A few months ago during Sunday morning worship, I received the answer to one of the age-old theological questions that pulls at the heartstrings of young children and elderly widows alike: Do all dogs go to heaven? After mentioning the blessed saints entering the heavenly Jerusalem, our reading from Revelation stated, “Outside are the dogs…” (22:15). Despite the insistence of Don Bluth’s 1989 film, All Dogs Go to Heaven (one of my childhood favorites), it would appear the answer from John’s Apocalypse is “No.” And yet I am not satisfied by this answer—even if a misinterpretation of the eternal destiny of man’s best friend made me chuckle.
People love their pets and do not want to be parted from them. Hurricane Katrina made that abundantly obvious when people refused to evacuate flood zones for fear of abandoning their four-legged family members. In an era when special blessings for canine companions and feline friends are offered in many churches, we should not be surprised that people want their pets to be with them in heaven.
Last summer my sister Melissa’s cat Stoli died, and she asked me to officiate at a funeral for him. Never before had I been asked to do a funeral for an animal, and there are no prescribed liturgies for such an occasion in Lutheran agendas. But it was a chance to speak the Gospel, and I wanted to comfort my sister, so I agreed to do it. As my brother-in-law dug a grave in his backyard and Melissa held Stoli’s remains in a cardboard box, she turned and prompted me, “Won’t you say a few words?” And so I paraphrased the only words from Scripture that seemed appropriate:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Rom. 8:19–22)
All of creation, including Stoli, eagerly awaits something better than the decay of our ruined world. Despite the ground being cursed because of Adam and Eve’s sin (Gen. 3:17–19), the ground and the creatures that walk upon it anticipate a future freedom in which they too will be glorified. Perhaps it is not the promised resurrection, but at least it is a kind of restoration. After all, if Revelation confirms there will be a river and the tree of life in the new heaven and the new earth, then why not animals as well?
In one of my favorite Advent pericopes, even Isaiah the prophet beheld a heavenly vision that includes our furry friends:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. (Isa. 11:6–8)
“A little child shall lead them.” A little child should lead them, for this is a child’s dream come true: Noah’s Ark de-boarding from the nursery play set and embarking on the wonders of a whole new world. Predator and prey dwell together in peace, and their fear of humanity is markedly absent.
Of course, I realize that the Old Testament prophets often speak in metaphor and heightened imagery, but I hold onto the hope that these words about the lion and the lamb are literally true. For if the leopard and lion, cobra and cattle, will be in heaven, why not our dogs and cats and goldfish too? In my own heavenly hope, I imagine Fluffy and Fido following that little child into the heavenly Jerusalem and scampering down the streets of gold. Perhaps when the saints go marching in, it will be something like the tale of the Bremen town musicians.
The truth is that our lives are better on earth when we walk with the animals and talk with the animals. A study at the University of Minnesota revealed that people who live with cats have a 30 percent lower risk of having a heart attack (“Cats Help Shield Owners…,” US News, 21 February 2008). Quite likely, our devoted dogs have a similar, if not greater, impact on our longevity. Before his banishment from the Garden, Adam was assigned the joyful task of naming the animals and enjoyed fellowship with them, although no suitable helper was found for him, at least until Eve came along. In the Lutheran tradition, the animals also get their due in the Small Catechism. Luther includes animals among the gifts God provides “to support this body and life.” Maybe God knows about the 30 percent rule from the University of Minnesota study.
I don’t know what I would do without my own animals, or perhaps I simply should call them my animals, because they often seem to own me. At the end of a busy day in the parish, you will find my wife and me sitting on the loveseat watching television with three cats piled up on top of us. They make excellent foot warmers. And on a gray, cloudy day when I feel lonely and blue, there’s often nothing better to cheer me up than one of my cats rubbing against my leg or nuzzling my cheek. Sometimes I believe they are the answer to my prayers. I love my pets in the best sense of the word, because I believe that a love for God and his creation requires us to love the creatures in it.
With how much joy animals give us, and how much God delights in his creation, I cannot imagine a heaven without dogs and cats, polar bears and penguins, eagles and orcas. Heaven is not worth having unless it is an earth restored—Paradise regained.
So, do all dogs go to heaven? I cannot be sure, but I hope so with all the child’s wonder that remains in me. My hope in the restoration of creation holds out the eager expectation that not only my brothers and sisters in Christ but also the other creatures entrusted to my care will be part of the new heaven and new earth where we will live forever in a world devoid of death and decay.
Yet sometimes, this side of heaven, there are still reminders of how irregular our relationships with other creatures can be. A woman recently came to one of our church’s free community dinners accompanied by her dog, a large black lab. She wanted a meal, and could her dog eat too, please?
When I politely suggested that she and I take a plate of food outside and visit on the grass, where her dog would be more comfortable, she insisted that her dog was one of God’s creatures and, therefore, had just as much right to be in the church basement as anyone else. I reluctantly gave in after none of my kitchen staff objected. So I put up with her big dog constantly trying to jump into my lap, licking and pawing me as we conversed, despite my own awkwardness with large dogs.
A few minutes later I was called away on an emergency, saving me from the dog’s beastly behavior. Unfortunately, as it turns out, I was right about the dog. Later, it cornered one of our elderly members, barked at her, and knocked her down. What was that again about the lion and the lamb? Clearly, we are still a long way from Isaiah’s messianic menagerie. But if all dogs do go to heaven, will they get more than just crumbs at the wedding feast of the Lamb? I certainly hope Jesus will be more generous than I. But I still want the dogs to eat outside on the grass.
Rev. Chris Matthis is the pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Englewood, Colorado. He and his wife Lisa share their life together with three cats.