I never lost a pet as a child. My sister had a few hampsters, one quite homicidal and somewhat cannibalistic, that eventually passed away, but I only had Simon. Simon was a big but gentle boxer that my brother and I got when I was about five. He was part of the family (in a loose sense) until I was about seventeen. By the time he died, I had already experienced the death of my best friend a year earlier and so death wasn’t quite as mysterious or stinging as I’m sure it is for children whose first experience with it is during their more formative years.
Part of my job at the church is answering theological/biblical/pastoral questions. I get everything from the extremely complex to the downright silly to openly aggressive. At some point in my work, I recall getting a question about what happens to animals when they die. I’m sure that many a parent has fielded that question from a curious and depressed child who has lost a friend.
What do we tell them? “They are in heaven with Jesus.” That sounds great, but it really has no basis except for our own biased conjecture. “They have no soul and so they just die. Nothing happens to them.” Less smarmy, but still rather speculative (and a little caustic). I just don’t think guesses are helpful...“I don’t know.” Honest, but is that all we can say?
Recently, my Hebrew professor helped me to see a bit more clearly into how we might answer that question. At the end of the book of Jonah are two words (at least in the Hebrew language) that are quite surprising. God has just responded to the repentance of Ninevah by relenting of the disaster of which He had warned. Why did He relent? Because in Ninevah there were “more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle.” “And also much cattle”? What do cattle have to do with the staying of God’s wrath?
I think that humans have historically made two opposing errors when it comes to God’s love for creation. On one side are those who are so anthropocentric (man-centered) that they act as though all of God’s redemptive activity is restricted to humanity. A far cry from Jesus making “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The second error is just as costly as it fails to distinguish the distinctiveness of the imago dei (image of God) which is represented in man. Some would claim that dogs, cats, turtles, and even homicidal hampsters are all alike loved by God. This is true, but God loving all things doesn’t mean that He loves all things in the same way. Do you really think that He loves a rock (which He created) in the same way and to the same degree as He loves His only Son? Surely not. (Read “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” by D.A. Carson for a really helpful exposition of the distinctions of God’s love).
These errors are dangerous and I don’t want to fall victim. I want to neither exalt nor diminish the proper domains of God’s creative order. God made man to have dominion over the animals (Genesis 1:28), but that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t care about them. We are all alike from dust and to dust we shall return, but that doesn’t mean that there is no differentiation.
So, did Simon go to heaven? Will he be part of the population of the new earth? Part of me thinks “why not?” Part of me thinks “that is absurd,” but the point is that I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is that not a single sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10; Luke 12) apart from the knowledge and sovereignty of God. I do know that Ninevah was spared in part (even if a small part) because of the presence of living beasts within its boundaries. I do know that God is loving and kind. I do know that Jesus Christ was incarnated and died for our sins and to reconcile all things to Himself (Colossians 1:20) and one day He shall return and make that reconciliation complete. I do know these things.
When that moment comes when my child (if ever I have one) asks me where his or her pet dog (I don’t like cats) went, I want to be able to speak truth into his or her life. I don’t want to compromise on the little things I want to tell them that I don’t know the answer to that question with absolute certainty, but that I do know a whole lot of things that are related to that question. I want to use that little question to share the gospel - not just the forgiveness of sins of rebellious creatures, but also the reconciliation of a fallen world to its patient and powerful Creator.