by Peter R. Gathje
Do animals go to heaven? When I was a child, I was told in Catechism class, “Animals do not have eternal souls like we do as humans. So, animals do not go to heaven.”
I never liked this answer. And a few years ago, my youngest step-daughter came home from her Catholic school upset. She had been told, like I had many years before, “Animals do not go to heaven.” I wanted to give her a different answer, one that included animals in heaven.
I knew the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, was the source for the view that animals do not go to heaven. But his argument actually leaves the door open to the possibility that God could, in God’s infinite goodness, welcome animals to enter heaven.
Even more, there are other medieval theologians and mystics (like Hildegard and
Julian of Norwich) who saw God’s creation as a unity. In their vision, human and animals alike, are part of a great web of life. Further, this web continues in a transformed manner in heaven. Just as humans enjoy life with God for eternity, so, too, does the whole web of God’s creation. God’s hospitality and graciousness is not limited to humans.
This view, in fact, has a strong biblical support. The Bible emphasizes that the whole creation praises God and reflects God’s goodness (Psalm 103:22, 145:21, 150:6, Daniel 3). So why would God exclude God’s creation from ultimate unity with God in heaven? Further, Psalm 36 tells us that God saves humans and animals alike (Psalm 36:6). The prophet Isaiah envisions the whole creation redeemed by God (Isaiah 11:6-8).
The New Testament continues this more embodied and intertwined view of human life as part of creation. Paul writes that Christ will unite all things in Him, “things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Even more, Paul sees “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The Book of Revelation ends with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells with all (Revelation 21:1-2 and 2 Peter 3:13).
Some early church thinkers continued to reflect this biblical view. St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century, affirmed that on the last day, Jesus would “sum up all things in Himself.” A second-century bishop, Papias, described a heavenly garden, in which there would be abundance in harvests and “all animals, feeding on these products of the earth, will become peaceable and friendly to each other, and be completely servants to humans.”
These different views show that our positions on whether or not animals go to heaven ultimately reflect our understandings both of this life, and of what we hope for and desire beyond this life. If we see ourselves as fundamentally different and separate from the rest of the creation, we are likely to think of heaven as including only us with God. But if we see ourselves as part of God’s creation, part of the web of life, then we are more likely to embrace the view that animals, like we humans, also go to heaven. The latter, I think, is not only more biblical, it is more gracious, and more in harmony with our place in this world.
Do animals go to heaven? Yes.