We have come a long way since Descartes claimed that animals are mere automatons without the capacity for pleasure or pain. We now know the contrary is true: They experience. They suffer. They grieve. They love. When it comes to our relationships with pets, we not only take them into our homes: We welcome them deep within our hearts. In fact, some become so attached that they yearn to be with their pets throughout eternity. C. S. Lewis speculated on the eternal fate of animals in The Problem of Pain, suggesting that at least tame animals might enter heaven through their relationship with humans, in the same way that humans do through their relationship with Christ.
But I worry that the question of pets in heaven could distort our understanding of eternal life as described in Scripture and Christian tradition. If we are not careful, we could cross the line into a sentimentality that shrinks our eschatological expectation. Our human idea of heaven might be walking an adored dog in the forest, but there is no indication that is anything like God’s plan. The question of whether our pets go to heaven requires an examination of the natures of animals, of humans, and of God. Animals have their lives in God. In Psalm 104 we read that animals look to God for their food and that when he withdraws his spirit, they return to the dust. God marks the dropping of every sparrow.
But John 3:16 makes no mention of animals. Only humans are made in the divine likeness. Unlike animals, we are moral agents capable of sinning by commission and omission. That makes ours a completely different nature of being. Here’s an illustration: My late cat once raided a nest and I found her happily batting a helpless, now dying chick around the backyard. She was just being a cat. Had I done that, I would be rightly branded a monster. I also knew my human duty. I put the poor chick out of its misery with a heavy work boot and removed the carcass. Doing the right thing came at a cost: Chloe was so angry I spoiled her fun that she refused to look at me for the rest of the day.
God’s love is unlimited, unconditional, and eternal. When we witness the very face of God and participate through constant worship in his ineffable essence̶which we are told is the neverending activity of heaven̶ it will at the very least include all we yearn for when desiring to be with our pets forever.
So do pets have souls? Do they go to heaven? God knows. For now, “we see through a glass darkly.” Instead of speculating or making strained proof-texts, let us instead give thanks to God for the great gift of joy he has given us in our pets. Let us be confident in the knowledge that whatever his plans for our animal friends, all will be perfection and light.
When I was young and gnostic, I was certain that pets do not go to heaven. I didn’t know I was gnostic, of course. I simply thought that life on earth was about bicycles and ice cream and books and not saying certain words or smoking behind the barn with my cousins. Heaven was about being with God and angels singing and seeing great-grandma again and not being in hell.
You only got to heaven if you were saved, and I hadn’t seen any animals go to church, let alone go forward during an altar call. In the old days, I was told, a nearby farmer used to ride his horse to church, where he’d hitch her up to the iron rail that still stood outside the one-room country church in Maine where my family worshiped. I never imagined a horse coming inside to get saved.
Yet the Bible teaches that God does save animals. For example, God brought Noah two of each kind of living creature in order to save them from the Flood. God chastised reluctant Jonah about the need to save not only the human inhabitants of Nineveh, but also its many animals. Such salvation is not, of course, quite the kind invited by the altar call. Even so, it should not be overlooked.
God not only saves animals. At times, his covenants include them. God’s covenant with Noah included “every living thing of all flesh” (Gen. 6:18-19, KJV). In Hosea, God proclaimed a covenant “with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground” (2:18, niv).
When God made a covenant with one of his chosen ones, he often marked it by assigning them a particular name: Abraham, Sarah, Israel, Jesus, Paul. God told Adam to name the animals and, in so doing, Adam reflected God’s acts of naming. When we choose to take into our household creatures that share with us the breath of life and bestow them with names, perhaps we enter into a kind of covenantal relationship with them too. To echo C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, perhaps when we name animals, they “become themselves” and our salvation “flows over into them.”
I have put away my childish thinking about heaven. Scripture describes eternity not as an ethereal cloud-top existence, but as both spiritual and material, just as our life is now. It is a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pet. 3:13) where “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). As foretold in Isaiah, animals will be there. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat … and a little child will lead them” (11:6). Perhaps God will honor my acts of naming the animals by bringing Gracie, Kasey, Myrtle, Peter, Oscar, and so many more there, too.
Oddly enough, I was part of the animal advocacy community for several months before I took the question of whether animals have souls seriously. I had even written my seminary capstone paper on a biblical-theological foundation for animal welfare, and didn’t feel compelled to address the subject directly.
When I heard others speak confidently of seeing their animal companions again, often “just over the rainbow bridge,” I sympathized with their loss and the natural desire that arose out of it. But the hope of reuniting with our pets seemed more based in wishful thinking and eclectic spirituality than in a confessional hermeneutic. As a result, it seemed to compromise the clear scriptural calling, which does exist, to care for God’s creatures.
Just over two years ago, when one of our own cats died suddenly from an unexpected complication after an otherwise successful surgery, I found myself looking at the question of animal souls in a much more personal light. Bubba had been a constant and beloved companion since we brought him home from an adoption center four years earlier. He was wonderfully affable, as his name suggests, and the perfect pet for our newborn son to grow up with. I took his loss hard, heartbroken as my wife and I said goodbye at the vet’s office, and still sobbing as I buried him in pouring rain later that night. I wrote in my journal: “It’s been a gut-wrenching couple of days …. I miss him everywhere I look in the house …. And I feel such a hole, especially not knowing if God has taken him back to himself for us to meet again or not. I so badly want to know if I’ll see him again.”
It occurred to me from time to time in my grief that if God had made Bubba, and knew and loved him even more than my family did, he could very well have some desire to bring his own treasured creation back to life someday.
The same might go for many other creatures with which God has a relationship as their Creator and Sustainer, whether we humans happened to share in that relationship or not. After all, our Savior said that not even one sparrow is ever forgotten by him.
But even if this is a reasonable conjecture, I have to come back to what the Bible does and does not say on the possibility. We know that death of any kind was never part of God’s original plan, and that animals will certainly be part of the new heaven and earth, where death and tears will be no more. What we don’t know is whether these will be specific animals from the old creation, including those we’ve known and loved. I wish we knew. In the meantime, it seems okay to ask God if his grace might extend that far, while doing my best to trust that heaven won’t seem anything but complete regardless.