A major chapter of my life closed last Tuesday. After nine years (the last of which she battled an aggressive tumor), we put our family dog, Nala, down. I didn’t think that this would be so difficult. In fact, when we first got Nala at 6 weeks (5 months into marriage), Sarah and I both agreed that should any health issue come up, we would not spend more than a reasonable amount for surgery. I know that sounds cruel, but we live under the conviction that there is some pretty serious suffering going on in the world, and we are stewards of resources and money. Seeing what we’ve seen in terms of human need around the globe, we just couldn’t justify spending a lot of money on a pet.
That said, I was totally ready to cave on my conviction. A few months ago, I took Nala in to the vet and said from the very beginning that we weren’t ready to shell out lots of money on her treatment (though I probably would have). The vet assured me that it was totally acceptable to let Nala live out her days, and then let her go when her pain and discomfort was unbearable. Besides, the cost of treatment would be in the thousands without any guarantee that she would even survive.
After two months of seeing her degenerate by losing body weight and conversely increasing tumor mass, Sarah and I doubtingly decided that we would put her down after her birthday, Dec 7. On Dec. 17, Sarah and I sat on the floor in the vet’s exam room – me holding Nala’s head and Sarah hugging her side – and we let our “first baby” go. I can still hear her exhaling for the last time. I can still see her eyes, and feel as her body went limp and her head sagged.
We sat for what seemed an eternity on that floor and balled. So many emotions flooded me simultaneously. I was grateful to God for the opportunity to steward this creature (as poorly as I did). I was regretful that I did not do more. I was sad to see her go. I was doubting if we had chosen to end her life too soon. I was mourningly appreciative of the past 9 years: the “Chicago” years. I was convicted that a new chapter was opening up, and I was at the same time challenged to make the next 9 years count. I was shocked that a dog could have this kind of emotional impact on me. It was a powerful experience to share with the wife of my youth, letting go of symbol of our youth while recognizing that now that neither of us were all that youthful.
Sarah and I grabbed some coffee at a local place where we grieved together, sharing memories and reflections of our life with Nala. She was with us in our newlywed years, and she witnessed the birth of all our kids. She moved to MD before we did, and our reunion as a family was too short. She was a dog with many tricks, and she was as loyal and as faithful as they come. The kids handled it well though their grieving continues. My oldest continues to say, “I miss Nala,” while my youngest spent the next two days looking for her.
The question immediately posed by my boys was the one you probably have asked or thought about, “Do dogs go to heaven?” In my earlier, more “theological” years, I would have tersely responded “NO – they don’t have souls. They return to the dust. Give thanks to God for the time we have had with them and be careful not to make them an idol.” (This is why seminarians need to be deconstructed a bit before being given shepherding oversight over God’s people!)
I think my perspective has become a bit more nuanced since. I’d like to share that with you here. I’m not claiming any sort of infallibility, and I pray that I don’t enter into any kind of heresy. I certainly wouldn’t die for this position. Let me start with some background principles that frame my thinking, things I am sure about.
1. Creation care is a theological matter. As image bearers, our relationship to the creatures God has made matters. Our connection to pets is not ipso facto, idolatrous. We are mandated to fill the earth, as well as to rule and subdue it (Gen 1:26-28) – as in, domesticate it or bring it to flourishing. I think that part of this subduing is found in caring for, and even loving, the creatures that God has intended for us to steward.
2. With the Fall of humanity, we know that there is always the tendency to worship the created thing rather than the Creator (Rom 1:21-25). In our care for creation and love for our pets, we have the potential to worship them, ascribing to them the same place of priority (or even higher) that is due only to other image-bearers and furthermore only God himself. We must be on guard that we don’t worship our pets as idols.
3. All of creation is longing for restoration alongside the human stewards who messed it up in the first place. Sin affects the whole system so that, as Cornelius Plantinga puts it, “things are not as they should be.” This expresses itself as hurricanes, violence, abuse, exploitation, cancer, etc. It affects animals as it does humans though maybe not with the same degree of moral implications.
4. I believe that through the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that a new creation has broken into this age. Resurrection especially promises a new heavens and earth with Jesus as the firstfruits of things to come. Physical resurrection – as in everything made new and functioning the way it was supposed to with new bodies and new ways of interaction. Because of the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God, we can experience glimpses of the kind of future life that awaits all of creation, and we can grieve with hope as we experience the pain of the present one. We can also participate in the mission of God to brings all things under Christ in reconciliation with him.
With these truths in place, let me talk briefly about animal pain and what I believe to be the future of animals. I am indebted to C.S. Lewis’ brief chapter on this in “The Problem of Pain.” I also realize that his discussion is out of reach for most who are curious about this subject. So my discussion will be part synopsis and part elaboration of his perspective (which he appropriately prefaces by saying that he is no theologian so his perspective is open to push back and correction).
1. Animal pain/suffering can never become the center of the problem of pain in the universe. Too much lies outside our range of knowledge. We can only understand our own suffering, and any conclusions about animal suffering as it helps explain ours or vice versa, is conjecture at best.
2. We should not generalize all animal suffering into one category. There is a difference in the suffering of an ape versus an earthworm. There are varying degrees of sentience, Lewis says, and in classifying animals as such we order them according to their relation to humans (apes would be closer to humans than an oyster in terms of sentience, and thus their suffering should be viewed differently).
3. We must not confuse sentience with consciousness. Sentience is the perception of an event or stimulus. Consciousness is the perception and understanding that you are experiencing some sort of event or stimulus. Consciousness has to do with having a soul. For example, animals feel hunger, look for something to eat, and then attempt to satisfy that hunger. An animal would not look back on that experience and remark that I had hunger. With regards to pain, animals, although sentient to experience pain, are not conscious to be able to say, “I am in pain.” The correct description of such an animal would be to say, “Pain is taking place in this animal,” rather than, “This animal feels pain,” because the latter is an assumption that the animal has a “self” that is standing above the sensations and organizing them into experience like we do. We just don’t have proof of that. I like this explanation because it does not deny the fact that animals experience pain, but it also guards us from assigning human qualities to animals experiencing pain.
4. The question of animal immortality. Lewis treats this question by means of hypothesis. His observation is that although the Scriptures speak nothing of animal immortality, Christian revelation was never meant to be an end-all explanation for everything about how the universe is designed and operates. Rather, the Scriptures reveal to us our practical necessities in how we as humans are to live in the world God has created, what is wrong with it, and how it is/will be fixed. So the silence of Scriptures is not completely convincing. However, Lewis is quick to point out that immortality has almost no meaning for animals that do not possess consciousness (or souls) as I discussed prior. Nala, if she was raised, would have no understanding that she is the same dog that belonged to Mitchel and Sarah (and Sylvia for a short portion). She will simply experience the pleasures and sensations of any other yellow lab that had been raised. The idea of physical resurrection matters for conscious souls because they will know that they have been raised. Thus, if animals are not conscious, then there can be no real discussion of their immortality that lends any real significance. But don’t gnash your teeth just yet.
5. Here is where Lewis’ imagination gets absolutely mind-blowing. He makes the observation that our experience with our pets seems to suggest that there is some sort of real, although rudimentary, self-hood in animals. They seem to possess personality and characteristics so we must give it some deeper consideration. This is where our understanding of the creation mandate in Gen 1 makes all the difference. For the atheist, our relationship to animals (as with all of our relationships) is the mere result of biological and evolutionary forces. As applied to pets, our taming of them is just the interference of one evolutionarily superior species with another. The “real” or “natural” animal is the one in the wild while the tame animal is an unnatural or artificial thing. (For a great example of this, read his Narnia books. The Telmarines (humans who inhabit Narnia) mistakenly assume that the natural state for all Narnian beasts is to be dumb and person-less while the very opposite is in fact true.)
This is where it gets really interesting. Lewis suggests that if we believe in, and know, the Creator of the Universe as a person, we must see it the other way around. Because we are given the mandate to rule and subdue the earth, we are to bring order to it – from its “formless and void” state to a state of order and functioning. All of this order and function comes from right relationship, what many social justice workers call ‘shalom’. Shalom exists when people and things are in their right relationship towards God, but there’s a hierarchy here. Lewis wonders if just as man is to be understood only in his relation to God, so beasts are to be understood in their relation to man and, through man, to God. That’s to say as animals are subdued and some become “pets”, they become truly “natural” in the deepest sense. Our pets possess a personal identity as they rightly relate to humans and more specifically homes/families. Their personalities are largely the gift of man – their sentience is given personhood as they relate to us, just as our souls are reborn in our right relationship to God through Christ. Animals “become” pets (quasi-personhood) in relationship to their masters kind of like we “become” saints in relationship to our Master. Lewis sums it up, “In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself.”
The brilliance of this imaginative suggestion is that it makes God the center of the universe and man the subordinate center of the terrestrial sphere. While preserving the fact that God owes no sort of justice or mercy to animals, at the same time animals are not elevated such that they are simply coordinated with man, on the same level as the image-bearer. Rather, animals are subordinate to humans, yet their destinies are through and through related to theirs. Thus, their immortality is not just wishful thinking. It is an implication and part of the true expression of the new heavens and new earth.
There’s so much more that could be said, but I’ll leave that for your own journey and reflections. The punchline for me is this: when my sons ask if Nala is in heaven, I respond, “Not yet, son, but in the new heavens and new earth when God remakes all things, we may meet her with new bodies ourselves, and our family dog will know us and she will be known.” It may be wishful thinking, but I think it makes sense of physical resurrection and new creation. As I long to hear my Master say it to me, so I think I will be able to say to Nala, “Well done, good and faithful dog. You brought much joy to our family and were loyal through and through (thus fulfilling your purpose on the earth), so enter into our continued joy.” I think that’s a lot different than believing that all dogs go to heaven, and I hope you can see why.