Of Dogs and Heaven (Part 3)
(Start this series at Part 1)
I must apologize to my readers for the long delay in finishing this series of essays. As you will see from the beginning, I began writing it in the spring, wrote most of it, and then numerous delays prevented its completion. I offer it now to you, again with the trees having become bare. Perhaps this essay is better, though, as an encouragement for us as we wait in our winter months of the soul.
“And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” (Rev 5:13).
As I look out my window this morning at the sun rising over my house to shed its light on tops of the trees behind it, a golden crown is set on a forest still caught in the dead of a hard winter. A long awaited spring is still kept at bay, though now we are well into April. As much as any of us do, the creatures too groan with the delay and suffer in this life under interminable stresses. We feel our spring shoots on the verge, burned by a bitter cold world unready for our new offspring. There is no home for us in this wasteland: we come home poised to crash into a soft bed which has been removed to another place while our room is renovated.
In this state we are lifted by John’s vision of the future world, where everything lives in its full beauty, singing out, whether it has a formal voice or not, the glory of its Creator. The new world is no less teeming with life than the present, but life there is without limitations. The winter death shrouds have fallen and what was hidden - partly by our sin-clouded eyes and partly by the curse upon the land - is opened as this material temple curtain is rent.
We will see the creation, the natural world, with the right eyes, and that creation will be seen, without its covering of course, but then the question of continuity and discontinuity immediately returns. In what sense will things be like they are now, and in what sense different? The question is as plain as the child’s, “Daddy, what will heaven be like?” The sometimes brief and often apocalyptic renditions in John’s revelation or the prophets tease us with images often presented to us for other purposes. With those exegetical challenges still before us, we should turn to the clearest physical instance of glorified flesh, the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Christ’s resurrected body was a body like ours. Its parts were, as far as we can tell, all in their usual places such that he was recognized as a man. He spoke, stood on the ground, and ate fish. He did also have powers unique to him as God, such as rising from the dead and leaving a sealed tomb, appearing in a room with a locked door, and ascending into the sky at his ascension. Those features are not to be expected in our resurrected bodies, at least as regular features beyond the initial miraculous work of resurrecting our decayed flesh. For the present purpose, the most important detail to remember is that Jesus still had holes in him from the nails and the spear that pierced his side. Thomas was invited to stick his finger in them. Human bodies don’t normally do well with such lesions, but this is the resurrected state. Jesus bore the marks of his suffering, but his stigmata become something different in his resurrected form.
When you think of your glorified state, not just physical, but mental and emotional, what do you imagine? Are we all to become Hugh Jackman or Olivia Wilde, forever locked at age 29 1/2, with not a hair out of place? When we all speak, will our words flow forth as music from the mouth of an opera singer, backed by our heavenly friends from the Cleveland Orchestra? Will we remember every person’s name ever told to us or be able rationalize the number pi to a hundred digits without the help of a machine? And what of machines: will we have them, or need them, or continue to build them? I ask these questions, as silly as they may sound, because I know that you have entertained such thoughts.
The problem is in the interpretation of passages like Revelation 7:16–17. “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Is it that we will not require food or, rather, that we will have sufficient food? And how is it that we will have sufficient food? Will it arrive like manna or will we grow it the usual way? It’s the question of continuity and discontinuity again. Likewise, what will be the reason for no more tears? What will be the source of our contentment that will eliminate all sadness? Surely, it is the escape from sin. But rest from sin does not in any way imply a divine makeover. The profound discontinuity is first a spiritual one, and thereafter a physical and mental one. Jesus was raised from the dead, but his unsightly wounds remained. Do you think they detracted from his glory or added to it? His resurrected body, physically speaking, shows significant continuity with his former body. So, while he was restored to 100% functionality, there was no divine makeover, not even for the Son of God. We should not let our sinful vanity control our interpretation of the heavenly state. It is characteristic of Islam but not Christianity to fill paradise with our lusts.
With rest from sin, as noted in Part 2, is also rest from the curse for the creation. Again, following the pattern of our own resurrection and restoration, and the principles of continuity and discontinuity, where are we led? This was already explored in Part 2, where it was noticed that animals will retain many of their current attributes, save the adversarial one. The whole concept of survival of the fittest is clearly one only suited to a fallen world with scarcity, greed, and competition. In ecological balance, brought on by a fundamental animal knowledge of God, animals eat what they need, but by no means would they consider harming God’s vice-regent, man.
This principle is movingly illustrated in Jack London’s White Fang, a book written almost entirely from the perspective of a dog. There, this part-wolf, part-dog, comes to live among men and learns their ways. His first series of masters are cruel and beat him. He learns a kind of obedience based on fear of the “man-gods”. Later in the story, he is taken in by a kind man, who with gentleness, patience, and grace teaches White Fang to obey out of love. This “love-master” is treated with an even greater obedience than all of the previous cruel masters had received. In the course of White Fang’s rehabilitation he discovers the depth of his bond to the love-master when his master returns after a long journey away from him. Upon his return, this once wild animal overcomes his fierce pride and buries his head in his master’s armpit.
Having learned to snuggle, White Fang was guilty of it often. It was the final word. He could not go beyond it. The one thing which he had always been particularly jealous was his head. He had always disliked to have it touched. It was the Wild in him, the of hurt and the trap, that had given rise to the panicky impulses to avoid contact. It was the mandate of his instinct that that head must be free. And now, the love-master, his snuggling was the deliberate act of putting himself into a position of hopeless helplessness. It was an expression of perfect confidence, of absolute self-surrender, as though he said: ‘I put myself into thy hands. Work thou thy will with me.’
This entire series of essays might be considered nothing more than a biblical and theological elaboration of London’s tale. The dog, even now, on a good day, is a special sign to us of things to come.
No less ought we to observe that the Church, even now, on a good day, is a special sign to us of things to come. The love that our Lord prayed for in John 14–17 was in order that we would begin to realize the future in the present. That loving care is the primary means by which we will live in peace and security. How many times have you heard the word “foretaste” in sermons or books, but not wholly grappled with the significance of it? Are you too caught up in utopian science-fictions of white walls, quiet voices, and perfect medical care to see what the real heavenly future is going to be? Our heaven is too physical, perhaps even too technological, when it ought to be human, as in flesh-and-blood. The discontinuity between the church and the world is the discontinuity between the dog and the wolf.
Again, Christ is our preeminent archetype of the discontinuity of this present age and the age to come. Paul further explains this through the first and the second (and last) Adam. There is a clear contrast to the first Adam in the second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21), Jesus Christ. Just as the first man, the second Adam also faced Satan in an epic standoff (Matt. 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). In this case, however, the outcome was very different. The first Adam accepted the authority of Satan and ate the fruit, thus rejecting God’s authority. Notice that, in the garden, Satan is quoting God’s words, but twisting their meaning. When the second Adam, Jesus, faces Satan, again Satan is quoting Scripture to the man. Jesus, in contrast, rejects Satan’s authority, quotes God’s words in their correct sense, and ultimately resists temptation. Matthew and Luke give fuller accounts of the event. Mark summarizes it in half a sentence, “He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan”. However, for the current discussion, what follows does not appear in Matthew and Luke, but is enlightening. In Mark’s account, he continues, “and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Where Adam failed to resist temptation, and was cursed with an adversarial creation, Jesus resisted temptation, and found himself in Franciscan glory, nursed by God’s angelic servants. It is the second Adam who Christians will follow ultimately, not the first. We will rise from the dead just as he did and rest in happy communion with the creation as he did in that moment. In this restored communion with God we find our restored communion with the animals that were originally Adam’s close companions.
So, we are now equipped to handle the final question, the one that has formed the title of this series of essays—dogs in heaven. Remember that Adam, before he was presented with his ideal helper, Eve, lived among the animals, naming them. They were his companions, though not perfect match like his future wife. This connection between his fellowship with his wife and his fellowship with the animals provides a clue for us. Understanding one helps us to understand the other. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks explicitly about marriage in heaven. The Pharisees, forever trying to demonstrate their biblical mastery over him and discredit his ministry, challenge Jesus with a puzzle about the woman who had multiple husbands in her earthly life. Jesus’s answer is unequivocal: there is no marriage in heaven, so there is no dilemma.
Pastors are often asked by those who have lost a spouse if they will be with them in heaven. The answer is, yes, of course, as you will be with all of the saints. There will not be a unique fellowship with that person; however, the deep fellowship you enjoyed with them in this life, in its best moments, is an indication of the unity of fellowship that will be enjoyed by all the saints with one another. Do not mourn the loss of a friendship, so much as look forward to the gain of many such friendships. The question about our particular dog in heaven may be approached in a similar manner. While the Bible provides no provision for the resurrection of dogs past, the special relationship we have enjoyed with our special pet, in its best moments, will be characteristic of our relationship with all of the animals of the earth. Has not everyone who has watched the live shows at Sea World wished to be the one riding the whale and cavorting with the dolphins? Dogs are a lot of fun, but will you miss your earthly past when one day a lion, enjoying his meal, sees you sit down, and brings a piece of meat to share with you?
Thus the Lord has provided a mercy and a hope for us in the household dog. As they sit at attention and their eyes fix on yours, they wait for our instructions, hoping to serve and to please. On a good day, they do not bite you or destroy things, but simply enjoy your company, to go where you go, and when not needed to be content in themselves. They are no less a part of what is mentioned in Rom. 1:19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The next time someone makes the joke, ‘Did you hear about the dyslexic atheist society—no?—they don’t believe in DOGs’, you could perhaps consider responding with the apologetic of the dog. Do not forget that within the divine nature that Paul mentions in these verses are not merely power, justice, knowledge, and wisdom, but the very particular, dare I say, humanity of the creator in filling the world with creatures meant to live alongside us. I should perhaps exercise caution the next time I want to pass through a narrow passageway in the house and feel tempted to scold my dog for standing too close to me, blocking my way. I should more politely excuse myself lest I be found to be fighting against God.