Do dogs go to heaven?
Readings: Genesis 9:8-17; John 3:1-17
There are Christians in the University who will come to your room in your hall of residence to answer any theological question you care to ask by text message. It turns out that the most common question they get asked is this: Do dogs go to heaven? Nobody has ever texted me this question, but all the same, I thought it was worth exploring this morning. At the outset, it’s important to recognise our ignorance here. Any answer has to be one based in faith rather than knowledge. I don’t have any selfies of me with Fido in the hereafter. We can’t be dogmatic about these things. Or categorical in our approach. Nevertheless I am going to rabbit on for a few minutes….
Scripture in fact doesn’t think much of dogs, where they are hardly ever domesticated, but rather live as scavengers. Indeed, in the Bible, enemies are metaphorically described as dogs.
So let us start with another question. What do we hope for? Many would say – to go to heaven when we die. And indeed there is a huge weight of Christian thinking and tradition in this area – that the point of life is to be accepted into heaven after this earthly life. This happens by a process of forgiveness for our sin, offered in Jesus’ death on the cross, which redeems us, and grants us salvation, able to receive eternal life from God. Although our body dies, our souls enter heaven. We escape all that has troubled us in life – our bodies with their pain and suffering, their temptations and their ageing. We are liberated from the stuff of life with all its mistakes, loses and compromises. There’s a tradition around depicting this – clouds, harps, angels, white robes, pearly gates.
If this is what we hope for, it’s hard to see how dogs – or any animals for that matter – could go to heaven. It’s a wholly human story – it is for us human beings and for our salvation that Jesus came down from heaven and became truly human. It is our human souls which are the image of God in us. Dogs are part of the entire non-human creation, below its pinnacle – homo sapiens – and so denied the soulfulness necessary for life beyond death. And indeed, one of the verses in our Gospel reading today, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible, seems to point in this direction:
For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
What evidence is there that Poppy, Tobit or Hephzibah – the Chaplain’s cats – believe in Jesus? They believe in food, in comfort, and occasionally in wanton destruction of the mice population of St Andrews. They prefer human company to that of their fellow felines. But that doesn’t make them human – that doesn’t make them saved.
And yet, is that the only way to answer the question, What do we hope for? Surely it depends where we are. Some people in recent days may say – I hope for something better in this earthly life. In England they may say: I hope for flood defences which work, for the rain to stop. In Delhi, the cry may be: I hope for far less pollution. In Idlib in Syria, surely it will be: I hope for the bombs to stop falling on the hospitals, on my home, on my family. In the University, right now, we hope for the coronavirus virus not to spread here. And across the world, we hope for a complete change of approach to climate change, acting now to transform the future of the planet. Sometimes we don’t hope for escape, but rather for transformation in the here and now, of the earth and all that it contains. As Goethe wrote, This world is more than a waiting-room for the next life.
And there is no better symbol of this hope in the Bible than the story of the flood and Noah’s ark. There had been a massive flood, God’s judgment on human folly. But God saved a handful of human beings along with breeding pairs of all the other animals in the ark. When the waters subsided, God made the promise we heard read earlier, a covenant. It is not a promise to rescue life from the earth, but to renew this earth with all its life. Over and over again we sense the wideness of God’s intention to care for this world:
10 I am establishing my covenant… with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the ark
Reiterated v. 11 all flesh
v. 12 every living creature
v. 13 the earth
v. 14 every living creature of all flesh
v. 15 every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth
v. 17 This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.
It could not be clearer – God promises to be present in this world with human and non-human creatures, and never to allow this community of creation be destroyed.
And so we have at least two fundamental ways in Christian tradition of understanding the question What do we hope for? One is escape from the earthly, the bodily, the physical, from nature, from the rest of creation. The other is the rescue of the earth with its creatures, and all its flesh including human flesh. Can these come together? I think so.
Let’s ask again: What do we hope for? Christians hope for resurrection. In just over a month’s time we will celebrate Easter, and hear the account of the resurrection of Jesus. We do not celebrate God becoming a human soul, but the Word becoming flesh. And we do not celebrate Christ becoming disembodied at Easter, but the bodily raising of him. This is the heart of the Christian faith, and it points forwards. It is the sign and the source of the transformation of Jesus’ fellow human beings. Yes, it points beyond death, to the fulfilment of our lives in the resurrection, in spiritual bodies (as Paul puts it), in harmony, peace and joy. But it also points to transformation in the here and now, caring for creation, loving our fellow-creatures, and bringing about some of that change we long for – from despair among people we know, to the hell that is northern Syria.
If resurrection is God’s commitment to humanity in our flesh, in our bodiliness, does it not imply that his will is to save all flesh, to transform the whole of creation into a new heavens and a new earth, to bring all creatures into his perfect community of love. How could God lose his interest in the bodily Poppy, Tobit or Hephzibah, while saving bodily me?
I’ve concentrated on the ark with all its creatures, but the Bible is full of passages which point to hope for the whole world. Even that chapter of John’s gospel may be less focussed on the human than it at first appears. For God so loved the world… Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. The world – in the Greek it is kosmos. The sense is of the whole world – everything under heaven.
Or when the prophet Isaiah envisages the coming time of peace, he sees the animals there, no longer threatening each other, but living in harmony, wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, cows and bears, lions and calves.
Or when Paul imagines the scope of salvation in his letter to the Romans, he hopes that creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay.
And in the final book of the Bible, Revelation, in a vision of heaven, we encounter every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them singing in praise of the Lamb of God.
What do we hope for? For heaven beyond this life, for blessing within this life, for resurrection of this life – and for love, always, for love. We hope to love and be loved – in our family, with our partners, among our friends, and with our pets. People love their pets, and is it too much to say that our pets love us? One of the deepest longings in life is to see our loved ones again – whether at the end of a semester, at the end of a degree, at the end of a travel ban, or beyond the end of a life. It’s one of the questions people ask me as Chaplain, not by text, but sitting quietly in my office, during a time of bereavement. Where is he? Will I see her again? Christians believe that God loves the world, and so is not content to let the world go spinning off into folly, fickleness and failure, but sends an ark, and angels, and an actual human being to rescue the one he loves. It is love that leads us to believe in the future and so work in the present. We know that animals can be loved by us – though we are choosy – dogs and cats, more than spiders and midges. But is not God, maker and redeemer of the world, able to love it all, dogs and cats and spiders and midges?
There’s a story I love of a doctor who was visiting a dying patient at home. The patient asked the doctor if she had any conviction about what awaited him in the life beyond. The doctor was flummoxed for a while, then heard a scratching at the bedroom door, and her answer came. “Do you hear that? That’s my dog. I left her downstairs but she’s obviously grown impatient and has come upstairs and hears my voice. She has no notion what’s inside the door, but she knows I am here. Now, is it not the same with you? You do not know what lies beyond the door, but you know the one who loves you is there.”
It’s a story of hope, found in the experience of a dog. We hope for heaven beyond this life, for blessing within this life, for resurrection of this life – and for love. So, if I were sent that text, Do dogs go to heaven? perhaps I’d tap in this reply:
We can only hope so.