During a recent public appearance, Pope Francis comforted a boy whose dog had just died, saying, “One day, we will see our animals again in eternity. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” In 1990, Pope John Paul II said animals have souls, but then Pope Benedict gave a 2008 sermon that seemed to say the opposite. So let’s clear up this Papal perplexity, Pastor John. What do you say? Do pets go to heaven?
Let me say something about the popes’ words, first — the popes plural. They are all partly ambiguous. “Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” Does he mean they will all be there? I doubt it, because the devil is not going to be there. He is a creature. So that is not right.
“When the Son of God entered history, he came as a human being, not as an animal.”
“Open to all God’s creatures.” What does that mean? He seemed to settle it when he said, “We will see our animals again in eternity.” I am not sure what he means there. He left some ambiguity.
Then Pope John Paul II said animals have souls. That is ambiguous, it seems to me, because the pope knows his Hebrew. Nephesh, the word that is usually translated soul, is also translated living thing. So any being with breath and blood in the Old Testament is distinguished from the plants. It has life. The Old Testament didn’t even think about plants having life because they have no breath. They had no blood in that sense. So breathing and blood-coursing things had nephesh, which is usually translated soul.
It doesn’t mean soul like we usually mean it for the human being who has a soul in the image of God. So, frankly, I am not sure what the popes meant. Their words seem to me to be slippery, and we’ll just do better saying what the Bible says, so I will give some thoughts on that.
When God created the world, the creation of man was set apart as unique from the animals on day six. It is described as God creating us in his image (Genesis 1:26–27). So the soul of man is different from the coursing of blood and the breathing of life found in animals.
Man is unique and is meant to have a unique destiny. When the Son of God enters history, he comes as a human being, not as an animal. And he saves humans. And he conforms humans to his own nature as the God-man, not the God-animal.
By creation and redemption — the words from Genesis in the beginning and the words of incarnation — God confers on man the unique standing as created in his image and redeemed into God’s very family by making Christ the elder brother of this single race of beings called humans.
The Beasts That Perish
I really want to emphasize the utter distinction between humans and animals like the Bible does. Animals are different from us and are conceived in the Bible as not having unique capacities that allow them have a personal relationship with God. They can’t have it the way we have it.
You can hear this in Psalm 32:9: “Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle.” In other words, when the psalmist wants to illustrate the loss of a distinctive thinking capacity of the human being, he uses animals as the illustration.
“Man doesn’t merely perish, but has a future beyond life here. But beasts simply perish.”
They don’t have it. Animals are unlike man in that they simply perish. There is no thought of them being in the realm of the dead — in Sheol, like humans — with some future. There was always the sense in the Old Testament — even though it didn’t have the clearest vision of eternal life — there was always the impulse in biblical faith, Old and New Testament, that man would not merely perish, but would have a future beyond life here. But beasts simply perish (Psalm 49:12).
Food for Our Bellies
The animals, all of them, are seen in relation to man as food. This is amazing. I just read this in my devotions. That is why I thought of it. This is a crucial evidence of the different place that animals have in God’s creation.
In Genesis 9, here is what God says to Noah after the flood: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens and upon all that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you” (Genesis 9:2–3)
“Every living thing is food for you.” I mean, could you say it any clearer? Humans and animals are in two absolutely distinct categories. One is in the image of God, and the other is eaten by things that are in the image of God. And he says, “As I gave you the green plants, I give you everything [for food]” (Genesis 9:3). In God’s mind, there is man, and there is everything else that lives. There is man, and there is food for man. It is hard to be sentimental about this. It is an absolute, qualitative distinction between man and animal.
So if there is any possibility that animals will be in eternity in the new heavens and the new earth, it is not based on their being like us or having a soul or being cute or lovable or in the same category that we are. Man is unique. Man is in the image of God. Man is the focus of salvation through the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Animals in Heaven
The likelihood that animals will be in the age to come — and I think it is a likelihood — is based on Isaiah 11 and Isaiah 65. It goes like this. Count these animals as I say them:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play upon the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6–9)
“The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:25)
I count ten animals named in describing the age to come. Now you might take all that as symbolic pictures of peace, but it seems to me a very odd way of talking if you don’t mean it literally. I think that is weird to say, “No animals are going to be there, but let’s use animals to illustrate human peace.” No, it looks to me like they are really going to be there.
The reason I take those texts so seriously is that, when I ask a couple of questions, I get a certain answer. Here is the question: Did God create a group of beings only to destroy them in the end — a whole group, like animals? “Let’s have animals for history and no animals for eternity.” I doubt it.
Did he create amazing diversity in the animal realm only to simplify everything by getting rid of that diversity in the age to come so that you have stunning, amazed worship at God’s diversity in creation in history, but you don’t have it in the age to come — that is all gone? I doubt that.
And so it does seem to me from these two texts and from those two principles that there will be animals in the age to come.
Pets in Heaven
Now, lastly, with regard to specific pets being raised from the dead, that would, I think, be pure speculation.
The only biblical point that might cause you to think that would be that God intends you to be fully happy with him. If the presence of that pet is essential for you to know and love God that way, I suspect he will be there. That might be what I would say to a four-year-old.
On the other hand, to the 15-year-old or the 35-year-old or the 85-year-old lady who just lost her cat, I would say it is spiritually perilous to cultivate a love for an animal that has such a prominent place in your heart that you think you need him for eternity.