good.” In the beginning, our Creator filled His world with a huge variety of beautiful and fascinating creatures – each occupying its place in a complex ecosystem. The Lord never changes, so there is every reason to believe that He will also include plants and animals in His perfect universe.
The Bible records that animals will be in God’s eternal kingdom. Isaiah 11 describes the wolf, the lamb, the leopard, the calf, and the lion living together with people in harmony on God’s holy mountain. The prophet continues “a little boy will lead them.” The context suggests that Isaiah is describing the Lord’s permanent kingdom.
Another question is “are individual animals pictured in heaven?” Humans are – Elijah and Moses appear at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-13) and the Rich Man and Lazarus are portrayed in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). Angels are – Satan is shown in heaven (Revelation 12:7-9). But individual animals are not – if Balaam’s donkey was recorded praising God in his own way at the Great White Throne, our problem would be solved. Nonetheless, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because individual animals are not mentioned in heaven does not prove that they are not there.
What about morality?
The Bible teaches that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-31), distinct from animals, plants, and other parts of creation. Because man is made in God’s image, he is the ruler and steward of all creation. Oceans of ink have been spilled on what the Imago Dei (image of God) means. Some hold that the image of God includes intelligence, emotion, and will. If so, that distinguishes humans from animals only by degree, because animals also have intelligence, emotion, and will. Others affirm that the image of God is the ability to reason morally – to know right from wrong. Animal scientists argue that mammals also display rudimentary moral reasoning – a sense of fairness and social obligation. Insofar as this is true, such moral reasoning would only distinguish humans from animals by degree. Neither “intelligence, emotion, and will” nor “moral reasoning” are good candidates for Imago Dei, because the Image of God is something radically different, not just a different level of the same thing.
The Imago Dei is the conscious ability to glorify God and enjoy Him in perfect relationship forever. Humans have this, but there is no evidence that animals do. To restate, man alone is able to bridge the gap between God and the rest of Creation. No giraffe, however tall, or elephant, however wide, can reach up to God and across to his fellow creatures. Only man can. One man, the God-Man Jesus Christ, forms that bridge perfectly. But all men (and of course, women) are called to join Christ in this work. Humans are called to rule the earth because we, and not animals or plants, can know the Creator consciously, intentionally, and under Son of Man, perfectly.
Animals, and perhaps plants, seem to meet the first criteria, having an immortal and individual soul or spirit. They also seem to meet the second criteria. Both animals and plants are pictured in the perfect state – before the Fall of Man and after the restoration of the universe.
It is in the third criteria that the distinction between animals, probably plants, and man becomes clear. Man can disobey God, and we have. Animals cannot. As a result, animals cannot be wicked, but they also cannot be virtuous. Instead, animals are innocent. Though the entire created world is subject to death and destruction because of human sin (Romans 8:19-22), each animal is individually blameless.
A good and loving God would not send a blameless creature to eternal punishment. Such as act would be against His nature as revealed in Scripture. The Sovereign creator made the animals. God spared “many animals” when He withheld judgment on Nineveh (Jonah 4:11) and God cares for even the sparrow (Matthew 10:29-31). He feeds the animals. Our Lord cares deeply for all of His creation – not just humans.
The Old Testament sacrificial system provides insight into animal morality. The sins of the people were ritually transferred to a blameless animal, who was then sacrificed in lieu of the people. The innocent took the place of the guilty. The glory of Jesus Christ is that a morally perfect man assumed the wickedness of morally responsible men, and then He died for us. The virtuous took the place of the guilty. Restated,
- Animals are innocent – they cannot sin.
- All humans (except the Messiah) are guilty – we do sin.
- Jesus was virtuous – He did not sin.
The penalty for group two (humans) first fell on group one (animals). Ultimately the penalty for our sin fell on Jesus Himself.
Will my dog go to Heaven?
To summarize based on this evidence, animals, and perhaps plants have an individual, enduring immaterial essence…a spirit. Their spirits are different from human spirits in at least one fundamental way – humans (and probably angels) are created in the image of God and other creatures are not. Animals and plants are clearly portrayed in times of perfection, both in the Garden of Eden and in the Final Restoration. Finally, while animals seem to have a rudimentary moral understanding, they are incapable of a conscious, personal relationship with God. Therefore, they cannot sin against God, they are morally innocent, and they do not deserve eternal punishment. We can reasonably conclude that our pets will be in heaven. The same may be true for insects, plants, etc. Unfortunately, the distance between them and us is great so it is harder to tell.
There are many faithful Christians who would disagree. Some would argue that Genesis proves that animals do not have an immaterial element beyond what they need to survive earthly life. Others would counter that the Bible does not answer this question plainly. Others will have other objections. I am happy to talk with such brothers and sisters in the love and spirit of Christ, and we can learn together.
Gracie is in heaven. She is morally innocent in God’s eyes and has an individual, enduring existence. John himself is a lover and follower of Jesus. Therefore, he will see his beloved dog again. If the Lord gives me another chance to talk to him about this, I will.
 A strecke legen is a laying out of the animals killed in the hunt, with the Hoch Wild (large or “high” game in the front and the little game in the back.
 Letzte bissen is “last bite”, a sprig of oak, fir, pine, or spruce placed in the slain animal’s mouth
 10 biblical truths about animals, https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/10-biblical-truths-about-animals