My Labrador retriever, Blue (pictured), died recently. She was my constant companion for almost fifteen years. So my assigned question hits home just now. Will God include animals in Heaven? In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis speculated that some animals become so deeply ingrained in our lives, so much a part of our identities, that we could not really be ourselves, or truly happy in the next life, without them. I am hopefully inclined to agree.
But if so, what should we think will become of the billions of other animals that will have existed on earth? Will they have served their created purpose as important instruments of evolution in this life? Or do they have a future after death in an afterlife? Put in canonical Jewish and Christian terms, will animals inhabit the messianic kingdom of God on a “new earth” together with human beings?
One reason to think they will do so simply is that God created them in the first place. Should we think that the value of non-human beings is merely instrumental, and that they will have exhausted their evolutionary purpose prior to death? In Genesis 1, the author depicts God declaring non-human beings “good” in their own right, as having very high intrinsic value as parts of the “very good” cosmic whole. Should we think, then, that this ontological status would ever end, and not obtain in the messianic cosmic whole promised to come?
Furthermore, billions of animals fail to flourish as individuals prior to death. The evolutionary carnage is unimaginable. Should we think that God accepts this mass failure as the inevitable cost of creating valuable life by naturalistic means? Somehow, this way of thinking does not seem either aesthetically or morally right. It seems reasonable to expect an omnicompetent and morally perfect God to bring the being of all creatures and things to fruition according to their created natures.
More straightforwardly, it also seems that many species of animals are sentient, so that they can suffer in a morally important sense. Presumably, the profusion of undeserved suffering of animals in the world is a morally bad thing, a wrong that a morally perfect God would wish to make right. In Keith Ward’s words: “If there is any sentient creature which suffers pain, that being—whatever it is and however it is manifested—must find the pain transfigured by a greater joy.” And it seems clear that such evil-rectifying (and God-justifying) joy could only happen post mortem, in Heaven.
Beyond these philosophical considerations, Jewish and Christian canonical texts explicitly encourage belief that animals will inhabit Heaven, as envisioned.
Besides Genesis 1, which underscores God’s assessment of animals as “good,” and as essential to a cosmic whole that is “very good,” other texts suggest the inclusion of animals in the messianic age to come. In Genesis 6-7, God commands Noah to include all “kinds” of animals on the ark. Notably, after the flood, in Genesis 8-9, God makes a covenant with Noah that promises divine protection and preservation to all human and non-human beings. God makes this promise and repeats it two more times:
I now establish my covenant with … every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth” (Genesis 9: 9-10).
The speaker declares the covenant to be irrevocable—“everlasting” (Genesis 9: 16).
In the speeches of God from the windstorm in Job, God speaks at length about God’s intimate care even for animals living in wild realms that God seems to have abandoned—they, too, fall within the scope of the messianic vision. In Isaiah, that vision has the wolf at peace with the lamb, lions eating straw like the ox, and serpents venomous no more (Isaiah 65: 25).
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes that the whole creation “groans” in bondage to pain and futility, in the throes of decay and longing to be set free (Romans 8: 18-23). The emphasis on pain in nature suggests an allusion to the experience of animals, and that Paul’s expressed hope of the coming cosmic redemption includes them.
There is one last distinctly Christian reason for hoping that animals will inhabit Heaven. I suggest that the Christian doctrine of the Atonement provides unexpected grounds for that belief.
In Christian history, theologians have treated Atonement as a matter of reconciliation between God and human beings, who have allegedly wronged God. But animals have not done anything wrong, much less wrong to God. If anything, God has wronged animals by inscribing undeserved suffering into their existence. Can it be that the Atonement also had the aim of resolving that moral problem? Perhaps.
Christian writers have traditionally referred to Christ crucified as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1: 29). In Hebrews, the writer likened Jesus to the Scapegoat slain painfully on Yom Kippur (Hebrews 5-7). In all these typological metaphors, Christ is identified with blameless sacrificial animals. Is it far-fetched to think that this imagery conveys reconciliation between God and the animals?
Some modern writers (notably, Holmes Rolston II and Christopher Southgate) have referred to the evolutionary narrative of species as cruciform, as a “slaughter of innocents,” as a via dolorosa and a Darwinian kenōsis analogous to the “self-emptying” of Jesus on the cross (Philippians 2: 5-11). Meanwhile, the writer of Hebrews stressed that Christ’s death has brought an end to the need for animal sacrifice (Hebrews 10). Perhaps, then, the Atonement is not only a manifesto of liberation from sin and death for human beings, but also a symbolic declaration of an impending freedom from suffering in store for non-human beings in the messianic kingdom of Heaven that is promised to come.
What joys await animals—including Blue—in Heaven, we can only guess. But I suggest that canonical Jewish and Christian traditions together make it reasonable to believe that gloriously good things do await them, nonetheless.
Theology emeritus, Calvin College
Philosophy, Grand Valley State University
 Keith Ward. The Concept of God (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974), 223. Cited by Southgate, 78.