Of Dogs and Heaven (Part 2)

A week ago, Ken Ham, the voice of Answers in Genesis, participated in a broadcast debate with Bill Nye, a science popularizer. Without digressing extensively on a dialogue which broke no new ground, listeners would have seen the biological continuity versus discontinuity issue raised again. In this case, though, the issue was raised between the Christian and non-Christian, whereas I am more concerned to address the question as positions differ among Christians. There was mention of animals, the shape of their teeth, and their diets, revealing that the state of the question is as stable as ever.

To understand animals biblically, both pre-Fall and post-resurrection, we must not take the biblical texts in isolation, but follow them along the trajectory of man’s redemptive history. This is the most appropriate context. As I noted in Part 1 of this series, plants and other animals were made for us and remain connected to us as our servants, whether as obedient servants or disobedient ones, but in all instances by their relation to us.

In the creation event recounted in Genesis, a clear hierarchical order was established for all of creation. God has supreme authority both as Creator and as Lawgiver. Man, understood as both male and female, were established as his local rulers on earth, ruling over everything else. The creation of angels is not addressed in Genesis, though we meet one in the appearance of Satan in chapter three. The Genesis account is limited to that order which is normal for the earth environment. Satan’s first act recorded in Scripture is to disrupt that order by turning an animal into an authority over man, and then man hubristically against God in disobedience. Even within this act is a mini-inversion between the man and the woman as she initiates the eating of the fruit. This first inversion of the order between man and animals becomes characteristic of the fallen state in which we now live. The curse states this inversion with respect to the creation explicitly as the ground  or earth becomes an obstacle to man’s contentment. So far then, both animals and plants are turned against man in the Fall and curse.

Shortly thereafter in Genesis we witness man turning against man, destroying the innate brotherhood in humanity: Cain against Abel, and then Lamech the arch-murderer against everybody. Essentially, every living thing on earth has become man’s adversary. Nothing, it would seem, of the original good creation order has remained. Yet, mercifully, the rain still falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:45). God has preserved us, and while the creation is cursed, we are not destroyed. Even though we broke covenant with God and therefore God has no obligation to keep the covenant himself by keeping this damned world going, our God has graciously persevered in preserving humanity to this day.

Why, in fact, does it make sense that the rest of creation would be cursed in this way? Was this an arbitrary act of God as punishment to humanity? An act of God, yes, but arbitrary, no. Again, the curse reinforces the original creation order with man over it. It was Adam’s act of rebellion against God which precipitated it. Adam rejected his responsibility both for his wife in guarding and leading her, and in his rule over the creation. He prejudiced the authority of an animal (however magical and peculiar the talking serpent may have been) over his own, and then mismanaged his use of the trees available to him in eating from the forbidden one. Adam received the curse of the bad farmer. In God’s supreme poetic justice, he got what he deserved. Likewise, he was a bad husband (originally, in English, an agricultural term) to his wife in failing to exercise good judgment or decision making for the sake of his family.

When the prophets of Israel speak of judgement and curse upon their nation, they use the same language. We find the creation turned against them. The summary of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 speak in both agricultural and political terms. The land will be made desolate first by failed crops, and then by invading armies. The original curse pattern is repeated as crops fail, wild beasts take over, and then other people come in for the kill—plants, other animals, and humans all become adversaries. Notice that agriculture seems to resume once the country has been occupied. The first step is failed crops, but then the insult is doubled as the crops return only to be handed over to the occupying army. The picture is of a land overrun, unmanaged and thus filled with wild beasts doing as they wish, even occupying homes (Isa. 13:22), indicating again the reversal of the divine order on the earth. And yet, even though the curse brings the danger of animals turned against humanity, God restrains them, as indicated by the fact that he may just as easily let them loose again (Lev. 26:18; Ezek. 5:17; 14:15).

This representation of the negative, cursed relationship between man and animals helps to explain the restored order by way of trajectory. As the curse is characterized by danger from animals, the restored order will contain peace and safety, even an affectionate proximity to the animals. Most fundamentally, the beasts will honor God (Isa. 43:20), that is, not act in a way contrary to the original order of obedience towards man.

Isaiah 11:6-9 has become a problematic passage on this point, and has provoked the polar positions of continuity and discontinuity explained in Part 1. The chapter begins with a prophecy of the coming of Christ, “the shoot from the stump of Jesse,” who exercises just judgment, defending the poor and oppressed. It is in this context that we encounter the famous words, “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” This passage is one of the great “gotcha” texts of the advocate for profound discontinuity between the pre-Fall and post-Fall orders by indicating, it seems, that the restored order exhibits such a different biology than the present. The predator snuggles up with his prey since bloody death has been eradicated in the new order. For those who advocate for biological continuity between the pre-Fall and post-Fall orders, Isaiah is taken as speaking poetically, even hyperbolically, in order to emphasize the magnificence of heaven, and not necessarily to provide a literal picture of the new order. Will the carnivorous bear suddenly become vegetarian? Will that not require, then, that the bear cease to be a bear altogether? Will a child truly fish around in a snake hole and not be bitten? This, it is argued, would be completely contrary to the way we know animals behave.

As explained in Part 1, the biological continuity and discontinuity positions are a result of concluding too much from the Scriptures. These interpretations of Isa. 11:6–9 are a result of concluding more from them than is warranted, this time with respect to science. The bio-discontinuist assumes from the fact that the wolf dwells with the lamb that the wolf therefore never eats a lamb or any animal again. The passage does not say that. Similarly, the fact that a bear and lion eat plants does not mean that they no longer eat animals. We should not conclude from this passage that all flesh-eating of any kind or at any time has been abolished. Likewise, with respect to the bio-continuist, Isaiah is indeed written in typical poetic form, but that does not mean historicity is abandoned. Isaiah may speak of the Christ as “the shoot from the stump of Jesse,” but in doing so he refers to a real Savior actually coming in history to judge.

Another way of looking at this passage which avoids making too many assumptions is to consider a restored earth in ecological balance. Rather than considering flesh-eating as either necessary to ecology or the result of sin alone, why not consider the current state of flesh-eating as inappropriate, but not necessarily evil in itself? In a world thrown into disarray, animals seek, like their human counterparts, to consume more than they should. This results in the Malthusian struggle characteristic of Darwinian ecology, “red in tooth and claw.” However, in a world of perfect ecological balance, a wolf may eat a lamb from time to time, but will not desire to eat every lamb at every time. It’s a picture of animal self-regulation. What we see now in our fallen world are animals let loose, on each other and on us. The new order does not have over-population or scarcity of resources which are essential to the Malthusian picture. It is a perfect circle of life that Disney can only dream of and only God can provide.

How is this possible—animal self-regulation? Isaiah says in v. 9, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Now, this passage is related particularly to the relationship of animals to mankind: it follows immediately upon v. 8 which speaks of the child’s hand in the snake hole. There will be absolutely no harm done to humans in particular by animals, and the scope of this blessing is indicated by the phrase “in all my holy mountain.” This is the domain of God’s holy people, which in the future state is all of humanity. The animals know this because they are “full of the knowledge of the Lord” in their own animal way. In heaven, animals will accept the ecological order that God has established for them. They will follow it innately and not rebel against it as they do now. The change in animal behavior, we might say, will not be one of action but of attitude. They would not dare harm God’s vice-regent. They are no longer our adversary. And this exercise of self-regulation towards us in the vertical direction, will also be exercised towards other animals in the horizontal. Thus it is not the end of flesh-eating but it is the end of domination driven by scarcity because a perfect ecosystem has no scarcity.

A similar picture of the heavenly ecological balance is evident in Ezek. 34:25–30, “I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods” (v. 25). This covenant is not unlike the first covenant with man wherein he also lived safely, sleeping where he pleased. The word “eliminate” is sometimes noted because of the assumption by some, already discussed, that in order for man to be safe from dangerous animals, they must be entirely absent from his presence. Again, this is unnecessary. If the attitude of the wild animal is altered in this covenantal order, then he would not dare attack God’s special overseer. In fact, the word is shabbat, “rest”, and is used frequently in this form to describe the end of sinful practices (note Isa. 13:11; Jer. 48:35; Ezek. 23:27, 48; and especially the play on words and reversal in Hos. 2:11–12). Those sinful practices, in particular, are laid to rest. So, it is not annihilation of the wild beasts, or even their banishment, but the removal of the sin at work in creation which makes them wild and dangerous. “They will no longer be a prey to the nations, and the beasts of the earth will not devour them; but they will live securely, and no one will make them afraid” (v. 28). This verse also moderates our understanding of the “eliminate” above by explaining that the animals simply “will not devour them,” not that they will vanish altogether. Ezekiel also explains that plants, likewise, will be changed in their orientation towards man, producing what the curse snatched away.

Thus, the Edenic order will be restored, but not simply by returning things to the way they were. The way in which it is restored and the form of that final restoration state will bear the marks of past suffering. This results in further biological counter-intuitions that we should not rush to resolve too quickly. Children and adults often wonder what heaven will be like—who, and what, will be there, how we will look and how it will work. Perhaps it is our vanity which prevents us from appreciating just how much of that question can be answered. Perhaps we are accustomed to thinking of our restored glory in terms that are too fleshly, not too spiritual, and then project that fleshly model onto the rest of the restored creation. This suggestion will be developed further in Part 3, where we look to Christ, the first glorified animal.

Part 3 will be the final post in "Of Dogs and Heaven". Comments are welcome.