The Rev. Stanley S. Harakas is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and is Archbishop lakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology Emeritus in the field of Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA. Fr. Harakas is the author of five pamphlets and fifteen books, both scholarly and popular, and over one hundred thirty published scholarly articles and book contributions. For twenty-one years (1980-2000), he was a weekly columnist in the national Greek-American newspaper, The Hellenic Chronicle. He is a beloved teacher to generations of Greek Orthodox Christians in America, thanks to his many years as a professor and his prolific writings.
Q: Do pets go to heaven when they die?
A: This is a sympathetic question, and it is understandable, at least by pet owners who come to love their dogs and cats and other household pets. Those of us who have pets in our homes often come to be attached to them and sense a certain response they have for us, which we interpret to be love. Their behavior often is comforting and provides us with a feeling that they are “almost human.” From this kind of affection comes questions such as this one, “Do pets go to heaven?”
A Short History of Animals and Pets
For the greater part of human history and in many places in the world to this day, animals were and are not thought of as pets. They were, rather, perceived as aids to human life. Animals are sources of food and clothing, and are used as means to assist human beings in their varied endeavors. For example, chickens and cattle are raised and cared for by farmers for meat and milk production. Similarly, sheep provide wool for humans to turn into clothing and cloth. Dogs serve as hunting animals and warn of strangers. Horses provided transportation for the movement of individuals, for commerce and trade, and for military purposes.
St. Hilary of Poitiers (315-367) expressed the Church’s attitude towards animals, when he wrote:
that there is not a single animal or plant in which the Creator has not implanted some form of energy capable of being used to satisfy man’s needs. For He Who knew all things before they were, saw that in the future man would go forward in the strength of his own will, and would be subject to corruption, and, therefore, He created all things for his seasonable use, alike those in the firmament, and those on the earth, and those in the waters.
A Change in the Appreciation of Animals
With just a few exceptions in the extremely rich and pampered classes in antiquity, this was the general situation until the rise of capitalism provided enough wealth, so that some people could afford to breed, maintain, and care for animals in their homes as companions and pets.
Thus in earlier times, animals that we think of as pets were not particularly highly regarded. For example, in ancient times dogs were thought of as scavengers; wild and dangerous threats to human life. So, they came to exemplify bad and evil things. The image that was dominant was a pack of wild dogs threatening human life and society. By extension, to call a person a “dog” was in insult.
Even the Bible uses this kind of language. Here are just a few examples. “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6); “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire” (2 Peter 2:22); “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers” (Philippians 3:2); “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:15).
The Psalm that is interpreted as referring to Christ’s Crucifixion is another example: “Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evil-doers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet” (Psalm 22:16-18).
However, the new situation is that animals of all kinds have not only been domesticated, but have become our household companions and are considered to be family members. (At this very moment, as I am writing these lines, our beloved and gentle pet dog Rusty, is curled up at my feet- and our rambunctious cat Taffy is putting her paws on the keyboard, as I sit in front of the computer!).
Thus, there has been a sort of revolution in thought about pets. As we have noted, sometimes we still use the term “dog” as an insult. But more often than not, we attribute virtues of loyalty, and faithfulness in our pets; and then compare them with the treachery, meanness, and ignoble character of some human beings. Famous is the poet Byron’s Logicians Refuted where he writes:
The dog to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man,
They swore the dog had lost its wits,
To bite so good a man,
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.
So, No wonder that the question arises, “Do pets go to heaven?”
Why Pets Do Not Go To Heaven
In the Creation story in Genesis, a very important distinction is made between animals and human beings. Human beings were created not only out of the same material that the animal world was created, but also with the “breath of God,” “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1-2). What precisely is the difference?
We could say that animals do have a soul, in the sense of a life force and the basics of perception, response, the ability to learn, instinct, and so forth. What they don’t have is the “image of God” in them. St. John of Damascus (675-749), summarizing the faith of the Church, refers to the distinctive aspect of human nature as “reason,” saying “the human being is a rational and intelligent animal.” Another word he uses to indicate this difference is “mind.” This creates a meeting place between human beings and God; a meeting place that animals do not have. So, when St. John of Damascus speaks about Jesus’ Incarnation (the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, taking on human nature), he contrasts the human mind as the image of God, with “the soul of an irrational animal.” He says in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith:
Therefore, God the Word, wishing to restore that which was in His own image, became man. But what is that which was in His own image, unless mind? So He gave up the better and assumed the worse. For mind is the border-land between God and flesh, for it dwells indeed in fellowship with the flesh, and is, moreover, the image of God. Mind, then, mingles with mind, and mind holds a place midway between the pureness of God and the denseness of flesh. For if the Lord assumed a soul without mind, He assumed the soul of an irrational animal.
The Kingdom of God is For Human Beings
The Kingdom of heaven, then, is for human beings. We have no evidence anywhere in the Scriptures or in the Tradition of the Church to support the idea that animals, which do not have a “rational soul,” are destined for heaven–or, for that matter, for hell. Only human beings face that double potential destiny.
In the meantime, let us enjoy out pets, but not at the expense of our responsibility for our fellow human beings. Pets and animals are part of God’s creation, for which we have a moral and spiritual responsibility. The Old Testament speaks of the proper care of domesticated animals (1 Kings 4:31-34, 1 Kings 18:5, 2 Kings 3:17, are just three examples). Jesus accepts as necessary and right the care of animals (Luke 13:15). The humane treatment of animals, including our domesticated pets, is part of our Christian responsibility to our environment. Let that be fulfilled, and I trust that God will be pleased.