What Happens to Animals When they Die?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for Knox folks to ask for their spiritual or religious questions to be addressed in a sermon.

Ask Andrew (2023)

1: What Happens to Animals when they Pass Away?

Scriptures: Genesis 1:24-31 Matthew 6:25-30

Today’s question is one that many pet owners have asked, especially when they have lost an animal that has felt like part of the family, maybe even a best friend.

One challenge is that it presupposes that we know what happens to people when we pass away. The problem being that the Bible gives us very few details. Between the ideas of going to heaven, or being resurrected to a New Earth, or life simply ending, as was a common belief in the centuries before Jesus, I could write multiple sermons on this topic. I won’t do that now. Let’s start with the basic idea that people are given some kind of eternal life and then the question really becomes: Do animals have that too?

The bible does not tell us about animals in the next life apart from some horses in the book of Revelation. We do have some wonderful prophetic images of lions lying down with lambs, which are hopeful, but those are identified with this life, not the next.

Traditional theology usually denies animals a place in the next life, or even souls that could make the transition. I would argue that this comes from a very human bias in the people who were doing their best to write down God’s message in scripture.

In our Genesis lesson the bias is laid out very clearly: of all the animals on earth, we believe we were created in God’s image. No matter whether you interpret that literally or metaphorically, it sets humanity apart from the rest of creation. It gives us dominion, as that passage says: The right to dominate other creatures.

This is not just a religious bias. The scientific world, which often keeps itself quite distant from religion, has a strong bias in favour of humans being superior to other creatures. This shared religious/secular bias has permitted people to treat animals and nature in general in quite terrible ways over time despite clear laws in the Hebrew scriptures insisting that animals be treated justly.

We know the practical results of that human-centred attitude: the climate crisis we are now experiencing is a direct result of that kind of arrogance, that hubris, that pride that goes before a fall.

Scripture makes it clear that God loves “all creatures great and small”. Our Matthew passage today shows God giving love and care to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Yes, Jesus says that we are of more value than the birds and he says it again when he talks about the sparrow falling, but the fundamental point is that God sees the little sparrow fall because God cares deeply about that small bird. The point Jesus is making is that God’s great love, which encompasses even the smallest of creatures, is something that we can rely on too.

Jesus’ words are based in the understanding that God loves every living thing.

So, what about the soul? Scripture does distinguish between the spirit and the soul. The spirit is the source of life: the breath, the wind, the vital force that enlivens the world.

The soul is something more complex: it is the seat of our identity; it is the part inside of us where we live; it is our personality, our motivations, our self. In Hebrew it is called “Nephesh”. In Greek it is called “Psyche”, which is where we get the word “psychology”.

The Hebrew scriptures describe God as having a soul and part of the reason we ask today’s question is that we are witness to the fact that so many of the animals we know have distinct personalities. They have a sense of self, even if it is different than ours and it saddens us to think of those souls being lost.

The CBC this week has featured a scientific look at natural sounds beyond human hearing: infrasound and ultrasound and what we are learning as we use special microphones and algorithms to try to decode animal communications.

They have learned that at the deepest levels of the ocean whales whisper to each other. Why? What are they whispering about? And that bats use their ultrasonic voices not only to hunt and create a map for flying, but they talk to each other and even sing to each other.

We have learned that bats have economic systems. Some of them have lengthy conversations, basically negotiations, before trading sex for food, for example. And it is clear that they develop complex relationships with family, close friends, and even hold long-term grudges against some members of their communities.

The more we learn about our fellow creatures, the fewer distinctions exist that allow us to claim that humans are superior. Other animals have language and music; they have clearly demonstrated intelligence, even if we can’t always understand what they’re thinking and even if our own human motivations require us to develop more empathy if we want to understand them.

So, if we aren’t so different, if we aren’t as special as we like to think we are, how can we claim that we are the only animals with a soul? And if other animals have souls, how can we claim that God will not give them some kind of new life in eternity?

This is not a new idea within Christianity. George MacDonald, a Scottish Congregationalist minister, was a pioneering fantasy writer. He was a mentor to Lewis Carroll, a friend to Mark Twain and was called a “master” by C.S Lewis. He embraced a Universalist theology and preached that all people would be saved through God’s love, and that all creatures would be saved too.

His strictly Calvinist congregation didn’t approve and cut his salary in half after that. Maybe it’s not surprising that he switched from pastoral ministry to literature, where his beliefs would find wider acceptance.

After all these years of considering this question I think it is time to say that there is simply too much human arrogance in the traditional theology that reserves the next life for humans alone.

We should consider this an ongoing mystery that contains plenty of room for the hope that God’s deep love for animals – which is so profound that Jesus used it to prove God’s love for us – that God’s deep love for animals will carry them beyond this life into the next.

Last Sunday, Easter, we celebrated the understanding that God has given us the gift of eternal life. I hope we can be humble enough to consider that God will share that same gift with the other creatures God loves so well.


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