Most animal lovers have asked at some point, “Will dogs/cats/gerbils be in heaven?” The question is important because we want to know if we will see our beloved pet Rex or Mrs. Pickles again. Important as this is, the question has more profound theological implications than meet the eye. If God created through an evolutionary process, it means that billions of creatures suffered over hundreds of millions of years in a competitive struggle for life. Both the “free-will defense” and “vale of soul-making” arguments, two of the most popular explanations for suffering, fail to make sense of animal subjects. Their suffering was not due to human sin, because they lived long before humans were around, and their suffering could not be used for moral gain because they don’t have those sorts of capacities. If these powerhouse explanations are not available, what does God’s love and justice mean for the turtle snatched from the beach before its first swim? Or for the seal pup skinned alive by orcas?
A growing number of theologians are now writing about the hope that death is not the end for non-human animals either—that heaven or the new creation awaits them as well. When I talk about this, the first objection I always hear is “But other animals don’t have souls!”
“Really?” I reply, “Who told you that?” And then the discussion begins!
The history of this debate is quite interesting. Traditionally, following the work of Aristotle and Aquinas, all living creatures were thought to have a vegetative soul, while creatures that moved around had an animal soul too, and only humans had a rational soul. It was thought that the animal and vegetative souls could not exist apart from the body. So, when a creature with only these died, the whole soul was destroyed. Only the rational soul—independent from the body as it was—could survive death. Therefore, only humans could go to heaven or the new creation because only humans had some part of themselves that could endure beyond death.
The existence of non-human souls was never really a question, the debate was whether they were the kind of souls that could survive death or not.
So, what happens if we challenge the importance of the rational soul? We could do this either by arguing that forms other than rational souls can survive death or by arguing that the Greek architecture of souls is wrong. If the latter, then humans and non-human animals have some other makeup all together, and creatures do not equal “body plus soul.” This is what we find in the ancient Near Eastern view of life, reflected in the Old Testament. In Genesis 2:7 when God breathes life into the inanimate human form, it becomes nephesh, or a “living being.” Humans are dirt that breathes. Yet, other creatures are also nephesh. All the land and sea creatures created in the first chapter of Genesis (1:21, 1:24) and also the other creatures that the adam names in the second chapter (2:19) are called by this term. There is greater continuity in Hebrew thought between the essential composition of human and non-human beings—all are breathing dirt—and consequently there is a greater possibility of thinking they will have what it takes to be in the new creation as well. The Old Testament is also where we find the remarkable passages depicting the wolf, leopard, lion, lamb, goat, viper, oxen, and child all co-inhabiting the messianic kingdom (Isaiah 11: 6-8). The problem of non-human animals not having souls, or not having the right kind of souls, simply disappears. They are the “same stuff” as we are. If we can survive death, so can they.
That is one problem (potentially) sorted. But what about the question of which non-human animals will enter the new life? Some theologians, C. S. Lewis and John Polkinghorne included, root redemption in relation to humans. Through contact with humans, non-human animals are “humanised” and brought into the sphere of redemption offered only to humans. Pets, for example, become part of the household or part of the fabric of life for a human, and that grants them a place in the new world since redemption for that human requires those creatures. Heaven would not be heaven without my dog, so my dog must come.
It is a nice idea that all pets will be in heaven (though I might make an exception for the two scorpions my brothers had!). But if creatures are only redeemed through direct relationship with humans it will mean that there will be frightfully few dinosaurs. Or megatherium. Or hyracotherium. Or any of the countless forms of life that once flourished and are now extinct. Not only would the new creation be poorer for lacking these wondrous creatures, but there would still be nothing to say about God’s love for those whose lives were all pain and no gain.
Some theologians, like Jay McDaniel and Christopher Southgate, propose that it is primarily (though not exclusively) the creatures that have suffered greatly in this life, who have failed to find flourishing, that are in need of a new life. That eagle you see? The one soaring high above you on a clear day, riding the winds after years of successful hunting and reproduction? That eagle may have no need of a new life. But the creatures afflicted by starvation, predation, and disease, those who never reach a fullness of creaturely experience, for them the new life could provide all those things. The new creation is part compensation for those who were victims of evolution.
While compensation is a fine thing, I’m not sure it goes far enough. If the new life is as good as the Bible hints it will be, then even those creatures who have lived the most fulfilling lives here in the “Shadowlands” will be missing out by not being a part of that life. The new life is a new life, not the old one had over again with the same pleasures and purposes.
What do I think? I think all creatures will be part of the new creation: every single beetle, every ant, every bacterium, and every pterodactyl. And why not? There is no reason to think that there will be a lack of space or resources. Nor can we imagine that non-human animals have the capacity to freely reject God’s love and offer of eternal life in the way that humans might. To include all living beings in the new creation also places the logic of redemption where it should be: in God. A new creation was God’s idea and is God’s job. Creatures participate in the new life because God loves them and invites them. The question of other species in heaven for me, then, is not “do non-human animals have a soul?” but “is there a solitary creature that God does not love?” So far, I cannot think of one.
What do you think?