Let’s start with a counter-question: why would anyone think that they don’t? Because it seems pretty heartless to tell your bereft child, “That’s it, you will never see Fido again!” But some parents apparently believe this and so “inform” their children, so let’s begin by examining the three top reasons that they do so.
The first reason people think that pets do not go to heaven is that they don’t have souls. The idea seems to run like this: when human beings die, their souls depart from their bodies and go to heaven. But animals don’t have separable, immaterial souls. Thus, animals do not go to heaven. Though this argument is very common, it’s flatly invalid, meaning that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. Those premises would have to include the additional line that the only way that a thing can go to heaven is if it possesses an immaterial soul. But we know that this is false, because Jesus himself told us that there are buildings up there. And whether they are built from bricks, marble, or solid gold, none of those substances have souls!
Of course, what really might lie underneath this reason is doubt about God’s ability to resurrect things. Resurrection of human beings might seem easy for God because all he has to do is reconstitute or recreate your body and then re-insert your soul. But since pets have no souls, it might seem that he couldn’t reconstitute or resurrect them. Presumably, he’d either end up with a reconstituted corpse or else a zombie-like pet who looks like Fido but has the same blank stare that we associate with those who have been lobotomized. Curiously, this argument seems to assume that a pet’s personality depends upon possessing an immaterial soul, but since there is no such soul, the animal cannot be resurrected. That leaves us with the conundrum as to how the animal possessed personality in the first place!
God can resurrect, reconstitute, or recreate whatever he likes without any limitations whatsoever.
The truth of the matter is this: God can resurrect, reconstitute, or recreate whatever he likes without any limitations whatsoever. He can make apple pie exactly like your Mom made it, but also exactly like my Mom made it. He can recreate your house with the same creaks in the third stair floorboard and the smell of jasmine that wafted through your nostrils as you left by the back door. God can do anything, right? Of course. “But,” you might object, “what does this have to do with heaven? Isn’t heaven spiritual? It sounds like you’re saying that it is physical.”
Let’s consider that, because Jesus definitely says that heaven has rooms or mansions in it, which is weird if it’s non-physical. Also, physical people have been taken up there—Enoch, Elijah, and Mary, to name just a few. Plus, Jesus himself ascended physically into heaven and is “seated” at the right hand of God—seated, not floating around in a non-gravitational “spiritual” environment. It’d be weird if Jesus, his mother, and the others were stuck in some little physical-space air-lock, so that they could survive while all the other saints floated around ghost-like in whatever heaven is supposed to be.
The truth is, people think heaven must be a spiritual place, because God is a spirit. But if it’s a “place,” then it must be more than the realm of consciousness. In fact, we see in the Revelation that at the end of all time, the physically real city of the new Jerusalem will descend to the new earth out of heaven, meaning there is a vast physical dimension to heaven. Notice, too, that the tens of thousands of near-death experience reports include incredible sensory elements: celestial music, intense light, voices, physical interaction with other people . . . as well as non-bodily floating around. Which means that we don’t really know what Heaven is like, but it must be suitable for human beings, it must be suitable for angels, and it must be suitable for God. That includes physical accommodations for physical creatures as well as non-physical “accommodations” for non-physical ones. In short, whatever heaven is, it’ll feel like home to you. We know that, because nearly everyone who returns from a near death experience reports seeing their dead relatives in a mass family reunion. And everyone knows that family reunions take place at the old homestead with Grandma and Grandpa. So, it’s at least a deeply homey experience.
In short, whatever heaven is, it’ll feel like home to you.
Notice, too, that St. Peter says that God intends to recreate the heavens and the earth. Earth. Not Vulcan or Xanadu. The new Earth must be similar to the old earth in order for it to be called Earth as opposed to some different planet. Thank God he’s not planning to put us on Vulcan 😊. But the real point here is that God seems interested in bringing back what we knew, what is familiar, what is comforting, and that surely includes our dearly loved pets.
God seems interested in bringing back what we knew, what is familiar, what is comforting, and that surely includes our dearly loved pets.
The second reason why some people seem to think that pets don’t go to heaven is that it isn’t found in the Bible, so obviously, it cannot be true. What’s actually obvious is that not everything that is true is found in the Bible. How could it be? Why would it be? We believe what we understand out of the Bible because it’s true, not the other way around. Truth alone has the authority to command our assent. So, we can figure out many things about the world by reasoning out our experience. That experience includes what we learn from the natural sciences. It includes what we learn relationally about and from one another, much of which we incorporate into our arts. It also includes what we can learn strictly rationally from mathematics, metaphysics, and theology. And it includes what we learn from the little extras that God has revealed over time through Moses, Jesus, and the Apostles. We then take all of that information and we digest it, mulling it over, thinking it through, considering the implications. And then we draw conclusions. Whether those conclusions are in the Bible is irrelevant, because the Bible is a source of truth, not the sole source of truth. So, the Bible does not limit what we can know.
The Bible is a source of truth, not the sole source of truth. So, the Bible does not limit what we can know.
A third reason why people tell their children they will never see their pets again—so it’s time to grow up and face the harsh reality of the world—is that they confuse the truly harsh existence in this life with what God intended originally and intends to restore ultimately. People really worry that God does not care about us, or that if he does, it’s only our spiritual selves that he loves, not physical trivialities like our hair color, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee, or our experience of the taste of a morel mushroom. Furthermore, people cannot conceive of how God could care a whit about their love for a pet if he lets their children die. So, they construct a version of God where all that matters is the spiritual realm, and our objective in this life is to detach from all things physical, because we will lose them all anyway. This view of God and the purpose of life helps them numb the devastating grief from a lost spouse or child, even stronger, to justify it as being God’s purpose all along. So, it would seem bizarre if in the end God were to bring all of this back. Surely, they reason, God wants us to love him, not some stupid animal.
Some people cannot conceive of how God could care a whit about their love for a pet if he lets their children die.
Where to start in unpacking how horrible and demonically conceived this argument really is! First of all, God made morel mushrooms and he made coffee and he made the vast aesthetics of the entire earth solely for human enjoyment. No other creatures experience the sensory world the way that we do or have the conceptual and imagistic apparatus to recognize beauty. God cares about human nature most specifically. He went to astonishing lengths to offer us a planet abundantly rich in material for exploration, discovery, and delight. He likes the little things. Remember when he created Adam in the early chapters of Genesis? What did he do with him? He took him over to a field where animals were and enjoyed watching Adam name them. God was proud of his work, not just as his creation, but as he created it for his human creatures.
This idea that God’s plan involves tearing us from our own hybrid physical/spiritual nature and transforming us into pure spirits is total nonsense. It arises from demonic envy. They are furious that God created our hybrid nature at all. Accordingly, they hate us.
Second, God intends to physically resurrect us. That is a cardinal doctrine of the Church, not a dreamed up fantasy out of keeping with our true spiritual destiny. This idea that God’s plan involves tearing us from our own hybrid physical/spiritual nature and transforming us into pure spirits is total nonsense. It arises from demonic envy. They are furious that God created our hybrid nature at all. Accordingly, they hate us. How dare God take their perfect and “pure” spiritual natures and merge them with mud, muck, and intestines, they reason.
Well, our natures are also perfect and pure. Purity isn’t a property of the angelic alone. God made beings that were simply great minds, without any essential physical form at all. Those are the angels (and, if they fell, the demons). He also made beings of purely physical form like the stars and trees. But then he finally made us, creatures by design composed of both the immaterial substance of free will and the physical substance of biology. And in every case God knew what he was doing and he liked it. The demons are jealous, and they relish convincing us to turn on our own natures. That’s why they came up with the Gnostic heresy which identifies good with immaterial substance (them) and evil with material substance (us). If that were true, then our goal in life would indeed be to rid ourselves of the physical and ultimately ascend as “pure” spiritual beings. But no creature can or should ever wish to abandon its nature. God created each nature to be fulfilled according to its kind. Our objectives should not be angelic (and certainly not demonic), because we are not angels by nature. Angels do their things, and we do ours. There is likely some commonality which we will better understand eventually. But for the most part we have very different kinds of experience, and that’s just fine with God (and with the good angels!).
No creature can or should ever wish to abandon its nature. God created each nature to be fulfilled according to its kind. Our objectives should not be angelic (and certainly not demonic), because we are not angels by nature.
Still, one might wonder why God cares about the trivial if he lets us suffer such incredible loss! Surely, he must want us to abandon the things of this world and choose to love him instead. Really? You actually think he would prefer that you not love your child? That you are more “spiritual” if you don’t grieve and instead sing hymns? That cannot possibly be true. That would defy his having created us as physical beings in the first place. It would make our whole existence a joke, a huge test to see if we can figure our way out of the physical maze. And then the biggest test of all would have to be Jesus’ resurrection, which on this nutty thinking, would be designed to seductively tempt us to believe that God will restore all things just as he promised! And that’s why I said that this is demonic, for it turns everything God has said into the exact opposite of what he meant, just like the serpent in Eden. What does the resurrection of Jesus and his physical ascension into heaven actually mean? They mean that God cares about the physical. He cares about us, our physical/spiritual hybrid selves. He so loved our natures that he decided to become one of us! The Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Ascension are three massive sign posts that God loves human nature.
We “heal” only in the sense that we grow new love relationships around the gaping hole in our hearts, and over time as our hearts grow larger and larger with those new loves, that hole becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of who we are.
But what about me? Maybe God does love his human creations like you say, Dr. Tiel, but he doesn’t care about me all that much. I mean, I lost my job. I lost my mother last year. I lost both of my children in a car accident. I don’t care anymore about coffee and sunsets and music and morel mushrooms. I know. Staggering personal losses cause us to lose ourselves, because who we are is partly constituted by our love for them. When they die, part of us dies too. We never forget. We “heal” only in the sense that we grow new love relationships around the gaping hole in our hearts, and over time as our hearts grow larger and larger with those new loves, that hole becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of who we are. That’s the only sense I can give to the claim that “time heals wounds.” Our losses are real. God is deeply aware of just how real they are. And he does care about them, because he cares about us. So, why does he let them happen?
I’ll address that issue in depth in another unsettled mind post/podcast, but for now let me say this: God does not want you to love the people in your life any less just because they will die. That is Stoicism, not Christianity. It is true that our lives here are mortal. Okay. But the second greatest commandment remains the same, that we must love one another. Even when we know that we will die? Yes, especially so. Remember that Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary, and Martha and wept at his friend’s loss even though he knew he intended to resurrect him! Death is a horrifying and catastrophic loss, but it in no way changes the fact that we are meant for the community of love. Our families, our friendships, our civic and social communities, and the Church all signal what lies at the core of the Trinity: that persons are beings made for loving one another. So, we cannot not love one another. And those loves mean that we suffer loss when the objects of our loves die.
Every single thing in your life that is necessary to complete you as a human person will be fully restored or available to you. God does not intend to resurrect fractured people and leave them with gaping holes from their losses.
And that is why we suffer real loss when our pets die. The fact that we suffer greater loss when we lose a spouse or a child doesn’t mean we don’t suffer real loss when we lose a pet. God didn’t tell us to love only him because he’s the greatest. He is the greatest. But he wants us to love him and everything else. Why? Because it’s all good. That’s why he loves everything. Should we love a pie more than a pet? No, because pets are more closely connected to human personality than a pie. Similarly, if you love your job more than your child, you’ve again gotten things out of order. There is an order. But that order doesn’t mean that you stop loving pies, jobs, pets, and your children just because you love God the most.
Why do all of these lesser things matter? They matter because of the kinds of creatures God made us to be. We are physical/spiritual hybrids, designed for a planetary, earthly existence. God intends to fully restore that at the end of all time. Every single thing in your life that is necessary to complete you as a human person will be fully restored or available to you at that point. Everything that you loved that was good and whole in this life will be restored there, because it’s part of who you are. God does not intend to resurrect fractured people and leave them with gaping holes from their losses. Remember that he is omnipotent. So, be honest with yourself and use your imagination to answer this question: what do you need? Whatever answer you give, however minor and trivial it might seem, God cares about it and will fulfill it. The big things like lost spouses and children, and the little things like the feel of your horse at a full gallop beneath your body. Nothing is too hard for God. And we mustn’t think that God doesn’t care. That’s what the demons would have us believe. Don’t believe them. Instead, dare to believe God.
So, do pets go to heaven? The answer to that is very simple: yes, if you love them. They are a part of who we are, especially so if we are children. And God intends to fully restore every single person uniquely according to who he made each person to be. Children ask if their pets go to heaven because they love them. And because God loves your children, you can confidently assure them that they do.