For anyone who has loved a pet, or has a strong connection with nature in general, the question in one form or another invariably arises: Assuming there is an afterlife, will the animals be there too? Putting aside sentiment, do dogs go to heaven?
I am a Christian, so I shall try to answer this question from a Christian perspective. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. What this means in total is another subject that ultimately defies all of human understanding, but what we can say in short is that for a Christian the Bible is the definitive account of God’s revelation of Himself to man in and through human history. God reveals what we need to know about Himself in order for us to be saved from sin and to live in His eternal life. Everything we learn about God in the Bible is for this purpose. God does not reveal to us what is not necessary for us know, and for this reason so much of God remains forever an inscrutable mystery.
This is important, because if God remains forever a mystery beyond our grasp, then what we know about Him in certainty is what He has chosen for us to know in certainty. God is the means of our knowledge of Him, and He is the measure of our certainty. We have the free will to look the other way (sin), but if we decide to follow His path, then as the Good Shepherd He will feed all His sheep “in a green pasture and lead [them] forth beside the waters of comfort” (Psalm 23:2).
So what does this have to do with our question? God wants us to be resurrected in Christ Jesus. He wants us to shed completely the Old Adam and to take on both the body and the spirit of the New Adam (Philippians 3:20-21). The Resurrected Christ Jesus is for us the example of what this new life will be. We shall see Him when He returns, because we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2-3).
So the end goal of the Christian life is to be like the Resurrected Christ Jesus. That begs the question: What was He like after He had resurrected from the dead? There is much that may be said here, but for the purpose of this homily we may proclaim the following: Though He had overcome death forevermore, and lived in a glorified body, who He had been before He died, and the relationships He had had with certain people and places, remained very much a part of His post-resurrection identity.
When He showed Thomas His crucifixion wounds, He was doing more than proving His identity to a doubtful man. He was letting us all know that who He had been before His death and resurrection was still an integral part of who He is now. This is why He showed His wounds to Thomas in front of the other disciples as well. If He only wanted to prove His identity to Thomas, then He could have appeared privately before Thomas. God is not superfluous with His revelation, as we have discussed above. So when Christ Jesus reveals His crucifixion wounds to all of the disciples, and not just to Thomas, then there is a specific reason that He does so (John 20:26-27).
So we are to be like the Resurrected Christ Jesus, and who we had been in this lifetime is going to remain an integral part of who we will be then. This makes sense, for if God is resurrecting a person in the likeness of His Son, then indeed He is resurrecting all of that person. He is not just resurrecting our flesh. He is resurrecting our minds, our memories, our relationships, and our deepest loves and commitments. All of these attributes define who we are, and He wants all of who we are to be eternally alive in His Son. He wants all of who we are to love Him as He loves us.
If we loved a pet in this lifetime, then our love for that pet is going to be part of who we are in our resurrected lives. Now, if the pet has been annihilated, and has no place in the afterlife, let alone in the resurrected life, then our love for that pet will have no objective in the resurrected life. All we would have is a memory to love, but a memory is not really a relationship. It is an echo from the past; not a reality in the present with which we can build something in the future. Loving God in the resurrected life is all about relationships in the eternal present that are forever perfected. It is about seeing God and God’s love in our relationship with Him, with one another, and with everything about our lives that we have brought to the table.
It is true that there is no verse in the New Testament that specifically says that animals go to heaven. That does not mean that animals do not go to heaven. All it means is that the Bible is concerned with man’s salvation. Whether or not an animal goes to heaven does not tell us what we need to know in order to be freed from sin and to be reborn in Christ Jesus. Given the narrow objective of God’s self-revelation in the Bible, we should keep in mind that the omission of an unambiguous statement in the Bible is therefore not the same as its negation.
Still, as to our question, there are hints in the Old and New Testaments that indeed the animals live on in the afterlife and in the redeemed creation that will follow the Second Coming of Our Lord. I do not mean animals in a generic sense. I mean specific animals with which we have had specific relationships for the reason stated above.
The first hint is that God gives unto Adam the authority to name all of the creatures, and as instructed Adam proceeds to do so (Genesis 2:20). In the original Hebrew, “to name” means something different than in our modern usage. Today, we define “to name” in the narrow sense of identifying something or someone with a word; but in the ancient past, “to name” meant “to impart ones legacy upon.” When Adam “names” the creatures, he is imparting his legacy upon them. So when he is punished for sin, so the creatures are all punished for sin, even though they are incapable of sin. As he (and all other humans who followed him) died on account of sin, so the creatures die on account of sin, even though they are incapable of sin. On the surface, this seems particularly cruel on the part of God to punish animals who are sinless with what man has inflicted upon himself, but really in so doing God is just maintaining that underlying relationship between man and creation that has its origin in Adam “naming” the creatures. All relationships are integral. Indeed, in the natural sense of the word, all relationships are sacramental. The bonds endure in life, but also in death; in sanctity, but also in sin. When we nurture the bonds, that allows the bonds to grow in sanctity. When we pervert the bonds, as Adam does with his bond with God, his bond with Eve, and his bond with the creatures he “named” when he sins, that causes the bonds to persist in a degraded and destructive manner. What this means is that when it comes to our relationships with God, with one another, and with creation, our actions matter and have lasting consequence.
When Adam “names” the creatures he is in fact establishing a relationship between his life (and the lives of all men to follow) and the lives of the creatures (and the lives of all the creatures to follow). Now, we may cherish, admire, or support something in general, like a naturalist supports the protection of the rainforests; but we do not say we have a “relationship” with something in general. The naturalist does not have a “relationship” with the rainforests, even if he focuses much of his time, money, and energy in fighting to save them from modern civilization; but he may have a relationship with his pet dog. The point is that relationships are personal. If man has a relationship with the animals, then he has a relationship with specific animals; and even the animals who never have any personal interaction with man are nevertheless individual souls who will be caught up individually in man’s salvation history. Christ Jesus is the “Second Adam,” so as Adam is the reason Bob, Dick, and Harry died, so Christ Jesus then is the reason Bob, Dick, and Harry may have eternal life (Romans 5:17). More to the point of the question posed here, because Bob, Dick, and Harry may have eternal life, so may this dog and that caterpillar share in God’s eternal life in virtue of what it means for man and creation to be in a true and enduring relationship with one another.
The relationship between man and creation is personal, for all relationships by definition are personal. It is not just creation in general that is saved in virtue of man’s salvation in Christ Jesus. It is every individual beast that has ever lived and died and whatever traits had made that one beast separable from all the others. Moreover, God has ordained that this relationship between man and creation is a covenant, which is to say it is binding on both sides into eternity. This is why God orders Noah to bring the animals into the ark. If God had wanted simply to save the animals from total destruction, He could have saved two of every kind from the flood without Noah’s cooperation. Instead, He has Noah bring the animals into the ark, which we know foreshadows the tabernacle and as such is the localized place and experience of God’s covenant with man. Precisely because of man’s covenantal relationship with creation, God is instructing Noah to bring the animals, two by two, into His new covenantal relationship with man. As God saves Noah (and all men to follow), so God saves the animals, not just from the flood at one point in time, but to be vicarious participants in man’s salvation history yet to be unraveled. Indeed, when the flood finally subsides, God does not just remember Noah, He also remembers “all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark” (Genesis 8:1).
It is for this very reason that “all of creation” groans for the coming of the Lord (Romans 8:22). Notice that St. Paul’s metaphor is groaning as in the pains of childbirth. That is a very personal experience. Animals in a generic sense do not come out from a womb or hatch from an egg. Rather, specific animals are born or hatched. Like everything else in the Bible, metaphors are never superfluous. The Holy Spirit inspires St. Paul to describe “all of creation” groaning in this way precisely because individual beasts will be caught up into man’s salvation just as Bob, Dick, and Harry are redeemed by Christ Jesus. Just as this particular “Bob Smith” will rejoice to see the coming of the Lord, so then will that particular “Fido the Dog” or “Fluffy the Cat” vicariously share in man’s joy at that time. If that is the case, then presumably “Fido the Dog” and “Fluffy the Cat” go to heaven when they die and like all heavenly beings await the coming salvation.
Of course, since they are animals, they do not understand this coming salvation in Christ Jesus as man does. Man is set apart from them as the Imago Dei. The fact that animals are caught up vicariously into man’s salvation history does not equate the animals with man. That God chooses to include the animals in His salvation of man is a testament not only to man’s covenanted relationship with the animals, as we have discussed, but also to the superabundant nature of God’s mercy. In the Bible, God narrowly focuses His self-revelation to what man needs to know to be saved, but just because His self-revelation is narrow does not mean His grace is similarly narrow. On the contrary, He often gives a lot more than is necessary to man: “You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance” (Psalm 65:11). He does not just feed the multitude. He gives them more than they can possibly eat (John 6:13). This is an expression of divine mercy and an insight into His character. He gives more than is necessary, not because we need more than is necessary, but because He is so passionate in His love: “For His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor a lifetime” (Psalm 30:5). This superabundance of mercy is directed toward the animals as well: “Thou, Lord, shalt save both man and beast: how excellent is thy mercy, O God” (Psalm 36:7).