I’m a Protestant, I should say that to start. And there are times when I’m infinitely thankful for the fact that my theological views keep me from setting sail for Rome (basically every time I read a Matt Walsh blog post). But then there are times that I really, truly, kinda-sorta wanna be Catholic. In the past few years, most of those instances have evolved around a statement from Pope Francis. Because Super Pope has a wonderful tendency of making statements that have caused at least one Fox News anchor’s brain to short circuit while making me all:
And this week, he’s done it again.
In a recent public appearance, Pope Francis had a conversation with a young boy who’s dog had recently died. In comforting the child, Francis told him:
“One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”
Naturally, this created a little bit of conversation. The topic of an animal’s existence into eternity is by no means a new one, and Catholic Popes have been somewhat divided over the issue for most of recent church history. And while Francis’ statement was conversational (and, it’s worth noting, a good example of pastoral care) as opposed to an official proclamation, this seems consistent with many of Francis’ other views- let alone the fact that his namesake is Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
Furthermore, I hope this draws us all into the important question of what exactly the afterlife entails-not because we can ever truly know– but because what we believe about heaven has implications for how we live now.
The status quo, among Protestants and Catholics alike, tends to answer the question whether or not animals will in heaven by pointing out that animals don’t have souls and, therefore, couldn’t be in the afterlife. Heaven will be, after all, a place where following the destruction of this world and casting of all who don’t choose Christ into hell, the souls of the chosen dwell for eternity, .
The problem with this notion is that it isn’t Christian, at least not from a Biblical viewpoint.
Beyond a disturbingly callous relationship to the rest of the created order, the notion of heaven being a dwelling of human’s souls is also problematic. In fact, the idea of our soul’s departing to the afterlife does not originate from the Bible but from Plato. It was Greek philosophical thought that propagated the belief that we live in a material world, one in which our souls are held captive. Thanks to an intensely Greek influence on the culture and philosophical quandaries of the early church, this thought was often times merged with a Christian understanding of salvation. In fact, there was one early sect of Christians known as Gnostics. Their name evolved from the Greek word γνωστικός (gnostikos) which meant ‘learned’ or ‘knowledge’ because their teachings emphasized the elevation of a human’s soul through intellectual piety. The material world, Gnostics believed, was evil- only the spiritual aspects of human could be pure. Gnostics believed that heaven would be a state where our souls are rid of our bodies and can finally live in perfection. Gnosticism had numerous variations, almost all of which were declared to be heretical by the early church.
But despite the early rejection of this notion Platonic/Pseudo-Gnostic thought has perpetuated many strings of modern Christian thinking. Hence, many Evangelicals might describe their belief in the after life by saying that ‘when we die our souls will go to heaven.’
The Biblical text creates a different picture. Ancient Jews believed, like Greeks, that upon death the spirits descended into Hades or Sheoul, a dark and cold underworld. The notion of resurrection doesn’t appear on the Biblical scene until Jesus; no such notion had even been conceived. The Sadduccees famously refuted the notion of a resurrection, but even this denial had nothing to do with a physical raising from the dead- such nonsense wasn’t even up for debate. Sadducees simply believed that when you died, your soul died with you, whereas mainstream Jews though, like Plato, that the soul would live on, elsewhere.
All this goes to say that the notion of bodily resurrection was so foreign and so contextually bizarre in the time of Christ that his disciples weren’t expecting him to be raised from the dead. At best, they figured his spirit dwelt elsewhere, but no one was hanging around his tomb waiting for him to pop out. This explains why the risen Christ went to great lengths to assure those he appeared to that he was not a ghost, not just a spirit, but was in fact risen in the flesh (John 20:27, Luke 24:42-43). We see Paul emphasize the idea of bodily resurrection in Romans 8:11: “…he who raised the Messiah Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who lives in you.”
Thus if there is a resurrection of the dead (which we believe there is) then it will be a bodily resurrection, which my no means excludes ‘soul-less’ creatures.
But even beyond this fact, the reality is that Christian theology teaches a perspective that paints the earth, the animal kingdom, and everything within it as more than just stage on which the salvation narrative of mankind is being played. Material things matter; the entire world suffered as a result of the fall (Romans 8:19,22) and Christ promises that he will make all things new, not just the redeemed fraction of the human race (Revelation 21:5). Furthermore, there’s a reason that the prophet Isaiah describes the end result of Christ’s redemptive work using the image of wolves, leopards and lambs cohabiting peacefully (Isaiah 11). It’s symbolic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also true; if all of creation was caught up in the fall, it stands to reason that it will also be included in the redemption.
Look, it’d be easy to discard these notions as some ridiculous bi-product of my sentimentality. Rest assured, it’s not- the last pet I lived with was a cat that would frequently awaken me by clawing at my skull; frankly, I could care less if I don’t encounter that thing anytime between now and all eternity.
But the reality is that Christ rose from the grave; this is the hinge on which the rest of Christian theology swings. And in rising from the dead, in his bodily resurrection, he foreshadowed the final resurrection when we will be raised in a like manner. And that resurrection won’t include just our souls, but our bodies as well. And it won’t be limited just to humanity but will include the redemption of the entire cosmos, the restoration of all the created order for the glory of it’s creator. Perhaps this is difficult to believe because animals don’t have the capability of earning the merit required to make it past the pearly gates. But the moment we start considering such a notion we ought to be reminded: neither do we. And God’s grace can get me a green light, I’m sure it could do the same for my golden retriever, who’s worst offense in life was piddling on Mom’s tulip garden.
Now I don’t know whether my beloved golden retriever will be awaiting me when I die, wagging his tale as I step into the new creation. No one does. But I do know that my hope is founded in Christ’s promise that he is powerful enough, he is loving enough, he is creative and miraculous enough to redeem more than just me or my soul- but everything within the cosmos. My hope is founded in the Biblical testimony of a God who’s grace extends to every corner of the earth; who’s promise tells me that heaven is coming, and I will see it soon. In telling me such, the biblical proclamation warns us not to be deceived by false proclamations and bargain-shelf truths. For if the resurrection isn’t grand enough to include some form of animal kingdom, then it’s not the resurrection at all.
Thus, dogs, cats, animals- all of them- must be present, somehow, in the resurrected world, otherwise it’s not the resurrected world. If our hope is hinged on some floaty, ghost-like version of our “inner-self” living forever in some sort of spirit world, then that’s not terribly hopeful. Nor, in fact, is it heaven.