At our first annual Blessing of the Animals service we shared stories. After Sharon told of the way her dog had (perhaps) saved her life when she was worn down with caring for her dying father and she began to despair that life had any good purpose. Night after night the dog would sense her low spirits, press himself against her and convey most powerfully that she indeed had a purpose—a beautiful purpose.
After sharing that story, Sharon asked a question she had asked before. She had me, a dog-loving, retired minister, in her sights and she asked, “Do our pets go to heaven?”
Of course, I had been asked this before. And of course, since I love animals dearly and had buried some of my own under the huge old apple tree here on the farm, I had asked it in an existential way with lots of tears in my eyes.
I told Sharon and the group assembled that, no, the Bible did not have a definitive answer for that. But since the Bible is loud and clear that the Lord has made this world and made it all good—and since it is also clear that heaven will be filled with God’s love, it stands to good reason (informed with the spirit of the Bible) that heaven would have our pets in it.
In the midst of this answer I referred to a poet/essayist/agronomist-philosopher, Wendell Berry and a poem he has in his book Leavings. It is, indeed a poem brimming over with insight. In it, Berry says, the heaven he longs for is not the disembodied, spiritualized heaven, but a heaven fit for material beings like ourselves. He longs for “the Heaven of creatures, of seasons, of day and night…this world as I know it, but redeemed of our abuse of it and one another. It would be the Heaven of knowing again.” Berry acknowledges that Jesus asserted there is no marrying in Heaven, but he is also honest in admitting that he would like to know he and his wife young again, and how he loved her when she was old.
Berry’s longings are informed by the Bible. Prophets like Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah all tell us God is going to do something new. But the New Heavens and New Earth, the New Jerusalem and New Temple are all described as being like the old. Only our sins of idolatry and rampant envy and abuse of the poor will be washed out of these new things. They will be “this world, redeemed of our abuses.”
And “knowing” is also a great theme of the prophets. If we know God then we know ourselves and one another as we truly are. And to know in this godly way is to love.
I imagine too that Berry knows the dangers of using God only to legitimize and forward our own longings. Our longings can be distorted. They can warp our world as we refer all things back to ourselves. Certainly the way we lavish attention and love on our pets can become an illness. The old movie, Harry and Tonto depicts this problem when an old widower becomes embittered about just about everyone around him. He is a grumpy old man and hypercritical. And he uses Tonto, his cat, to shower his attention on and fool himself that he has not become grotesque in his selfish, isolating ways. In loving the cat only he loves nothing but his self-centered self. But, through a series of misadventures, Harry opens up. He can begin to understand those who are different than himself. He is not the center of his own world and he doesn’t have to drag the cat into that selfishness.
Our cats and dogs and other creatures won’t be in heaven to affirm our selfishness. Many are the metaphors the Bible uses to depict the eternal life, Kingdom, heaven that awaits. But the one most important characteristic of it is that it will be God-centered. Its center will not be our egos.
That is perhaps why we won’t marry or be given in marriage. In heaven the God of love will be at the center and we will not be looking for the things that limit or contain our love—not husbands or wives or pets. We will be looking for the things that give love away – that draw it outward to appreciate more, understand more, forgive more, and give away more.
But surely pets belong in heaven for that very reason. I can think of nothing more self-giving and faithful and forgiving than the dogs in my life.
Yet mystery too seems to surround us. It is an essential ingredient of the human life. It is a mystery why dogs love so much. It is a mystery why they are in my life when I have done nothing to deserve their faithfulness, and often, when I lose my temper, have done many things to forfeit it. And it is a mystery just what the reign of God’s perfect love will look like. Since I can’t love like God, I cannot know what is good for me. Since I can’t know what’s good for me, I can’t begin to understand what God has in store for me in that good and perfect existence of the Kingdom.
Rather than vainly trying to know what heaven will be, I need to concentrate on the here and now. As the Lord’s Prayer leads us to think when it says, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we need to concentrate on knowing what’s good for us—that it is always in the plural – our good is tied with the good for others. If we know it, we can hunger and thirst for it.
I have heard so many people say their pets gave them the power to do good for others. That’s the very best argument for their place in heaven. And I suspect that those who deny their place in heaven haven’t begun to understand how God has designed us humans to be blessed by our place in this circle of life—this circle of a very real life, composed of very surprising, mysterious, material and spiritual good things.