Will My Dog Go to Heaven?

Gracie - John Niven - cropped 1.jpg

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 lay 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.

  1. The being must have an enduring personal soul/spirit – an immaterial part that survives death.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Dualism

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,[1]” 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[2] and Letzte Bissen[3] 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[4]:

  1. God communicates with animals (Genesis 7:9, 1 Kings 17:4-6)
  2. God cares about the well-being of animals (Psalm 104, Jonah 4:11, Matthew 10:29-31)
  3. God enjoys animals (Psalm 104)
  4. Animals reveal God’s sovereignty (Job 38-42)
  5. Animals bring glory and praise to God (Psalm 148, 150)
  6. Animals are reasoning creatures (Numbers 22:21-33)
  7. Animals may have a more acute awareness of spiritual reality than we realize (Numbers 22:21-33)
  8. Animals have the capacity to enjoy life (Job 39, 40, Psalm 104)
  9. Animals teach us about the nature of justice (Leviticus 16)
  10. 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,

  1. Animals are innocent – they cannot sin.
  2. All humans (except the Messiah) are guilty – we do sin.
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.

 

[1] https://www.bing.com/search?q=soul&form=EDGTCT&qs=PF&cvid=5db77c37dc204078aface0db23480dea&cc=US&setlang=en-US

[2] 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.

[3] Letzte bissen is “last bite”, a sprig of oak, fir, pine, or spruce placed in the slain animal’s mouth

[4] 10 biblical truths about animals, https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/10-biblical-truths-about-animals

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Robust Thrift

Thrift doesn’t start with seeking sales and clipping coupons, but with a character of contentment.

Disasters strike, both in nations and in families. Hurricanes happen, jobs are lost, and terrorists crash airliners into buildings. Our first reaction is disbelief and disorientation. On 9/11/2001 many Americans spent the day staring at the television, unable to accept that such an attack happened in the USA and uncertain of what the attack meant for our future. On any day, when a family member is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a friend dies in an accident, or a husband loses his job, our normal reaction is stunned silence, fear, sadness, and stunned silence again.

Our second reaction depends on the individual. Some people sink into despair, others begin frenzied work, and still others lash out at whoever or whatever they think is responsible for their pain. Over time, those who are psychologically healthy transform their hardship into a new way of looking at the world, adjust their actions, and resume a normal if inexorably altered life. Those who cannot end up getting help from health care providers and ministers to help them reassemble the pieces of their shattered soul.

Robust Thrift

One of the best ways to live life and to handle disaster, is thrift – using resources (money, possessions, and time) carefully and avoiding waste. Though not valued in convenience-focused, image-obsessed America, thrift enables individuals, families, communities, and nations to weather the storms of life. Robust Thrift, thrift that comes from strength of character rather than just a desire to save money, is best. It forces us to focus on what is truly important, teaches us that we can live joyfully with far fewer things than we think we need, and provides the freedom of greater control over our lives. Ultimately, disengaging our happiness from our desire for things makes us free. Robust Thrift, is not merely about actions – it is about attitudes, and ultimately character. There are three major character traits associated with Robust Thrift – Humility, Security, and Godliness.

The first kind of thrift is financial, and most articles and books on thrift focus here. They discuss coupons, bargain hunting, and haggling. Most of this advice is useful, but limited, because it doesn’t address the underlying attitudes and belief systems. Robust thrift in financial matters is an outgrowth of humility, a self-forgetfulness that focuses its attention on God and others.

Vendors make mountains of money catering to our vanity. The woman who boasts of her ability to get a “great deal” will often spend more money than she should simply to get more “great deals” that she can then brag about. Photographers, venue operators, caterers, florists, and decorators gouge brides and families who want their wedding to be more grand and glorious than those of their friends. Automakers sell the image – tough and individualistic, sleek and sporty, or trendy and socially conscious – far more than they sell the car. Clipping coupons is no cure for the vanity that besets us, and there is no financial thrift without humility.

The second kind of thrift deals with possessions. We fill drawers, closets, attics, basements, garages, and storage units with things that cost us money to buy, money to store, money to maintain, money to move, money to protect, and money to dispose of. Our surfeits of stuff also take time to buy, time to store, time to maintain, time to move, time to protect, and time to dispose of. We get food that we don’t like to fill our pantry just because it is “on sale”, and collect trinkets that we don’t need because they are “free”. Shelves in book stores and libraries groan under the weight of tomes telling us how to declutter our lives, but we rarely do it. Why? Because we mistake possessions for security. Some belongings such as a shelter, food, and clothing contribute to our security, but most, like the 27th key chain that we got free at the trade show but can’t bear to part with, do not. Those who find security in something other than possessions will find that their thriftiness is robust – it can weather the storms of life.

The third kind of thrift deals with time. Time is our most precious possession, and armies of authors wielding quills, pens, or keyboards tell us how to use ours. Despite their best intentions and advice, we waste vast amounts of time. Why? Because we do not know who we are, and what we are supposed to do. A young man graduates from college and faces a bewildering array of possible careers, possible pastimes, and even possible wives. Paralyzed with choices, and never having taken the time to discover who is he, who God is, and what He has created him to do, the man takes whatever opportunity is easiest. Without knowing our Maker, the One who created us to do a specific task as we have created saws to cut wood, we cannot do otherwise. Robust thrift with our time is rooted in glorifying and enjoying God, and allowing Him to direct our steps.

Conclusion

Thrift is a good thing – we could all stand to take better care of our resources. But thrift is ultimately a matter of the heart. Robust Thrift moderates our money with humility, purges our possessions with security, and targets our time with Godliness. When hurricanes happen, jobs vanish, and terrorists attack, Robust Thrift will help us overcome adversity every day.