Will We See our Pets in Heaven?

I suspect that every pastor has been asked this question at one time or another, and it usually comes from one of the more junior members of the congregation who has just lost his beloved cat or dog. (The loss of goldfish seems not to provoke the same level of theological curiosity.) It is important for pastors to realize that the child asking the sometimes tearful question is not looking for theology, but comfort; he or she does not want a detailed discourse on what the Bible says, but assurance that the pain they are now feeling will somehow go away. They do not see how that pain could ever go away if they never saw their beloved pet again, and so they ask the priest (that infallible source of all knowledge) if they will see Fido or Fluffy when they go to heaven.

We clergy, infallible sources of all knowledge that we are, of course realize that the answer is this question is, “I really don’t know”, but this will hardly do, and anyway it presupposes that the child is looking for a theological summary of what the Church teaches. But the Church has never spoken definitively about this question, and so an authoritative reply is not possible. But since the child is looking for comfort and assurance rather than a Bible lesson, perhaps it is best to approach the matter differently.

As suggested above, the Scriptures do not say much about the matter of animal immortality. Some might suggest that the creation stories in Genesis 1-2 answer the question, since they say that Man has a soul, but animals do not. Actually, those texts say no such thing, and if by “a soul” one refers to the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7, then they say the opposite. The term used in Genesis 2:7 describing the creation of Adam and rendered “soul” is the Hebrew nephesh, which is also used in Genesis 1:20 and 1:24. There it described the creation of animals, which are termed nephesh hayya, “living souls”—perhaps bettered rendered “animate beings” (the Latinate among us will recognize the Latin for “soul”—anima—in the English word “animate”). The texts simply said that after their creation both the animals and Adam were alive and could feel and move.

Perhaps more to the point is the question asked in Ecclesiastes 3:21, which speaks of the spirit of man going upward and the spirit of beasts going downward. This is a pretty slim foundation upon which to build a doctrine for or against the immortality of animals, especially since the author here expresses his agnosticism about the distinction between man and beast. Indeed, he says, “The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts” (v. 19)—an expression of pessimistic nihilism with which the Church does not endorse. Perhaps Ecclesiastes should be read more as asking questions than as offering answers.

So, the Scriptures seem not to offer much guidance to the question of the fate of animals. This being so, I would like to begin by speculating and guessing—and also by differentiating. I differentiate between all animals and our beloved pets—i.e. between the wild dogs and feral cats roaming in the wilderness and the dogs and cats which have become part of a family through being loved. (I also differentiate between heaven and the age to come: Christians will go to heaven after dying, but our final reward and destiny is not heaven, but the new heavens and the new earth in the age to come, which we will inherit after the final universal resurrection. But this latter distinction is rather less significant than the former one.)

I would also begin by fantasizing a bit. We have all heard of how some saints experienced a special connection with animals—how St. Sergius tamed a bear, how St. Herman tamed an ermine, and how St. Gerasimos tamed a lion, who followed him about as a kind of large pet cat. (The similarity in names in Latin between him and St. Jerome led to Gerasimos’ lion ownership being erroneously transferred to St. Jerome.) I have always thought and fantasized that I would love to make friends with such a lion myself in the age to come.

Thinking about the possibility of having a lion for a pet in the coming age also made me think of lines from Watership Down, Richard Adam’s famous novel about rabbits. This story features the adventures of a number of very human-like rabbits, who start a new warren, led by their leader (or “chief rabbit”) named Hazel. The final death of Hazel is described as follows, after Hazel meets his Lord, the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who calls him out of his body and out of this world. The passage is worth quoting at length. The Black Rabbit, identified by his shining silver ears, meets Hazel in his underground burrow and says,

“You know me, don’t you?” “Yes, of course”, said Hazel. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow, the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint, silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said. “Yes, I know you.” “You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. If you’re ready, we might go along now.” They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses. “You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right—and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.” He reached the top of the bank in single, powerful leap. Hazel followed, and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.”

It is fiction of course. But I would like to focus upon a particular image—that of the life of Hazel flowing inexhaustibly out of him into the other rabbits. Reading this I wonder if perhaps something like this might not be possible in the age to come. That is, the life and love of our pets flow out into the animals we will know and love in the age to come. In my case, the cats I have known, loved, and wept over will perhaps find a final home in that lion. One thing I know for sure: nothing that is loved is ever finally lost.

It is all just a guess of course. But John Wesley offered a similar kind of guess about the enhanced capacities of animals in the age to come in his sermon The Great Deliverance, and if Wesley was allowed to speculate, I am too. But, to quote C.S. Lewis about the future hope of heaven, “if this opinion is not true, something better is”. When a child asks me about a possible reunion with Fido or Fluffy, I feel like the man faced with the famous question from Virginia about the existence of Santa Claus. And I remember that Virginia here is not asking for an exegesis of Genesis or Ecclesiastes, but asking if God will take away her pain. And yes, Virginia, He will. If not through a happy, tail-wagging reunion, than by something better. The precise details of our future joy are not given to us, but of the reality of that joy there can be no doubt.

13 comments:

  1. Fr. Lawrence:

    Thank you for writing. My current pet cat has many times prompted the question of seeing her in heaven, because she is so attached to me, so seemingly devoted (but calling it “devotion” is attributing human traits to an animal, which is probably a terrible mistake).

    As I contemplate the question, an answer that comes to mind (perhaps planted there by C.S. Lewis?) is that it may be God will “remember” our pets, and through His memory, we will see them again in reality. We trust God’s memory to keep *us* in the next life, after all, singing “memory eternal” for our dearly departed. Perhaps this memory will extend to our pets and make our experience in His Kingdom more complete. Perhaps this memory would suggest that our lives in this flesh — even the trivial matters — were full of meaning.

    Or not, you know — who knows? I don’t want to harden my convictions around what may be little more than fantasy. And there are a few animals I *wouldn’t* want to see again in the next life, considering how poorly I treated them in this one.

  2. When I think of the scripture passage about the lion and the lamb lying down together after the second coming of Christ, then I have to believe there is a special connection to people and their pets. Of course there are animals who behave like beasts and so are there people who are capable of behaving like beasts. Perhaps it all goes back to their beginnings or the way they were treated or just plain didn’t conform. Actually, I think it would be quite a scene to be in Heaven and see all the different animals living in peace and harmony with the souls of people. Thankyou and God bless!

  3. Thanks for these thoughts, Father. For general interest, this is a prayer I composed following the death of our beloved dog:

    O Lord our God, Maker of heaven and earth: on the sixth day You created the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and blessed them and saw that they were good. You brought them to Your servant Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever he called every living creature, that was its name. Thus You showed that man would care for every creature under his dominion in Your Name, with the love with which You created all things. By Your providence, You also spoke by the mouth of the Psalmist saying, “When You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the ground.” Grant comfort now, O Lord, to Your servants who are grieving for the loss of Your creature . Grant them consolation in their sorrow and the knowledge that when You come again, behold, we will see a new heaven and a new earth, in which You will come to dwell forever with all Your creatures, restoring all things to new life and wiping every tear from every eye, so that all sighing or sorrow will flee away at the joy and eternal Life that You will bring. For You and Your Son and Your Spirit are everywhere present and fill all things. You are the resurrection and the life of all, and to You we ascribe glory: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, unto ages of ages. Amen.

  4. Father bless. Thank you for the article, and yes I believe in God restoring life for all of Creation, including our beloved pets.

    You wrote that “the Scriptures seem not to offer much guidance to the question of the fate of animals”. However, there are other references in Scripture including Romans 8 where it speaks about all of creation suffering and eagerly waiting to be freed through Christ’s Pascha and looking forward to a glorious future resurrection just like us. The Psalms, the story of Balaam and the donkey, the Nativity Icon with the donkey and ox worshipping at the manger – they all reveal that animals are conscious of God and the spirit realm, not to mention many of our own personal experiences with animals.

    There is a documentary well worth watching called Dominion which shows our human mistreatment and enslavement of animals. I won’t leave a direct link due to its graphic content but it’s easy to search for and find, and if someone watches it and still believes that animals don’t have souls, perhaps it’s they who don’t have one.

    1. God bless you! I quite agree that animals–both wild and our pets–have some kind of relationship with God. (One thinks, for example, of the lion roaring in hunger, seeking his food from God in Psalm 104.) The question is whether or not creation as a whole being freed means that each animal as an individual will experience resurrection, as well as the type of consciousness that would allow it to recognize its previous owners and previous life. My guess is that the link that love establishes with animals provides the pathway to their restoration in the age to come. And thank you for the Dominion documentary. Man as a species has a lot to answer for in its treatment of animals. Our divine mandate to rule over the animals (Genesis 1:26) is a mandate to care for them, not to use them badly.

  5. Not just children have these concerns. My wife and I are middle-aged and have no children but our “fur babies”. Needless to say we are very attached to them and concerned for their well being. Thank you for this article.

  6. I think that God does not want to see any of His creation perish and when the world is renewed everything will be renewed with it. The question is will we be there to be a part of God’s Kingdom. The difference between me and my beloved cat is that I have a choice to be with God or not

    1. Amen! We do have a choice.
      Yesterday, our Priest was concluding his homily with a similar reminder and today I was reading one of Fr. Lawrence’s posts at “Reflections in Christ” where he made this statement and asked this question – “….one with the heart of the servant will still find opportunities to serve. For what could be better than kneeling and receiving commands from the Lord and having the opportunity to do His will and please Him?”

      https://www.oca.org/reflections/fr.-lawrence-farley/what-god-has-prepared-for-those-who-love-him

      Indeed! What could be better?
      “…a weight of glory far beyond all comparison, one so immense that mere flesh and blood cannot receive it (2 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Corinthians 15:50). Unless God had raised us and made us powerful and imperishable, our frail mortal flesh could not bear such waves of glory and joy.”

      1. Speaking of regeneration, in [Mat 19:26-29 KJV], our LORD said,
        26 But Jesus beheld [them], and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
        27 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?
        28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
        29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
        As Fr. Lawrence wrote in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew “Every sacrifice of earthly security will be gloriously rewarded.”

  7. At the loss of (numerous) pet rabbits, I have had to comfort my children… I told them if God see when a little sparrow falls to the ground, then surely he cares for our little bunnies too. One of my sons loves to read psalm 22(23). He says it reminds him of our rabbits. They certainly would love green pastures… our rabbits are buried under stones with crosses painted on them. I am not sure if it is theologically correct, but I would rather err on the side of caring too much than caring too little.

  8. While it doesn’t answer the question raised by the title of this post, I’ve always been fascinated by the account of the covenant God made after the flood. It was not established with man (Noah and his family) alone, but with all living creatures.

    “And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

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