Do Animals Go to Heaven When They Die?

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Abstract

There are some topics that Scripture does not directly address, although many can be reasonably deduced from comparing Scripture with Scripture and applying principles gleaned from the text. Some however are subjects upon which even those who adhere to biblical authority in all matters reach different conclusions due to the limited amount of detail given on the subject in the Bible. One question that is increasingly asked (and discussed) among Christians is whether animals go to heaven when they die or will they be bodily resurrected.

Going back to the time of the Reformation, even Martin Luther believed animals would be in heaven, basing his thought on the “restoration texts” of Acts 3:21 and Romans 8:18-22.1 C.S. Lewis and the late Rev. Billy Graham also came to the same conclusion based on these texts and the “peaceful animals” and “New Earth” texts of Isaiah 11:6–8, 65:17 and Revelation 21:1. In 2012, Christianity Today published an article on the topic, and three different authors, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Christian university professor, and a Christian animal advocate all came to different conclusions, each providing their reasoning based on biblical inferences. Yet there are many others who come to the opposite conclusion, also based on Scripture.

Interestingly a recent journal paper decided to look at the subject by examining inscriptions on over 1,000 pet tombstones in pet cemeteries in England dating from the 1880s through the 1990s. Their findings showed the progressive shift in public (and one could argue theological shift as well) thought on the topic. Very few 19th-century gravestones reference an afterlife for their pets, although some expressed hope to see their loved ones again. But by the mid-20th century, a greater proportion of animal gravestones suggest pet owners were not just hoping but were expecting and awaiting a reunion in the afterlife. In England (and if the same study were done in the US over the same timeframe, the results would likely be similar), it seems that the church did not teach on the subject of animal resurrection, and if it did, it seems likely not to have embraced it theologically until a shift occurred in the post WW2 era. Here, we will discuss relevant Scripture, others’ interpretations, and biblically based insights into this complex issue.

Introduction

The Bible never directly addresses the question of whether animals go to heaven when they die, although it does specifically mention at least one type of animal in heaven: white horses (Revelation 19:11–14). However, we must remember that this was a vision given to the Apostle John concerning Christ’s judgment of the earth. Considering that the horses in question carried Christ and the heavenly armies from heaven to earth (Revelation 19:19), it does not seem likely that these were merely ordinary earthly horses and may indeed be apocalyptic imagery for John’s benefit.

There is also no verse in Scripture stating that animals have eternal life. There is no definitive statement in any visons or descriptions of heaven (apart from the aforementioned white horses) that include animals. Angelic beings, heavenly hosts, human beings, Satan, and even a lying spirit (likely referring to a rebellious angel in 1 Kings 22:21–23) are all mentioned. While the four living creatures mentioned in Revelation 4:6–8 are described using simile, as having some animal characteristics, they are not animals but clearly winged heavenly beings, possibly cherubim or seraphim (cf. Ezekiel 10:14; Isaiah 6:2–3). A river and trees are also mentioned as being in heaven (Revelation 22:1–2), so the lack of a mention of animals appears to be either purposeful or far removed from the focus of Scripture on the subject. And one other consideration is that Revelation 21:1 mentions that there will be no sea on the New Earth, which effectively excludes marine creatures (unless we imagine that they will become freshwater creatures). Apart from that speculation, we know that at least some animals will not be in the eternal state.

Do Animals Have Souls?

For animals, their “spirit” seems to be merely an animating force rather than an eternal soul (Job 12:10).

The Bible does teach that animals have souls (“breath of life” or “living creature” from the Hebrew nephesh ḥăy in Genesis 1:30, 9:10), but are they the same as human souls? For animals, their “spirit” seems to be merely an animating force rather than an eternal soul (Job 12:10).2 For mankind, the soul is the animating factor, plus the seat of logic and reason, emotion and conscience, and all the rest of the essence of a person—and it is eternal.3

Consider that Old and New Testament Scripture also mentions the soul of God (nephesh in Judges 10:16 (NKJV); Jeremiah 12:7), which obviously cannot be speaking of physical life or breath. In both cases it is speaking of the emotion or feelings of God: sadness and love, respectively. And Matthew 26:38, Mark 14:34, and John 12:27 all record Jesus’ statements about the anguish of his soul in Gethsemane. And what did Jesus respond to the scribe who asked him which was the most important commandment? “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Jesus wasn’t here teaching that we compartmentalize our love for God and separate it with each facet of our will, thought, and emotions, but he was emphasizing that every fiber of our being is to be engaged with loving God.

Psalmists (usually David, but also others) frequently mention that their soul longs after God and delights in him (Psalm 35:9, 42:1-2, 57:1, 62:1, 62:5, 63:8, 103:1, 119:81, 130:5–6, 143:6), but the soul is distinguished from his material body (Psalm 31:9, 63:1, 63:5, 71:23, 84:2). Clearly these Psalmists are differentiating their emotions/intellect/will from their fleshly body.4 We also see this borne out in 1 Kings 17:21–22 when Elijah (by prayer and the power of God) brought life back to the widow’s son. Some versions say “life” and some say “soul” (Hebrew nephesh) in both verses. The soul can live without the body (Luke 16:22–23, 23:43; Revelation 6:9), but the body can’t live without the soul (Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21-22; Luke 8:53–56; James 2:26).

Though animals have nephesh and ruach (the most common Hebrew words for soul and spirit), they were not created in the image of God, which means they do not have an eternal spirit, as humans do.

Though animals have nephesh and ruach (the most common Hebrew words for soul and spirit), they were not created in the image of God, which means they do not have an eternal spirit, as humans do (Ecclesiastes 3:11, 12:5-7; Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:46; John 3:36; Titus 3:7; Jude 1:7) and humans who are in Christ are guaranteed not just eternal life, but glorified bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42–44; 2 Corinthians 5:1-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17). The Levitical laws required a man to make restitution if he killed another man’s animal (Leviticus 24:18), yet if he killed another person, he faced capital punishment (Leviticus 24:21). Apparently, the reason for the difference is that mankind was created in the image of God (Genesis 9:6), but animals were not. However, the entire creation was corrupted because of Adam’s disobedience (Romans 8:22), and the subsequent entrance of sin and death into the world (Romans 5:12) means that animals die.

Jesus mentions that he came to give eternal life to humans several times (Matthew 25:46; Luke 18:29–30; John 3:16, 4:14, 5:24, 6:27, 17:2–3) with the stipulation that they believe in Jesus and that God the Father sent Jesus. Furthermore Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32). Animals cannot recognize their sinfulness nor repent and believe on Jesus for their salvation (Psalm 32:8–11; 1 John 5:20); therefore they are likely not eligible for eternal life, unless Romans 8:19–21 carries with it the (unspoken) promise of animal resurrection. However, the passage is only referring to the present bondage of corruption, which at some future point in God’s time will be removed. While that could include animal resurrection, it could also only mean no animal death from that point forward, or an entirely new creation of animals along with a new heavens and new earth ( 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:5). It could also only be referring to humans and their deliverance from bondage and inauguration of their new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), which is not finalized until the resurrection of our bodies (1 Corinthians 15:53–54; 2 Corinthians 5:1–5; Ephesians 1:13–14).

Are Animals Resurrected?

Also, we are not told anywhere in Scripture that animals are to face final judgment at the end of the age, but this is clearly spoken about for mankind (Romans 2:6–10, 3:19–26).

Jesus died and rose again to remove the eternal penalty of sin for humans—not animals (Hebrews 2:16–18). We are not told in Scripture about the possibility of animals being brought back to life, but it seems that the lack of attention given to the subject is evidence against there being an “animal resurrection”—meaning that when they die, they are no more (Psalm 104:29). Every time resurrection is mentioned in Scripture, it is in regard to human beings. Paul gave an extended description of the resurrection body in which he made clear that animals and humans have different types of flesh (1 Corinthians 15:39), and he only wrote of humans having resurrected (transformed) bodies (1 Corinthians 15:48–49). He does not mention animals gaining the eternal benefits of the Lord’s atoning work. Also, we are not told anywhere in Scripture that animals are to face final judgment at the end of the age, but this is clearly spoken about for mankind (Romans 2:6–10, 3:19–26). Therefore, no eternal hell and likely no heaven is awaiting them, i.e., they are not eternally punished for sin (as non-believers are) or given eternal life (as believers in Christ are [John 3:16; Romans 6:23; Titus 3:4–7]).

Does the Bible Mention Pets?

God has a specific purpose for each of his created beings—including both animals and humans. Man, as the highest order of the physical creation, was given dominion over the animal kingdom (Genesis 1:26–28). It would therefore seem that animals were intended for man's affection, enjoyment, and use (not abuse) while on earth. Humans can form loving bonds with their pets, and in fact it is worth noting that when Nathan went to David to accuse him of his sin with Bathsheba, he told a story about a poor man who deeply loved an animal.

But the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. (2 Samuel 12:3)
So, it is perfectly natural and indeed a mark of a righteous person (Proverbs 12:10) to love and care for their animals.

So, it is perfectly natural and indeed a mark of a righteous person (Proverbs 12:10) to love and care for their animals. As bearers of the image of God (flawed and distorted as we are), we can still look to see how God cares for his animal creation and see that he gives them food, lodging, and even a spirit of playfulness (Job 40:20; Psalm 104:10–14, 16-18, 20-22, 24-28; Matthew 10:29). While acknowledging our limited capabilities compared to God’s providence, should we not still try to emulate the concern he shows for animals? It is not too much of a stretch to see that the dominion mandate given to mankind is not only a practical stewardship of animal life but one which can and does involve compassion and even wonder, as in Proverbs 30:18–19 when Agur gazed upon the eagle in the air or a snake basking on a rock.

Where Do Animals Go When They Die?

Solomon, while bemoaning the vanity (under the sun) of both human and animals’ physical bodies dying and returning to dust, acknowledged that their souls have a different destination. “Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:21 (NKJV)). Many English versions translate the opening phrase of this verse as “who knows whether,” but this seems to negate the conclusion brought up towards the end of the book. As the JFB commentary states:

Who knoweth—Not doubt of the destination of man's spirit” (Ecclesiastes 12:7); but “how few, by reason of the outward mortality to which man is as liable as the beast and which is the ground of the skeptic's argument, comprehend the wide difference between man and the beast” (Isa 53:1). The Hebrew expresses the difference strongly, “The spirit of man that ascends, it belongeth to on high; but the spirit of the beast that descends, it belongeth to below, even to the earth.” Their destinations and proper element differ utterly.5

Theologian Matthew Poole also strongly prefers the MT rendering here:

It might be objected, that the conditions of men and beasts are vastly differing, because man’s spirit goeth upward to God, Ecclesiastes 12:7, but the spirit of a beast goeth downward, together with its body, and perisheth with it. To this he answers, Who knoweth this? which is not to be understood as if no man did know it, or as if the thing were utterly uncertain and unknown, for he knew it, and positively affirms it, Ecclesiastes 12:7; but that few know it; as the same manner of expression is understood, Proverbs 31:10, Who can find? Isaiah 53:1, Who hath believed? & which note the scarcity or difficulty, but not the nullity or impossibility of the thing.6

In addition to the thematic argument, there are good linguistic arguments to reject the “knows whether” or “knows if” interpretation of this verse.

There are good reasons, however, for preferring the MT as it stands and seeing the verse in harmony with 12:7, implying a difference between the destinies of men and animals.

Since the translation as a question in indirect speech (“Who knows . . . whether . . . ?”) is widely accepted, it is worth stating the objections to it more fully. MT [Masoretic Text] hā‘ōlāh and hayyōredeṯ mean “which goes up” and “which goes down”. Following the LXX, however, it is frequently read as ha‘ōlāh and hăyōredeṯ which means “whether it goes up” and “whether it goes down”. On the former view it indicates that men do not appreciate the truth about life after death; on the latter pointing, the Preacher is querying life after death. No major point of interpretation is affected, for if the question were entirely skeptical it would simply express the common “under the sun” viewpoint of unjust men. It would then contain the thought later expressed in 8:11 and would be corrected by the later reflection of 12:7.

There are good reasons, however, for preferring the MT as it stands and seeing the verse in harmony with 12:7, implying a difference between the destinies of men and animals. In common Hebrew idiom, if the sentence were a question in indirect speech, the interrogative would not come so late in the sentence. One would expect mî yōdēa‘ rûaḥ . . . It is precisely this construction that is found in 2:19 but not here (cf. Gen. 8:8; 24:21, 23; 37:32, etc.). The construction with the participle and article is commonplace (cf. Gen. 13:5; Judg. 16:24; 1 Sam. 1:26). A. B. Davidson cites many examples. There seems to be no sentence in the Hebrew Old Testament where the interrogative is found so late in the sentence as would be the case if an interrogative were found here. To disregard this fact and continue to treat the verse as containing a question in indirect speech is surely unwarranted.

Aalders also urges that if the h were interrogative, we would expect an indicative verb rather than a participle. This seems to be borne out by other instances of “Who knows . . . ?” followed by an indicative verb in Joel 2:14 and Jonah 3:9.7

Author Callie Joubert asked and then answered the question “If Human Beings and Animals Have Souls, How Can They Be Different?” in his article “What Makes Us Human, and Why It Is Not the Brain: A Creationist Defense of the Soul: Reply.”

The Bible tells us that human beings have not only been created in the image of God, but also for a specific purpose: to “rule over” God’s created works (Genesis 1:26–27). This is nowhere in Scripture spoken of the animals. But [for mankind] to have been able to fulfill their God-given purpose, they had to be equipped with certain capacities, such as the capacity for knowledge, the ability to perceive, think, form beliefs and desires, and the ability to evaluate whether their choices and actions are appropriate or not. Animals do not ask questions about God and the meaning of things, and do not have a concept of truth. So it appears that God has equipped the human soul with more capacities in order to fulfill a purpose unsuited for animals.

God's purpose for the animals is fulfilled on this earth by providing us with nourishment (Genesis 9:3), work (Exodus 23:12; James 3:7 ), clothing (Proverbs 27:26), and companionship (2 Samuel 12:3; Mark 7:28).

Is There an Eternal Future for Animals?

Without getting into different eschatological models, the question naturally arises as to whether animals will exist in the future New Heavens and New Earth and/or eternal state. Since Answers in Genesis does not get involved in eschatological debates, all we can say on the subject is if animals are part of God’s plan for the New Heavens and New Earth, we can be sure they will have a wonderful purpose to fulfill—one which will not include predation (i.e., there will be no killing for food or sport). Some Bible scholars call attention to Isaiah’s description of the peace of that new world where he says, “the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 65:25) to support the idea that animals will be found in the New Heavens and Earth. The eternal state will lack nothing that is good but will contain all that will bring glory to God and enjoyment to us for eternity. In Romans 8:19-23, Paul tells us that the entire created world groans because of man’s fall into sin, but he also points out that when believers are given their resurrection bodies, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). If as mentioned before, this includes animals, there may be biblical precedent to think that we may enjoy animals’ company in the New Heavens and New Earth. If so, then this brings up the question about whether God will raise animals that have perished, allow existing animals at that point in time to become immortal, or simply create representatives of the various animals he made in the beginning. Scripture simply does not give us any more detail.

One last thought needs to be added here though. Is there a proper focus that needs to be stressed when asking about animals in heaven? While as finite humans we naturally seek things that bring us comfort (Ephesians 5:29) and we joyously await our resurrection bodies (Romans 8:18–19, 8:23–24; 1 Corinthians 15:51–57; 2 Corinthians 5:1–4), what is our hope of heaven supposed to be rooted in? Is it not being with Christ and seeing him face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12; Revelation 22:4) and being in his presence (1 Thessalonians 2:19; Jude 1:24)? There is nothing wrong with wanting to walk the streets of gold (Revelation 21:21) or of finally meeting Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 8:11) or of seeing and eating from the Tree of Life (Revelation 22:2), but these are not to become what we pin our hope and expectation on. The same is true with the topic at hand. Animals should not be the focus of our hope and joy in heaven: Christ should be (1 Timothy 1:1; Titus 2:13). And when we get there, everything else will pale in comparison.

Oh, that will be glory for me,
Glory for me, glory for me,
When by His grace I shall look on His face,
That will be glory, be glory for me.8

Conclusion

But for this present time, God has granted us the privilege of enjoying the company of our animal pets and enjoying the wonder of wild animals at zoos, aquariums, national parks, and even in nature documentaries; especially God-honoring ones like (those on) Answers TV..

But for this present time, God has granted us the privilege of enjoying the company of our animal pets and enjoying the wonder of wild animals at zoos, aquariums, national parks, and even in nature documentaries; especially God-honoring ones like the Riot and the Dance or the Answers TV series, Hike and Seek. God wants us to study his creation, including the animals (Psalms 92:5, 104:24; Proverbs 6:6–8, 30:24–28), and wants mankind to take delight in what he has made (Psalms 111:2). Enjoy your pets, care for them, and yet remember that although God values his animal creation, mankind’s value is much greater (Matthew 10:31, 1 Corinthians 9:9-10), and it is with mankind that God chooses to dwell in eternity (Revelation 21:3) and call his children (Romans 8:16; 1 John 3:1–2; Revelation 21:7). And if God also chooses to include animals to be in his presence eternally for his and our pleasure, then we will get to add one more thing to our infinite list of eternal praise to God (c.f. Psalms 145:3; Romans 11:33; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Revelation 4:8–11).

As stewards of God, having been given dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) and commanded throughout Scripture to be followers and imitators of God (Psalms 63:1; Psalms 119:2; John 10:27; Ephesians 5:1) and to do what is good (Psalms 34:14; Micah 6:8; Romans 2:10; Ephesians 4:28–29; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 3 John 1:11), does this not also include doing good to the animals which God has made? Deuteronomy 25:4, Proverbs 12:10, Mark 7:28, Luke 13:15 and 14:5 obviously tell us that we are to care for our animals, whether working animals or pets. And if we are to be imitators of God, perhaps we should remember that God also cares for his animal creation. He provides water and food for them (Psalm 104:10–11, 27–28), takes pity on them (Jonah 4:11), and does not forget them (Luke 12:6). May we also follow God’s example of loving care here as faithful stewards (1 Corinthians 4:2) of God’s creation (Psalm 8:6–8).

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Footnotes

  1. Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (London: John Murray, 1911), 362, accessed online at https://archive.org/stream/lifelettersofma00smit/lifelettersofma00smit_djvu.txt
  2. Leviticus 17:11 (NKJV) states “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” The term life and both instances of souls are the Hebrew word nephesh. Scripture here is saying that the blood (which gives life to the animal) in the Old Testament economy makes atonement for the human soul.
  3. Author Callie Joubert stated it this way: “When used to refer to human beings, soul takes on several meanings, but the overwhelming emphasis is on the functional, holistic unity of soul and body. Some of the references to the soul are by way of a part of the body, for example, the feet (Psalm 105:17–18), neck (Exodus 33:5; Deuteronomy 28:48) or ear (Jeremiah 19:3). Sometimes they refer to life itself (Leviticus 17:11; Isaiah 55:3), as a vital principle that makes something alive (Psalm 33:3; Proverbs 3:22) and at times as the seat of the mind (Deuteronomy 6:5), emotion (Deuteronomy 21:14), will (Isaiah 42:24; Isaiah 66:4), moral attitudes (Isaiah 42:24, 66:3), and a desire or longing for God (Proverbs 21:10; Isaiah 26:9; Micah 7:1). Finally, there is reference to the soul as the locus of personal identity, especially as far as it pertains to the afterlife (1 Samuel 28:6–18; 1 Kings 17:17–23; cf. Matthew 17:3). The latter set of texts, together with Genesis 35:18 clearly imply that nephesh is (1) a principle of life, (2) an immaterial ground of consciousness, and (3) as more than physical or bodily life” https://answersingenesis.org/origin-of-life/what-is-life/what-makes-us-human-and-why-it-is-not-the-brain-soul-reply/.
  4. For the sake of argument, this paper assumes that man is dichotomous as opposed to trichotomous. That is, the author has written this as if humans are composed of two parts (body and soul/spirit) rather than three (body, soul, and spirit), which is beyond the scope of this article. Christians often disagree on this topic; nevertheless, the point of this article is to discuss whether animals have an eternal component to them, and both views espouse that Scripture teaches that man is made up of a physical body and at least one immaterial part.
  5. Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, “Note on Ecclesiastes 3:21,” A Commentary, Critical, Practical, and Explanatory on the Old and New Testaments, accessed online, October 22,2020, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/jfb/ecclesiastes/3.htm.
  6. Matthew Poole, “Note on Ecclesiastes 3:21,” A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Volume 2, accessed online October 22,2020. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/poole/ecclesiastes/3.htm.
  7. Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Book 18) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 102–103
  8. Charles H. Gabriel, “Oh, That Will Be Glory” Hymn, published 1900.

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