The thud of bumper against flesh makes a nauseating sound that tears a family apart. As we sat together enjoying dinner after a long day of work, school, swim practice and homework, going around the table with our “high point of the day,” we barely took note of the sound of impact outside. We all heard it, but just didn’t realize that sound, was to be forever part of the horrible memory.
People often find a veterinarian’s compassion remarkable. You have so much empathy, I’m told. “You’d think after dealing with this time after time, it would make you numb to it all, but when we brought Callie in last week, you acted like she was your own!”
Whether a body is brought in from a passing at home the night before, a tragic accident, or a humane euthanasia in the office, I know a family will never be the same. The sweet memories fade into forever ago when confronted with a sudden loss of a beloved pet.
Somehow people often just seem to know that I take my faith seriously. The cross I wear is tucked under my shirt, and the Third Day silk screen is covered by my scrubs, but I find myself often responding to complicated questions; Philosophy and theology discussions that my veterinary training ill-equipped me for. “I know you’re a believer, but why? There’s so much suffering in the world – if He’s actually up there, why doesn’t He care?” Often I force myself simply to sigh and remark something about there being so many mysteries. And all this is true, but I thoroughly enjoy sharing and discussing my evolving theologies with others who are curious, or want to spar with our respective apologetics.
But I simply can’t typically do this at enough length for justice in a 15 minute office visit, so I mainly just sigh, and smile, and agree that it’s a mystery. But sometimes I’m asked, especially by children, what used to be considered a softball question with a reflex quickie answer. But now lots of adults also ask me, and I know some of them well enough to realize they want an honest, scripture based answer.
“Dr. Bill, do our pets go to heaven?” or specifically, “Will I see my dear Killian in Heaven?”
I used to kneel down by the child and say with consoling confidence, “Of course!” I’d never give it a second thought, but I find myself questioning the reason and logic for pretty much everything I do anymore. And it began to bother me a little bit.
In simplest terms, Christians believe entrance to God’s kingdom is based on our choosing to accept Jesus as Savior and applying His message as the way to live our lives and interact. As a pretty serious Christian, I do believe this. Well then, how on earth could we possibly think animals could get to Heaven, since they have no ability to even make rational choice? Besides, they don’t even have souls … do they? So I’m supposed to look down and lie to a child so everyone is happy? Or say callously with a pat on their head, “No Susie, cats don’t have souls!” Or pretend that I believe the New-Age Gobbletygoop, “Susie, Heaven will be everything you want it to be, and if you love Callie, she will certainly be there.” Because we’ll all have our own little heaven of anything we want it to be. (Although this may indeed be true, for so many members of the “church of me,” where you get to pick and choose what you think should be right and wrong.)
Or maybe I should simply shrug with a smile, and say, “It’s all a mystery!”None of that really works for me. However I do have two thoughts on the subject.
First of all, I’m certainly no theologian, I’m not even particularly intelligent. So on a plethora of topics, I choose to yield to others in history who have devoted entire lives to research on philosophy, meaning, and of course theology. I have many favorites, but at the top of the list is St. Augustine (also know as Augustine of Hippo).
Saint Augustine clearly wrote “that all the beautiful and enjoyable things of nature … including animals … and all the delights that image God and lead us to him in this life will do so even more perfectly in the next. (Sermon 242).
St. Francis of Assisi wrote in “Canticle to Brother Sun,” about what he had discovered in scripture , such as Psalm 148, and he added a personal touch, giving the title of “Brother” and “Sister” to the various creatures. Francis seems to emphasize all the more the viewpoint that all creatures make up one family of creation under one loving Creator in heaven. We are to form one community—one symphony of praise—with our brother and sister creatures.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a woman arriving in heaven surrounded by her pets, and he notes, “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love… And now the abundance of life she has in Christ… flows over into them.”
Lewis believes that animals receive a sense of self or personality from association with their human masters. We give our pets names and they answer to those names (hopefully), and perhaps recognize themselves by them. “If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so,” says Lewis. “And in this sense,” suggests Lewis, “it seems to me that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.”
Secondly, Scripture itself seems to support this premise.
Consider the story of Adam and Eve before their disobedience as well as the story of the animals, the birds, the trees and plants in the Garden of Eden. Not only Adam and Eve, but the other creatures as well seemed to find peace and happiness in that first paradise. Why then would God want to exclude them from the paradise that is yet to come? (Even if it has nothing to do with their merit, but simply for us.) Thus, I would have no argument with Christians who believe that the animals and other creatures are with God in heaven, just as they were in the story of the original paradise.
In the New Testament we are told God sees every sparrow that falls, which means he takes notice of each little life. In the Old Testament, we read about a future kingdom where the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the goat.
And finally, in the Book of Revelation, John describes a heavenly vision of all creatures before the throne of God. In that glorious gathering, he sees more than saved humanity: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever ” (Rev. 5:11-14).
Claire was my 14-year-old daughter’s very best friend. She came one year for Christmas to chew on the piano bench, and grab the roast from the table, and teach my daughter about unconditional love. And that she could lean on her Heavenly Father when strength was no-where to be found.
This was the first of many horrific losses my family would face in 2012. Another death to confront. Another opportunity to ask, “Why?” Another reminder to cherish every loved one, and welcome every opportunity to embrace as if it’s the last one.
We believe in a God who understands loss and grief, pain and anguish. He’s been here, and walked in our shoes, and fills our hearts with hope and joy, confidence and consolation.
Of course dogs can go to heaven. So many things to look forward to.
Blessings for this Holy Week 2014