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.