“Look, God created human beings and also animals, and I’m sure he loves animals. And I believe that with God it is such that all who loved each other on earth—genuinely loved each other—will remain together with God, for to love is part of God. Just how that happens, though, we admittedly don’t know.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in conversation with child who lost his beloved pet, Wolf.)
The recent media confusion regarding what Pope Francis said, and did not say, concerning a child’s pet going to heaven makes it abundantly clear that this is a question that lies close to the heart of many believers. While there’s no definitive answer on what happens to our loved pets when they die, some great Christian minds have come down squarely on the side of supporting the possibility of animals in heaven. The list would include great Christian minds such as C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham, Peter Kreeft, and Saint Augustine (hinted at it in Sermon 242). In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis makes the impassioned argument that the beloved pet becomes an integral part of the “homestead” of its master. In essence, Lewis suggests that the master is redeemed through Christ and the dog through its master. Below are Lewis’ words.
And in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters. And the difficulty about personal identity in a creature barely personal disappears when the creature is thus kept in its proper context. If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the homestead, where its personal identity resides, I answer “Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life—in its relation to the Body and, specially, to the master who is the head of that Body.” In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself… (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
I should disclose at the outset that I am biased on the issue of animals in heaven. One reason for this is Chesterton, but he’s actually our Newfoundland and not the English author of the same name. He’s a wonderful companion who instantly adapts his temperament when he meets a disabled person, crouching down to avoid being intimidating. He also enjoys starting games of soccer in the living room and joining me on long mountain hikes—ever watchful lest a traveling companion lose his footing on the mountain trail. I don’t believe in disposable companions. In my mind, justice and mercy cry out for bonds like this to be preserved through the grace and love of Christ.
In my first children’s book, Tristan’s Travels, I had the pleasure to write about Saint Francis de Assisi. This is a saint who actually spoke and preached to the animals he encountered. Don’t forget the account of Brother wolf either. The story is told that Saint Francis personally intervened to stop a large wolf from terrorizing the neighboring villages. Saint Francis sealed his peace agreement with the great beast by inviting the animal to place his paw in the saint’s hand. Remarkably, Saint Francis is not the only saint who is recorded to have preached to the animals. It’s told that St. Anthony of Padua paused to preach to the fish, which reportedly lifted their heads out of the water to hear his words. You can also read about Saint John Bosco who is said to have been protected by a very unusual dog—a large, gray beast that came and went mysteriously when the saint was in need of protection or guidance.
Serious Bible scholars who scoff at animals in heaven may have selective memory loss when it comes to a few relevant passages. Before the Fall described in Genesis, how does God describe His creation—a creation that included animals? He declared it good. Why would He not wish or seek to preserve this good of His own hand? What about the horses described in Revelation? This passage implies that animals serve a purpose and reason in the eternal present. The new heaven and earth, foretold in Isaiah 65, also include the moving words the “wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.” This does not imply an eternity devoid of animals. Consider also the story of Balaam and the talking donkey found in the 22nd chapter of Numbers. The gift of speech is given to an animal, and its eyes are opened to see the glory of the angel standing before it. Individually these passages might not be so compelling, but collectively they do seem to point to a greater and more significant role for animals than what some propose today. They suggest an important place for animals in a shared eternity.
I hesitate to even mention what I would call anecdotal evidence, but Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real calls for a brief mention. Like other documented near-death instances, little Colton’s experience included a heaven full of animals, vibrant color, and life. He never forgot the animals of heaven, and he probably never will. These kinds of stories, of course, are completely ours to accept or reject as Christians, but it’s food for thought when one is exploring the larger issue of redeemed and eternal creation.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons." It really boils down, then, to the nature and quality of the relationship between man and animal. If it is a relationship that (imperfectly) reflects the true love of our Creator, then it is something good indeed, and there is legitimate justification to hope that our companions, even though their souls are not by nature immortal, may be granted something akin to the gift of an immortal soul so as to continue to be our companions and to sing the praise of God in heaven. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.