Given the important role which pets play in many of our lives as Westerners, I am never surprised by the frequency with which I am asked whether or not pets go to heaven when they die. Well, do they?
Some believe they do. These Bible teachers base their conclusions, for instance, on Genesis 6:18ff. which speaks of animals being included in the Noahic Covenant. Psalm 147:9 and Jonah 4:11 reveal God's compassion for animals, and some end-times texts speak of animals in relationship to the Kingdom of God after Christ's return (e.g. Isaiah 11:6). Others are equally certain that animals do not go to heaven. The Bible never explicitly teaches that animals have souls and there is no evidence that Jesus' death on the cross atoned for the sins of animals. Also, there is no evidence in the Bible that the animals which may populate the earth after its re-creation are resurrected forms of the pets we knew on earth. At the end of the day, no matter what our feelings tell us about this issue, we need to conclude that the Bible is silent about it. It is possible that the subject never crossed the ancient mind.
Whether it is the death of your own pet or someone you love, eventually the question "Do pets go to heaven?" will camp itself on your front doorstep. When it does, here are some thoughts to keep in mind:
1. As Christians we need to be sensitive to friends who love pets which die. We need to let them know that their loss grieves us because we love them and that since God made animals to live not die, their death is a hateful result of the Fall. Some Christians, especially from certain farm backgrounds, are revolted by the thought of dogs and cats in the house, being treated like members of the family. To many in rural America, animals are utilitarian 'mousers' or sheep-dogs to be confined to the barn. If that is you, then please try to be sensitive to other believers who have a different perspective on pets, see them in more relational terms and grieve deeply at their loss. Our family lost our dog a year ago, and we have appreciated the compassionate response of many friends to our loss.
2. The Bible is clear that animals are foundationally different from humans. We are made in God's image (Genesis 1:26); they are not. We have eternal souls (I Cor. 15:53); there is no conclusive evidence that animals do. Jesus died for us (John 10:15); not for animals. The fact that God/Jesus authorized the death of animals when He saw fit into order to move His plan forward and do good to man (e.g. Gen. 3:21, 9:1-5, 22:13, Mt. 17:24-27, etc.) reminds us that animals are in a very different category than man. We are God's crowning creation with special dignity (Genesis 1:26-28); animals were created for our joy and our use (Genesis 9:1-5). We need to care for them well (Proverbs 12:1), yet always remembering that they are different in ultimate value than humans.
3. We live in an unusual age and culture. In most parts of the world for most of history, animals were seen either as food (Acts 10:13) or for labor (I Timothy 5:18) or as dangerous scavengers to be feared (Philippians 3:2). Certain societies (e.g. ancient Egypt and Rome) have always had pets, but our current culture in which pets have risen to nearly the level of children for many - especially for many single people or couples without children - is unique and potentially quite dangerous. It is potentially dangerous in that many people spend hundreds or thousands of dollars more on their pets than they do to alleviate the acute human needs around them. In 2011 Americans spent nearly $51 billion on their pets. Also, many give inordinate time to their pets while they spend comparably little time mentoring, tutoring and spending time with our society's children, disabled and elderly in need. Pets in many quarters have become a symbol for American self-indulgence. Sometimes our sorrow for our dead pets - when it is inordinate - may reveal unspoken idolatry.
In conclusion, pets are good. They are wonderful gifts from God. Will they be in heaven? The Bible does not speak to that question specifically. It does, though, encourage us to enjoy them, care for them and see them as a means of joy which should result in our worship of God. At the same time, the Bible cautions us to guard our hearts against placing our pets in a position of importance which they do not deserve. When they become too important to us (possibly revealed by our over-concern about whether or not they will go to heaven), it may reveal a need for a correction of values in our own hearts and lives.