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Thoughts on the (eternal) future of animals

I find the concept of eternal life for at least certain animals plausible for two principal reasons.

(Image: Frans Hulet/Unsplash.com)

G.K. Chesterton remarks somewhere in Orthodoxy that the longer one is acquainted with animals, the greater the difference between them and human beings appears. I have had a familiarity, frequently a close one, with a wide variety of animals since my parents brought me home from the maternity ward, ranging from guppies and salamanders through cats, dogs, cattle, and horses. I worked for five or six years as a docent at Denver Zoo, where my specialty was African lions, though I was trained in each of the zoo’s five zones.

My experience during all these years has been exactly the opposite of Chesterton’s. The more animals I have known, and the more I know about animals, the closer to human beings they seem to me to be.

Advances made over the past generation or so by scientists studying behavior at the individual and social levels across a broad spectrum of the animal kingdom confirm for me that the conclusions I draw from personal experience are not based on mere sentiment or wishful thinking. Among the species that have been studied with the most interesting and significant results are apes (lesser and greater), elephants, and birds—the Corvidae family in particular that includes crows, ravens, and rooks. To compress what researchers have learned about animals in recent years: They are far more intelligent—more mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally complex—that had been previously suspected.

C. S. Lewis, who died in 1963, entertained the possibility that animals, especially domesticated ones that have benefitted from lengthy, close, and intense relationships with their human masters and mistresses, can be reunited with them after death.

I once brought up the matter to a priggish and superior convert to the Church of Rome, a man with a notable talent for quashing hopes and dispelling comforting ideas wherever he found them, who dismissed Lewis’s speculations with a contemptuous gesture and the claim that the author of Mere Christianity had been “a heretic.” I replied that Lewis, a former unbeliever who had become an Anglican, was not a heretic at all but rather an incomplete Christian, and that anyhow his religion was irrelevant to the issue at hand.

A couple of years ago the idea received more serious and sympathetic consideration from a priestly dinner guest who was visiting our parish church in Laramie, Wyoming, from Denver. This man thought the concept of beastly immortality not at all far-fetched, adding that—of course—in heaven animals would lack the beatific vision; a point on which, of course, I agreed.

I find the concept of eternal life for at least certain animals plausible for two principal reasons. The first is that we are assured that we will be happy in heaven, while people who loved their animals in this life would not find their happiness complete without them in the next one.

This proposition may be countered by the answer that has been offered to explain how the saints in heaven can be happy in the absence of their condemned relatives and friends, whom they know to be suffering eternal punishment in Hell: namely, that they are reconciled to the terrible fate of their beloved in the understanding that divine justice is being served, and take comfort from the fact. That, of course, is an entirely reasonable conclusion. The priest who received me into the Church 31 years ago once told me an anecdote concerning a parishioner of his, a spinster who by her own admission could love only her dog. Would she be re-united with him in heaven, she asked; to which Father Espenshade replied simply, “You will be happy in heaven.”

Nevertheless, I suggest that the strongest clues we have been given regarding the future of non-human creatures are, firstly, St. Peter’s allusion to the coming new heaven and the new earth “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13), and the Christian teaching that all creation fell with the Fall of man. If creation and man fell together, is it not reasonable to expect that creation will rise along with him? Further, a new earth implies a new natural world, one that has been glorified together with its risen stewards and masters. This could be the final significance of the Flood (death), the Ark (life), and man and beast saved together to resume a shared natural life, pending its translation in the fullness of time into the shared eternal one.


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About Chilton Williamson, Jr. 15 Articles
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is the author of several works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and “pure” nonfiction, including After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy and Jerusalem, Jerusalem! A Novel. He has also written hundreds of essays, critical reviews, and short stories for publications including Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Harper’s, The New Republic, National Review, Commonweal, The New Leader, The American Spectator, among others. You can visit him online at www.chiltonwilliamson.com.

9 Comments

  1. Roman 8:21 along with prior verses and following verses seems pretty clear that ALL creation will be redeemed/perfected.

    “Because the creature/creation also itself shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.”

    • This is a comforting comment of St Paul’s. I am fascinated that people will always think in terms of eternity envisioning a beloved dog or horse, but act
      as though cats couldn’t possible figure into that hope. My husband and I (to say nothing of CS Lewis) would insist otherwise.

  2. While they are the only critter that survived the atomic bomb test blasts on Bikini Island, surely not eternity for cockroaches! But maybe horses and dogs…

    Maybe we have to rethink, just a little, the Thomistic distinction between objective reality perceived through our five senses and the reality of the form itself introduced into the human mind (and heart)? To what extent are Ol’ Dollar and Snoopy truly part of us now, and therefore even more fully/ objectively part of us later—destined as we are for the Beatific Vision in eternity—where perhaps nothing is lacking?

    How dense or form-retaining is the transfigured human memory in eternity? What do we really mean when we cap the “Glory Be” with “…world [!] without end?” Critters might not be eternal in themselves, but also might not be separately left out of our well-formed and well-informed souls.

    On the broader fit between the natural and the supernatural orders, Louis Dupres introduces deLubac’s thought (“Augustinianism and Modern Theology,” Herder & Herder, 2000) with this: “I believe that no factor was more directly responsible for the separation [!] of the natural and the supernatural into two independent orders of reality than the emergence of nominalist theology at the end of the Middle Ages.”

  3. I’ve pondered this question too, and read Lewis’ and other perspectives. The image I like is of a ship sailing to a beatific harbor, the sailor discovering upon his arrival that barnacles–those animals for whom he had affection–are attached to the hull.

  4. Everything that God made he pronounced “good” we are told , including animals. They are among the most magnificent works of His creation, full of stunning beauty. Why would He not include them in heaven? Count me among those hoping to see beloved pets again, in addition to deceased family. My sweet Golden Retriever brought a desperately needed change of atmosphere to my home after the untimely and tragic death of my husband left me a widow with two minor children to raise alone. From puppy-hood to death, she was happy, loving and gentle to the core. She could only be described by me as a “good soul” and she brought us nothing but joy. For which she asked nothing but love. What could be better?

  5. There is mention of palm branches in heaven, part of creation though on a much “lower” level than animals. So if there is plant life, why not also animal life?

  6. It’s been by some estimates about 15,000 years since the ancestor of domesticated dogs crossed the fire and took its food from human hands. The relationship thus begun has, to my mind, been seriously lopsided in favor of humans. I’m convinced God’s purpose with dogs was to show His human children what complete love, service and sacrifice was all about. Too often their reward at our hands is ignorance, thoughtlessness, cruelty, inhumanity, injury and death. It would then be strange indeed if God had made no provision for such servants in His eternal kingdom. I sometimes think they deserve to be with Him much more than I do.

  7. God made animals for innocence. St Thomas More.

    The more I see of human nature, the more I like my dog. Chesterton.

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