Of Dogs and Heaven (Part 1)

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette continued reporting today about a police dog killed in the line of duty as he went forward on command into a dark basement to confront a knife wielding criminal. “The district judge who set a $1 million bond Monday for the man accused of killing a police dog last week said that he set the amount that high—at least in part—because he considers the victim, Rocco, a German shepherd, to be a police officer.” Several days ago, when the animal was carried away from the veterinary hospital, his casket was draped with an American flag, casting a scene of fallen soldiers born down the ramp of a military cargo plane, receiving highest honors for making the ultimate sacrifice.

As we look around at our relationships with all other animals, this should strike us as peculiar. Cats fare well at home and there have even been recent attempts to domesticate foxes, but no domesticated animal has had such a deep and enduring place as the dog. They appear in a playful demeanor on Greek vase paintings and their unharmed bones are among the remains of very old human dwellings. So while many animals have found their way into our homes and won our affection, there is none so universal as the dog. I’m not trying to start an argument about what is the best household pet and some marine aficionado will no doubt inform me that porpoises communicate with humans much more effectively than dogs. My point is simply to recognize that the domesticated dog has always been with us, in its present role, for as long as can be known. As you stare into their attentive eyes and they stare back, there is something peculiar that we all feel, but are not always able to articulate.

Do dogs go to heaven? Rather than avoid the most sensitive dog question of all, I will strike it head on because the fact of its sensitivity—which turns ordinary rational people into a bear robbed of her cubs—is far too revealing to avoid. The special relationship between humans and dogs does have very much to do with heaven, which is why all children and many adults are so concerned to see them there. This intuition that dogs will most certainly be in heaven is a sign of a hope that has been with us since Adam. Since the sin of Adam, our wonderful relationship which he enjoyed with all animals, affectionately naming them as he pleased, was severely disrupted. With the curse of the ground came also a curse on all of those creatures which roamed about on it. No longer were they his friends and companions, but his adversary. Despite this curse, God has mercifully left us at least one creature, which on a good day, represents something of the restored order to which we look forward. As we stare into our dog’s eyes, we have a glimpse of the future.

Among Christians, the question of animals in heaven has become more difficult to address in the last century. There are those who take a firm stance on the claim that there was no death before the Fall, either for humans or animals, the position of Young Earth Creationists. This view emphasizes the biological discontinuity with the world as it was then and the world as it is now. The reaction to this position by other Christians, such as Theistic or Christian Evolutionists has been an extreme at the opposite pole, maintaining animal and human death before the Fall (if the Fall is even recognized as a singular historical event). This view emphasizes the biological continuity of the pre-Fall state and the present time. Both of these positions have a natural extension into our future state in heaven. Again, we find the biological discontinuity between our death filled world and the future world in the first group, and again, the biological continuity for the latter group. Both positions, of which there are ample proponents among evangelical Christians, claim more than is warranted by the Scriptures.

The Scriptures do not say that there was no death before the Fall. It is an inference drawn from the facts that God declared his creation good, death is not good, therefore he did not create death. The modern (Christian, mind you) biologist challenges this by noting that death is a normal part of biological processes that benefit us. We will leave that for the moment. Another inference is that God said to Adam that if he ate from the forbidden tree, he would surely die. Adam ate from the tree and now humans die.

In this sense, quite explicitly, there was no death before the Fall. Humans, without this disobedience, would have lived forever. Note that the command and the curse are given particularly to Adam, and thus to humanity, not to plants and other animals. So, the most conservative position, without further reference to other parts of Scripture, is that humans took on mortality in the Fall, but we remain silent about plants and other animals dying and decaying. The Scriptures do not tell us more in Genesis. At this point, the Christian biologist may hold onto the continuity of biological function for plants and other animals, but will have to bite the bullet when it comes to man. The Christian who wants to maintain that there was no death before the Fall will have his discontinuity in the state of humanity, but will have to bite the bullet on the goodness of a creation that has plants and other animals dying and decaying. One or the other party may have to move from their position, but the arguments cannot be based on the text of Genesis alone.

One other relevant point that we do carry away from Genesis, one which makes the Christian biologist differ from the non-Christian one, is the man-centeredness of the creation. Indeed, all of it was good, but man is special as God’s vice-regent (Gen 1:28–30; 9:2). The creation serves man and he has a responsibility to manage it well. This hierarchy in nature resembles the difference in order between God and the creation at large. There is a fundamental difference between the creator and creature. Likewise, as God’s vice-regent, there is a qualitative difference between man and the rest of the creatures. We are on a higher order with all of its benefits and responsibilities. All of the rest of creation testifies to God’s handiwork indeed (Rom. 1:20) in their structure, function, and wonder, but nothing else is fabricated particularly as a direct representation of God himself. In fact, all of those other things, as they are well suited to us as servants—food, trees, coal, or dogs—also point to the centrality of mankind. This distinction still applies, despite the Fall, which has complicated matters but has not eliminated this fundamental role of humanity in creation.

This gives us a clue in attempting to resolve questions about what the rest of creation was like before the Fall, but more importantly, what it will be like when the earth is restored to its proper function, that is, this most important question of dogs and heaven. We know that the world was made with humanity’s good at its center. So strong is this belief within the church, it even led some churchmen astray as the Copernican heliocentrism seemed just plain irreverent. Yet while we know we are not the center of the universe in a physical sense, theologically we are the pinnacle of God’s creation. The Bible has plenty to say about us, both past and future. The history of our redemption is the story of the Bible. To discover the story of plants and other animals, past, present, and future, we are best led in investigating it through their relationship to us. We can follow their story as they follow ours and discover their eschatology in our own. That may not answer all of our questions, biological or otherwise, but will at least show us the Bible’s priorities with respect to the rest of creation.

Dogs are special, everybody knows that. In the posts that follow I hope to offer some insight into why that is true.