I wrote the following email in 2006 to a family who were devastated by the loss of a beloved dog. I have changed the original recipient’s name to K, and the name of the dog to B.
Subject: not without hope
I am very sorry to hear the news of B’s death, and of the deep grief you and your entire family have to bear. I know B was in a real and substantial way part of your family and a very meaningful part of your life. In this respect, your grief is not in every respect different from the grief of losing a beloved human friend. For this reason, I would like to offer you a few thoughts that may be of some comfort, although they touch on mysteries that we cannot fully understand in this life. But although they peer dimly into mysteries, I will offer them so that, as Paul wrote, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thess 4:13).
So what is our hope as Christians about animals and the resurrection? Aren’t the promises of resurrection and new life only for humans? Actually, the Bible never gives this impression, and either leaves the question open or gives hints to the contrary. Ecclesiastes 3:21 says:
“Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”
In Romans Paul stated in no uncertain terms that the entire universe will share in the redemption we have as humans in Christ:
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8: 20-21).
And other promises of the future definitely include animals in the restoration promised to the children of God (Jesus coming on a white horse, the lion lying down with the lamb, etc.).
One of the Christians who has thought most deeply about this issue in the last 100 years is C.S. Lewis. The topic of the nature and fate of animals received his sustained attention throughout his life, occupying an entire chapter of The Problem of Pain, for example. There he began by noting that “So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it.” Inspired by Romans 8, he then considers
“whether man, at his first coming into the world, had not already a redemptive function to perform. Man, even now, can do wonders to animals: my cat and dog live together in my house and seem to like it. It may have been one of man’s functions to restore peace to the animal world, and if he had not joined the enemy he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable.”
Lewis then considers whether divine justice suggests that higher animals will share in the resurrection.
“I have been warned not even to raise the question of animal immortality, lest I find myself ‘in company with all the old maids.’ I have no objection to the company. I do not think either virginity or old age contemptible, and some of the shrewdest minds I have met inhabited the bodies of old maids. Nor am I greatly moved by jocular enquiries such as ‘Where will you put all the mosquitoes?’ — a question to be answered on its own level by pointing out that, if the worst came to the worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined…. The real difficulty about supposing most animals to be immortal is that immortality has almost no meaning for a creature which is not ‘conscious’….”
“You must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that. You must take the whole context in which the beast acquires its selfhood, namely [its relationship with humans]…. And in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters. And the difficulty about personal identity in a creature barely personal disappears when the creature is thus kept in its proper context…. In other words, the [resurrected] man will know his dog: the [resurrected] dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself…. The theory I am suggesting … makes God the centre of the universe and man the subordinate centre of terrestrial nature: the beasts are not co-ordinate with man, but subordinate to him, and their destiny is through and through related to his. And the derivative immortality suggested for them is … part and parcel of the new heaven and the new earth, organically related to the whole suffering process of the world’s fall and redemption.”
In other words, K, in your love of B and other animals you are fulfilling one of the core callings of humanity, and joining Christ in the work of redemption of this world. In that calling and work you should labor with a Christian hope of redemption that others cannot even imagine.
Someday I hope you will read Lewis’ Space Trilogy. In the third volume of the trilogy there is a character called Mr. Bultitude. Mr. Bultitude is a bear, but he is no ordinary bear. In the course of the novel, Lewis succeeds in characterizing an awakening of consciousness in this bear that comes about due to the bear’s long and significant relationship with a human (with the chief protagonist, Ransom). In other words, Ransom’s friendship with the bear transformed the bear’s state of being into one made, as it were, in the image of the human. As the bear learned to relate and to respond to the human being, the bear’s nature rose above the level of an ordinary bear, and began to take on characteristics that were imparted by this relationship with a higher consciousness (Ransom). Mr. Bultitude presents in literary form exactly the same ideas Lewis presented in philosophical form in The Problem of Pain.
Lewis further explored the character of this kind of transformation in an essay in The Weight of Glory called “Transmutation.” In that essay he compared the way we are transformed by our relationship to God with the way animals might be transformed by their relationship with us. This possibility further hallows the calling of those who work with animals, in every moment that you lovingly invest in their care.
Okay, lest it seem that I’m getting too philosophical here, let me suggest that this serious viewpoint of Lewis underlies the entire land of Narnia where the animals can talk because of their special relationship to Aslan.
Finally, in his book of Poems, Lewis wrote of the resurrection of a human being and how all of the deep-seated places and experiences of that human being must rise with him or her, lest the resurrection be incomplete:
“Here lies the whole world after one
Peculiar mode; a buried sun,
Stars and immensities of sky
And cities here discarded lie.
The prince who owned them, having gone,
Left them as things not needed on
His journey; yet with hope that he,
Purged by aeonian poverty
In lenten lands, hereafter can
Resume the robes he wore as a man.”
Lewis’ hope, and mine, is that “in lenten lands” we will rise again with the places, experiences, and animal relations that were most meaningful to us in this life. This is why I wanted to write this letter, that you might grieve for B, but not as one without hope.
PS: Since writing the above note, I have become only more convinced of these things. And I now see how, in developing his views, Lewis was mining the riches of the history of theology, from the church fathers to George MacDonald. An excellent discussion is found in a lecture by Randy Maddox entitled “C.S. Lewis On Hope for the Whole Creation: Do Dogs, Cats and Even Iguanas Go to Heaven?” This talk was given at Seattle Pacific University on January 17, 2002, and is available under “More Lectures” at the SPU site in iTunes U. Search iTunes for the title and you can download it in either audio or video format.
Update, 7/29/13: Inter-church dialog on this topic.