This is not a trivial question. Millions of people, all over the world, have domesticated animals whom they love and cherish. When our pets die, we grieve – sometimes more than we grieve over the death of a human being.
Traditional Christian teaching (in all the major denominations) states that because animals do not have “an immortal soul”, they cannot “go to heaven”.
Is this Biblical?
The Bible is the ultimate source of all Christian doctrine. Unfortunately it does not specifically address this issue, so we have to extrapolate from what it says on other matters. And the ‘traditional’ statement above is in fact highly questionable…
1) The term ‘immortal soul’ is more of a Greek philosophical concept than a Biblical one. The Hebrew word (nephesh) that is translated into English as ‘soul’ is applied to animals as well as to human beings. When Adam named all the living creatures (Genesis 2:19) he literally ‘gave names to all the souls’! So how can it be said that ‘animals do not have souls’?
2) The phrase ‘go to heaven’ is also not Biblical terminology – even though virtually all Christians use it as a convenient shorthand expression for what happens when we die! But the eternal life that God has promised us is not an ethereal, spiritual existence in Heaven (sitting on clouds, playing harps). It will be a very physical life, in a resurrected body, on the new earth.
3) The possession of eternal life hinges on having a relationship with the living God (Luke 20:38; John 11:25,26). ”Now this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” (John 17:3) The question to ask is surely not, ‘Do animals have souls?’ This will almost certainly lead us in an unprofitable direction. Instead we should be asking, ‘Are animals capable of forming relationships?’ And as every animal lover knows, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’!
Do animals matter?
A pet animal is mentioned only once in Scripture that I can think of, in the parable that the prophet Nathan told to David (II Samuel 12:1-6). The lamb in question, though fictional, was “like a daughter” (verse 3) to its owner, and that made its theft and butchery a much more serious matter. In David’s eyes, the standard penalty was insufficient in this case; the rich man’s crime was equivalent to murder.
The prophet Jonah was sent to preach to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the evil Assyrian empire. He did not want to go, because he hated and despised the Assyrians and did not want to give them the opportunity to escape from God’s judgement (Jonah 3:10-4:2). But God reasoned with him, showing him how unreasonable – and inconsistent – he was. The story of Jonah is a key parable of salvation (Matthew 12:39-41), and so God’s final statement to Jonah is surely of some significance. He says, “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11)
Jesus also spoke of God’s concern for His non-human creation. Even the smallest creatures are under His watchful care. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29) It is of course true that human beings are especially important to God. “You are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31) ‘More than many sparrows’ – but not ‘more than all the sparrows in the world’. Animals – even the apparently insignificant ones – have value in God’s eyes.