How do we answer children when they ask: “Will I see my dog in heaven?” As I see it, this question is not only an urgent concern for the children. I believe that most adults also have a deep desire to know if, in the next life, we will see our pets and all the other lovely creatures alongside whom we now inhabit this planet.
I feel more comfortable, however, if we pose the question a little more broadly: Namely, does God’s plan of salvation include all creatures? In the reflections below, I think I have lined up a good bit of evidence—from Scripture, from the example of Saint Francis and from the teachings of the Church—which shows that God wishes other creatures besides humans to be included in the plan of salvation. Consider the following:
The creation story of Genesis suggests that God’s care and love extend to all creatures. Would not God’s very act of creating the earth, as well as the plants and animals, imply an unwritten covenant that the Creator will not suddenly stop loving or caring for them?
The story of Noah’s ark leaves little doubt in my mind that God wants all creatures to be saved, not just the humans. For me, the ark is a wonderful symbol of God’s desire to save the whole family of creation. The story suggests to me that it is not God’s plan to save humankind apart from the other creatures. We are all in the same boat, so to speak. As Saint Paul writes to the Romans (8:22), “All creation is groaning” for its liberation.
After the waters of the flood go away, God makes a covenant with all living creatures. The covenant is not simply between God and the humans, but also, as the Bible says, with “all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals….Never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood” (Genesis 9:10-11, italics added).
God’s putting a rainbow in the sky emphasizes the point one more time. God tells Noah: “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all mortal creatures that are on earth” (9:17). Isn’t it interesting that God takes much more care than we humans to include the animals and other creatures in the plan of salvation?
The story of Jonah teaches us the “all-inclusive nature” of God’s saving love. The amazing mind-set of the Jonah story is that animals participate in God’s saving intentions. The Book of Jonah almost reads like a children’s story: There’s a furious storm at sea. The sailors throw Jonah into the raging water. A big fish swallows the prophet and spits him out on the shore. Jonah has been trying to run far away from the task God has assigned him, namely, to preach to the city of Nineveh. Like his fellow Jews, Jonah despises the people of Nineveh. Jonah does not like the fact that God’s saving love includes the likes of them.
The story is really a parable of God’s all-embracing love. Significantly, even the animals are included in God’s saving plan. When Jonah proclaims that Nineveh will be destroyed because of its sins, the king of Nineveh is very responsive: He announces a fast, which includes not only humans but animals as well: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything,” orders the king. “They shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth” (3:7-8).
Much to Jonah’s disappointment, God’s mercy is very inclusive and reaches far beyond the Chosen People. God spares the city from calamity because of its repentance. And the last line of the Book of Jonah clearly reveals that God’s saving love extends to all living creatures, not just to humans: “Should I not be concerned,” God asks Jonah, “over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?” (4:11).
In the Book of Psalms, we find prayers in which other creatures are called upon to praise God along with the humans, suggesting that creatures are meant to share our prayerful journey into the presence of God. These are very inclusive kinds of prayer. Listen to Psalm 148. It is a Hymn of All Creation to the Almighty Creator: “Praise the Lord from the heavens….Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars….Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all depths; Fire and hail, snow and mist, storm winds that fulfill his word; You mountains and all you hills, you fruit trees and all you cedars; You wild beasts and all tame animals….Let the kings of the earth and all peoples….Young men too, and maidens, old men and boys, Praise the name of the Lord…” (v. 1-13).
A similar hymn of praise to God is sung by the three youths in the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel (Chapter 3). In the midst of their distress, they invite the whole family of creation to praise the one Lord of all. Just to give a little sampling of this long hymn, the three youths sing: “Sun and moon, bless the Lord….Every shower and dew, bless the Lord….All you winds, bless the Lord….All you birds of the air, bless the Lord….All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord” (v. 52-81).
Do not biblical prayers of this kind suggest that all of us creatures are meant to walk side by side in one common journey to God? Do these prayers not imply that all creatures are included in God’s saving plan?
Saint Francis gave us a similar style of prayer. It seems obvious that, when he wrote his “Canticle of the Creatures” (sometimes called “Canticle of Brother Sun”), he based its style of prayer on such passages of Scripture as I just cited.
But he added a special personal touch: He gave the titles of “Brother” and “Sister” to the various creatures, as if to emphasize all the more his heart-warming insight that we all form one family of creation under one loving Creator in heaven. “Sister” and “Brother” are familial terms.
Francis had the amazing intuition that we are not meant to come to God alone, as if in proud isolation from our brother and sister creatures. Rather, we are to form one family with them—and to lift up one symphony of praise to our common Creator.
Wouldn’t it seem strange if these sister and brother creatures, who are invited to praise God with us here on earth, are not welcomed to praise God with us in heaven?
Here’s a condensed version of Saint Francis’ canticle:
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through all that you have made.
And first my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day….
How beautiful is he, how radiant in
all his splendor!
Of you, Most High,
he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them,
bright and precious and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Brothers Wind and Air….
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Sister Water,
So useful, lowly, precious and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten up the night….
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us…and produces various fruits
With colored flowers and herbs…
Praise and bless my Lord,
and give him thanks,
And serve him with great humility.
Turning to the Gospels, we see how reverently and closely Christ worked with creatures. One thing is clear: The Eternal Word did not hold himself aloof from our created world in his efforts to save it, but literally entered the family of creation at the Incarnation. God made this world his home, thus giving all creatures a whole new dignity.
Jesus interacted very naturally and respectfully with the created world, whether on the lakeshore or in the desert or on a mountainside or crossing a wheat field or the Sea of Galilee. In his preaching of the good news of God’s saving love, Jesus easily used images of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, also foxes, pearls, salt, fig trees, mustard seeds and lost sheep, to name a few.
Jesus used created things in his saving work—wet clay on the eyes of the blind man to bring healing (John 9:6-7). He used the products of wheat and grape—bread and wine—to convey his very presence in the Eucharist.
Finally, after his resurrection, Jesus seemed to leave another hint, near the end of Mark’s Gospel, that the whole family of creation is included in God’s saving love. After his death and resurrection, he tells his disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Mark doesn’t say “to every human being,” but “to every creature”!
In the final book of the Bible—the Book of Revelation—the inspired writer presents to us a heavenly vision in which all creatures are standing before the throne of God. Obviously, that glorious gathering is not composed exclusively of saved humanity: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever'” (Revelation 5:13). In this picture of heaven all creatures are present and praising God together.
We take a closer look at the vision of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). If ever there was a saint who took to heart an inclusive and integral vision of salvation, it was this poor little saint. The most important key to Francis’ vision—that all creatures are meant to form one family—is the Incarnation.
Francis had a great fascination for the feast of Christmas. Francis was deeply aware of one moment in history, namely the moment that God entered creation and the Word was made flesh.
In his mind, this event sent shockwaves through the whole fabric of creation. The Divine Word not only became human. The Word of God became flesh, entering not only the family of humanity but the whole family of creation, becoming one, in a sense, with the very dust out of which all things are made.
Francis had a keen sense that all creatures—not just humans—were to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Francis’ biographers tell us that Francis wanted the emperor to ask all citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas Day so that the birds and other animals would have plenty to eat. Walls, too, should be rubbed with food, Francis said, and the beasts in the stables should also receive a bounteous meal on Christmas Day. By right, all creatures should participate in the celebration of Christmas.
Francis had a clear sense that the saving plan of God, as revealed in the child-Savior born at Bethlehem, was to touch every part of the created world.
Given this vision, it was natural for Francis to take literally Jesus’ command in Mark’s Gospel to “proclaim the gospel to every creature”—to birds and fish, rabbits and wolves, as well as to humans. Why shouldn’t he preach to the animals and birds? Saint Francis refused to be a human chauvinist—presuming that he was to be saved apart from the rest of creation.
Our Catholic liturgy supports and mirrors this kind of vision. “Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise.” These words, which begin Eucharistic Prayer III of the Roman Missal, express wonderfully how the Catholic Christian community includes the whole family of creation in its public rites and prayers of praise.
The Catholic liturgy, with its many sacramental rites, makes abundant use of the created world: water, oil, fire, bread and wine, incense, ashes, palm branches, flowers, candles, stained glass, colored vestments, paintings and images of biblical creatures such as eagles, lions, oxen, serpents and doves.
The Catholic community includes all kinds of created elements in its prayer-journey to God. The spirit of Saint Francis seems very much in evidence in Catholic liturgical life.
The world of sound, of course, also plays a part in many Christian liturgies. Psalm 150 serves as a good biblical model for this approach: “Praise [the Lord] with the blast of the trumpet, praise him with lyre and harp, praise him with timbrel and dance, praise him with strings and pipe….Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Alleluia” (3-6).
Again, it would seem strange if all these created beings, which assist us in worshiping God on earth, are not invited to join us in worshiping God in heaven!
Our Christian teaching about the resurrection of the body also reinforces the idea that our whole created world is included in God’s saving plan. Our Christian belief in the resurrection tells of the great significance of our earthly bodies and earthly environment.
At death, our bodies are not discarded like empty shells, as if only our souls are precious and meant to live with God. Not at all. The resurrection affirms that our bodies are precious too and destined to rise again like Jesus’ own body.
At one point in the Catholic funeral ceremony, the priest—without saying a word—solemnly walks completely around the casket, gently swinging the censer, allowing clouds of rising incense to honor the bodily remains of the person who died.
This awesome gesture of respect toward our earthly bodies reinforces our central Christian belief that these earthly bodies—and all that they represent—are meant to be transformed and saved as was Jesus’ glorified body. Indeed, our bodies are vitally interconnected with the whole created world. They could not exist one moment without the sun or the oxygen transmitted by plants. We depend, as well, on our environment for water and food, as well as for the minerals that make up these earthly bodies.
Because of the intimate linkage between our bodies and our environment, it’s hard to imagine how we can be transformed and saved apart from the rest of creation. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body seems to assure us that no genuine part of our human or earthly experience will be lost.
And so we come back to our original question—the question our children ask so earnestly: Will I see my dog in heaven? The question may sometimes sound a bit naïve and simplistic.
But from all the evidence shown above, I believe we can make a good case for the hope embedded deep in each human heart, namely, that the whole family of creation will someday share in the fullness of salvation won by Jesus Christ. The more we see the full implications of our belief in the resurrection of the body and understand the biblical vision of God’s inclusive love, the easier it is for us to give a hopeful answer to our children’s question.
In the final analysis, how many of us are truly satisfied with a vision of heaven that does not include the whole family of creation? We take comfort, therefore, in Saint Paul’s words that “all creation is groaning” for its freedom and redemption (Romans 8:22). More than that, we embrace the great apostle’s “hope that creation itself would… share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).