We found out about a month ago that our dog Toast has a vigorous form of bone cancer pressing into his ribs and constricting all his internal organs. There’s not much we can do for him, apart from making him feel comfortable. Our vet doesn’t expect him to be here by Christmas, which at the time of this writing is less than six months away. We are devastated. It’s been a rough few weeks. But at the same time, we’re not a stranger to this loss. This is going to be our second dog to die of cancer within three years.
One of the hardest parts of the process this time around has been trying to teach our three-year-old daughter about death. In the process, we’ve talked through a lot of questions that I’ve been asking for many years now. Questions which I will attempt to discuss (not necessarily answer) in this blog post. Do animals have souls? Will we see our pets in heaven? Should we pray for our pets? Did Jesus die for our dog Toast in the same way he died for you and me?
Yes, I believe Jesus died for animals, because he died for all of creation. While we have some unpacking to do on the word “soul,” I do believe animals have the same life force as humans, and I even believe we will see our pets again in the resurrection. Is this all wishful thinking? Perhaps. But let me tell you how I came to these conclusions and you can decide for yourself from there.
We’ve all been in a church service or small group setting when someone raises their hand and hesitantly asks for prayer for their pet.
“I’m sorry, I hope this is appropriate…” or “I know this sounds silly, but…” Or even, “Do you think God would mind if we pray for my pet?” Even when I was in that world, I often wondered why we feel the need to justify our desire to pray for our animals. And now that I've gotten out of Evangelicalism, it makes a lot more sense to me. I think the issue really comes down to the goodness of God's creation.
Evangelicals tend to put more of an emphasis on the second creation than they do on the creation that we're currently living in. In a typical Evangelical worldview, the earth and everything in it is evil by default. It’s all going to be destroyed and only a small handful of human beings are going to be able to see the next world, which will be somewhere far, far away from here. The implications of this mindset are clear. Human beings are the pinnacle of God's creation. Not only that, humans are the only part of creation that are going to survive to see the glorious age to come. Everything else on the planet is only temporary. Why spend time praying for our pets when they are merely a byproduct of our temporary stay on this condemned planet?
But when we understand that God is in the business of re-creation, that God's “plan of salvation“ does not involve discarding 99% of creation and starting over, we can start to see that human beings are a unique piece to a much larger terrestrial puzzle. We are not the only part of creation that matters. It's true that humans have been given a particular role on earth, which can be found in Genesis 1. That role is to be God's representatives on earth in the same way that the heavenly host (the stars in our worldview; other deities and celestial beings in the ancient worldview) are to represent God in the heavens. We are to be facilitators of God's presence to the rest of the world. We didn't do a very good job of this, so we get the whole incarnation of Christ thing to help us out. But if humans are called to represent God to creation, think of what that means. It means everything matters. All of creation. It's all important. It all plays a role in God’s plan. Otherwise our role as a royal ambassador would not be needed.
Let's turn this conversation back to our pets. The animals that have been placed in our care. Not only are we as pet owners responsible for giving these animals the love and care that they need, but we're also responsible for reflecting the goodness and the creativity of our creator to these creatures. So yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to desire prayer for our animals. In fact, it should be expected.
Now let’s get to the fun part of this blog post. Do animals have a soul? There is so much linguistic and cultural unpacking to do when it comes to discussing the concept of the soul. For the most part, that’s a concept for another blog post. But we will briefly cover it here just so we’re on the same page.
First, in the biblical worldview, the concept of the “soul” is not something that we have but something that we are. Modern Christians tend to be dualistic in our thinking. By this I mean we see a distinct physical world and a distinct spiritual world. Humans are physical, but we also have some sort of spiritual soul that can exist outside of the body. We get this more from Greek philosophers than we do from the Bible, because for ancient Hebrews there was no such distinction.
When we look at the second creation narrative in Genesis 2, we start to get some sort of picture of what a human being is, although the text isn’t interested in a scientific explanation of our composition. In the narrative, God takes the dust of the earth, breathes the breath of life into it, which then combines with the dust to create a living being. A nephesh as the Hebrews would have called it. Nephesh in our traditional translations would be translated “soul.” But that terminology is outdated and really doesn’t get across the meaning that the original authors and readers of the text would have understood. Life or self is my preferred translation of the word. The concept of a nephesh does not refer to a spirit that one possesses, but it refers to the person in a holistic sense. When your nephesh cries out to God it means you are crying out with everything that you have. Your body, your spirit, your mind, your heart. Your whole person. That’s a soul.
So back to animals. It’s a lot harder now to ask if animals have a soul when we come to it with the understanding that a soul is the combination of earth and God’s breath. In a Hebraic understanding, everything that lives and breathes has the breath of God, which makes every living being a soul. We even see this in Genesis 1, when the writer refers to all the animals as “everything that has the breath of life in it.” If the animals have the same breath of life given to the Adam, then it would logically follow that they reflect the same kind of creature: earth plus the divine breath, making them a nephesh.
So to some up, I do not believe animals have a soul, but I don’t believe humans do either. Both animals and humans are living beings created by God, each with an animating life force that we call “breath,” which the ancient Hebrews called ruach, or “spirit.” Our human essence and their animal essence isn’t all that different. In fact, I would argue that they are identical. The only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom, according to Genesis, is the fact that we have a special call as image bearers of the divine. Our role is different than the rest of the animal kingdom, because we are supposed to somehow represent God to all of creation. Apart from that calling, there is no difference between us and the animals. We are all created as living beings, or as the older Bible translations would say, we are all created as souls.
Now to answer the question that we’ve been working up to. Humans are called to care for, rule over, and facilitate God’s presence toward all of creation, including all animals. Apart from this role, everything about our creation is identical to the rest of the animal kingdom. We all have the same earthly flesh. We are all animated by the same divine life-giving breath. Which begs the question, will our pets be in heaven?
Language is hard. Once again, it’s going to take a whole separate blog post to work out the meaning of the word “heaven.” If you’re picturing a floating city up in the sky with clouds and winged creatures and harps and choirs, that’s not the biblical idea of heaven. When we talk about dying and going to heaven, we’re really talking about the resurrection of the dead.
The idea in the Bible is that God will one day fully re-create the heavens and the earth. He will resurrect everyone who has died and will dwell with his creation for all of eternity. The difference is that in the biblical imagination, this Utopia will be located right here on earth. It’s not going anywhere. And it’s not just about people. Nothing in the Christian journey has ever just been about people. The New Testament tells us time and time again that the work of Christ was for all of creation.
That means Jesus died for you. Jesus died for me. Jesus died for our children. For the poor. For the gay. For the Republicans and the Democrats. And Jesus died for my dog, Toast.
This is where I’ll get a lot of push back from Evangelicals. “Well sure, Jesus died for all of creation. But the resurrection is reserved for human beings.” Or “But you have to say the sinner’s prayer.” Or “But there’s still something special and unique about humans.” And maybe that’s true. It could be that the resurrection truly is reserved for human beings. I honestly don’t know. Nobody does, because the Bible is intentionally vague on the subject.
If there really is a resurrection, which I believe there will be, I don’t think it’s going to be limited in any way. It won’t be limited to people who repeated some kind of formula or lived a certain kind of way in their earthly life. And I don’t think it’s going to be limited to humanity, either. Why would it be? When I look at the world, I see a whole lot of suffering, death, and destruction caused by human beings. If anything, God should resurrect all the animals and let us humans just stay dead. The new earth would be a much better place. But thankfully our God is a more gracious and merciful God than I would have been.
I do think there will be animals in the next age. I think I’ll see Toast again someday. And Blaze. And Sassy, Puddin, and Sweetie. But it won’t be the same relationship we’re used to in this world. Our relationship with pets is very dominant. We are masters over our pets. We are their owners and they are our subjects. If we do get to spend eternity with our pets, I don’t think they’ll be our pets. The same sense of ownership won’t exist. It will be more of a partnership than master/slave relationship. But who knows, this is pure speculation. Or maybe wishful thinking. But hey, my dog is dying. If this is all just a dream, then let me dream.
This is a fun topic to talk about, so I’m curious about what you guys think. Will we get to see our childhood pets again someday? Will we share eternity with the animals around us? Does that mean every fiddleback I’ve ever killed will be there waiting for me? Or is the gift of God’s presence somehow only reserved for human beings? These aren’t questions we’ll ever be able to answer definitively in this life, but I still want to know your thoughts. So let me know down in the comments below!