Once, many years ago, a dear friend told me that her children’s pet had died and they were extremely sad. Knowing that she was a devout Christian, I said that I would have told them that their pet had gone to live with Jesus and that one day they would be reunited with their furry friend. I was somewhat surprised when she looked at me in disbelief and said she couldn’t say it because it wasn’t true. I asked her why she thought it wasn’t true. She answered that scripture doesn’t say anything about animals in heaven, only that Jesus came to save people, to give them new life.
Some months ago a friend e-mailed me a slew of pictures of church signs, on opposite sides of the street. The churches were using those signs to engage in a friendly theological argument about whether there are dogs in heaven. I thought it was a lot of fun and forwarded the photos to some of my friends.
One friend e-mailed me this: “this is funny – but if our souls go to heaven – I don’t understand how dogs could go either. This is probably not a real debate.” I told her that I sided with the church which thought there would be animals in heaven.
What I believe on this subject was informed, not by serious Biblical or Theological inquiry, but by a believer’s eyes observing life. I’ve always assumed that heaven would be something like earth, only better. In the creation stories of scripture it tells us that God created the heavens and the earth and declared that the creation was good.
Long ago I taught a Bible Study course on Heaven to some college students and asked them what they thought happened to us after we die. One female college senior said that she thought we would become some sort of ghostly “life force” zooming through the air. I told her that I thought that was very interesting, but asked her what she made then of the words of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, one of which we said at every worship service, that professed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. It stopped her dead in her tracks. She froze. She said “we do say that don’t we?” She said she never thought that it actually meant what it says it means. She was stunned. But, I digress.
God declared that creation was good, and since in the book of Revelation, chapter 21 begins “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth” I assumed heaven would be something like the Garden of Eden, albeit without the snake! I’ve always thought that God would fill heaven with what creation suggests that He loves: flowers and mountains and trees and lakes and fish and birds and lilies and animals of every kind, size and shape. In much the way that we would be a continuity of ourselves, remade with the grace of God, then what we love would be recognizable to us including our pets.
After the resurrection of Jesus he let Thomas feel his wounds. When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, she recognized him first when she heard his voice. The God of creation has given many in creation quite remarkable gifts. What would it be if heaven had no music? It always seemed to me that the creator of the world would want to hear Handel’s Messiah, Chopin’s preludes . . . all manner of music and dance and song that sprang from the gifts of God given to his people. In the same way, I imagined that God would enjoy watching the animals of creation.
I thought I would run my little personal ideas by a Roman Catholic theologian friend of mine who holds a PhD from a respected university. He said that scholasticism taught that of all creation, humans are the only creatures that have a rational soul and that therefore, only human souls are saved. Animals have animal souls and don’t need to be “saved” in the way that humans do. My friend went on to say that there is a whole tradition from St. Irenaeus on, that thought of heaven just the way I have written about it. As a return in Christ to the beginning, where we can have walks with God in the garden in the cool of the evening.
For several years now we have been living in southern Arizona. From our back patio we can see cacti, mountain ranges, and the most amazing skies I have ever seen in my entire life. We wake up to see the morning sky with a glimpse of the moon and end our days with the evening sky bursting with spectacular sunsets that are alive with color.
In the documentary film Expelled, Ben Stein reports what has happened to some scientists and professors of science, who have lost their jobs and/or tenure because they had the audacity to mention “intelligent design” in their writing. A bit of the baggage of political correctness that has infected science. It is a shame, as science, by its nature, has to follow leads wherever they lead. If certain conclusions or pathways are prohibited by political correctness then scientific study is thwarted. But I digress, yet again.
I am a Christian. I believe in the Jewish and Christian scriptures: the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I make no apologies for that. When I look at the world, I look with eyes of faith, and with those eyes, I see the hand of God all over the place. Think about the colorful birds in the rain forests, or the hundreds of species of dogs, or the weirdly designed animals like kangaroos. Think about the thousands of different kinds of plants and trees. Here in the desert we have scrubby looking, prickly, don’t-want-to-run-into-them cactus. But these same cactus have the most exquisite flowers. The colors of those flowers are sometimes breath-taking. All the ones that I have seen only last one day. Like manna from heaven.
In the Narnia stories by C. S. Lewis, the lion Aslan has created talking animals. On earth animals don’t talk in ways that humans understand, but in Aslan’s world of Narnia, the animals talk. If God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, I would not be at all surprised to find that C. S. Lewis was onto something. Not only would I be able to talk with Bach and hear him play his music; I could finally ask my long departed cat Otto, how he knew what time I would be coming home from high school. Day after day I would find him waiting for me by the mail box a block from home and we would finish the walk home together. In his life, though I pondered this, we couldn’t communicate those kinds of things. In God’s New Heaven, the New Jerusalem, perhaps the Lord will enhance creation so that the animals we have come to care about will be able to have conversations with us.
Apparently, there are Christians who believe only what they can find proof-texts for in scripture. It may turn out that I am all washed up on this subject. I do believe that in heaven, as on earth, all that we need comes from God. It lightens my heart to learn, however, that Irenaeus, along with many who followed after him, believed that heaven would be populated by all manner of the loves of God.
P.S. I also believe that there will be rocks in heaven!