We have come a long way since Descartes infamously claimed that animals are mere automatons without the capacity for pleasure or pain. To the contrary: They experience. They suffer. They grieve. They love.
When it comes to our pets, we not only take them into our homes, but deep within our hearts. In fact, some become so attached that they yearn to be with their pets throughout eternity. Indeed, no less than the great C.S. Lewis speculated on the eternal fate of animals in The Problem of Pain, suggesting (hoping) that at least tame animals might enter heaven through their relationship with humans, in the same way that humans do through their relationship with Christ.
But I worry that the question could distort our understanding of eternal life as described in Scripture and Christian tradition. Indeed, if we are not careful, we could cross the line into a sentimentality that shrinks our eschatological expectation. Our human idea of heaven might be walking an adored dog in the forest, but there is no indication that is anything like God’s plan.
The question of whether our pets go to heaven requires an examination of the natures of animals, of man, and of God. Animals, we know, have their lives in God. Indeed, we are told in Psalm 104 that animals look to God for their food and that when He withdraws His spirit they return to the dust. We also know that God marks the dropping of every sparrow.
But John 3:16 makes no mention of animals and only humans are made in the divine likeness. Unlike animals, we are moral agents possessed with the knowledge of good and evil, capable of sinning by commission and omission, for which we will be held to account. That makes ours a completely different nature of being.
Here’s an illustration: My late cat once raided a nest and I found her happily batting a helpless, now dying chick around the back yard. She was just being a cat but had I done that I would be rightly branded a monster. I also knew my human duty. I put the poor chick out of its misery with a heavy work boot and removed the carcass. Doing the awful right thing came at a cost: Chloe was so angry I spoiled her fun that she refused to look at me for the rest of the day.
St. John tells us that God is love, a truth that holds the key to the question. God’s love is unlimited, unconditional, and eternal. So it seems to me that when we witness the very face of God and participate through constant worship in His ineffable essence—which, we are told is the never ending activity of heaven—it will at the very least include all we yearn for when desiring to be with our pets forever.
So do pets have souls? Do they go to heaven? God knows “but for now, we see through a glass darkly.” Rather than speculating or making strained proof-texts, let us instead give thanks to God for the great gift of joy He has given us in our pets in the confident knowledge that whatever His plans for our animal friends, all will be perfection and light.