By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
We know the scene; A child’s beloved pet - a goldfish, hamster, or cat - suddenly dies. The family gathers around a make-shift grave to give their last goodbye. Words of comfort are spoken to the grieving child. At some point, the universal question is asked, “Did the animal go to heaven?”
It sounds like an easy question to answer. Popular movies have often taken a stab at this topic. Pixar’s award-winning movie Soul, for example, clearly shows the soul of a cat on its way to the great beyond. But is this biblically accurate? Do animals go to heaven?
This is a deeply theological question, one based on a variety of factors. What do we mean by “heaven”? How does one get to heaven? What will we do in heaven? These questions are natural. Even the Pharisees ask about the nature of heaven regarding a woman who married seven brothers (Matthew 22:25). When it comes to animals in heaven, however, the question is more difficult to resolve. There are other factors to consider. Do animals have the capacity to respond to the saving message of the gospel? Is the animal soul equivalent to the soul of one made in God’s image? If animals can go to heaven, does this mean an animal can go to hell?
To answer this question, we need to pair the biblical understanding of heaven with the biblical depiction of animals. It is only as we rightly understand these two elements that we can definitively, and confidently answer this intriguing question.
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What the Bible Says about Heaven
It can be difficult to separate the biblical picture of heaven from the popular images provided by movies and television programs. Heaven is often imagined as a place of bright lights and pillowy clouds, where angels with harps provide an eternity of celestial back-ground music. None of these images are found in scripture. The Bible describes heaven in two primary ways.
Firstly, heaven is defined by the presence of God. Of this the scriptures are clear. The Book of Revelation is perhaps the primary source for this understanding. John’s vision of heaven contains a picture of the throne of God, surrounded by a great multitude of people who bow down in worship. John writes “And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10). John’s picture is clear; heaven is the place of ceaseless worship to the Lamb seated on the throne.
Does this worship involve animals? John does not say. John never mentions the presence of animals running down the golden streets of the celestial city. While he does mention “four living creatures” (Revelation 4:6-8), these creatures are clearly angelic in nature. Does this mean we can assume that animals are not present in the heaven?
Not necessarily. The second thing we need to know about heaven is that it involves the renewal of all creation. The images used to describe what heaven “looks like” hold an important theological function. Take the jewel-laden imagery found in Revelation as an example (21:19-21). John’s description is a picture of the heavenly Jerusalem. The earthly Jerusalem is but a foreshadow of the brilliant kingdom of God, here depicted as a city adorned with the finest of jewels. Similarly, much of the biblical imagery of heaven heralds the reversal of fallen Eden. Just as God created Eden had a tree of life and death standing in the center, so too the heavenly city contains a tree in the center. The difference, however, is that the leaves of the tree in the heavenly city provide healing, not condemnation (Revelation 22:2). God remakes the world.
Ultimately, John’s vision reaches its climax in the creation of a “new heaven, and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). During his divine revelation, John witnesses the heavenly Jerusalem coming down and resting upon the earth. Heaven is not a mystical, ephemeral reality. It is a physical one. God’s kingdom is fully revealed in the act of re-creation. As Paul writes, “all creation waits in eager expectation for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19). Scripture teaches that, as the creation itself has been subject to the effects of sin, the result of Christ’s redemption is a complete healing of all creation.
Eternal life isn’t about living as disembodied spirits upon fluffy clouds. Scripture makes clear that we receive new bodies and live upon the new earth. Thus, when we speak of heaven, we are speaking about the reality of an eternity in the presence of God in the context of a renewed creation. This is what defines the Christian understanding of heaven.
What Does the Bible Say about Animals?
Animals are part of God’s creation. They are not an after-thought or a by-product of the fall. Animals are an expression of God’s creativity and love. On the fifth and sixth days of creation, God intentionally creates “animals according to their kind” (Genesis 1:20-25). God then responds to the creation of animals in the same way that God responds to all creative acts: God declares it good. Animals, therefore, are a part of God’s good creation.
Not only does Scripture make clear that God created animals, it also testifies to God’s loving care of animals. An animal’s life is under the eye of God. Jesus declares that no animal “falls apart from the Father’s will” (Matthew 10:29). God provides for, and sustains, every living creature upon the earth. God declares “for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine” (Psalm 50:10-11). Each animal or insect is, in some way, a recipient of God’s love.
While scripture has many things to say about God’s care for animals, scripture does not present animals in any domesticated way. This is incredibly important. The ancient world saw animals as useful for one’s livelihood or commercial enterprises. Simply put, there are no “pets” in scripture. The only possible reference to a domesticated animal is found in 2 Samuel 12. When confronting David with this sin of adultery, the prophet Nathan speaks of a man who “had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him (12:3). This is the only reference to an animal being treated as a companion rather than a commodity. Yet even here, this only occurs in the context of a prophetic story. The ancient world simply did not view animals in the same way as we do.
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Do Animals Go to Heaven?
Where does this lead us in terms of whether animals go to heaven? We can say confidently that animals will be part of the new creation. Christ’s redemption is expressed in the re-creation of all the created order. As God’s kingdom is established upon the earth, this will undoubtedly involve the re-creation of the animal world. Dogs, cats, rabbits, mosquitos, crocodiles, and spiders will roam the new earth, just as much as they do this one. Similarly, God’s kingdom will also involve the re-creation of trees, flowers, rocks, and brambles. All are remade.
Does this mean that our beloved cat “Fluffy", or our faithful companion “Rex”, will come bounding toward us when we arrive in heaven? Unfortunately, Scripture does not answer this question. This is because this question would never have crossed the minds of the biblical writers. Dogs, specifically, were understood to be unclean scavengers. Scripture contains no positive reference to a dog. Thus, the idea of a dog being given a name, a bed, and a squeaky toy, would be unthinkable to those in the ancient world.
Furthermore, there are questions regarding our individual pet’s ability to respond to God’s grace or love. Does Fluffy live in an active relationship with the Lord? Can Rex choose to reject divine love? Do spiders sin? These questions all pertain to an animal’s sense of spiritual personhood. Ultimately, while we can assert that animals “according to their kind” are remade in the new creation, we have no reference to answer whether an animal contains the spirituality necessary for a personal response to the gospel.
One last word…
This, however, is not the end of the discussion. As mentioned above, at one point, the Pharisees approach Jesus with a question regarding a woman who marries seven brothers. They are, of course, attempting to trap Jesus with this theological riddle (Matthew 22:28). Their question: Whose wife will she be in heaven, as she married all brothers? Jesus’ response is instructive to our understanding of heaven. Jesus says “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:29-32).
The Pharisees are in error because they assume that heaven is based on human principles and logic. Jesus points them, and us, away from human concerns regarding the inner workings of God’s kingdom. Matters such as what heaven looks like, what we do in heaven, or who will be in heaven, are beyond our concern. God’s kingdom is always beyond our understanding and control. Heaven is about residing in the power and the love of God. This is to be our ultimate focus as, in the end, this will be the reality we enjoy for eternity.
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