The eighth-century Biblical prophet Isaiah famously described an idyllic time in the future when the "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat." But even if heaven isn't one big snuggle fest, attitudes to non-human animals in Christianity deserve some attention.
It seems to me that the reason many Christians have assumed that only human beings go to heaven is two-fold-- first, a highly individualized account of human salvation that must be preceded by a confession of faith, which animals, other than human beings, simply cannot make; and second, the belief that eternity will take place in that amorphous realm called "heaven," when the New Testament clearly demonstrates an eternity that will be spent in a new creation-- a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-5) which will involve an embodied existence.
In his sermon entitled, "The General Deliverance," John Wesley claims that the salvation of all creation includes the animal kingdom. He writes,
The whole brute creation will then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigour, strength, and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed. They will be restored, not only to that measure of understanding which they had in paradise, but to a degree of it as much higher than that, as the understanding of an elephant is beyond that of a worm. And whatever affections they had in the garden of God, will be restored with vast increase; being exalted and refined in a manner which we ourselves are not now able to comprehend.Wesley's argument flows in three parts:
First, prior to the Fall, the entire creation enjoyed a harmony and an existence in keeping with the will of the Creator. Even though the animals were not created in the image of God, and did not have a place of value equal to men and women, God's crown of creation, they nevertheless existed in the way God created them to be. Wesley observes,
And as a loving obedience to God was the perfection of man, so a loving obedience to man was the perfection of brutes. And as long as they continued in this, they were happy after their kind; happy in the right state and the right use of their respective faculties. Yea, and so long they had some shadowy resemblance of even moral goodness. For they had gratitude to man for benefits received, and a reverence for him. They had likewise a kind of benevolence to each other, unmixed with any contrary temper.Second, the Fall of humanity affected all of creation, including the animal kingdom. It is the conviction of Scripture that sin has shaken the entire universe, knocking it out of kilter. Wesley is quick to point out Romans 8, where Paul states, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (v. 22). Thus, the sin of humanity does not just affect men and women; it is cosmic in scope. Not only is the relationship between God and humanity and between humanity and humanity broken, but so is the relationship between human beings and the animal kingdom, as well as animals with each other. Wesley writes,
What did the meaner creatures suffer, when man rebelled against God? It is probable they sustained much loss, even in the lower faculties; their vigour, strength, and swiftness. But undoubtedly they suffered far more in their understanding; more than we can easily conceive. Perhaps insects and worms had then as much understanding as the most intelligent brutes have now: Whereas millions of creatures have, at present, little more understanding than the earth on which they crawl, or the rock to which they adhere. They suffered still more in their will, in their passions; which were then variously distorted, and frequently set in flat opposition to the little understanding that was left them. Their liberty, likewise, was greatly impaired; yea, in many cases, totally destroyed. They are still utterly enslaved to irrational appetites, which have the full dominion over them. The very foundations of their nature are out of course; are turned upside down. As man is deprived of his perfection, his loving obedience to God; so brutes are deprived of their perfection, their loving obedience to man. The far greater part of them flee from him; studiously avoid his hated presence.Moreover, just like human beings, animals experience suffering, sickness, and death, all the result of human sin entering the world.
Third, since God is going to reconcile and restore all of creation, the animals will have a place in that kingdom. Thus, Wesley takes literally Isaiah's future vision of harmony.
"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:6-9).The most intriguing part of Wesley's argument is that God, in his moral perfection, owes redemption to the animals, since they had no hand in their suffering. To redeem humanity, the culprit in the rebellion, but to refuse to do so for the rest of creation, which is not responsible, would be, according to Wesley, an injustice on God's part. Perhaps it is best simply to reflect on Father John's own words:
May it not answer another end; namely, furnish us with a full answer to a plausible objection against the justice of God, in suffering numberless creatures that never had sinned to be so severely punished? They could not sin, for they were not moral agents. Yet how severely do they suffer! -- yea, many of them, beasts of burden in particular, almost the whole time of their abode on earth; So that they can have no retribution here below. But the objection vanishes away, if we consider that something better remains after death for these poor creatures also; that these, likewise, shall one day be delivered from this bondage of corruption, and shall then receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.Wesley is clear throughout his sermon that animals are not to be equated as equal with humans in the eyes of God. Women and men continue to be the "apple of God's eye," and the central focus of Christ's redemptive work. Nevertheless, Wesley reminds us that salvation is universal in scope and cosmic in effect. Jesus himself counsels us that even though human beings are much more important to God than sparrows, the sparrows still matter, and God cares for them (Matthew 6:26-27).
Clearly, Wesley's discussion on this matter is well reasoned, theologically sophisticated, and based on a close reading of biblical texts. Those who disagree will have to respond with the same intellectual vigor along with the necessary biblical and theological complexity. It will not do simply to retort that animals will not share in the future glory because they do not have souls, something that is neither affirmed nor denied in the Scripture.
So, do all dogs go to heaven? Is it possible to imagine a redeemed creation without them?