Your question is one of the most frequently asked “religious” questions. It has become a big question becauseso many people, like yourself, have pets for whom they feel affection and therefore sadness when their pet dies. The most honest answer to your question is that we don’t know.
Death and what comes after death is a mystery. We Christians believe that there is life after death and that God desires us to live forever in his presence. “Heaven” is a word we use to describe a relationship of love with God that exists beyond death. We believe that it is a state of complete happiness and that it involves “being with” God. Other than that we have no photograph or blueprint to fill in the details. The Bible does provide some passages which speak of animals in a heavenly state (Isaiah 11:6-7,Psalm 36:7, Revelation 19:11)but the Bible often uses such images as symbols of what heaven is like.
The Bible gives us no clear evidence if animals are in heaven, or that they are not. That being said, our human imagination seems to tug us in the direction of at least keeping an open mind. For one thing, most images of heaven that our imagination supplies us are derived from the garden of Eden described in the book of Genesis. There were certainly animals in this garden, and Adam and Eve were friendly with them (Genesis 2:19). Many people feel closer to God when contemplating the beauty of nature and it is hard for us humans to imagine happiness without the beauty that nature (including animals) conveys to us.
Another hint from human imagination lies in what our pets mean to us. One friend described his two pet dogs to me as being “unconditional love.” Our theology tells us that God is unconditional love, and that only in heaven will we experience the fullness of this truth. Yet here on earth, many pet owners might agree with the words of the author James Herriot: “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” Pets evoke love from us, and respond with what we believe to be love in return. By needing care from us, they help us to be more generous and caring.
Yet a third hint lies in the sense of kinship with creation to which St. Francis of Assisi gave such a powerful voice. Many Catholic churches bless pets on the feast of St. Francis (October 4) from an awareness of Francis’ relating to all creatures as his brothers and sisters. St. Paul suggests that the saving and reconciling power of Christ’s love effects not only human beings, but all creation (II Corinthians 5:17-19), an insight that was explored in the reflections of the Jesuit priest and scientist Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).
In the end we face death with few concrete answers, but are invited to trust that God intends happiness for us and that heaven will lack nothing we need in order to enjoy God’s goodness.
Editor’s Note: Will I See My Dog in Heaven by Friar Jack Wintz is an excellent book on this topic.
Fr. Joe Scott, CSP lives in Los Angeles and has been a longtime contributor to the Busted Halo Question Box.