“Did Fluffy go to Heaven?” At dinner tonight, my three year old asked this profound question. Of course, she asked Mommy and had no interest in anything Daddy might think of the matter. The fact that I will soon start my seventh year of theological education did not pull much weight at the dinner table tonight. At first, I was impressed with Sophie’s depth and wisdom (Sophia means wisdom) that she would even ask this question at three (come on that’s like a 7 year old question), and then I thought about how little this question is taken seriously by grown-ups like me. Questions like “who made God?” and other deep questions associated with childhood never seem to get a fair shake. Kids ask the darndest questions don’t they? What is a parent to do? As someone who grew up without a very stable father figure, I sometimes long for some magical book on parenthood. Knowing my daughter is just a chip off the old block, this is just one of many, many things to come. She will find her answers if it takes her the rest of her curious and impatient life, and I really want to engage with her where she is at, not simply buy those kids books with “all the right” pat answers in them that my mom—in desperation—got for me in droves. I doubt they have one about Fluffy anyway.
A few years ago, when I began my journey through theological education, I would have written off all the parents who confidently told their children that “the Fluffies of this world go to heaven” as weak willed, theologically lazy, or biblically ignorant. I would have thought that they would just tell their children what “they needed to hear” to keep the day moving forward and preserve the delicate emotions of their small children. I mean come on, that is the easy way out right? Like avoiding say, the Santa Clause issue… The question came up once in philosophy class and I shot it down in three seconds of debate. What a pile of fuzzy theology I thought. Perhaps I was the theologically lazy one.
The depth of Sophie’s question is truly shown in the other questions it raises, things like “do animals have souls? Can they experience salvation? Do animals sin? How are they affected by the Fall?” How you answer these questions largely determine how you come out on Fuzzy’s predicament. There are less serious questions to consider also, like whether there are litter boxes or hairballs in some kind of kitty purgatory. Surely, there must be litter boxes in most people’s conception of hell.
Ironically, earlier today I was already thinking about some of these things. At work I made the statement that it was silly to think that we were being smart to recklessly turn all our natural resources into something as meaningless and as intangible as money. That perhaps the greatest lie the Devil ever convinced people to believe was that short term comfort was worth a bleaker future for our children, just to add a few ones and zeros to a file on the web somewhere. In a conversation that ended up being more about evil and freewill, we talked about the role creation. My friend at work seemed quite unconvinced that animals were actually unique actors alongside us, that they are distinct beings with actions that really matter. To him, since animals cannot reason their minds are just like bundles of instincts. I think the instincts of animals are complex, and make them far more that just little machines of flesh with the capacity to feel pain. While animals do not largely have the same capacity of reason that humans have, we would lose a lot in relegating salvation to mere intellectual assent. If monkeys can’t be saved simply because they cannot call Jesus Lord, say the “sinners prayer,” or assent to the four spiritual laws, what about mentally handicapped people? Are sociopaths beyond salvation for medical reasons? I don’t believe anyone is beyond salvation. Obviously, salvation is more than mere intellectual assent. It is a relationship, perhaps even a process oriented journey with God. It is something we experience now, not something that just happened one day when a light switch was flipped off or on up in heaven. Salvation is not just for when we die, but dynamically exists for right now.
I would be willing to bet money that in their own way, animals have a relationship with God, though one probably quite different than our own. Many people would readily say that animals do not have a soul, cannot experience salvation, and cannot sin; therefore salvation is beyond them, but that rests on a lot of pretty murky theology. The Bible teaches the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul. The latter comes to us by way of Greek mythology. Everlasting life is life lived in a body. In fact, the Bible does not really make the same philosophical distinctions between body and soul that we do as western people. Biblically, a person is both body and soul, if you only have one you do not have a person: Adam was not human until God breathed life into him. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for soul also mean breath and these concepts are related. Life seems to require a body—one that breathes—unless you are God, and even God had one at the incarnation. He still might have one, because Jesus ascended in one, but I am not sure I want to pick a side on that topic. It is not a hill worth dying on.
The Bible says all of creation is yearning for redemption, and while it says little about whether or not animals have souls, we can definitely say God wants animals redeemed, and also that they will be. In that chapter of Revelation that speaks of this return to the garden, gathered around the tree of life are animals that have lost the distinction between predator and prey. This is the picture of animals redeemed and still a part of God’s plan. Do they all make it? Who knows what faithfulness looks like in furry form…
At the root of this question really is, “what is the role of creation.” Is it just a stage built for us? Lots of people, especially those who like to talk often about prophecy and the end times, tend to have a pretty careless attitude when it comes to taking care of the earth. After all, Jesus is going to come back in our lifetimes right? And its all going to burn anyway…At least that is what it works out in practice. One of the major problems with this view, is that history has shown us that people have been saying this for thousands of years, at least as early as the Qumran community. I would love it if Jesus came back, don’t get me wrong, but what if like so many good Christian folks before me, I am wrong? Shouldn’t we have a backup plan? What if my daughter inherits a landfill of a world, simply because of bad theology? What about her granddaughter? What about “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it?” If we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, where are the limitations on that? Are the limits at our countries borders? Absolutely not. Then why not extend it to our future neighbors? Do we expect God’s love to extend out into time, but not our own? Are we so arrogant as to assume that we are all that matters to God because we are the ones who are living right now? I would argue that “love our neighbors” should not stop at the present tense. Can our neighbors even be outside of our species? Could love really reach out that far? I don’t see why not. Is human activity the only activity that really matters? Doubtful.
There is a serious problem with seeing creation as a mere stage for human activity. First of all, God saw that it was good. Creation has its own inherent worth, it is not just a backdrop for the real show…Us. God imbued it with beauty because He loved it, not simply because He was bored while He was waiting around to create us. We obviously live in an environment that is much more than just an aquarium (the atmosphere) and a heat lamp (the sun). Isn’t that like calling the Grand Canyon a big hole in the ground? It is, but it is also a lot more. We have the Alps, the oceans, the sunsets, the starry night sky, and also millions of unique and amazing creatures who surely filled God’s heart with delight as He created them.
Creation is more than a stage, and animals have real actions that matter. Maybe actions that should matter to us. In their own way, animals love. Domesticated animals love their owners. Sheep love their shepherds. Just because an animal does not have our highly developed abilities for reason hardly matters. I think God values love more than reason. Does He not use the foolish to confound the wise and the weak to shame the strong? Scientists tell us that chimpanzees are only 2 percent different than humans when it comes to genetics. While most Christians do not want to hear that because they see humanity as the highest peg of creation, what is the harm is just letting it be true? I do not want to minimize how much difference that two percent of DNA can make, obviously it is a lot. But what if, instead of maximizing the difference that two percent makes because it makes humans seem just above animals in the created order of things, we focused on the 98 percent of God’s image that chimpanzees share with us? Is there not “that of God” in all living things?
Now if you know me at all, you will know I am not some kind of hippy. I don’t wander in the woods and hug trees (but my sister does now and then.) Last year, a good friend and fellow seminarian named Andy and I had chickens together. One freakishly cold night we were not prepared for wiped out half of our chickens. It was horrible. We could not bring ourselves to eat them and, as future ministers, could not help but joke a little as we buried them. Andy said to me slyly, “James, would you like to say a few words?” and while choking back laughter, we half jokingly prayed for our chickens fate, even remembering them by name ala mock eulogy. As crazy as this sounds to the modern hearer, in the medieval world people would not have batted an eye at behavior like this. Prayer for animals was once far more normal than we would want to accept in our skeptic idolizng culture. Praying for animals seems superstitious doesn’t it? Yet, medieval prayer books are filled with animal blessings and the like. People were more agrarian based and so, the fate of animals and their owners were intertwined. To us chicken is something that comes in a bag at the grocery store. To some people even now, a flock of chickens is not merely a half-hearted attempt at the Wendell Berry dream by a couple of graduate students, but likely represents the livelihood of a family, or the business venture of two friends. Even in Old Testament times, the Passover lamb was raised up like a family pet. It was shown love and care. If it got hurt, you could bet your sweet tail people would have prayed for it. People once gave thanks to God for animals regularly in ways only the most “fanatical” pet lover might understand.
My daughter is learning the hard reality that pets die. Her questions about the goodness of God have very much to do with if God is a God of mercy who welcomes home His creatures, creatures like Fluffy. I am probably just beginning to get a taste of the countless furry friends my daughter will want real answers about in her grief. The thing is, it really matters. It matters what God thinks of “the sparrow that falls,” even if He loves us a little more. But does He? To my daughter, in her childlike innocence, people and animals are loved the same. Does this require childlike faith beyond what we cynical adults can comprehend? Far from being shaped in a reactionary way by the politics of certain people who would have no qualms about having an abortion, but who would happily boycott to save a sucker fish, my daughter is asking real questions about God in her own way. Politics do not matter to her, only “what is God going to do” to reconcile Fluffy to Himself? As a father, I am here for the journey and am happily present on its current leg through theodicy. I doubt my daughter would be that excited about heaven if Fluffy herself wasn’t there laying down with the lions and the lambs eating straw. This is as legitimate a place to start a theological journey for a three year old as there ever was one. All I can do is be willing to help her find her way, even if it starts with the fate of poor Fluffy, a friend’s cat who may just have had a face to face encounter with God on that great bye and bye. A cat who perhaps chased a butterfly on asphalt one minute only to suddenly look down on streets of gold; where catnip falls from the sky like manna, and all the rocking chairs have been burned up with unquenchable fire. Until that great day comes, I am sure loving the little slice of heaven that is being a father.