January 5, 2007

Animals and the Afterlife

Category: Animals,Theology :: Permalink

Way back when I read Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion, I mentioned that I wanted to blog sometime about the role of animals.  Why did God create animals?  Sure, I said, some of them are yummy, but not all animals are good to eat.  Nor are all of them equally good companions.  Not all of them are as useful and helpful for man as others.  So what are they for?  Williams’ novel doesn’t get into these matters, but it did raise these sorts of questions for me.  But I didn’t ever get around to blogging on the subject.

It’s perhaps not the most obvious place to look, but C. S. Lewis has some helpful stuff along these lines in his discussion of animal pain in The Problem of Pain. He starts by discussing whether all animals are sentient and concludes that he doesn’t know.  But there are some animals that do seem to have “a real, though doubtless rudimentary, selfhood,” and that is especially the case “in those we tame.”  And so, he says, we have to think about their destiny.  Do they simply die?  Or will animals be raised again in some way in the new heavens and the new earth (which Lewis sometimes just calls “heaven”)?

In answering this question, we must avoid an error which Lewis thinks springs from a form of unbelief, a form, in fact, of atheism:

The error we must avoid is that of considering them in themselves. Man is to be understood only in his relation to God.  The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God. Let us here guard against one of those untransmuted lumps of atheistical thought which often survive in the minds of modern believers. Atheists naturally regard the co-existence of man and the other animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts; and the taming of an animal by a man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another.  The “real” or “natural” animal to them is the wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing.

But a Christian must not think so.  Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right.  The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only “natural” animal — the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts.

Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master.  If a good sheepdog seems “almost human” that is because a good shepherd has made it so.

I have already noted the mysterious force of the word “in.”  I do not take all the senses of it in the New Testament to be identical, so that man is in Christ and Christ in God and the Holy Spirit in the Church and also in the individual believer in exactly the same sense.  They may be senses that rhyme or correspond rather than a single sense.

I am now going to suggest — though with great readiness to be set right by real theologians — that there may be a sense, corresponding, though not identical, with these, in which those beasts that attain a real self are in their masters.  That is to say, you must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that.  You must take the whole context in which the beast acquires its selfhood — namely “The-goodman-and-the-goodwife-ruling-their-children-and-their-beasts-in-the-good-homestead.”

That whole context may be regarded as a “body” in the Pauline (or a closely sub-Pauline) sense; and how much of that “body” may be raised along with the goodman and the goodwife, who can predict?  So much, presumably, as is necessary not only for the glory of God and the beatitude of the human pair, but for that particular glory and that particular beatitude which is eternally coloured by that particular terrestrial experience.

And in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.  And the difficulty about personal identity in a creature barely personal disappears when the creature is thus kept in its proper context.  If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the household, where its personal identity resides, I answer “Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life — in its relation to the Body and, specially, to the master who is the head of that Body.”  In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself (pp. 126-128).

That sounds about right to me.  I’m particularly fascinated by the claim that because man was given dominion over the animals, they are to be considered in relation to man.  And the tame animals are the ones who are being most themselves.

I don’t know if that’s always true.  Leviathan is presented as pretty untamable in Job.  But I do think it’s true that my two cats are most themselves as my pets; they owe their personalities, in large measure, to my wife and me.  Their taming doesn’t detract from their true nature as cats and it isn’t interference on our part; it’s what makes them more truly themselves.

And, as part of our household, they have a bond with us and we with them, a bond which God uses in this life for good and which may continue into the next life.  That’s not something I can be dogmatic about, but it’s something I like to believe.

Lewis goes on to discuss wild animals, about which we know less.  Still, they are also to be related to man in some way  Lewis isn’t sure if they attain to “selfhood” the way tame animals do.

But if any do, and if it is agreeable to the goodness of God that they should live again, their immortality would also be related to man — not, this time, to individual masters, but to humanity.  That is to say, if in any instance the quasi-spiritual and emotional value which human tradition attributes to a beast (such as the “innocence” of the lamb or the heraldic royalty of the lion) has a real ground in the beast’s nature, and is not merely arbitrary or accidental, then it is in that capacity, or principally in that, that the beast may be expected to attend on risen man and make part of his “train.”

Or if the traditional character is quite erroneous, then the beast’s heavenly life [which Lewis, in a footnote says is “its participation in the heavenly life of men in Christ to God”] would be in virtue of the real, but unknown, effect it has actually had on man during his whole history: for if Christian cosmology is in any sense … true, then all that exists on our planet is related to man… (pp. 129-130).

In the resurrection, then, Lewis says, we’ll see the full glory of the lion:

I think the lion, when he has ceased to be dangerous, will still be awful: indeed, that we shall then first see that of which the present fangs and claws are a clumsy, and satanically perverted, imitation.  There will still be something like the shaking of a golden mane: and often the good Duke will say, “Let him roar again.”

Shades of Aslan!  And shades of Charles Williams!  (The Place of the Lion was the first Williams novel Lewis read and it was written well before The Problem of Pain, which is dedicated to the Inklings, Williams included).

I don’t agree about the “satanic” part here: I don’t believe there’s anything perverted about a lion’s present fangs and claws.  But it does seem likely to me that, since God created animals for this present heavens and earth, He may raise them in glory in the new heavens and new earth, allowing us to see their created glory clearly for the first time, recognizing in them what we only catch glimpses of now, the kinds of glimpses that make us identify lions with royal majesty.

[Update: James Jordan comments: “All animals are God’s pets.  He cares about sparrows.  Lewis doesn’t quite go far enough.”]

Posted by John Barach @ 2:20 pm | Discuss (11)

11 Responses to “Animals and the Afterlife”

  1. Doug B Says:

    Fascinating stuff, John — thanks for that. Personally, I think the way Revelation portrays the new heavens & earth as a perfection of the original creation demonstrates that there will be animals.

    And I particularly like Lewis’ idea that tamed animals are being most true to what they’re intended to be. It puts me in mind of the difference between my dogs, with their loyalty and good-naturedness and exceptional patience with my kids; versus a coyote, with their skulking and carrion-eating and generally anti-social behavior. Kind of like cats, in fact.

    So really, the question isn’t whether there will be animals in the new creation. The question is, *which* animals. I mean, dogs are self-evident. How could the creation be perfect without Labs and German Wirehairs? But then we come to the question of cats — semi-domesticated neighborhood cats in particular — and the problem becomes more thorny. I mean, really, aren’t most cats living, breathing, snottily independent reminders of the curse?

    Ahh … things to occupy the mind!

  2. John Barach Says:

    I’ve allowed your comment to stand, Doug, in spite of the borderline heresy of questioning whether there will be cats in the new earth. =)

  3. DadB Says:

    And what about mosquitos, gnats, viruses, bacteria, etc. Are these creatures able to be tamed? Will they be in the resurrection? Ahhh, the mystery that awaits us will shortly be solved.

  4. Pete Says:

    You could also consider that the animals (and plants) are there to teach us. Consider the lilies and the birds of the air, as Jesus taught us in Matthew 6. In addition, 1 Kings 4 tells us that part of Solomon’s wisdom (a gift from God) was his knowledge about plant and animal life.

  5. John Barach Says:

    That’s a good point, Pete.

    The structure of Genesis 1, where the third day has parallels to the sixth day, teaches us that there are parallels between plants and men. Of course, that’s also what we find in the rest of Scripture, where people are compared to trees (Ps. 1), etc.

    There are also parallels in Genesis 1 between the fish and birds on the one hand and man on the other (“Be fruitful” — which is, of course, a tree image — “and multiply” is used for both fish&birds and people).

    And the fact that land animals and men are both created on the sixth day links them. The close parallels between animals and men explains why animals are used for sacrifices, as well as why Paul says that the animal-related laws are altogether given for our sake, not (just) for the sake of cattle.

    I don’t think the learning we’re primarily intended to do, though, is the kind of thing that most scientists do, though that’s part of it. That is, the learning the Bible emphasizes isn’t the kind of thing you do by disection and analysis. It isn’t simply learning ABOUT these animals. It’s the kind of thing that comes from close observation.

    I suspect that the learning, then, has to do with observing that the serpent is more crafty or subtle than other animals (as the Bible tells us: that’s how God made serpents), so that we can be wise as serpents (but harmless as doves).

    It has to do with some of the things that make up heraldry, as Lewis (and Williams) would emphasize. Lions are majestic.

    It has to do with recognizing the close connection between animals and spirits/angels. Not for nothing do the cherubim have four faces, three of which are animals and the fourth of which is a man face, a pattern which traces the growth of man to full maturity in Christ (ox: priest; lion: king; eagle: prophet; man: full image of God).

    And it has to do with what Lewis is talking about when he says that tame animals are what animals are supposed to become. Man is supposed to have dominion over them and so a tame cat (or a dog, Doug) has become more of what a cat is meant to be and has more of a true personality than a wild or feral cat.

    That all ties in with some of what Rupert Sheldrake writes about animals. He points out that when he began to study animals, his university courses had him disecting them. True “scientists” tend not to study pets or farm animals, since pet owners and farmers tend to anthropomorphize their animals and are too emotionally close to the animals, and so the scientist studies animals people don’t generally like (e.g., rats) and maintain an “objective” distance from them. And no relying on anecdotal evidence either.

    But, as Sheldrake points out, “anecdote” simply means “unpublished.” An anecdote is a case study, which isn’t inherently illegitimate. And who really could be expected to know more of what animals can do (to say nothing of the bonds they develop with humans) than a pet owner or a farmer — that is, someone who is with the animal a lot and loves it.

    For instance, one of our cats is a nurse cat. When one of us is sick, she’ll come and be close to us, though she isn’t always near to us when we’re well. She seems to sense that we’re not well and wants to be there to comfort us. Dogs (and Doug will be pleased to hear this) are said to do that all the time, and often mourn their owners.

    Ah, but that’s all anecdotal. Well, yeah. So? It’s true none the less. A wild cat may not become a nurse cat; a wild dog would be more likely to eat your dead carcass than to mourn you and stand by your body. But the tame cat and the tame dog are more of what cats and dogs are meant to be. Being tamed has brought out their true potential and developed their “selfhood.”

    Enough rambling for now. Thanks for the interaction!

  6. Barb Says:

    As I watch my two cats and dog interact with one another, I can’t help but believe they are acting as their own ‘agents’ (for lack of a better word). I agree with Lewis to a degree… animals do reach a fullness of expression as they interact with (compassionate) humans, but they have their own thing too. A dolphin, quite apart from human interaction, exhibits intricate ‘interpersonal’ relationships. So, I’m with Jim. All animals are God’s pets (except spiders, which are the spawn of hell).

    It’s a fascinating topic, especially for a lover of all creatures great & small.

    Doug… Aslan is a cat!

  7. Duane Vandenberg Says:

    John, I’ve been reading your blog occasionally and find it very interesting and educational, but this is my first crack at participating in an online discussion. This discussion about animals inthe afterlife got me thinking, and the first thing into my head was “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw as an ox” Isaiah 65:25. Is this purely allegorical, or does this tell us that animals will be part of the glory of God’s kingdom?

  8. Keith Says:

    I take exception to Doug B’s comment about cats. Dogs may be loyal but a cat is truly intelligent. Try to tame a cat by giving it treats. It will work for a time until the cat decides he’d like a new type of treat. Dogs? Shameless gluttons!

    I would have to agree with Lewis to a point that animals are acting according to interaction with “their” humans. Both of our cats have personality traits completely of their own too. So I’m not certain that their entire personalities depend completely on us.

    This whole debate makes me think that a lot of people who think its perfectly okay to abuse animals (like some hyper-Calvinists I know) may have quite the surprise waiting for them when they face the Lord.

  9. John Barach Says:

    There may be some symbolism in Isaiah 65. Calvin thought the wolf lying down with the lamb looked forward to a time when people who used to prey upon the church became Christians (like Saul who became the apostle Paul) so that they now lived in harmony with Christians.

    Given that unclean animals (like wolves) represent Gentiles, this passage could also speak about how Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ.

    But I agree with you that it also paints a picture of the ideal world, the world God intended, as a world in which there are animals. God likes animals; He created them. And so it seems likely that there will be animals in the new earth after our resurrection.

    Now whether those animals will include the ones we loved (our pets) may be a different question, but I’d certainly like to think so.

  10. John Barach Says:

    Duane: I got interested in what you wrote and responded to it. But I should first have said, “Welcome to my blog!” I hope you and your family are doing well!

  11. Mark Says:

    Well, if God DID resurrect our pets alongside us, it seems to me it would only be in total keeping with His qualities of love, kindness, mercy and grace.
    First, animals populated the Garden of Eden. God called them “good.” Now why would he banish some of his most incredible creations when Paradise Lost becomes Paradise Restored? Doesn’t make sense to think he would.
    Also, let’s not overlook the fact that the Scriptures themselves plainly proclaim that animals have souls. John in Revelation and Moses in Genesis point out the fact that God created animals with souls. In the original languages of Genesis 1:20 and John 8:9, nephesh and psyche both refer to the essence of life or soul.
    Although the animal’s soul is qualitatively different from that of a human, like I said, I can’t imagine a loving, just, and righteous God saying, “Y’know that little dog/cat I gave to you that you loved so much? Well, this is heaven and we got rules up here, so you won’t be seeing him again. Sorry.”
    No, that’s not the God of Scripture at all.

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