In C. S. Lewis’s fantasy The Great Divorce, the spirit of Sarah Smith in heaven glows with so much love that dancing angels follow her. She was a mother to all, the narrator’s heavenly guide explains, and the dogs, cats, horses, and birds with her had a place in her love as well.
“In her they became themselves,” he said about the animals. “And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
Lewis isn’t the only Christian writer to portray animals in the afterlife. Christian apologist Peter Kreeft responded, “Why not?” when asked if animals go to heaven. “Pets, like everything else in this world, can mediate God’s love and goodness to us and train us for our union with him, or they can distract us from him. In Heaven, everything mediates and nothing distracts.” And in an interview on ABC News in 2012, Pastor Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church, said, “I can’t imagine God not allowing my dog into heaven.”
I can’t imagine a paradise without the chirping of birds, the song of crickets, the majesty of horses, the soft paws of a beloved cat, and especially the loving eyes of a dog.
Christians throughout history have held varied views on whether animals will be in heaven, and in what form. As memories in our hearts? A thought in the mind of God? Restored in new bodies, too, and identifiable as our beloved pets?
Humorist Will Rogers famously said, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they are.”
I like to think that dogs, cats, and other earthly creatures can be present in the afterlife. I can’t imagine a paradise without the chirping of birds, the song of crickets, the majesty of horses, the soft paws of a beloved cat, and especially the loving eyes of a dog. I’m not saying that every lizard, dinosaur, cow and all animals that ever lived will be present. Rather, I like to think that in heaven, we will be in the company of the animals that had meaning in our lives. They will be in paradise for us because of God’s love for each one of us.
That said, I’m looking forward to being reunited, in whatever way it will be, with a lifetime of many loyal and loving dogs. I especially look forward to again seeing Princess, who kept me going when I faced a life-threatening illness, and Ginger, who forgave me for selfishly not letting her go sooner because I wasn’t ready to face a bittersweet goodbye. I also look forward to seeing little Tucker, who was elderly and suffering from cancer when we adopted him from a shelter. We gave him a wonderful last year of his life. I am convinced that many times in the weeks after his passing, I saw him scampering under my desk to sit at my feet.
I believe that animals may very well be in the afterlife, and I hope that the significant ones are. But some Christians say that animals can’t go to heaven because they can’t “know” Jesus Christ. Still others counter that animals are “safe,” like innocent children, and have no need for salvation.
St. Francis regarded all creatures as one family of creation and found scriptural support that all are called to participate in God’s plan for salvation.
Scripture has many references to God’s love for all of his creation. After the flood, he established a covenant with Noah and his family, and also with every living creature. Job 12:10 promises that the breath of all mankind and the “soul of every living thing” is in God’s hands. Psalm 150 ends with: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 says that the lot of man and beast is one lot, that both have the same life breath, and that man has no advantage over the beast: “Who knows if the life-breath of the children of men goes upward and the life-breath of the beasts goes earthward?” In Matthew 10:29, Jesus says that God notices when even one sparrow falls to the ground.
Pope John Paul II noted in a homily in 1990 that animals are “as near to God as men are,” and that they “possess a soul, and men must love and feel solidarity with our smallest brethren.”
But there are different kinds of souls.
“The foundation for the afterlife is the immortal soul of man, and man has the capacity for the indwelling of God,” said Rev. Bob McCreary, O.F.M. Cap., formation director at Capuchin College in Washington, D.C. “But animals definitely have some kind of principle of unity, whatever force it is that the Creator puts into an animal. It is a material soul that has the spiritual quality that causes a lion to be a lion. It is something that is profound, but animals don’t have the capacity to enter into communion with the sons and daughters of God.”
“Dogs are so forgiving. They are living beings with hearts and souls, and what they have that we don’t have is a love that transcends everything.”
The animals of Revelation, he added — all those lions, lambs and horses of the Apocalypse — symbolically represent the kingdoms on earth.
McCreary is a Capuchin friar in the St. Augustine Province in Pittsburgh, a Franciscan order that traces its roots to Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and author of Canticle of the Creatures.
“St. Francis saw handiwork in all creation and he saw God’s imprint everywhere,” said Rev. John Pfannenstiel, O.F.M., Cap., the province’s director of missions. “He found beauty and goodness in everything, even in inanimate things.”
Writer Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M., notes that Francis regarded all creatures as one family of creation and found scriptural support that all are called to participate in God’s plan for salvation. Wintz’s books include Will I See My Dog in Heaven? and the follow-ups I will See You In Heaven in dog and cat versions.
Rev. Austin Miles of Oakley, California, a chaplain with the First Charismatic Church International, recently completed his latest book, Angels Unawares — 4-Legged Ones: What The Church Didn’t Teach Me I Learned From My Poodle.
“Deputy taught me agape love — unconditional love — and how to really love,” he said. “Dogs are so forgiving. They are living beings with hearts and souls, and what they have that we don’t have is a love that transcends everything. You look into a dog’s eyes and you are looking into a soul. There is more than just an animal in there.”
Miles is a former circus ringmaster and was a chaplain to show business. He can cite a list of scriptures referring to animals in the Kingdom of God, something that became clearer to him the more he studied the Bible. In his lifetime, he has heard enough convincing stories of small miracles with animals, and has experiences of his own.
“Everything that has breath praises the Lord,” he said. “Not just people, but all creatures.”
Rev. Dr. Kamila Blessing is a semi-retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and although the question of animals in the afterlife wasn’t raised in her seminary studies, it’s something that she has considered, especially after she had her own spirit-like experience with a beloved cat who made one last visit to her before he “died and went to heaven.”
“There is no basis to say that animals don’t have souls or a place in heaven,” she said. “God reaches people using whatever they have to work with. In John 10, Jesus says that he has other flocks. If you make that analogy with animals, they don’t have anything to work with rationally, but they are not assigned to live on the same level as we are, with our rational ability to choose God. The spirit of God is necessary to make life, and I can’t imagine him throwing away his own creation.”
But who can define in what manner any creature is required to love God? In other words, we won’t know until we get to heaven whether our beloved pets are waiting for us, or if the glory of heaven outshines our desire to have them there.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.