We learned yesterday of the death of Marilyn McCord Adams. She is the second of the SCP giants to fall (the earlier being Bill Alston). No one living, in my view, can fill their shoes. Those of us who studied at their feet first- or second-hand will spend the rest of our lives simply working out the details and promise of what they wrote. And we won’t even get that fully done. They’re just that much better than us.
In 2010, as Justin McBrayer and I were about to begin our religious epistemology colloquium at the Pacific APA, I noticed Marilyn McCord Adams enter the room. My confidence suddenly crashed, as her reputation as a sharp critic preceded her. And, mirabile visu, we had made T-shirts for our session which we intended to hand out. Would she think this was inappropriate? Would she think it was funny? What should we do?!
She turned out to be delightful, of course, and we hit it off from the word go. A few APA’s later, and she would be my commentator on what would be a central chapter of my book on animal pain. She had very incisive comments, of course, delivered with wit and vigor. But at the same time, she provided great suggestions for solutions to the criticisms she made. In order to provide context for the paper, I sent her the book MS and suggested she may want to read the synopsis of the preceding chapter. She then took it upon herself to provide commentary on the whole book! This was supererogatory in excelsis!
Then, after the book was published, as one of the critics at a book symposium on that book at Calvin College put together by Matt Halteman she expanded both the criticisms and the suggestions for addressing them. It was a small workshop, and we spent two full days together in sessions, at meals, and on field trips. She was spry and qui vive. This was just two summers ago, and you’d never think there was a thing wrong with her. When I knew she fell ill about a year ago, it didn’t even occur to me that she could succumb to death so early. It was, frankly, hard to believe it could happen at all.
In between these events were many brief but fruitful encounters. She was witty, tough, compassionate. Her work was bold, creative, imaginative, yet precise down to each analytic detail. I read her work for so many classes: Medieval Philosophy, Free Will, Philosophy of Religion, and others. Her book on horrendous evils was the greatest inspiration for mine. But in addition to her written work being so insightful and rigorous, for me at least it was FUN. And in addition to her writing being fun, SHE was fun. I loved her rough-and-tumble give and take that was never, that I witnessed, in any way uncharitable. She was going to write the blurb for the back of the paperback version of my book, which will now never happen, and instead I’m going to dedicate my book _God, Suffering, and Sainthood_ to her memory in the hope that it will impel me to make it a book worthy of being dedicated to her.
Pax et bonum,
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.