Glad You Asked: Do dogs go to heaven?

On this episode of the podcast, Laura Hobgood discusses non-human animals, the nature of their souls, and if Christians will see them in an afterlife.

Listen on: Apple | Google | Spotify

Any Christian who has ever loved a family pet or worked closely with animals has probably, at some point, asked whether non-human animals go to heaven. For parents of small children who have lost an animal friend to age, accident, or illness, this question becomes especially fraught with worries about how to help a child through their grieving processes without inculcating inaccurate beliefs about the soul or the afterlife. Some religious leaders seem to think that answering the question “Do dogs go to heaven?” in the affirmative will somehow dilute the specialness of God’s love for humanity or compromise the uniqueness of the human soul. But is this accurate? Does the Catholic Church teach that heaven is reserved exclusively for human beings?

On this episode of the podcast, guest Laura Hobgood discusses the topic of non-human animals, the nature of their souls, and whether Christians can look forward to being reunited with their non-human friends in the afterlife. 

Hobgood is professor of religion and environmental studies at Southwestern University, where she teaches courses on animals, nature, and religion. She is the author of Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition (University of Illinois Press), The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals (Baylor University Press), and A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans (Baylor University Press). She also works as a rescue coordinator and volunteers at an animal shelter.

Read more in these links:

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked:

Cassidy: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. 

Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Cassidy: And I’m Cassidy Klein, editorial assistant at U.S. Catholic. Today we’re going to talk about a question that a lot of people, especially children, have asked for generations: Do dogs go to heaven? Or, more specifically, do non-human animals go to heaven?

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Laura Hobgood, Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Southwestern University. As well as researching the role of animals, especially dogs, in the Christian tradition, she also teaches courses on animals, nature, and religion. She is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions for her work in environmental studies.

Cassidy: She is the author of Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, and A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans. She is also the dog rescue coordinator with Georgetown Animal Outreach and volunteers at the Williamson County Regional animal shelter.

Rebecca: Laura, thank you so much for joining us on the Glad You Asked podcast.

Laura: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m looking forward to it.

Cassidy: So the question of whether animals, especially our beloved pets, will enjoy an afterlife is complicated by various theories about what living things do or don’t have souls or what the word soul even means. Can you talk a bit about that?

Laura: Sure, yeah. The question, “Do dogs go to heaven,” which of course broadens then to all sorts of other animals, is one that I think people have been asking for a long time. And I think you’re right, the whole idea of the soul ended up complicating that even more, who has a soul and who doesn’t have a soul, if souls exist at all. And one of the reasons that we think people have been asking this question for so long is we first start seeing dogs interred, buried, even buried with humans as long as 15,000 years ago. Was there a concept of a soul or an afterlife at that point? We have no idea. But eventually we do even see dogs buried with grave goods, which suggests that they were going to need them in a kind of physical afterlife. So we do start to see that concept develop that there is some kind of physical afterlife. Does that mean there’s a soul separated from the body and that soul has an afterlife or does the whole body go to an afterlife? There certainly is evidence that people started to think that we’re going to need stuff in an afterlife, and so our whole bodies were going to be in some kind of afterlife. 

The idea of a soul really starts to come around more when the five major world religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, start to develop and then you have this idea in those traditions of some kind of a soul. In the South Asian traditions, that soul transmigrates into many different bodies, including animal bodies and other-than-human animal bodies, so it moves through all sorts of different bodies. So obviously in those traditions, other animals have a soul because it’s the same soul that will eventually transmigrate into human bodies. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it becomes even more complicated because the questions arise in those cultures of whether or not other animals even have souls. And are humans unique because we have this thing that we start to think about as a soul? And so that then more complicates even further in afterlife. Is it just the soul that goes to an afterlife? And if so, then are humans the only ones that have that soul? And that question has been answered in different ways by different Christian theologians throughout the 2000-year history of Christianity.

Rebecca: So this kind of opens up the next question. If we’re going to ask if animals go to heaven, we should probably clarify what the Christian understanding of heaven as an afterlife option is, and when did this understanding develop?

Laura: Yeah, so heaven is a concept that, and that’s not completely agreed upon by historical theologians, but it seems to be a concept that moves into Christianity from the kind of Greco-Roman religious traditions where you had gods and goddesses living in a heaven. They were the only ones there. And the rest of humans didn’t go to anything that we would think of now as a hell, but just to an underworld after they died.

Christianity, then, I think one of its early appeals, is that it really opens up heaven to other humans as well, not just to the gods and goddesses who lived in that realm. And so Christianity then, this concept doesn’t exist in the Jewish traditions before Christianity, that concept of going to heaven. And so Christianity kind of opens that realm up. And so then heaven becomes, at that point, we get that three-tiered universe because heaven then also starts to assume another option, which is hell, right? You have to kind of make it into heaven or not. Or in some forms of Christianity, it’s predetermined that you will go to heaven or not. So different forms of Christianity vary on how they think of heaven. So early on, it seems like it became very much a kind of physical concept of a place you went. And obviously the resurrection of the body, there’s so many images and art from the Middle Ages in particular into the Renaissance of bodies being resurrected and crawling out of the ground and climbing up ladders to heaven or being pushed down into hell. I always tell my students that you don’t wanna run into an archangel because they might be the one who’s gonna shove you down, physically down, into hell. So it becomes very much that kind of physical concept with that three-tiered universe. That starts to change. I’m sure that there are probably many Christians who still, and there’s nothing wrong with this, conceive of that as the way heaven, earth, and hell kind of function. But that starts to vary a lot in Christianity, that it’s a place where the soul goes. You’ve got the idea of this beatific vision that after you die, you basically, if you have been a believer who’s followed, who’s been saved, who’s been reconciled with God, that you will spend your eternity just in the presence of God. And that’s what heaven becomes, is just being in the presence of God for eternity. And so that starts to become a new concept of heaven. There are other Christians now whose idea of heaven is basically just being at eternal peace, that there’s no particular place that you just have gone to rest. So a lot of different ideas about heaven, now you bring animals into it, some of the most recent ideas are this idea of going over a rainbow bridge and being greeted by all of the animals that you have loved during your life. And that becomes a kind of new concept of heaven for many people who are closely connected to animals. So heaven has been kind of all over the place in terms of how people understand it.

Cassidy: Following this development of this more sophisticated theology about the soul and the afterlife, when did people really start asking questions about animals and what happens to them after they die?

Laura: I think it’s been a long—it’s a good question, all these questions are fun. It’s been a long process. There are a couple of junctures where things start to change. One is around the time of the life of René Descartes, he’s an early modern philosopher. And he’s the one who really starts to delineate between the ideas that have been around before because Christianity has very much the image of God as a human. Christianity is the only religious tradition that really has the embodiment of God in a human figure, in the figure of Jesus. And so that has made Christianity already slightly different. But what Descartes posits is that only humans have a soul. He actually points out a place in the brain where the soul resides, which is interesting. And so he does this for a variety of reasons. I think he probably really believed it. But it also is a time when vivisection, the live dissection of living animals, was a big part of science. And so part of that scientific method kind of required those who were, they learned a lot that way, sadly. That’s the only way we learned a number of things like the circulatory system. But to do that, you really had to think that the animals weren’t feeling any pain. And so they were just reacting, they don’t have a soul, they don’t have any value. And so that devaluation of animals really started, humans had always been valued more, but that pure devaluation that they have no soul and so no meaning and feel no pain, they can’t suffer, really started to come to the fore in a large way in the 17th century. It’s questioned, constantly questioned. And it is particularly questioned at the beginning of the 20th century, when you have, at the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century, where you have a big anti-vivisection movement. And a lot of that is emerging out of Christian groups, saying, you know, fighting back that idea and saying, no, other animals do feel pain. They can suffer. So then the question starts to arise again. And this is also a time period, particularly starting in Victorian England, when we see a whole lot of pet cemeteries starting to spring up again. So people start wanting to bury their pets again. And just the idea of doing that, and you’ll see headstones that say, we will meet you in eternity, right? And so headstones start to have inscriptions on them that suggest that these animals will go to heaven, whatever that is. And so you have this time period and this sort of ongoing, I think even today, right? The ongoing question of whether animals have the same kind of soul that humans do.

And so I think that that’s sort of the ongoing question. But that history of the big debate really starts with René Descartes. So that’s part of that struggle there about whether or not animals have souls. It’s what we’re doing, what can we do with them? If they do have souls, can we really do the things that we sometimes do to them? So it’s just a continuing debate.

Rebecca: So aside from the ongoing vivisection conversation, have there been some other notable disputes or conversations among philosophers or activists around this topic?

Laura: There have, and we can see theologians and philosophers debating this, even since Thomas Aquinas, which well predates Descartes. Thomas Aquinas very adamantly said that only humans have an eternal soul. And so that’s some of the early theological debate that goes on in terms of whether or not other animals have souls. It goes back and forth between other theologians as well. Martin Luther was convinced that his dog Tolpel would be in heaven and that other animals would be in heaven as well. That he read pieces particularly from the book of Romans that all of creation is groaning, yearning for redemption. And other biblical passages that suggested that it’s all of creation that will be redeemed. So different theologians pull from passages in Genesis that the Garden of Eden, which is the perfect place, right? That is where paradise is. It was full of animals, right? And so that means that when in the Book of Isaiah, the idea that the lion will lie down with the lamb and that we have that, that’s the vision of paradise as well, that you have other animals that are in these visions of paradise. Some also argued that the idea that God saved all sorts of animals in the Noah story suggests that animals were worthy of being saved also.

These many stories from biblical texts suggest that animals are part of this whole idea of redemption. So you have many theologians that grappled with it, Aquinas, Luther. C.S. Lewis, who’s a theologian in his own right, suggests that animals will get to heaven through their relationships with humans. So he sort of had humans as a kind of intermediary that could get animals to heaven in a way, which is kind of interesting.

So you have had a number of theologians who have grappled with it and used various biblical texts throughout the history of Christianity. And they have a back and forth with some popes. Pius IX even tried to stop the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the SPCA, in Italy because he thought that would give too much impetus to people suggesting that other animals had souls. John Paul II said that animals do have souls and that they are as near to God as we are. Most recently, Pope Francis, who probably had a pastoral moment talking to a child, assured that child that his dog would go to heaven as well. That sort of sprung a whole series of news pieces when Pope Francis said that. So, we’ve had theologians and church leaders in different places on this throughout the history of the Christian tradition and still grappling with it.

Cassidy: So this is very much related to what you were just saying about popes and other people trying to answer this question, but are there any other authoritative attempts to answer the question, “Do dogs go to heaven?” from a Christian standpoint? Like, is there any church teaching about this or is it mostly figures kind of trying to answer this question?

Laura: Yeah, you can search around and find quite a few theologians who are responding to it, but no real official church positions on it. Almost in any denomination you look at, not just the Catholic Church, but across the board, there hasn’t been really any official church position on it. The question of, a lot of this begs the question of salvation too, right? Do you have to be a believer to be saved? Do you have to be baptized to be saved?

I remember my father who was a theologian as well. When he was a child, he would baptize his animals just to make sure that they were also saved, right? So do you have to go through, do you have to fill certain sacraments to be saved? If so, do the animals have to do those as well? So there hasn’t really been in any denomination that I can find an official church position on whether or not other animals go to heaven. There have been official church positions on the treatment of other animals. But that’s a kind of different question, right? That there’s, that’s the question of whether or not one can be cruel to animals or not. And generally church positions are that one should not be cruel to other animals. Now, that varies, right, in terms of what that means and what kind of animals you’re talking about there. Food animals, wild animals, animals who are pets. There’s so many different other categories of animals. I remember one conversation: Well, if animals go to heaven, then all animals go to heaven. So mosquitoes go to heaven. Do you really want mosquitoes in heaven? Right? And so you just sort of, what is the circle of who goes to heaven? I think that’s where C.S. Lewis might have been going with his ideas that animals go to heaven if we sort of take them with us there to a certain extent. So again, with the human intermediary.

Martin Luther’s idea about what happened with those animals who we don’t really like having around is that they would then be pleasurable to be around in heaven. So there might be mosquitoes around, but they’re going to be nice mosquitoes. And there might be snakes there, but they’re going to be nice snakes. And so that all animals that somehow are bothersome to humans on earth are going to be animals we want to be with. He probably got some of those ideas from that same Isaiah passage where you have predator and prey embracing each other in whatever this afterlife is or paradise or the new heaven and the new earth that animals, that those who had been in those kinds of relationships of violence would be reconciled with each other in whatever this new heaven and new earth is.

Rebecca: I’m fascinated by how kind of human centric so many of these solutions are, you know, valuing animals based on whether we enjoy them or not. And I wonder if some of our more contemporary ecological understandings offer a way out of that because we understand an animal’s place in a larger structure. But I’m just wondering what you think is a good overall way to think about this question. If someone asks you, “Will I see my pet in heaven?” How would you answer?

Laura: I usually would respond to that with, if heaven would only be the kind of place you would want to spend eternity with, it’s with your pets. Like for me, heaven would be a really lousy place to be if it weren’t full of dogs and squirrels and all these other wonderful animals. So my answer would be if your heaven would include other animals, then it would only be heaven with them there. That’s the only way that heaven would exist. I wanna pull back around a little bit to the human-centric part of all this too, if that’s okay. One of the things that Christianity, probably more than many other religious traditions, has to grapple with is something that I mentioned earlier, with this idea of God having become incarnate in a human being. That kind of raises the, or pushes the bar a little bit in terms of the centrality of humans. I remember having quite a few conversations thinking about, well, if God is so amazing and great, why wouldn’t God also want to have been a dolphin? And why wouldn’t God want to be an eagle? Why wouldn’t God have also wanted to be a, maybe God has been all those things too. And I think that that’s one way to try to think our way out of the human-centric part of it. Sallie McFague was one of the theologians that I worked with as a student. And she, her idea of rethinking God in that way is thinking of the whole world as the body of God, so that God is part of everything in the world. And that actually really does tie closely to scriptural texts with the whole creation groaning for redemption. And so that idea of the whole creation being the embodiment of God I think can start to move us out of that human-centric thinking. And a lot of theologians within Christianity and other traditions too now are really trying to push the human-centric a little out of the way, some so that we can think about the rest of the planet more than we have for generations. That kind of thinking has led us to a place where so many animals are going extinct. It’s led us to a place where we basically have started to use up much of the world and then we are continuing to do that. And that religions really can speak to that and try to help us get out of that way of thinking and being. So in some ways the question of “do dogs go to heaven” is part of that whole question of what is sacred and what is not sacred. And if all of creation is sacred, then we have to live differently with it, and as part of it, because we’re just, we’re part of all of it. So I think that is something that theologians, a lot of theologians are grappling with still.

Cassidy: Laura, thank you so much for being our guest on the podcast today.

Laura: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. I hope that some of these answers will help people to think some more and maybe a little differently about this. And there are dogs in heaven. I’ll just stop with that.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.