“Do you think she is in heaven?” My mother asked me a couple months ago. She was referring to her 12 year old West Highland White Terrier, who passed away due to the presence of a brain tumor. I was on vacation with my friend Mary when Sofia took a turn for the worse. Sofia had suffered from terrible seizures, and by the time my parents got her to the vet to be put down, she was barely conscious.
The last I had seen her, Sofia was in pretty good spirits. I was not aware that she had a brain tumor. I had left for vacation when the vet gave the diagnosis to my parents. Imagine my surprise when I found out what was going on. The evening before I had found out the news of her passing, I had a very vivid dream about her. I saw her coming toward me, and she was happy. I took it as a message from God that she was fine and living happily with Him. I believe that God takes pleasure in living with his creatures, even a small dog like Sofia.
But of course all kinds of theological questions came to mind, which resulted in me feeling very anxious. Does Sofia still exist? Is she totally gone? St. Thomas Acquaints, a theologian and Doctor of the Church, would say that Sofia’s soul ceased to exist after physical death because only human beings have immortal souls.
I was so confused and anxious that I emailed a priest that used to minister at my home parish. He assured me that God does not eternally destroy that which He creates. I know that God doesn’t eternally destroy what He creates, but is that the same thing as allowing what He creates to go out of existence?
Many Catholics have told me that Heaven is only for human beings. It has been said to me: “Jesus did not die for our pets,” “Animals do not have free will” or “Animals are not capable of love.” A lot of these things are hard for me to swallow. I get mixed answers because the truth is that no one really knows. Even The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not provide an answer.
I know that animals are not human beings and are not created in the image and likeness of God, but they were still created by God and God said they were good right? The issue I have is not whether or not I will see Sofia in heaven, but whether or not Sofia even still exists. The thought of her being lost forever is quite upsetting. It is not so much that I must see her again, but rather to have the assurance that she still happily lives on in the presence of her Creator. It is one thing to not see your dog, but it is a completely different thing to never see your dog and to be told she no longer exists. Do you see the difference?
I was not Sofia’s favorite human. My mother was. They had a special relationship, and Sofia was her little buddy. I have fond memories of the two of them watching TV together on the couch. Even though I was not Sofia’s favorite human, I still loved her. After all, I was a part of her life. I enjoyed sitting next to her, petting her and giving her belly rubs. I would take her for walks outside and keep her company when my mother wasn’t home. Sofia had a fiery personality. Some moments she was stubborn and tough as nails, but that would change and she would reveal her happy, playful side. She loved to run around and look out the window. She especially enjoyed playing with my nieces and nephew.
When my mother asked if Sofia is in heaven, I had to answer as best as I could. Remember, I am not a Doctor of the Church, and I don’t have any degrees in Catholic theology. I didn’t even attend Catholic school so what can I possibly know? I am as clueless as they come.
I believe it is very possible that Sofia is in Heaven and that she is with God. The whole of creation is a family. Yes, we are children of God, but the rest of creation is still part of God’s family as well. Maybe we could view them as God’s extended family. We all have our immediate families yes? We also have relatives. Perhaps God’s family is much like that. We are his children and are members of His immediate family, but our non human brethren are family, too. Perhaps the animals are like adoptive “nieces and nephews.” Whatever the case may be, God is the creator of all living things and all the living creatures are His.
Another possibility is Sofia could be part of the New Earth, which will come about after the final judgment. Sofia lived the way a dog should live during her time spent on Earth. Perhaps after the resurrection she could continue to live out her earthly existence. One thing is for certain: God doesn’t have limits. If he can create the universe and the world out of nothing, He can certainly recreate a creature that once existed. Perhaps Sofia doesn’t have an immortal soul likes humans do, but God could recreate her one way or another if He wills it.
Many will say that animals do not know God, but Sofia lived among humans who love God. I believe that my mother helped Sofia come to know God at some level. How? Well, my mother took care of her and loved her just as God loves and cares for us. C.S. Lewis adopts a similar view, which is discussed in his book titled The Problem of Pain.
If, nevertheless, the strong conviction which we have of a real, though doubtless rudimentary, selfhood in the higher animals, and specially in those we tame, is not an illusion, their destiny demands a somewhat deeper consideration … Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal – the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master.
What Lewis suggests here is that we human beings are able to make known to our animal companions a certain sense of self. Thus, it is through their relationships with human beings that animals can enter into heaven. It sounds quite similar to how it is through our relationship with Jesus Christ that we human beings can enter into eternity with God.
C.S. Lewis concludes.
“And in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters,”
I would also like to add that animals also live in the present moment. They are not stuck in the past or worrying about the future the way human beings are. Because of our preoccupation with the past and future, we often miss out on the present. Animals are always in the present moment, and to be in the present moment is to truly be in the presences of God. After all, God is the great I Am, not the great I Was or the great I Will Be right? God encompasses the past present and future.
I do not have all the answers, but I have written another post related to this topic called Animals in Heaven, One Catholic’s Perspective. I know many will disagree with me, especially those with strong backgrounds in Catholic theology or those who had the privilege to receive a catholic education, but my wish is not so much so see Sofia in Heaven (she probably would have little interest in seeing me anyways). My wish is that Sofia be with God in Heaven where she will be most happy and free from suffering.
And so I end by leaving you with the following advice: If you have lost an animal in your lifetime, or if you worry what will become of your beloved friend after his or her physical death, do not pray that he or she will enter into heaven so that you can see them again, but pray that they may enter Heaven so that they can be with God. While we may love them dearly, no one is a better lover than God. If you love anyone, whether it be a another human being or a small creature like Sofia, pray that at that moment of death, he or she will be reunited with the greatest love of all: their Creator, who is love itself. After all, it is because of God that we all love in the first place.