Today’s New York Times reports that Pope Francis has once again said something controversial. He consoled a boy whose dog had died by saying, “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”
The Times added, “Theologians cautioned that Francis had spoken casually, not made a doctrinal statement,” but his words seem pretty clear. The article describes how various popes have disagreed about whether pets go to heaven. Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) said no; John Paul II said yes, remarkably asserting that our pets are “as near to God as men are” (what?!); and Benedict returned to sanity, saying that when an animal dies, it “just means the end of existence on earth.”
Here’s what I think.
1. Of course animals have souls. A soul is simply the immaterial aspect of a being, and I’m sure that my dog has one. Sammy’s soul is evident in how he greets me when I come home–tail wagging, standing on hind legs as he watches me climb out of my car. He’s got a different greeting for the UPS man and my next door neighbor, whom he doesn’t seem to trust. She seems like a nice lady, but I’ve seen enough Disney dog movies to know she probably stole something from my garage when I wasn’t home. Sammy knows about it, and it’s driving him nuts. You’ll never convince me that Sammy is nothing more than chemicals and neurons firing. He’s clearly got an immaterial side as well, and it’s very loving toward the people he likes.
2. But having a soul does not mean Sammy goes to heaven. We only think that because we’re influenced by Plato. But Plato was a pagan, and his views aren’t necessarily compatible with Scripture. Christianity teaches that God created everything from nothing–not just our bodies, but our souls as well.
Before my conception in 1966, I did not exist. No part of me existed, neither my body nor my soul. The same God who created my soul from nothing could extinguish it, taking it back to nothing if he chose. I know he won’t, because I have his promise that he will sustain me forever–not just my soul but also my body (we believe in the resurrection!). But I don’t have that promise for Sammy. God may resurrect Sammy and give him back to me on the new earth, but I don’t expect him too. There will be animals on the new earth (Isaiah 65:25), maybe one that looks suspiciously like Sammy. But I don’t have God’s word, so I won’t follow the pope’s example and make promises that God hasn’t made.
3. What separates humans from animals is not that we have souls and they don’t, but that we alone are image of God. Pope John Paul II apparently forgot this when he said animals “are as near to God as men are.” As image of God, we are commanded to exercise responsible stewardship over the animals. We may still eat them, but we must treat them with care, as our fellow creatures. Our animal factories may make economic sense, but they are immoral. We should not stuff pigs in crates with no room to turn around or suspend cows so their feet never touch the ground. Animals deserve a normal, better than miserable life, right up until the moment we eat them.
The pope is half-right. Animals do have souls, but this has no bearing whatsoever on whether they go to heaven. If you think it does, then you’re thinking like a pagan. You should do better, especially if you’re the pope.