In light of a recent Unbelievable? show discussing whether animals have souls, Erik Strandness examines whether we will ever be reunited with our dead pets
In a world where it seems humans always let us down, we take our worries and cares to our pets. Returning from a hard day’s work, we aren’t sure if we will be comforted by our spouse or kids but are confident that Old Yeller has our back. Isn’t it interesting that we don’t have therapy humans, but we have therapy animals? It appears that humans are too unreliable for such an important task and so when our beloved animals pass away, we can’t imagine life without them and pray that we will see them in the life to come. Will animals be a part of the new heaven and Earth and how should we relate to them this side of paradise?
Unbelievable? addressed these questions on this show by featuring a discussion between Joyce D’Silva and Nathan Rittenhouse. Joyce D’Silva is Ambassador Emeritus for Compassion in World Farming, the leading charity advancing the welfare of farm animals worldwide. Nathan Rittenhouse is a speaker, preacher and co-founder of the podcast Thinking Out Loud.
Fur in the game
My wife runs a home for wayward felines. She takes in pregnant and abandoned cats, diseased kittens and fosters them until they can find a forever home. While my wife’s obsession occasionally causes marital conflicts, it is also the reason why I love her so much. She has a heart for God’s creation. She is the sworn enemy of natural selection, offering asylum to the innocents caught in the evolutionary crossfire.
Why does she do it? She does it because she cannot look the other way when that which God calls “good” suffers and dies.
A Godless view of the universe offers no warrant for fostering cats, coaxing beached whales back out to sea, breeding near-extinct species, or even tossing breadcrumbs to the smaller, weaker ducks at the back of the pond. However, in a world in which God spoke “good” animals into existence, we have no choice but to treasure his every word.
“Your best bet for establishing some sort of well-being for animals outside of a strict naturalism is to go in a theological direction.” (Rittenhouse)
Whenever I try to convince my wife to quit her job as the head mistress of a cathouse, she opens the good book to the first chapter and points out that my “very good” duty is to care for the least of these. As you can see, the questions addressed in this episode are quite important to me because I have significant fur in the game.
God isn’t silent
“And God said…” may be one of the most important phrases in the entire Bible because it means that everything that we see around us in the natural world represents God’s thoughts made physically real through divine speech. And, as image bearers, we are equipped with the divine voice recognition software necessary to understand what he has spoken.
We live in a world awash in divine discourse. We sense that someone is speaking to us in the waves crashing on the beach, in the wind blowing through the trees and in the purring of a pet on our lap, yet we divinise the message rather than marvel at the messenger, we deify the book of nature rather than glorify the author, we worship the created rather than the creator.
Our culture has pushed God out of earshot and the silence is deafening so we travel to mountains, forests and beaches because they are the only places left on the planet where we can still hear the king’s speech. Unfortunately, the necessities of life often trap us in concrete jungles where man-made noise drowns out God’s glorious soliloquy.
We ultimately find this situation intolerable because life without a word from God is unliveable. So we do the next best thing and bring pets into our homes and apartments because we need to be reminded that in a world where the TV news is always bad, God has something “good” to say.
A Universe devoid of God’s words is a lonely place, but a world filled with divine discourse means we are never alone. So, when one of God’s “good” words sleeps by your head at night, sits in your lap while you watch TV, or goes on a walk with you in the morning, be reminded that God isn’t silent.
Isn’t it interesting that our culture has tried to counter the rise in anxiety, depression and suicide by promoting pet therapy? Why would the low hanging fruit on the evolutionary tree be therapeutic for the most highly evolved creature? Why would a pet be better than a pill for emotional healing?
In a materialistic Universe, depression is just an imbalance between happy and sad chemicals, and the appropriate treatment is joy juice. However, as we have become more wary of big pharma we are turning to natural remedies and have discovered that pets rather than prescriptions make for the best medicine. Maybe what we really need when our mental health fails us is a therapeutic “good” word from the great physician.
Fruit of the spirit
I think it is enough to explain our attachment to animals as an attraction to that which God called “good” but are they also spiritual? Do they have souls or are they just material creatures? How we answer this question often informs our opinions about whether animals go to heaven.
We must therefore begin by determining if animals do in fact embody immateriality, which isn’t an easy thing as evidenced by the way the guests struggled to give a simple definition for the soul. D’Silva suggested that “a soul is the spirit of each individual”. Rittenhouse agreed but added that there is also “a moral and an immortality” component “associated with the concept of the soul”.
I previously addressed this issue in an article entitled Is there more to life than mere matter?, where I formulated a human anthropology incorporating spirit, soul, mind, brain and body:
“Spirit is the supernatural essence that animates us. The soul is the temple where that spirit dwells. The mind/brain is the interface between this inner immaterial duo and its outward expression. And the body is the uniquely crafted physical articulation of the mental activity generated when a spirit fills that temple.”
I would add that the physical manifestation of the spiritual activity in our temples (souls) is what the Bible refers to as the “fruit of the spirit”. The spirit we invite into our Holy of Holies determines whether we produce good or bad fruit, therefore, one of the ways we can discern the presence of a soul or spirit is to see if it produces spiritual fruit.
I don’t believe that animals express love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control so I would agree with Rittenhouse that animals don’t have souls. I would compare them to humans diagrammatically in this way.
While I don’t believe that animals have souls, I do believe there is a connection between God and animals that allows us to sense his eternal power and divine nature. God’s invisible qualities are manifest in animals in two ways. First, as I previously mentioned, they are God’s thoughts spoken in a physically “good” way and we, as image bearers, recognise his voice. Second, they are physical creatures that instinctually interact with their environment in an intelligently designed, ecologically “very good” manner.
It is the “good” we experience when our pets cuddle up in our laps and comfort us when we are sad. And it is the “very good” we encounter when we see squirrels hide nuts for the upcoming winter, watch a male quail stand guard over his family while they eat, and when we observe Canadian Geese glean from our fields on their way to warmer climes.
As Rittenhouse said: “Though I don’t think animals have souls… I don’t think you need to have a soul in order to be significant or even to be sacred.” Animals may not bear God’s image, but they are nonetheless hallowed because they represent the sacred speech of a God who is very careful with his words.
No pets allowed
Rittenhouse mentioned that an additional characteristic of the soul is morality. I would agree with him because objective transcendent morality is an immaterial quality, which we believe is a part of God’s character. We don’t demand that animals adhere to a specific standard of behaviour. We don’t accuse lions of murder when they kill a gazelle or hold my beloved cats responsible for rodent cleansing when they decimate the mouse population.
Morality is legislated in the immaterial realm as evidenced biblically by the ability of both humans and angels to fall from grace. Animals, however, seem to have been granted materialistic immunity from prosecution by the highest court in the land. Immoral behaviour is a defect in the soul and not in the genes.
Interestingly, Eastern religions aren’t so easy on the animal kingdom because they believe that karma determines your species classification. Slugs, it appears, have a moral obligation to be the best slug ever if they want to entertain the possibility of being a mouse. I think the concept of karma has it completely upside down. If, as Lord Acton said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then a king would possess far more karmic baggage than a worm (caste)ing significant doubt on the utility of such a belief.
Humans take their moral nature to a whole other level by making the proper exercise of it a requirement for becoming a citizen in God’s Kingdom. Theoretically, you could argue that animals are on the fast track to heaven since they are already good but humans, on the other hand, must submit the proper Jesus paperwork due to their past affiliation with the original crime family.
We often get caught up on this idea that animals need souls to enter the afterlife, but we must remember that the new heaven and Earth isn’t a cloud condo community with “no pets allowed” signs, but a restored garden city where lions lie down with lambs.
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I believe we will see animals in the new heaven and Earth because it will be an earthly remodel and not an entirely new building project. It will include all that God had previously called “good” restored back to its “very good” factory settings. So the real question is not “will there be animals in the next life?”, but “will they be the same ones that accompanied us during our life journeys?”.
Rittenhouse stated the situation like this: “I do believe that in the new heaven and Earth there will be animals, but I don’t know on what grounding we can say that it’s going to be your specific dog that shows up to greet you there.”
The reason this is such a pressing question is because pets seem to have unique personalities. We don’t bond with animals generically but specifically, because we have funny and touching stories about the unique interactions we have with our pets. Humans can take the Enneagram and determine their personality type, but animals lack the introspection to do such a thing, so their “personality” isn’t an immaterial quality, but rather a unique God-ordained behaviour pattern that he finds quite amusing.
I would say that if God spends time dressing up lilies more beautifully than Solomon’s haberdasher, he is also interested in the “personality” of every animal he creates. Therefore, I have no problem believing that my beloved Golden Retriever Nick will come running to me as soon as I step foot through heaven’s gate.
I find it fascinating that humans feel the need to care for animals, while animals seem indifferent to our human plight. How is it possible for us to cry tears for an extinct species if they were just an evolutionary misstep we had to climb over on our way to the top of the survival pyramid? Why would our selfish human genes have any interest in the genes of the spotted owl or the white tiger when they have no interest in ours? Why do we feel responsible for mopping up the mess evolution leaves in its wake? Why do we care?
The reason we care is because we recognise that animals are “good” and that we have been given the responsibility to make sure they have “very good” lives. We realise that the sin we introduced into the world has not only made things difficult for us but has made nature struggle as well. We groan and nature groans and, as the Bible makes clear, the groaning only stops when we are adopted back into the family business of tending and caretaking.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)
God didn’t just hand us animals to do with what we pleased but created “good” things, which we are to care for in a “very good” way, and that which God has called good should never be treated badly. I suspect that since even evil people know how to give good gifts to their children, our heavenly father will give us “good” things in the life to come, some of which we will even recognise and call by name.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.