Recently my sister and her family went through an emotionally taxing time. They had to put their beloved 7-year-old Boxer, “Rookie”, down after it was discovered he had advanced cancer. It was devastating to my parents and I as well, who live only a couple blocks away. Rookie was my walking and running partner for the better part of the last 6 years. He truly was a beautiful, loyal, “gentle giant”, as one of my friends described him.
This beloved pet’s death has had me reflecting on the past. Growing up, I dearly loved the movie “All Dogs Go To Heaven”. Only seven or eight years old when the movie was released in the early 1990’s, one of my older sisters even acquired for me the entire kid’s meal toy set for the film because I was so enamored of the movie. I was a dog lover from a young age, and I also, from early on, was keen on theology and especially theology of the “End Things”: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. That is, eschatology. Given these facts, it was no stretch to envision how I was so fascinated with this major motion picture.
The fact is, I do believe that dogs, and by extension, all beloved family pets generally speaking, go to Heaven. My reasoning is not just a sentimental one, but a matter of theology. While I confess we have no certain answer to this riddle of the friendly beasts that are our companions on the earthly journey, I think I glimpse in our Creator a tender affection for our pets and the wider world of the animal kingdom. We see how our Lord worked through St. Francis, including in his love of the animals like Gubbio the Wolf who St. Francis tamed by the power of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that animals, simply by existing, bless and give glory to God.
How appropriate that animals were present that first Christmas Eve night! By the way, I have always found touching the legends that on Christmas Eve, animals thought mute at all other times, can speak in human tongues. When Christ was born, the first witnesses to the miraculous birth, besides St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary, were shepherds. The ox and ass (prophesied of in Isaiah 1:3) and probably also sheep of the shepherds, all looked upon their God in the manger. The Christ Child was there with his creation, a tiny babe amidst the friendly beasts. Christ is not unaware of our bonds with our pets.
Make no mistake, I am not claiming that animals have immortal, spiritual souls in the same ways humans persons do, replete with an intellect and free will united to their physical, material body. Nor should we direct excessive affection and care to animals that belongs to persons alone.
Only human beings hold the distinction of being the one point in the Universe where unseen and seen reality, the material and immaterial meet. The animals are below us, the angels above us. We are, to describe imperfectly our proper place, the union of both angel and animal. Like angels, Man is an immortal spirit. However, like the animals, Man also has a body, with attendant appetites, emotions, and sensations.
Though animals do not have “spiritual souls”, they and plants do have souls, as it were. This is a common reality recognized in philosophy and theology. The difference is, strictly speaking, that when plants and animals die, they cease to exist, body and soul. For animals, the soul is the life principle and the body’s sensation but it cannot survive separate from the animal body. With human beings, this is not so. As spirits acutely aware of their existence and able to choose good or evil, human persons live on even after death ends the bodily mortal life on this earth (though we will get our bodies back at the very end of time).
Right about now you must be wondering how I could argue for family pets to actually go to Heaven based upon what I have just said. The easy answer and way around this is that “For with God, nothing will be impossible”, echoing the words of the Angel Gabriel right before the Word made flesh was conceived in the womb of Mary in Luke 1:37. Nine months after these words of the Angel Gabriel we find ourselves at Bethlehem’s cave, in the company of men and animals. The Word made flesh thought animals important enough to even open his divine yet human eyes for the first time in this old world with them nearby.
I think then that Jesus, himself having taken on a human nature, and personally knowing in the body the human affection and emotional attachment to our fury subjects and servants, did not and will not let that fact become arbitrary in the life to come. I think we can safely assume there will be flowers and trees in the New Heaven and New Earth announced to us in Revelation 21:1. If plants are to be present there as so many people hold, then why not also animals, which are superior to plants? And if animals, then why not animals that have already lived on this Earth? Sacred Scripture seems to suggest the saving of both man and beast when it states in Psalm 36:6 that “thy judgments are like the great deep; man and beast though savest, O Lord.”
Certainly, I am not denying that the primary joy of Heaven is the face to face, Beatific Vision of God. And yet it is also true that we will have joy in the company of the Angels and the Saints, hopefully among which we will recognize our family and friends from this life. Heaven will fulfill us in every way, we will be happy to our full capacity. God could and I do personally believe, will, deem that the never ending companionship of our beloved family pets from this life whose passing we grieved, a fitting part of our eternal happiness.
A great many other animals from this life, tame and wild may also be present in Heaven. From the beginning in Genesis 1:28, Man on this Earth was called to be the steward of creation. But man is fallen in many ways; this shall be corrected in the life to come. And while animals cannot of their own accord, merit eternal life, lacking the capacities to do so, and so return utterly to the dust of the Earth, God can, and likely does intervene, following the reflections of C.S. Lewis in The Problem Of Pain. Christ can save animals “in” their earthly human masters since their earthly masters are saved in Christ.
C.S. Lewis also states in Mere Christianity that “We treat our dogs as if they were ‘almost human’: that is why they really become ‘almost human’ in the end.” God raises men to the divine life in Heaven, and it seems that Man can raise the animals nearly up to human life. C.S. Lewis later states on this same theme that “I think I can see how the higher animals are in a sense drawn into Man when he loves them and makes them (as he does) much more nearly human than they would otherwise be.”
Peter Kreeft, another great theologian and follower of C.S. Lewis once said in his work, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Heaven, “the right relationship with animals will be in Heaven: proper ‘petship’. And what better place to begin than with already petted pets?”
We as a family have grieved the loss of “Rookie”, and I have embraced a mourning 10-year-old niece and a sorrowful, teary-eyed 5-year-old nephew, myself breaking into tears at the loss of such a grand pet. Amidst the New Heaven and New Earth, Jesus will dwell with us, wiping away every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4). If having “Rookie”, the sweet, loyal boxer back in their keeping in Heaven will contribute to their eternal happiness, then I expect my sister’s family will indeed find Rookie risen up from the dust by Jesus, accompanying them in the next life. Truly, Rookie is a dog that became “almost human.” I sincerely think that amongst the marvels and joys of everlasting life will be presented back to us our long lost family pets. And, with a glint in his eye, and slight smile, just as he bore lying in the manger in the company of the animals, Christ the King will say to us tenderly but majestically, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev 21.5).
I believe fervently that all dogs go to heaven, quite a few of them at least. I anticipate that one day, by God’s grace and mercy, I will get to walk Rookie, and all my dear farm dogs from the past down Heaven’s country roads, though I deem they will be kinder to the cats they encounter there than they were here.