If Dogs Don’t Go To Heaven, It Won’t Be Heaven

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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.

Insignificant Sinners: A Devotional For Easter

Reading: John 20:1-18

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In the Gospel of John the first person Jesus appears to after His resurrection is Mary Magdalene. This is bizarre because, if you know the story behind Mary, she really wasn’t a significant character.

For starters, and I know this is somewhat of an obvious statement, but Mary Magdalene was a woman. And in the Jewish culture of Christ’s time, women were very limited in what they were and were not able to accomplish; they could not vote, could rarely own property and didn’t had much of a say in their own households. In fact, if you were a woman during Jesus’ time, your well-being was intricately linked to the men in your life. You were dependent first upon your father, then upon your brothers, then, hopefully, upon your husband. If he died before you the responsibility fell to your sons.

To make matters worse for Mary, not only was she a woman but we know from reading Luke’s Gospel that she was a “woman who had lived a sinful life”(Luke 7:37). This phrase could mean that she was a prostitute or perhaps an adulterer; what exactly this sin is isn’t necessarily important. The point is that she wasn’t an upstanding character. Nor was she a significant or powerful one.

And yet, she was the first person to whom the Risen Lord revealed Himself.

Why the emphasis on Mary? Why dive into her character?

Because don’t you find it pretty easy to relate to Mary? Don’t you find it pretty easy to relate to feeling neglected, helpless, inconsequential and overlooked? Do you ever feel unneeded or unnecessary, like the rest of the world has a purpose but you’re just kind of passing through?

What about the sin in your life? Do you often feel as though the past you’ve had, the mistakes you’ve made, do you feel like those weigh you down and keep you from God?

When we look deeper into the story of Mary leading up to Resurrection Sunday, we see that none of these things held her back. In fact, Mary had a reputation for a reckless love and trust in Jesus. John 12 records an instance when she anoints Christ’s head with an expensive burial perfume; one that was worth a year’s wages in her time. If you want to put that in relative terms, that’s about $44,000 dollars worth of perfume that she took and smashed at Jesus’ feet.

And do you ever wonder to yourself why Mary is at the grave on Easter morning? Think about it for a moment. Why is it that a group of women came to the grave to give Jesus’ body a proper burial? I mean, burial was an important job and was highly valued in Jewish culture. It was something that a revered teacher would have been owed by, I dunno…his disciples maybe? Where were his disciples at this time?

The answer is that they were scared. John tells us later that they were hiding behind a locked door because they were scared of the same people who’d just killed Jesus (John 20:19).

So who is it that comes out from hiding? Who is it that takes the initiative when everyone else is terrified?

It’s the women.

And there among the women heading to the tomb that morning is one who lived a sinful life. Mary was an uneducated, unschooled, known sinner…but a devout follower of Jesus all the more.

The message of Easter Sunday is that no matter how unworthy we feel to follow Christ, He still wants us and accepts us as one of His own. The message of resurrection Sunday is that Jesus does not want our knowledge, our holiness or our own attempts at salvation: He simply wants our allegiance. “Take up your cross,” Jesus so infamously commanded in Matthew 16:24. “Take up your cross and follow me”.

The sun rose on Easter morning and those who knew Jesus most intimately were in hiding. But the woman who owed the greatest debt to Jesus went to be with Him despite anything that could have happened to her. It was like she was smashing the jar of perfume at his feet, all over again. A year’s wages was nothing to her. The scorn of her peers was nothing to her. Her reputation was nothing to her. The threat of death was nothing to her.

All that mattered was her allegiance to Jesus. That’s what she acted upon and this is the legacy for which Mary has always been remembered.

This Easter, as you look out over the rising sun and a glorious new day, remember that we are not called upon to have faith because we of what we know, what we bring to the table or what we can do for Christ. Contrary to our egos, we have been called in spite of what we’ve done and in opposition to our inadequacy. We have been called by Jesus because He loved us and died for us.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! And Mary was the first to know.

Mary, a woman. Mary, a sinner. Mary, the least of these.

For Christ has risen and in doing so He has conquered the sin which bound us. Let us not fall short in our seeking of Him, let us smash everything we have at His feet in worship. When all the cards are stacked against us, when following Jesus requires walking out in faith and following Him, even in uncertainty, even to the grave, let us do so in boldness and confidence.

For Easter Sunday is not the end. Our celebration today is not in just remembrance of something that just happened, something that took place and is finished done, complete. Today is not solely in memory of Christ’s sacrifice. To treat it as such would be to leave Christ in the grave; we’d be stuck on Good Friday!

Instead, what we celebrate today is the reality of Christ’s redemption and renewal that takes place each and every day in the life of the believer. It is a celebration of what is to come, when Jesus Christ who conquered the grave will return to redeem all of His creation, to renew all of the cosmos and, finally, to gather all of us together again into perfect relationship with the Triune God.

And so together, on Easter Sunday, we proclaim as Mary did to the disciples:

“Christ has died, Christ was buried, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again”.

 

A Hand I Can Accept

My wife came home the other day with a potted pansy with which to decorate the apartment. We set it by our living room window for ample sunlight and I was disconcerted to notice it already looked somewhat withered. So I watered it and opened the window, assuming fresh air would do it some good.

The following days were warm and amicable. I didn’t check the weather too much and the window stayed open. Then one night a front moved through. My wife and I went to sleep with the sound of rain falling outside our open window and just a lite blanket on our bed.

But by the time we awoke both of us were shivering. When I raised the blinds in our bedroom I beheld a thin layer of snow covering the ground. I closed the window then remembered the pansy.

Sure enough, it was sitting upon the open windowsill exposed to the bitter chill from outside. The leaves were completely withered, hanging over the side of its pot like a ten-year-old with a bad case of seasickness might posture himself over the railing of a ship. I closed the window quickly, though I doubted it would do any good.

I have not come to terms with a world in which things die; I’m not quite sure I am meant too. For the survival instincts of a living, breathing and pulsating planet beckons me to witness the common bond between all living things, the bond that drives us in a plight for survival. Despite what we all know.

I went for a run the other day and jogged over what used to be a squirrel, flattened in the middle of the road. I stopped and looked at it grotesquely arranged on the pavement, a drunken eulogy of flesh and bones. I looked for a moment, then I continued jogging.

My wife appeared from our bedroom with two sweatshirts on and a look that I’m certain was meant to remind me of how I’d insisted on keeping the windows open the night before. But I didn’t take note.

“The flower,” I said, “it was left by the open window last night.”

“So was your wife,” she noted.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“… ‘Sorry’ would be a good start.”

I rolled my eyes at her. “I meant about the pansy.”

Which is, to say the least, missing the point.

I could, perhaps, save the plant. Maybe some super-duper fertilizer would do the trick. Maybe if I put it into the microwave the warmth would revive its veins (note: as it turns out, this is not a good idea). Maybe, if I’m there five minutes before, I can dash out into the street and scare the squirrel into a tree so it isn’t run over.

But the pansy will die eventually. The squirrel may stay in the tree for a moment and, when I’m gone, dash beneath the wheels of the next car to pass. The executioner’s blade will fall upon us all, eventually. We can dodge it for a while; we can avoid it for a time. But learning to avoid it is missing the point. And I’d rather believe that death is god and it will win than ignore the elephant with cross-bones in its eyes looming at the end of my existence. I could not live in such denial.

But that is why yesterday I celebrated the only death I can celebrate: the death of a humble carpenter from a humble town, one that I’ve never visited. I celebrate this death with joy and reverence. I celebrate this death as I remove the pansy from my windowsill and stare at the body of a squirrel in the street. I celebrate the death with every moment of my existence, a living celebration to Him.

I celebrate His death for the fact that it was the most voluntary event in the cosmos. He was not a flower weakly succumbing to a sudden atmospheric change. Rather, He submitted to death’s terms by choice. And I celebrated His death yesterday because tomorrow I will celebrate that His agreement to said terms was only temporary; He always held the upper hand and He played it for everyone. Everyone, that is, but Himself.

I cannot accept a world where things die around me but I can accept that hand. I can accept a hand with a nail driven through it. I can accept a hand played for a world that lives, breathes and fights for life in testimony to the voluntary acceptance of the final sting in our stead. I can accept the hand which says a dead flower on my windowsill is neither permanent nor unnoticed.

I can accept that hand and within it find joy.

Then I can apologize to my wife for leaving the window open.