By Paul Thigpen, Ph.D.
Not long ago a TCA reader wrote us to ask a familiar question: What should we tell children when a pet dies and they ask whether animals have souls and go to heaven? She reported that she had upset some parents when she told their children (students in her class) that the answer to both questions was no.
The answer to the first question -- do animals have souls? -- depends, of course, on how we define "soul." Ancient and medieval writers, both pagan and Christian, often used terms that we translate as "soul" (Greek psyche, Latin anima) to refer in general to that part of an animate (living) creature which sets it apart from inanimate (nonliving) creatures.
In other words, a "soul" was simply a living creature's "principle of life."
In fact, some biblical texts in the Old Testament seem to apply certain Hebrew terms in a similar way. For example, the phrase nephesh chayah (literally, "living soul") can refer both to human beings (see Gn 2:7) and to animals (Gn 1:30).
Ruach, the Hebrew term for "spirit" (and also for "breath," as the indicator of life), is also applied to both humans and animals in Ecclesiastes 3:21. (It's translated into English as "spirit" in the Revised Standard Version and as "life-breath" in the New American Bible).
If we think of "soul" in this general sort of way, then, animals and even plants have what could be called a "soul" simply because they are alive. Thus the ancients spoke of animals as having "sensitive souls," and plants as having "vegetative souls."
No doubt that sounds strange to our modern ears. How odd to think of the rosemary bush in the garden as having in some sense a "soul" -- though, thank goodness, that "soul" would depart once it was harvested and dried to use in the spaghetti!
Nevertheless, it's important to note that even if we use the term soul as the ancients did, we must observe (as they did) that plant, animal and human souls are of quite different kinds.
The plant's "vegetative soul" (its life principle) enables it to reproduce and to assimilate nourishment for growth. That's something a rock, for example, can't do.
Animals can do that plus other things. Their "sensitive" souls allow them to move; to sense and respond to external stimuli; and (in some of them) to perform rudimentary mental functions such as learning and even communication.
Even so, the human soul is unique. Of all earthly creatures, only humans are made in the image of God (see Gn 1:26-27). Their soul is actually an immortal spirit, fully rational, able to reason and communicate at high levels, and able to choose good or evil with a free will.
Among earthly creatures, only humans are truly able to love in the full sense of the word: to will the highest good of another. Humans can know and love God and enter into friendship with Him in a way that no other earthly creature can.
Through sanctifying grace, the human soul is capable of the Beatific Vision in heaven -- that is, capable of entering so fully into union with God that we can see Him and know Him as He is.
Perhaps our reader should say something like this to her young students: Animals have "souls" in the sense that they are alive; they aren't just objects like rocks or chairs. That's why we enjoy them so much!
But their souls aren't the same as human souls. The human soul is something much higher and greater, and that makes it possible for humans to have a deep friendship with God in a way that other creatures can't.
So what about the second question: Do animals go to heaven?
Some people point to the scriptural account of Elijah's being taken to heaven by "a flaming chariot and flaming horses" as evidence that animals can be in heaven (see 2 Kgs 2:11-12). But it's not possible to draw any firm conclusions about the matter from that particular passage.
Given that human beings can have fellowship with God in a way that the animals can't, it would make sense that life in heaven is a privilege that animals don't share with us in any form. But Scripture seems to be silent about the matter, and the Church has never pronounced on it authoritatively.
Before we assure children too quickly that only people go to heaven, we should remember that even great Christian thinkers such as C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) have debated this issue and left the possibility open (see sidebar on Page 24).
St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) taught that animal "souls" could not by their nature survive death. Unlike human souls, he said, they are perishable when separated from their proper bodies.
Even so, perhaps that leaves open the possibility that God might choose to keep at least some animal "souls" from perishing after death, granting them a privilege beyond their natural capacity.
In any case, we do know that, since animals cannot have sanctifying grace in their souls, they cannot receive the Beatific Vision. So if some animals go to heaven in some sense, it wouldn't be for the same reason that humans are in heaven.
What other reasons could there be? It just might be that God would allow the animals we've loved on earth to take part somehow in our heavenly life as part of our eternal happiness.
In fact, since God himself takes delight in all the good creatures He has made, perhaps He would give animals some sort of life in heaven for the sake of His own pleasure and glory.
As Lewis pointed out, even in this life our pets sometimes become an important part of our lives, almost an extension of who we are. Their association with us elevates them to a higher kind of life than they would have had on their own. (Recent studies of canine behavior actually seem to lend some scientific support to the latter idea.)
"In this way," Lewis concluded, "it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters."
Might this possibly be one aspect of the final renewal of all creation that Scripture talks about?
St. Paul tells us that other creatures have suffered the consequences of human sin. But through Christ's redemption of the human race, "creation itself" will be "set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (see Rom 8:20-22).
At the very least, we can say that all we have loved on this earth has shaped who we are. So the effects of those loves on us, including our cherished memories of them, will in some sense live within us forever.
Whatever the case, we probably do well to allow children to leave this particular question open. Perhaps the best answer would be to affirm that if, by God's help, they go to heaven, they will carry their pets with them in their hearts.
We can also assure children that God loves every creature He makes, that He loves their pets even more than they do, and that when their beloved pets die, we can entrust them to Him.
Perhaps we should conclude with one final and encouraging note: Since the lower creatures aren't morally responsible for their behavior on earth, they cannot deserve a reward, but neither can they deserve a punishment. So they cannot suffer in hell.
One of Lewis' readers once made fun of his speculation that at least some animals might be allowed a heavenly existence. The wag demanded to know: "Where will you put all the mosquitoes?"
Unperturbed, Lewis replied wryly that, "if the worst came to the worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined." TCA
Paul Thigpen, Ph.D., is editor of The Catholic Answer and professor of Sacred Theology at Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, Ga.
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