Can Pets Go to Heaven?

News: Commentary
by Paul Murano  •  •  February 20, 2023   

An in-depth look at the question

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Will we see our pets in Heaven? This has been a loaded question for some time, but the issue has become even more contentious as we've elevated our pawed pals to near-human status. The Magisterium has been silent on the question, but that hasn't stopped theologians and dog lovers from speculating. Will Heaven be filled with glorified collies and cocker-spaniels? If we stop thinking of Heaven as just the temporary state of the disembodied souls of the elect, but also the permanent state of glorified creation — what Scripture and the Catechism call "the new heavens and new earth" — it's not impossible.

It's easy to understand why we dog lovers treat our pets like people. Dogs seem to have many of man's good traits but none of his vices. Dogs do what you tell them, accept you as you are and radiate affection for you. It's no wonder pet owners long to reunite with their animal companions at the end of their earthly journeys.

Before we tackle the specific issue of animals and the afterlife, let's look at what divine revelation and human reason say about their place in this world. 

Animals in the Hierarchy of Being

Man, who is made in the image of God, is distinguished from all animals by virtue of his capacity to reason and love. These abilities stem from his personal powers of intellect and will, which make him like God, and enable friendship with God that is destined to continue past this life (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1704). Animals, on the other hand, are sentient but not intellectual and act upon instinct. They lack the transcendent spiritual dimension man possesses, and are therefore under his domain (Genesis 1:28).

A baby is baptized

In one sense, man's relationship with his pets serves as an instructive analogy for man's relationship with God. Divine and human nature are decidedly different, for God infinitely transcends His created image on earth. Yet, despite this gulf (bridged in Christ), God descends to our level to have a relationship with us. By receiving His love and through baptism we are lifted up into His life. This is the state of grace.

Similarly, there's a great gulf between human nature and, for example, canine nature. We "descend" to the level of dogs to tame and domesticate them, and, as a result, their caninity is "raised up" when we befriend them. Perhaps this explains why the pets we love seem "almost human." 

To this point, noted British author C.S. Lewis says that tamed animals aren't unnatural. Quite the contrary. He suggests, in accordance with Genesis 1:28, that it was our job to cultivate them, before sin got in the way (The Problem of Pain [San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 2001] 142–143). The relatively few species we've tamed and domesticated are actually more natural, more "themselves," than their wild counterparts: "The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only 'natural' animal — the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy" (ibid.).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Nevertheless, we humans not only befriend animals as pets; but we also eat them, wear them, experiment on them, and use them for labor and entertainment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us,

God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice, if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives (¶2417). 

It further stipulates, "Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity" (¶2415).

So animals, because they're not imbued with the dignity of persons, are not ends in themselves (cf. Pope John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane, §9). Animals may licitly be used for our benefit. One could even say the domestication of animals is a hallmark of man's dominion and stewardship over earth's creatures. 

Personalizing Pets

The affection between humans and their pets is nothing new. In antiquity, the Egyptians and Chinese domesticated cats — and the Greco-Roman world followed by befriending felines by the fifth century B.C. (Francis Lazenby, "Greek and Roman Household Pets," The Classical Journal, 44, no. 5 [1949]: 304). 

The domestication of dogs preceded even this by many centuries. Evidence suggests dogs split from their wolf ancestors some 30,000 years ago, and domestication may have begun around 14,000 years thereafter, several millennia before the neolithic revolution (Jarrett Lobell et al., "More Than Man's Best Friend," Archeology, 63, no. 5 [2010]: 26). The oldest known dog burial is from 14,200 years ago.

Exactly how dogs became "man's best friend" is still a matter of some speculation among anthropologists. Many believe the dog–man friendship started when hunter-gatherers took to sharing the meat from their latest kills with wolves, who later became hunting partners and that we've been sharing food with canines ever since, in exchange for their companionship and services (ibid., 28).

Pampered dog and cat

Even though man's relationship with animals extends to antiquity, today, we've taken the personalizing of pets to a new level. Our current Culture of Death has caused countless lonely souls to pine for any kind of intimacy. Sadly, for many people, pets have replaced not only friends but children. This obsession has even altered our language. We no longer buy animals; we "adopt" them. We're no longer pet owners; we're "pet parents." Spinsters have turned into "cat moms."

People have taken to pampering their pets. Owners dress their pets in Paris Hilton loungewear instead of allowing them to brave the elements in their God-given fur. Dogs and cats now go to the dentist, to the hairdresser and even daycare; they perform in fashion shows, have "play dates" with local pets, and feature in their owners' last wills. The fact that in our abortion age we kill children and anthropomorphize animals underscores what a spiritually ill people we are.

If dogs go to Heaven, do they also go to Hell?

The Catechism speaks of the proper balance to strike in our stewardship of animals: "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons" (¶2418, emphasis added).

One can indeed love animals. But do animals love us? Properly speaking, the answer is no. Before you run for your pitchfork while conjuring countless anecdotes evidencing the depth of your pet's affection, pause to consider a counterpoint: If dogs go to Heaven, do they also go to Hell? Wouldn't logical consistency demand we consider this? Perhaps the reason this thought doesn't sit well with many is that dogs don't have free will. So they can't love or hate. 

Although dogs display instinctual passion and affection for their masters, they're unable to love or hate, properly speaking, because these are ultimately choices — free, personal choices. Eros-love or instinct-affection, without more, doesn't get you to Heaven. Personal-choice love does, the choice to cooperate with grace to love God and love neighbor — even when you don't like your neighbor. Only rational beings (persons) with free will can do this.

Does an Animal Soul Survive Bodily Death?

Even absent the light of supernatural faith, pagan philosophers have reasoned that humans have a spiritual component that survives bodily death. The activities of reason, self-consciousness and free will do not depend on bodily organs for their operation, so, logically, these faculties must continue to exist after death. Spirit, after all, doesn't disintegrate and decay like organic bodies (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 75, aa. 2, 6).

Animals, on the other hand, are purely physiological and live on bodily senses and physiological instinct. The animal's life principle or soul has no operation over and above its biological constitution, and is neither spiritual nor subsistent. Therefore, there is no component to the non-human animal that survives bodily death (ST, I, q. 75, a. 3).

This means that when the animal body dies, the animal simply no longer exists. Therefore, it's safe to say that in the spiritual realm of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory — in the interim between one's death and the General Resurrection of the body on the Last Day — there are no animals.

But fellow dog lovers, do not fret. All hope of seeing Rufus in eternity is not lost.

The General Resurrection and Renewal of Creation

It's true that there is nothing in an animal that naturally survives the animal's death. But on the Last Day, when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, sin will be eradicated, the dead will be raised and the universe will be transformed to share in the glory of God. Disembodied souls in Heaven will become glorified resurrected persons to live forever in a "new heaven and new earth" (see 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). 

The Catechism states, "After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed" (¶1042, emphasis added). This elicits at least one question: If there's no animal life, what exactly do the saints with Christ reign over? Inanimate glorified matter? 

The prophet Isaiah in what may be symbolic language, speaks of this new creation as including beautiful vineyards, but without the human travails we now experience. He adds, "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 65:25).

St. Paul 

We can't comprehend what all this means, of course, for St. Paul said, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and the human heart has not conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Corinthians 2:9). But can we be certain animals won't be part of the equation of this new creation? Eternal life will include some form of materiality, albeit different from that with which we are familiar, since people in Heaven will experience the beatific vision with glorified bodies.

So if it pleases God to do so, couldn't He re-create mortal dogs, cats and other animals to share in this new glorified world? C.S. Lewis responds in the affirmative, arguing that animals first are somehow transformed when they are tamed and loved as pets:

Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God. ... Man is in Christ, and Christ is in God. ... I am now going to say ... those beasts that attain a real self are in their masters. ... And in this way it seems to be possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters (Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 142–144).

Lewis allows that pets make it to Heaven by virtue of being in the hearts of their masters.

On the other hand, the Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, argues that since animals are corruptible by nature, they are not in God's plan to be part of the new incorruptible universe (ST, III [supplement], q. 91, art. 5).

Despite Aquinas' take on the matter, philosopher Peter Kreeft, a Thomist, goes even further than his intellectual mentor C.S. Lewis. While Lewis allows that pets make it to Heaven by virtue of being in the hearts of their masters, Kreeft opines, "It would seem more likely that wild animals are in Heaven too, since wildness, otherness, not-mine-ness, is a proper pleasure for us. The very fact that the seagull takes no notice of me when it utters its remote, lonely call is part of its glory" (Everything You Ever Wanted to know About Heaven [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990] 45).

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And while Aquinas leans against pets making it into eternal bliss by virtue of animal souls being mortal and their bodies corruptible, Kreeft takes on the problem of man's unfinished relationship with animals, and speculates on whether it be possible for God to re-create the exact pet we once had:

God can raise up the very grass (Psalms 90:5–6), why not cats? Though the blessed have better things to do than to play with pets, the better does not exclude the lesser. We were meant from the beginning to have stewardship over the animals; we have not fulfilled that divine plan yet on earth; therefore, it seems likely that the right relationship with animals will be part of Heaven: "proper petship." And what better place to begin than with already petted pets? (ibid., 45–46).

Author Ed Quinn opines from the perspective that God's will is to have continuity in His creation. Quinn sees that all nature, which includes man as well as animals, is destined for the divine promise of total restoration and renewal — already underway by virtue of Christ's first coming:

St. Thomas Aquinas

The fact that there is a continuity between nature and grace has always been recognized in Catholic theology. Is not the continuity between the old and new creation equally obvious? In the new creation the old is transfigured and not annihilated. ... It is in this universe in which we now live that the preparation takes place for the renewal of the creature. And here man is one with the rest of nature ("Animals in Heaven?" New Blackfriars, 65, no. 767 [1984], 224).

This model of Heaven, when God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28), unlike the speculative conclusion of Aquinas, seems to envision a transformed universe with all its flora and fauna — both extinct and extant. 

In Conclusion

As Christians, our main concern is getting to Heaven, not what may be there if we do. We leave those details to divine providence. Whether mortal animals, and specifically our pets, will miraculously join us in the everlasting dance with the Blessed Trinity remains a mystery. Since it doesn't seem to contradict reason or revelation, we can trust that if the elect will benefit from pets in the new heavens and new earth, God will provide for their perfect fulfillment — "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4).

Paul Murano holds a doctorate in theology, a master's in philosophy and one in religious studies, and is certified in health care ethics. He is a writer and producer at Church Militant. Paul has also taught at several colleges and universities, and has been producer and host of his podcast,Beneath the Surface, since 2003. 
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