When I was kid a popular animated movie called All Dogs Go to Heaven was released. The protagonist of the story is a German Shepherd named Charlie who runs a riverboat Casino with his partner, a bulldog named Carface. At the beginning of the film, Carface murders Charlie in order to gain full control of their business and its income. Charlie, despite being a bit of a rake, goes to Heaven upon his demise. However, he escapes Heaven, utilizing some sort of mystical watch to do so, in order to return to earth and exact revenge on his erstwhile partner and murderer, Carface. In an ironic contradiction to the movie’s own title Charlie faces the very real possibility of going to Hell as a consequence of his escape from Heaven. In the end, the merit of a selfless act that Charlie commits allows him to avoid Hell and return to Heaven. All Dogs Go to Heaven perpetuated the unfortunately common misconception that Heaven is a place, behind pearly gates, where the deceased live as embodied angelic beings having received halos and wings. It also caused kids of my generation to wonder, “Do dogs go to Heaven?” Even before the release of All Dogs Go to Heaven, many a Sunday School teacher and pastor received similar inquiries from the children (and sometimes the adults) in his spiritual care. No one wants to tell a big-eyed child that his pet pony, hamster, or dog isn’t going or didn’t go to Heaven (I think everyone just assumes that cats go to Hell). Yet, the short answer to the question “Do animals go to Heaven?” is “no.” Animals do not go to Heaven. Anyone who makes the positive claim that animals go to heaven does so without any evidence from scripture. Certainly, the Bible doesn’t come right out and directly say that animals don’t go to Heaven. Nor does it directly say that animals won’t be resurrected to life in the New Jerusalem (which is different than Heaven). Yet, the person who makes the positive claim that Animals don’t go to heaven or take part in the resurrection of the dead does so with scriptural support. Still, sensitive pastors and Sunday School teachers might answer the question “Do animals go to Heaven?” by saying “Possibly, the Bible doesn’t say they don’t.” However, such an answer isn’t sensible and is barely biblical.
Heaven and Hades, the Holy City and Hell
If Hell is defined as the lake of fire which is the ultimate and eternal destination for Satan and the rest of damned, then no one is in Hell at this moment. Being cast into the lake of fire, according to Revelation 20, is “the second death” that comes after God’s final judgment at the great white throne. This judgment is yet to occur. Therefore, there must be a place from which the already deceased and damned come to face judgment. There is such a place. It is referred to as “Hades” in the New Testament and “Sheol” in the Old. There is precious little description of this realm of the dead in the Biblical text. However, we do know that existence there is a disembodied one. Paul writing to the Corinthian church, proclaimed that to be “absent from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord.” In the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus provided a glimpse of what this disembodied state is like. The faithful departed exist in peace while the unfaithful exist in agony. There is a great, un-crossable chasm between these two groups. The former group resides in Heaven, awaiting the resurrection and a bodily existence in the New Heavens and the New Earth. The latter group awaits the resurrection and a bodily existence in the lake of fire.
So, when a Christian dies today, his soul goes to Heaven. At some point in the future, God will remake material creation into a New Heaven and a New Earth. He will be resurrected into a bodily state and exist, body and soul, in the New Jerusalem, the Holy City. When a non-believer dies today, his soul goes to Hades, to torment. At some point in the future, he will be resurrected into bodily existence and cast into Hell (the lake of fire). For more in-depth study of the differences between Heaven, Hades, the New Jerusalem and Hell one can watch David’s Platt’s Secret Church 13 or read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. Enough has been said about these places for the purposes of discussing whether or not animals go to Heaven.
Systematic Theology and Souls
Jesus told the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus not to teach his hearers about the nature of the afterlife but to teach about the importance of believing the scriptures. The moral of the story, as it were, is that if someone rejects the authority of the Old Testament (which at the time He told the story was the only Testament) then he will not believe the word of God when the resurrected Jesus rises from the grave to proclaim it. Similarly, the occasion of Paul’s epistle (2nd Corinthians) to the Corinthian church was to warn about false apostles, not teach about the nature of Heaven. Still, Christians can carefully understand the details of these texts to develop an overall systematic theology of life after death. Such development is necessary because nowhere in the Biblical text is a brief, straightforward outline like the following:
- A man gets saved.
- The man dies.
- The man’s soul goes to Heaven.
- The man’s soul exists in Heaven until the resurrection.
- The resurrection of the dead occurs.
- The man lives in the Holy City with Jesus for all eternity.
That outline is accurate. However, scripture is not written as an outline. Doctrines are developed from the systematic study of scripture. Using a systematic theology, we can conclude that animals to do not go to heaven. From #3 above, we can see that it is a person’s soul that goes to heaven. Animals do not have souls. Therefore, they cannot go to heaven. At this point, someone might ask, “Where in the Bible does it say that animals don’t have souls?” There is no such statement made in the biblical text. However, studying and understanding of the biblical Doctrine of Man, leads one to conclude that only humans have souls. The book of Genesis teaches that man is a special creation of God. Humans, unlike animals, are made in the image of God. God Himself breathed life into man. Humans have souls, animals do not. Therefore, humans can go to heaven (which is a realm of souls) and animals cannot. When an animal’s body dies, the animal dies. When a man’s body dies, his soul lives on.
Animals in the New Jerusalem
My dog Jake, a Golden Retriever, died shortly after I got married. As dogs go, he was a very good one. Jake was gentle, loyal, and obedient. His death was hard on our family; we had Jake for over ten years. It’s sad to say but I will never see Jake again; not on earth, not in Heaven when I die, and not in the New Jerusalem when I am resurrected to new life. Since life in the New Jerusalem is a material one, there may very well be animals there. There may even be Golden Retrievers. Yet my Golden retriever will not be there. At his death, Jake ceased to be since he had no soul to carry on. I do not expect him to be reconstituted in a new body when the resurrection occurs. The Bible indicates that the dead will be resurrected from Hades and judged according to their deeds. Animals can’t be resurrected from Hades because they haven’t the souls to exist there in the first place. Furthermore, animals can’t be judged according to their deeds since their deeds are amoral (neither good nor evil) in nature. There is nothing in the biblical text to indicate that dead animals will be resurrected to new life in the New Jerusalem. If not for special revelation in scripture, humans wouldn’t know about this resurrection either. We do and we are not told that animals will be a part of it.
Positive Claims and my Unicorn
Assume someone makes the positive that he will be united with his dog in Heaven. It is incumbent upon the one who makes a positive claim to provide support for his assertion. As discussed above, the Bible is specifically silent about the eternal state of dead animals and a biblical systematic theology indicates that animals will not and cannot be in Heaven. One who makes the positive claim that he will be united with his dog in heaven cannot support that claim with scripture or, for that matter, with empirical scientific evidence. He is just plain wrong. Yet, someone might say, “Scripture is silent on the issue of pets in Heaven or the Holy City. Where scripture is silent we should be silent. Therefore, people can hold out hope that they will be united with their dead pets in the afterlife.”
Really, is that our blessed hope, to be united with pets?
Let’s say I tell you that I am accompanied wherever I go by an invisible guardian unicorn that only I can see. His name is Flick. When I’m in peril from demonic attack, Flick uses his magic horn to repel the demon that is attacking me. When I die, he will go to Heaven and the New Jerusalem with me. There he will be visible to everyone and I will ride him as a mode of conveyance and feed him oats and hay for all eternity. Now, if I tell you that the bible is silent about such guardian unicorns will you be content to let me go on making my claim or will you seek to disabuse me of my delusion?
There is a good reason that the Bible is silent on the state of animals in the afterlife. The sixty-six books of the Bible were written to people, with souls, created to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The Bible is God’s word to man; it is not God’s word to animals, which is fortunate because they can’t read anyway. The sixty-six books of the Bible are occasional books written to specific people, at specific times, in specific contexts. Ancient people weren’t as concerned with the eternal destinations of their pets as much as bourgeois modern American are. The ancients lived a hard scrabble existence. With no hospitals and no grocery stores, it was hard to just to stay alive and feed one’s family. Animals, such as hunting dogs, who could contribute to human provision, were valued. Pets that consumed resources without providing them were not so popular. It’s hard to imagine Paul writing a letter to persecuted first-century Christians to teach them about whether or not their pets went to Heaven. They had much more pressing concerns. There’s good reason that scripture is silent on the eternal destination of pets, few if any cared about such a question in biblical Israel and the early church.
Walmart and PetSmart
A couple of years before my wife and I had kids, we went to Pet Smart to buy some name tags for our dogs, James and John. When we checked out the cashier asked us if we’d like to register “our babies” for their mailing list. I politely declined and was silently offended. My dogs, I know, are not babies. They are dogs. I didn’t have babies at that time, I had dogs. They are not equal to humans. When my wife and I finally had children, there was not enough space in our house for both our twin girls and James and John. Our girls live here with us. James and John now live in my parents’ backyard with my dad’s birddog. My human babies are more important than my pets. This should be patently obvious. Jesus didn’t have to explain that human children were more important than animals before He told the Syrophoenician woman “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She just knew what he meant. Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman walked the earth at a time when there was not PetSmart. There was also no Walmart. Walmart was built first because the marketed first demanded a store that sells food for people.
When my son was born I saw a car in the hospital parking deck with a sticker that read “Dog grandma”. I felt sorry for whomever owned that car. My parents were rejoicing over having a new grandchild, a real one. The woman who owned this car felt the need to buy a sticker to indicate that her child had purchased a dog. As I walked to the hospital to retrieve my newborn son, I couldn’t help but think of how appalling that sticker was. The same value rightfully placed upon a human child had been placed upon a dog. Later that day I had to pay the hospital bill. It was substantial. It was not an amount I would pay for veterinary care for my pets. If my pets get sick and need medicine that costs $5,000 to live, I will let them die. I need that $5,000 to support my children and there is no limit to the price I would pay for medicine for them.
A few months ago I went to another pet store to by James a new name tag and collar. Since James lives outside, he needs a plastic collar. A nylon collar won’t do because nylon collars retain moisture when it rains. A dog with a wet collar can get a nasty neck infection. The pet store didn’t have any plastic collars. It only had collars for dogs that live inside. It also had dog clothes and desserts baked for dogs. It didn’t even have any plain Purina dog food, only the high-end stuff, like Iams, which my dad says is like feeding a dog steak every day. (I had to go to the farm supply store later to get Jake a collar.) As I left the store, I thought about all the hungry children in the world and the thousands of babies who are aborted in America. The continued existence of this bourgeois pet store proved to me that many people care more about pets than they do about their fellow human beings.
There are human beings dying apart from God and going to Hades every day. It seems like a wrong priority to be so concerned with the eternal destination of pets. That’s where the theological rubber meets the road when discussing whether or not pets go to heaven. It seems like such an unholy question. Do pets matter so much now that we insist on taking them to Heaven with us? Isn’t it enough that Jesus will be there? The Bible says Jesus will wipe away every tear, I believe it. I don’t need to be united with my dear, departed pets to be happy. God is enough.
Christianity Today and Pets in Heaven
People really do worry about pets going to Heaven. Recently, I read an article published Christianity Today in which Karen Swallow Prior (a Fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission who is also an English professor at Liberty University) opined that perhaps animals make it to heaven by way of covenant. In the article, she wrote, “When we choose to take into our household creatures that share with us the breath of life and bestow them with names, perhaps we enter into a kind of covenantal relationship with them too…. Perhaps God will honor my acts of naming the animals by bringing (them to heaven).” Sadly, Christianity Today wouldn’t publish articles about such trifling subject matter unless American Christians demanded them. Such an argument not only defies scripture but common sense. There are plenty of people who named their children and lovingly shared homes with them only to see them die apart from God destined for eternal Hell. To argue that God will let someone’s soulless pets into Heaven while casting her human children into eternal hellfire seems ludicrous. Yet, this is what the evangelical press has professional writers produce to fill their pages. This is an evangelical tragedy. This is baked goods at the pet store.
Pastors, unlike theologians opining from behind a computer screen need to exercise caution and care when answering questions about sensitive subject matter. Regardless of our culture’s almost sinful exaltation of animals, it is the environment in which shepherds tend to their flocks. Answering the question, “Do animals go to heaven” can include more than a hard “No.” Pastors who answer this question can take the time to point out that God entrusted man with stewardship of the earth and rule over animals. The life someone’s animal has is the only life that animal is going to get. It should be treated as valuable. Non-Christians watch how Christians treat others, even how they treat their pets. We live in a world in which people hold to unbiblical ideologies such as speciesism and feminism. The biblical order has been turned on its head by the fall. Pastors and others are blessed when they are asked questions that give them to opportunity to teach biblical truth about the afterlife and mankind. We know that no dogs go to heaven but some humans do. My hope is that those humans will read this article, study the theological resources provided, and come to espouse a more biblically informed worldview.
[Contributed by Seth Dunn]
*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.
 There is disagreement among Christians as to whether God will destroy the extant material creation and make a completely new one or simply restore the current fallen creation to a pristine, pre-fall state. I take the former position but further discussion of this matter is not relevant to the current discussion.
 At this point, my readership may be ready to throw me off of the discernment bus for recommending an NT Wright book. Wright is one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars. His treatment on Heaven, Hell, and the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus in Surprised by Hope is excellent. I do not recommend all his theological positions on other matters. (Wright, it seems to me, is a partial preterist. I reject his eschatological position as much as I reject David Platt’s amillennialism.) For a Christian confused about what Heaven is, I’m hard pressed to think of better resources than the two I’ve recommended from Platt and Wright.
 Ancient Egyptian cats are perhaps an exception.
 Wild guess
 I was aghast to learn of the existence of this worldview in my Environmental Ethics class at the University of Georgia.