Monday, February 18, 2019

Are Humans Like the Dog Named Rover?

Perhaps it is not so popular now, but Rover has been one of the most common names for dogs, perhaps second only to Fido. But what happens when Rover or other pet dogsor humansdie?
Do Dogs Go to Heaven?
As a means of comforting children—or adults—who are grieving over the death of a beloved pet dog, it is sometimes emphasized that the pet has gone to Heaven and is happily waiting for the grieving person to join them there in the (hopefully distant) future.
While, admittedly, such talk likely has comforting value to the person grieving, the credibility of dogs going to Heaven is highly questionable.
For most who think about the matter seriously, the likely conclusion is that, no, dogs (and other pets) do not go to Heaven in any literal sense.
This latter assumption lies behind what the famous American short story writer O. Henry (1862~1910) once said when asked about the afterlife:
I had a little dog
And his name was Rover
And when he died
He died all over
This apparently meant that O. Henry thought that death, whether for humans or for dogs, means the end of one’s existence.
Do Humans Have Immortal Souls?
Those who deny that dogs go to Heaven most likely do so because they do not believe that dogs have immortal souls. Many of those same people, however, unhesitatingly affirm that human beings do have immortal souls.
The idea of the “immortality of the soul” has a long history and was particularly strong among ancient Greeks.
Most great BCE Greek philosophers, it seems, believed that the human body was the tomb of the soul and that the soul was liberated from the body at death. That belief is sometimes explained like this: the sōma (σῶμα=body) is the sēma (σῆμα=tomb) of the soul.
There is no question but that this idea infiltrated Christian thinking at an early date and has been a widely-held belief of many Christians through the centuries.
Nevertheless, this is not the basic Christian idea and is not necessarily true.
The characteristic Christian concept of the afterlife of human beings is based on belief in resurrection, not natural immortality. That belief affirms eternal life as a gift from God, not as a natural human attribute.
So, What Happens at Death?
In keeping with the basic belief in resurrection, some Christian theologians have rightly seen death as the end of existence—until resurrection. According to the repeated teaching of the Bible, some people receive the gift of eternal life.
What about those who do not receive that gift—especially those who not only reject it but also consciously reject God and God’s grace?
Traditionally, such people were thought to go to Hell where they are punished endlessly.
Last month I wrote (here) about annihilationism, an explanation of what happens at death that rejects the cruel idea of unending punishment. Still, some interpret God’s annihilating the “wicked” or “non-believers” as vengeful and unloving.
Annihilationism has long been linked to the idea of “conditional immortality,” the belief that humans do not have immortal souls. This latter position, sometimes just called “conditionalism,” is probably a better term than the more common label of annihilationism.
It is amazing how the traditional view of Hell is linked so often to John 3:16, that key verse of the Bible that declares, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life” (CEB). 
Here, however, it seems quite clear that eternal life is a gift and that those who reject that gracious gift perish (=die like the dog named Rover).


  1. Leroy, I don't usually comment so much, but this blog evoked a memory of my days as a very youthful part-time pastor. One of the church's senior candidates for baptism asked me (I was about 20!) the same question: will my dog go to heaven if I'm baptized or should we baptize him, too? I did not handle it with much tact and he assured me that if his dog couldn't go to heaven, he had no desire to be baptized. Over the years I've remembered that conversation alongside Huck Finn's announcement to Miss Watson, that he'd prefer to go to hell sooner than heaven, because Tom Sawyer, his friend would be there. In retrospect, I've hated the idea that I was more like Miss Watson, trying to civilize Huck, than like the Widow Douglas, who, though having her own hypocrisies, nevertheless, took Huck in and gave him a place to live.

    1. Thanks, Milton, for sharing these comments from long ago--and I was also a part-time pastor at 20, but (fortunately, perhaps) no one asked me about baptizing a dog then (or since!).

      Your anecdote raises several questions: (1) Why was somebody in a Baptist church thinking that his (or his dog's) going to heaven depended on being baptized? As I remember it, Baptists back then criticized other denominations for the mistaken belief in "baptismal regeneration," at is was sometimes called. (2) How could someone's love for his dog be so strong that he would be willing to suffer everlasting punishment (=torment, as usually understood then) in order to be with his dog? (3) As regards Huck Finn's "announcement," I can appreciate it as a metaphorical expression for his great love for his friend Tom--but what is the connection between Miss Watson's efforts to civilize Huck and Widow Douglas's taking Huck in and how does that relate to what happens to someone when they die?

  2. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago shares these thought-provoking comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your always provocative thoughts (a very good thing!).

    "The idea of an immortal soul is Greek; the ancient Israelites and other ancient Semites did not believe in an immortal soul; the OT reflects ancient Semitic beliefs. The ancient Israelites did not believe in resurrection either, until quite late; see Isaiah 26:19, part of the 'Apocalypse of Isaiah,' which is probably much later than some other parts of Isaiah, or Daniel 12:2-3, probably written in the 2nd century BCE. Note also that the Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in an afterlife as they regarded only the Torah as canonical.

    "I do not know whether or not humans have immortal souls and by extension whether or not we have free will. If not, then certainly free will has been a useful myth. But there is a very old debate within Christianity about the nature of grace. Is it earned, at least to some extent, has Roman Catholics and the Orthodox believe, or is it a free gift, as Protestants generally maintain? And if faith is a free gift from God, then why are some given the faith and others denied it?

    " believe that ultimately we earn nothing in this life. What we have is a gift of either God or good (or bad) fortune. If everything is a gift in this life, then faith and afterlife must also be free gifts. But what about those without faith? Why do some lack faith and should they held accountable for their lack of faith? Do we really know why we believe, or for some, not believe in God?

    "I once read a book by a Presbyterian theologian who argued that being called by God is not being called to salvation; it is being called to service. Not everyone is called to service, but that does not mean that those not called are destined to annihilation or eternal torment. Salvation is a separate issue."

    1. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments, Eric. There are several aspects of the issue(s) you wrote about, but let me just comment on one of those: I believe that life (or salvation) is a free gift of God--and faith also to an extent. (It is a problem if faith is seen as a work.)

      But mainly I see faith as a response to God's gift: it is a "work" only to the extent that it means being acceptance of the grace God offers. Of course, it is a question why some are able to accept and others are not--and there are, no doubt, many reasons. But, not being a Calvinist, I think the lack of faith (=the lack of acceptance of God's gift of life) is completely an individual's failure/unwillingness to receive rather than God's lack of desire to give the gift of (eternal) life to that individual.

  3. Local Thinking friend Vern Barnet, who is a leader in interfaith dialogue in Kansas City, sent an email with these comments:

    "The Buddhists observe no soul or self ('anatman'); those who speak of reincarnation or rebirth have difficulty explaining what is reborn, so they use metaphors like a flame transiting from one candle to another. Zen, of course, focuses on the here and now, and says -- in effect with Wittgenstein, One lives eternally who lives in the present. For me (there is no 'me' except in a conventional sense), the belief in a soul and in afterlife, is a selfish clinging to an illusion of an ontology. But for many others the belief helps them live a directed life of service and beauty. I don't like the reward-punishment system often associated with belief in afterlife; I think it is better if people do the right thing because it is the right thing, not because they'll go to heaven or hell.

    "Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breathe; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. --Eccl 3:19 . . . "

    1. Thanks for your comments, Vern.

      I have long seen a disconnect between the Buddhist concept of "anatman" and the idea of reincarnation. And I fully agree that there a problem if either reincarnation or the concept of heaven & hell are used as a "reward-punishment system" seeking to control human behavior.

      But for me, I much prefer to base my beliefs about the afterlife on the New Testament rather than on Ecclesiastes.

    2. Thanks for this engaging post, Leroy!

      The New Testament and Ecclesiastes don't necessarily have opposing views of human and animal death (at least as far as Ecc.3:19 is concerned). For one thing — as you are probably already aware — I take issue with the popular modern notion that Qohelet views life as "meaningless," since the word he uses ("hvl") is probably better translated as "brief" or "evanescent," which is true of both human and non-human life. But to my knowledge, there's nothing in the New Testament that would contest the idea that the fate of human animals and non-human animals is in many ways the same. In addition to the bodily resurrection of the dead, the Christian tradition has always confessed that Christ will return to fully establish God's reign "on earth as it is in heaven" (a heaven which features non-human creatures dancing around the throne of God), and that part of the establishment of that kingdom involves the renewal of the entire cosmos — which presumably would include non-human as well as human animals. Similarly, Isaiah also envisions an eschatological "peaceable kingdom" in which "the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat" (Is. 11:6ff). So while I'm hesitant to make any definitive claims beyond "God will make all things new in Christ," I think if I were faced with a young person's question about his dead dog, I would absolutely never say that Rover was not "in heaven" of some sort. (As a side-note: we always frame these kinds of discussions around beloved pets like dogs, but what of the millions of animals that are slaughtered every day in the U.S., many of which — like pigs — have been shown to be more intelligent than the animals we keep for pets?)

      I think a lot of our modern confusion over the ultimate fate of non-human animals comes from Descartes more than from the biblical witness. Aside from being debunked bit by bit by ethologists, Descartes's theory of non-human animals as mindless and unfeeling automata is also responsible for a nasty form of anthropocentrism that has persisted throughout industrial modernity, and according to Pope Francis, may very well be the reason humans have driven ourselves to the brink of ecological collapse.

    3. Thanks much, Joshua, for taking the time to write and post significant comments on the subject at hand. Leaving Descartes for a later time, let me respond to your main paragraph.

      Concerning Qohelet (Ecclesiastes): I think you are correct in seeing the concept there being "evanescent" rather than "meaningless." That is a common theme in Japan, and one reason that コヘレト (Kohelet) is used a lot more by Christian in Japan than in the U.S. In the New Testament, of course, there is a similar idea in James 4:14 -- "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for only a short while before it vanishes."

      I think the emphasis of God's reign "on earth as it is in heaven" is very significant, and I don't have any trouble seeing that concept as including "non-human creatures." But I can't conceive of God's kingdom coming on earth meaning that all the people who ever lived on earth, let alone all the animals who ever lived, are going to be a physical part of that coming kingdom.

      While I also have long liked the image of the "peaceable kingdom" in Isaiah 11:6ff., surely this is a poetic/metaphorical image, not a literal one. I wouldn't want to base a theory of animals going to heaven on a poetic image.

      With regard to your final point in the first paragraph: what sort of "heaven" do you see that not only pets but other animals going to? I think you have a point in that in their physical nature there is no qualitative difference between animals that are beloved pets and other animals. But on what basis do you think that the physical death of all animals is not, in fact, the end of their existence? That is, on what basis do you think that Rover (and all other animals) doesn't just die "all over"?

    4. Hi again, Leroy. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

      I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss the Isaianic vision as a mere metaphor. After all, the author could have (and did) employ other anthropocentric images for a nonviolent eschatological kingdom throughout his text. So why would he specifically choose animal imagery in this case? In general, I'm hesitant to write off any biblical image as "poetic" or "just a metaphor" without having clear contextual cause to do so. But more importantly, there's a difference between claiming, on the one hand, that something is a metaphor and therefore has no referent in reality, and, on the other hand, that a certain metaphor serves as an image that points beyond itself to represent the "really real." This is where Augustine's theory of signs really resonates with me. Sure, we might say that "it's just a metaphor," but what non-metaphorical reality is that image attempting to convey?

      At least as far as the doctrine of bodily resurrection goes, we might just be working with two different sets of interpretive assumptions, which is totally fine. I apologize if I am assuming too much or misrepresenting your point here: from your comment about not being able to conceive of God's kingdom on earth making room for all people who have ever lived, it sounds like you're advocating some form of annihilationism, or maybe a spiritual rather than bodily resurrection? Personally, I've drawn a lot of inspiration from Origen's idea of apokatastasis and the renewal of the entire cosmos, which draws on Paul's thinking about the resurrection and final judgment in 1 Cor. 15. Here Paul says that all people ("pantes") will be made alive in Christ, then goes on to say more inclusively that all things ("panta") will be rightly ordered "so that God may be all in all." What might Paul mean by "all things" if that does not include animals, plants, water, dirt, stars, etc.? And if it excludes these things, how can it be said that "all" things will be rightly ordered under God's reign? Maybe more importantly, in Romans 8, Paul describes creation itself groaning in labor pains, awaiting the coming of the children of God. "For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (8:20-21). In Paul's thought, animal flesh and human flesh are the same ("sarx"), which by nature is bound to death and decay. But Paul insinuates here that the renewal of all of creation and its ultimate union with God is part of God's liberative program in Christ. (This is a position that has been affirmed by Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and most recently by Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home.)

      In the end, I'm willing to admit that the language surrounding all of this is very ambiguous (in the NT, the idea of "heaven" or an "intermediate state" between now and the resurrection is ambiguous for humans, as well). We see as through a mirror dimly, and I'm generally skeptical of drawing out a mechanical, overly systematized theology from biblical texts. But speaking broadly, I think the textual evidence leans more toward a belief in the persistence of non-human animals into the eschaton than toward their annihilation (and we could probably agree that whether or not we can conceive of this happening ultimately has little bearing on God's ability to do so).

      Sorry for leaving you this dissertation of a comment. Hey, speaking of which, I have a real dissertation waiting for me on my desktop. I think it's starting to feel neglected!

    5. Joshua, thanks again for taking time to write lengthy, thoughtful comments, and I appreciate you doing that even though I know you have more important things to do, namely, working on your "real dissertation." Let me respond on just two matters:

      Please note that I did not refer to "just a" metaphor. I believe that metaphors (metaphorical language) and myths (in the theological sense) are very important and often convey truth(s). But things can be true without being factual in a literal sense. So with both the metaphorical and the mythical language in the Bible, I want to seek to grasp the truth(s) such language (signs) points to rather than missing the point by thinking that the metaphors/myths are factual and should be interpreted literally.

      The main thing I want to say here is with regards to 1 Corinthians 15, which I consider a highly significant New Testament passage. And, yes, I am advocating "some form on annihilationism" (see my Jan. 20 blog article) and based on 1 Cor. 15, I do advocate "spiritual rather than bodily resurrection."

      The issue dealt with in most of 1 Cor. 15 is introduced in v. 12, and that is the central concern for the remainder of this rather lengthy chapter. And I do take as literal the key words found in verses 42~44.

      So what about verse 22? This has often been used by those advocating universalism, that is, the ultimate "salvation" of all. But the following verses don't seem to be talking about some sort of universal salvation. Verse 23 speaks of Christ and then of "those who belong to Christ." And the following verses (24-25) sound as if there are many who do definitely do not belong to Christ and that they will be destroyed. Then along with the rulers, authorities, and powers, which might be considered the agents of death, "the last enemy to be destroyed is death" (v. 26). In is on that basis that God will be(come) "all in all" (v. 28).

      Yes, Romans 8 must also be considered, but I think I will leave that until another time.

      Thanks for considering what I have written here.

  4. And here are comments from Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot, a Catholic Sister who has a deep mystical spirituality:

    "May I share the words the mystic Mechtilde of Magdeburg heard. She was fearing her own death when she heard the words: Death is nothing to fear! On that day I will draw My Breath and you will come to Me like a needle to a Magnet.

    "My own understanding and experience of Love naturally tells me that we are already in the Ocean of Infinity--and will be plunged into it at the time of death. In prayer we discover that we are already a drop in that Ocean! With that image I can live into Life, Love and Light--even now!

    1. Thanks, for sharing your comments, Marilyn.

      I fully agree that for people of faith, "Death is nothing to fear." Moreover, I fully agree that we can "live into Life, Love and Light--even now" -- and I also add Liberty (thus, my 4-L emphasis).

      But what about those who for whatever reason to not have the mystical insight of a Mechtilde of the "understanding and experience of Love" that you (and I) have? What can they rightfully expect to happen at their death?

  5. Ed Chasteen, another Thinking Friend (whom I introduced in my 11/15/18 blog posting), writes,'

    "Like everyone who ever lived, I don't know what happens when I die. Dad died that summer I biked across the country. If we could talk now, I would like to know about his trip."

  6. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky shares these reflections:

    "The end of life is much on my mind, Leroy. Saturday I attended a memorial service of one dear friend, Bill Marshall, and yesterday of another, Bob Gutman. The bodies of both were cremated.

    "This is my personal take on what happens: I think of them, both devout Christians, stepping off into the sea of Love that God is. In another image, they merge their love energies with God’s love energies. Bob Gutman, a Navy veteran, had asked appropriately his wife to end the service with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 'Crossing the Bar' 'Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me. And may there be no moaning at the bar, when I put out to sea.'"

  7. To both Ed and Glenn, good friends who are both older than I, my question is: what kind of existence is there that allows a person to take a trip or to "cross the bar" at the time of death? I can see a metaphorical/poetic meaning in such words, but not a meaningful literal one.

  8. Late yesterday afternoon a local Thinking Friend wrote,

    "I continue to ponder the reports of those who have seemingly experienced a return from a death, or near death, experience. Thanks for getting our juices flowing on the subject that all of us will experience in some way. Carpe diem, really, carpe diem."

    1. I have also wondered about the meaning, and the authenticity, of death, or near death, experiences. I had a good Japanese friend, who was a Baptist preacher, who talked about having such an experience. But I don't know that this really says anything about the afterlife. And it seems to me that there is no good reason to believe the reports of some very few people who claim to have gone to Heaven and come back to earthly life again.

  9. And then even later yesterday was the following email from a Thinking Friend from Missouri who has lived in Japan for many years:

    "Well, it’s a very interesting blog posting. I’m fairly sure there are hundreds of pet owners out there who hope that you are wrong.

    "The notion of annihilationism really does seem to fit with the notion of 'second death.' It sounds much more merciful than a loving God having an eternal torture chamber filled with millions of people who are never to be reconciled."

  10. I fully agree with this TF's comments, especially the second paragraph. But, no doubt, there are not just hundreds but tens of thousands (millions?) of pet owners who hope that I am wrong. But on what basis? Anything more than wishful thinking?

  11. About midnight last night, local Thinking Friend Don Pepper, who is older than I but who definitely seems to stay up a lot later than I, sent me an email. Here is his last paragraph.

    "Dogs in heaven seems to align nicely with Easter bunnies, Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy. All things we teach our children that they will have to unlearn as adults.

  12. Thanks, Don, for your comments. I agree with what you wrote. But, unfortunately, it seems to me, while almost all adults don't still believe in Easter bunnies, Santa Claus, or the tooth fairy, many do hang on to the belief (or at least the hope) that beloved pets do go to Heaven.

  13. Leroy:
    To say that your new blog and the comments of your "thinking friends" is mind-boggling, is an understatement. I may be naive, but I find comfort in knowing that I'm in God's hands now and whatever is "across the river." I like the comments in the NIV Study Bible that are written about Genesis 2:7 where Scripture speaks of "the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." Commenting on this verse, the commentator explains that "form" is used to describe God's creation of both man and animals alike. However, he continues to point out that in 1:27, man is created "in the image of God." That is not said of animals. I was taught in seminary that one of the theories called "soul sleep" favored the Old Testament point of view. Several years ago, my wife had a "near-death" experience. She explained that she saw her parents in this beautiful land. The interesting thing was that her dad looked younger and had both of his eyes! In real life,her father had fallen on his pocket knife as a child and destroyed one eye and the missing eye was the only way my wife or I had known him. Her mother never said anything but held out her hand in a manner indicating she should go back. I've read books about near-death experience and generally was very skeptical except for one story in which a child visualized an activity in an adjoining room that she could not have possible known about. I'm still skeptical but it could be true. I'm glad I am in God's loving hands whatever takes place at the time of death.

    Truett Baker

    1. Thanks for your comments, Truett. I appreciate you posting your comments here and especially for sharing your wife's "near-death" experience.

      I fully agree that regardless of all we don't know about what happens after death, for those of us who know God's love, we are, truly, "in God's loving hands" at the time of death. That means there is absolutely no reason to fear death.

      I used to say to my non-Christian students in Japan that although I did not want to die (because of my responsibilities to my family and to them, my students, among other reasons), I did not fear death in the least. I was surprised when more than one of them said, "I would like to die, but I am afraid of death."

  14. Well, I am back with another R. Kirby Godsey quote from his 1996 book "When We Talk about God . . . Let's Be Honest." The then President of Mercer University writes in a chapter called "Amazing Grace," on page 144:

    Jesus embodies God's word. The meaning of salvation begins and ends with the wonder of grace. Sing it again: "Amazing Grace." The simplicity of grace is disconcerting. So, we make us these elaborate schemes to enable God to accept us. They turn out to be empty clanging buckets of nonsense. Grace makes all our religious theories unnecessary and undermines our neat and complex human plans for salvation. Grace is a resounding "no" to all religious and moral systems as providers of human hope.

    Jesus did not come to tell how to be saved. Jesus came to tell us that we are saved. Jesus came to tell us that we live in the arms of God's grace. The message of Jesus is not a new religion to be adopted. Jesus lives before our very eyes the astonishing truth of God's unconditional love and acceptance.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Craig. I fully agree with what you wrote about grace -- and perhaps you remember that the last chapter of my new book ("Thirty True Things . . ." is "God's First and Last Word Is Always Grace."

      But that still does not answer the question of what happens to those who do not believe / accept what Jesus came to tell them and who reject God's grace / unconditional love.