Job 39:1-8, 26-30 & Luke 12:22-31
Do animals go to heaven? I think this is a question that every child asks when a beloved pet dies. When our family dog, an Old English sheepdog named Sherlock, died when I was a junior in high school, our family all imagined him in doggie heaven. We knew that, if there were UPS trucks driving around in heaven, Sherlock would be barking at them and that if anyone in heaven made popcorn, Sherlock would be there begging for pieces of popcorn. I accepted this belief that dogs go to heaven without question, until it came up in conversation with some pastors that I knew several years ago. These pastors were very offended that anyone could even think that animals went to heaven. Their argument was that since animals don’t have souls, and since Jesus didn’t die for animals, that there were no animals in heaven, end of story. I was crushed, and thus I began a theological journey into the status of animals to see if these pastors were really right, and I will share with you the answer that I came up with during the course of this sermon.
I think that this argument that animals have no souls is part of what leads us to treat them as though they are ours to do with as we please. If we go back to the creation account in Genesis 1, we hear God say, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” This idea of dominion also feeds into the idea that animals are there for our use and our pleasure, regardless of the consequences. But, if we look at our reading from Job today, we see God demanding from Job an answer to his question, “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer? . . . Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?” This Scripture tells us that the animals can get along just fine without human beings, for it is God who gives the animals the knowledge they need to survive. And Jesus, in our Gospel reading today, points out the fact that the ravens, which were considered by the Jewish people to be unclean birds, still looked to God to feed them. In other words, these lowly birds are an example of trust in God that we “superior” human beings should be following! So, how do we reconcile the description in Genesis that we are to have “dominion” over the animals with our accounts from Job and from Luke?
In order to answer this, we need to first do some exploring of what it means for humankind to be made in the image of God, which is also part of the creation account in Genesis 1. In the countries surrounding Israel who worshiped other gods, it was customary to put up a statue of the god and worship the statue. This god-statue, or idol, was also called an image of whatever god the people were worshiping. However, in the Old Testament, it was expressly forbidden to make an image, or a statue, of God, in the Ten Commandments. One reason why was that humans are already made in the image of God. Think about it—we are the image of God. People see something of God in us, and we see something of God in other people. That’s absolutely astounding, when you think about it!
However, the Bible also makes clear that, even though we are the image of God, we are not to be worshiped as gods. We are most definitely creatures, but we are God’s images, and how we behave towards the rest of creation will say something about the God that we worship. Let’s look at this from the point of view of another Bible passage: Colossians 1:15 says that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”. Jesus also says that he came to serve and not to be served—this is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Jesus is our model for being in the image of God: not only to serve one another, but to serve, that is, care for with a loving hand, all of creation. Just as Jesus came to rule over us with his example of servanthood, so we, too, rule over creation by serving and caring for creation, not by exploiting it or abusing it.
So, with this background in mind, let’s return to Jesus’ teaching today in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat, and he uses the example of the raven. As I mentioned before, the raven was considered an unclean bird by the Jewish people. When we look at what exactly the raven eats, we can understand why. The raven will eat just about anything, including things that are dead. If God provides food for this lowly and hated bird, God will most certainly provide food for us. So, in other words, we can learn from the raven how to trust in God for our daily bread and not to worry about where it is coming from. Just as God cares for the raven, he cares for us humans as well. If the raven can trust God for provision, why don’t we?
Animals are thus not only there for us to care for, but for us to learn from as well. The raven is not the only animal in the Bible who people learn from. One of my favorite stories, and one of the funniest in the Bible, I think, is the story in Numbers of Balaam and his donkey. Balaam was a sorcerer from a non-Israelite people who was summoned by King Balak to curse the Israelites. As he traveled to the king, Balaam’s donkey veered off the road twice and then lay down to go around the angel of the Lord, who was standing in Balaam’s path. Balaam, who did not see the angel, beat his donkey each time. And God enabled the donkey to speak and to ask Balaam why he had beat it each time. It turned out that the donkey, the supposedly dumb animal, recognized the angel of the Lord before Balaam did!
So, if we are to respect animals, to learn from them, and to care for them as part of God’s creation, how does that work in today’s society? Some people decide to eat vegetarian or vegan in protest of how human beings treat animals. I think that’s okay, but I want to state for the record that I like beef, chicken, and pork, and since I’m very fussy about which vegetables I eat, I don’t think I could survive as a vegetarian. As Christians, it is okay for us to use animals for food, but we should raise them humanely, for domesticated livestock, and for wild animals, hunt them in a sustainable matter so that no animal ever goes extinct because of our actions. By trusting in God’s abundance and trusting that he will feed us as he does the raven, we do not need to worry that in taking steps to help an animal to survive, we will go without. Caring for God’s creation in a servant-like manner demands that we trust in God to supply all of our needs.
Then what about the questions with which I opened this sermon: Do animals have souls? Well, we have seen from Scripture that animals are a part of creation, just as humans are, and that God intends for us to care for them as part of that creation. We have seen from Job that there are some animals who do not need us to survive, but who simply depend upon God to feed them and care for them. We have seen from Jesus’ teaching that we humans can learn from the way that animals behave. All of these things hint at animals having souls just as humans do. What is a soul, though? The dictionary defines a soul as “the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans”. I would argue, though, that animals do have that same principle of life, feeling, thought, and action. They have different personalities, which to me also defines what a soul is. The dog that I used to have was scared to death of thunderstorms and there was nothing to be done to calm him down until the storm had passed. My dog now, Otis, could care less about thunderstorms, but he flips out when you touch his paws and when he thinks I’ve left him home alone for too long. So I would say, yes, animals do have souls, just as we do.
Do animals go to heaven? In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, . . . in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. . .” So when Paul is talking about the whole creation, that means everything: plants, animals, and people. We are all waiting for the second coming of Christ so that we may be set free from our sinfulness and decay. So, yes, I believe that there will be animals in heaven, and that we will live in harmony with them as Adam and Eve once lived in harmony with the animals in the Garden of Eden.
So now, in the in-between time, while we wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus, let us learn from the animals as Jesus suggested. Let us trust in God to give us our daily needs, as the ravens and the other animals do. As we figure out how best to care for the animals in God’s creation, let us do so with respect for our fellow creatures, who have souls just as we do and who are sometimes better able to recognize their Creator than we are. Let us recognize that there are some animals out there who can get along just fine without us, as God told Job, and let that keep us humble. Above all, in all that we do, let us remember that we share this creation of God with the animals as we make decisions on how best to live together with them. And let us remember that we are the image of God, and how we treat the rest of Creation will reflect what we believe about the God who made us. Amen.