Sermon: Do all dogs go to heaven? Yes, and even cats do too

George Conger looks at church traditions on animal souls, and argues they will find a place in paradise

A sermon delivered to Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church in Lecanto Florida (Diocese of Central Florida) on Oct 2, 2016 at the church’s St Francis Festival by its rector, the Very Rev. George Conger. 

An atheist went for a walk in the woods. He was enjoying the sights and sounds of nature, thanking god there was no God when he heard a noise. A large black bear rose from behind a bush and stood on its hind legs. Baring its teeth it let out a roar. The atheist turned and began to run, but he tripped and in a moment the bear was upon of him, its paw outstretched.

With a shout the atheist cried, “Help me God!”. And time stopped. The bear froze and all sounds and movement ceased. A voice from heaven said, “Yes?”. The atheist paused, and then said, “God, I have denied and denounced you all these years, so it would be hypocritical of me to call upon you now to save me. But perhaps, could you make the bear a Christian.” And the Lord said, “O.K.”

Time began once more, and the bear put down his paw. Closing its eyes and with palms pressed together the bear spoke. “Bless this food for our use and us to thy service, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others, Amen.”

Do bears thank God for their food? Can bears become Christians? Do they have souls? This question is not an idle one. At Saturday’s St Francis Fair a number of people asked me if they would see their pets in heaven. I was asked this question many times when I served as a hospice chaplain. The answer is yes. Animals go to heaven. Animals have souls. But Scripture also tells us Jesus did not come to save animals—he came to save man. Why? Because animals do not sin. 

Oxford theologian Dr. Andrew Linzey (who has informed my thinking on these issues) has noted, there is “an ambiguous tradition” about animals in church teaching. Philosophers, writers, artists and theologians as varied as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Fenelon and Kant and have held that animals do not have rational, hence immortal souls. Descartes defended the distinction between humans and animals based on the belief that language is a necessary condition for mind and as such animals were soulless machines. On other side of the issue we find theologians, philosophers and preachers as diverse as Calvin, Goethe, St John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, Bishop Butler, John Wesley, and Billy Graham, who believe animals will find a place in heaven.

Traditional Catholic theology based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas (Thomism) argues that animals will not be in heaven. In her book, Humanae Vitae: a generation later, Catholic scholar Janet Smith writes that one of the differences between humans and animals is that while animals engage in reproductive sexual congress to create another member of the species, humans engage in procreative sexual intercourse “wherein they cooperate with God to bring into existence a new immortal being.”

The soul of man is immortal while the soul of an animal is mortal, she writes. Thomistic theology holds that animals possess sensate souls that can respond effectively to the environment around them. However, animals do not possess rational souls — in that they are not able to reason about reality. The sensate soul is mortal while the rational soul, created in the image of God, is immortal. And it is this distinction between mortal and immortal souls that prevents animals from going to heaven and incidentally prohibits contraception in Catholic moral teaching. 

For the Catholic Church, Janet Smith writes “sterlization, abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, and production of animals for ‘farming’ of organs for transplantation are all permissible for animals. Yet the Church finds none of these actions permissible for Man. Again it is because of the nature of Man, not the nature of the biological processes per se, that Man must not interfere with these processes.”

The Protestant tradition parts company with Thomism on many of these issues as well as the issue of animal souls in heaven.  Writing from a pastoral perspective, Billy Graham said: “I think God will have prepared everything for our perfect happiness’ in heaven. If it takes my dog being there, I believe he’ll be there.” Speaking with Jake Tapper of ABC in an interview broadcast on Easter Sunday 2012, Rick Warren offered the same pastoral counsel in response to a question posed by a viewer. But if comfort is the basis of this view, then an Evangelical Christian must look further.

The strongest argument in favor of animals in heaven is the one from Scripture and then from theology. If we begin with the creation story in Genesis we read that God first created animals and then he made man to rule over all creation. “Then the Lord said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’.” (Gen 1:26)

Man and animals were made from the same materials and each received the “breath of life”, nephesh chay in Hebrew. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:19-21. “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?”

The place where the spirits go opens the discussion to the issue of purgatory — and we are not going there today — but the key point is that man and animals have spirits. But only man was made in God’s image. In the Garden of Eden we read that by God’s command Adam and Eve did not eat animals.

“And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’.” (Gen 2:16-17)

When Adam and Eve sinned, God cast them out of the Garden of Eden. And by their sin they also brought animals with them into this fallen world. After the flood, God gave Noah permission to kill and eat animals: “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” (Gen 9:3). But in Leviticus and Exodus God refines what man may eat, setting forth rules governing which animals are clean and unclean.

Those who argue that animals do not have an immortal soul and as such cannot be in heaven, point to God’s prohibition of murder in Exodus. “Thou shalt not kill.” (Ex 20:13). As man is made in God’s image, so man must not kill one of his own kind. No commandments govern the killing of animals, and their souls, they argue, do not survive death. 

However, against this reading we have Isaiah’s description of heaven. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.” (Is 65: 25) While in Revelation, the Apostle John’s vision of heaven also included animals, showing Christ and the armies of heaven “riding on white horses.” (Rev 19:14)

Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ came to save mankind from the consequences of their sin. Animals, though they too were forced from the Garden of Eden by man’s sin, do not sin — they do not have the free will to do so. Christ comes to redeem us, but not animals because he does not have to—they are already saved as they do not sin. In his Epistle to the Romans Paul writes: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (8:22) — and this includes animals. They suffer because of our sin and they too will be released from the suffering of this world upon the return of Jesus Christ. But upon their death they are not judged, but enter into paradise.

The question should not be will you see your pets in heaven, but rather, will they see you. 

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