Can my cat go to heaven even though he won’t repent? The interaction of humans and animals, especially the ones who can tolerate being close to us, has led many to ask recently if other creatures have souls and will enter heaven. Several well known evangelists and preachers have answered along the lines that, since God wants you to be happy in heaven, surely he will permit you to bring your beloved pet.
Traditional western theology is less accommodating. Roman Catholic theology states that animals do not have souls, so heaven is irrelevant. Much Protestant theology follows the same thought. This view says that animals are qualitatively different from humans. They do not have moral or reasoning ability, only instinct. Domestic animals exist to serve man in various capacities, wild animals to be hunted, trapped, “harvested” or fished for human needs. The dominion granted to man in creation is a license to utilize in whatever way helps us. Creatures do not have an independent reason for existence. Even the answer above that God will let you bring your pet fits in this category. Animals exist in a totally anthropocentric context, even when they must suffer and die as a result.
None of this reflects the view of earlier Christianity. It derives from the basic theology of creation. God’s plan is not anthropocentric. Rather, all the pieces of creation fit together to make the whole a functioning paradise. The earth is the Lord’s, not ours, and all creatures, including us, exist to serve him. Each species has its own purpose and abilities. We are very limited as creatures. Others swim, run, fly, or burrow better than we do without our recent devices. And just as all humans are given a unique vocation to fulfill, so are all other creatures. Both science and the first chapter of Genesis assert that other animals preceded us into being, and got by without us, perhaps for a very long time.
Our unique nature comes from our creation in the image of God, and our God-given skill and responsibility to manage the earth. Since intelligence and reason seems to be bestowed targeted to what each creature is intended to cope with, it is not a matter of being smarter than others. Many creatures are smarter than we are at certain functions. But we appear to be unique in our ability to plan and organize creation and to think globally, as God does. We can link the entire planet and have sophisticated systems for many things, especially mass communication, consistent with our vocation as managers for the earth.
The human failure to response to God by living in the paradise he provided, enjoying and returning his love, and managing his planet according to his will, has tragic consequences for everybody and everything, not just for humans. Precisely because we are the key to the earth’s proper management, our rebellion has made a mess of the whole order of creation. Other creatures are, to use the current term, collateral damage. We can see this in Isaiah’s description of paradise restored, reflecting the paradise lost, as he prophesies the arrive of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Is. 11:6-9);
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”
Again, in chapter 65, as he pictures the new heaven and new earth, “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (vs. 25). The latter is a reading in Bright Week. In the western shift of emphasis to the crucifixion being a juridical payment of the penalty for sin, this makes no sense. But in the integrated theology of an earlier time (and in the East), it fits perfectly. The crucifixion and resurrection are the loving remedies needed to restore creation to its original plan. Resurrection is the center of all history because it makes the massive, although gradual, course correction returning the Lord’s earth to the Lord’s will.
This can jolt the sensibilities of those who have been taught that the purpose is to “save souls” otherwise doomed in a failed and evil earth. Especially American Christianity can be incredibly anthropocentric. It is all about us. We expect creation to operate solely for our benefit, to exploit it mercilessly to our profit and beyond our need. Is this not idolatry, perverting the praise intended for the Creator to a worship of our own egos?
In fact, the course of the earth is set to become again the paradise of harmony and peace originally intended. As such, Holy Week and Pascha cannot be separated from creation. The former is the restoration of the latter.
It is this totality of God’s creation which is on its way to the existence described by St. John in Revelation. He describes a very wounded and damaged planet. Bishop John notes the vast destruction of an earth two-thirds burned by fire, along with other monumental catastrophes. We are just beginning to grasp the sinful role of humans in this, as it impacts the natural world. Those who see Revelation as simply a prediction of future shock miss the point. What John sees is a vision of what is eternally contemporary. The destruction as well as the glory has no time line, just as God is beyond time and lives always in the present tense, which for him includes the past and the future.
The restored creation, towards which we are pilgrims, is an entire earth, not human souls grabbed from a sinking space ship. After all, the humans are the biggest problem. It makes more sense to grab an endangered planet from sinful mankind than the other way around.
But God, in his love, rescues all who will be rescued. And any reading of Revelation will quickly show it includes a variety of other creatures. They don’t seem like Fido and Kitty from the description. But then, you may not look like you did in your high school graduation photo, either (in fact, you already may not).
What is worth remembering is that what is going on in the massive restoration of a planet which has been in charge of some bad dudes for too long. Once you realize what we are caught up in, you will be as awestruck as John was.
And once the love hits you, you will understand Richard Hooker: “In the mind of a faithful communicant, there is no thought other than ‘My God, thou are true, my soul, thou art happy.” It isn’t a question as to whether or not God will indulge you with a pet-friendly heaven. It is that you and your cat are caught up in the vast restoration project of a God whose love never gives up and never ends.