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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