It was somewhat of a surprise when George died despite his old age, for he had seemed to live through everything—much pestering from our younger dog, Wolfie; consuming way too much chocolate, candy, and paper towels; chewing on a poisonous tick collar; jumping out of a moving (quite fast) pickup truck after another dog; surviving the deadly disease called “bloat,” and then its horrific surgery. George had quite the will to live and quite the will to love. His eyes shone with love, and everyone who met him saw this, and remembered it. He had a presence that charmed people—everyone from the pharmacy delivery man (who always remembered to put a treat in the bag with our prescriptions) to our out-of- state friends who couldn’t wait to get a picture of him along with their Christmas cards. At the vet, George was a complete brat to all the other dogs, demanding attention on him, and yet none of the vet technicians denied him this. How could they? It was George! George was a creature of God, and sometimes he seemed closer to God then I have ever been. I used to wonder, “What does George do all day? Doesn’t he get bored lying around on the couch?” Now I know, he was merely soaking up life, resting in the arms of his Maker. Something we could all learn to do.
So is George in Heaven? If I had been five I would have frantically asked this question. But now I have my answer: Why not?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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As a child I was told by most of my elders that animals had no place in Heaven. They had no souls, therefore, they had no immortality and when they died, their bodies wasted away and ended forever. When my cat died, I insisted on this theology. I thought that believing Tom could be in Heaven would be a lie, and would make me a heretic. But the thought of Tom ending forever was not a thought that would let me sleep. Finally, I had to imagine him sleeping and purring peacefully on Jesus’ lap. I concluded that Jesus wanted the little creature on earth, and loved him, so why couldn’t he be in Heaven?
Now I am not arguing for some sort of Church document recognizing the immortality of animals. However, I don’t really think we have any place denying it, either. The argument that I often hear against animals in Heaven is, “They don’t need it. They lived their lives fully, and they were happy. They were created for us, and we will have so much more in Heaven, so their purpose has ended.” This argument makes a lot of sense. Practically speaking, there is no need for any animal in Heaven. We will have God. I love George, but I love God much more, and Heaven can be Heaven without George, but not without God. So it makes sense to say that animals don’t have a practical purpose in paradise. We will clearly have much better things to do than pet their fur.
And yet, who said our God is one of practicality? God doesn’t need us in Heaven, and we definitely don’t need each other. And yet He brings us there, because He is a God of utter impracticality—a God of complete graciousness. I know that we are higher than the animals. We were “created in His image.” But we are not Him. We are humble, fallen creatures that He has chosen to elevate. We have His tenderness to thank for this. And I believe it is that same sort of tenderness that sculpted the foolish, clumsy little puppy. Animals don’t need to be in Heaven, and we can never conclude that they are until we get there. But I would not be surprised if a God who loves His animals so dearly, who saved them, every kind of them, from His massive flood, who uses them in so much of His poetry and imagery, and who paints the picture of paradise with them in it, will bring them to the eternal paradise. No, they don’t need to go there—they lived their lives fully. But maybe God wants them there, as He wanted them here. And maybe it won’t be George, but another version of George, or perhaps just George’s essence. Perhaps when I meet God, I will see the side of Him that George embodied and say “ah that’s where you came up with the idea for George.” Regardless of how the goodness and innocence of the many creatures may live on, I think it must, somehow. If there is anything I do know about Heaven, I know it has to be a big place to be inhabited by a Being with such a big heart. And a big house has plenty of room for little creatures.
Sometimes we paint God as too serious. We act as if He can’t appreciate the simple treasures in life—that He is too great for them—that He would be ashamed of the child expecting his puppy to be in Heaven. But God created that childlike impulse within us to cherish creation, and I believe it only makes us more like Him. We forget sometimes that God knows how to laugh—rather, created laughter. As G.K. Chesterton says in the last paragraph of Orthodoxy:
He concealed something… He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.