Pastor’s Word for August 23, 2020
During the summer months I would like to foster conversations in our community about our faith, which touches on the most profound matters of our lives. To help get the conversation going I’m providing a weekly set of questions that you can use to help tell parts of your faith story.
I invite you to pick a question and share your answer with a family member or friend, and, if you would like, write it down and share with me. I would love to hear your story! I would also love for our members to hear each other’s stories, so be sure to let me know if you’d be willing to share in the weekly newsletter. I will never publish your story without your consent.
Here are the questions for August 23:
Memories: What is something you dislike about church? Why?
Etchings: What unique symbol of faith is most important to you?
Values: Do you think there will be animals in heaven? Why or why not?
Actions: Talk about an experience when you or your family helped a neighbor, a friend, or a stranger.
Do you think there will be animals in heaven? Why or why not?
First of all, the subject of heaven all by itself is complicated. Most of us think of heaven as a place where we go, as souls, after we die (if we’re good in this life and pass the final exam of God’s judgment). Biblical texts like Luke 23:43 (“Today you will be with me in paradise”), John 14:2-3 (“In my father’s house there are many rooms”), and 2 Corinthians 5:1 (“we have a building [body] from God, eternal in the heavens”) seem to confirm our belief in heaven as an eternal afterlife for the blessed. But taken as a whole this is not how the Bible thinks of heaven.
In the ancient worldview the universe was divided into three realms: the earth that we know, an underworld (Sheol) that was the domain of the dead, and the heavens where God and the angels lived. This worldview was literal and straightforward and in some ways very obvious. Anyone could see that the dead were underground because that’s where they were buried. Anyone could also see that powerful forces resided above: rain that was essential for life came down from the sky; thunder and lightning played across the heavens; and the night sky was a beautiful mystery. It seemed clear that God’s domain was in heaven.
The Bible does not imagine people has having immortal, immaterial souls that ascend to the divine realm after this life. That was a Greek idea. Instead humans, and indeed all living things on earth, were seen to be animated by the breath or Spirit of God. When the breath departed that was the end. For most of the Old Testament the only afterlife that was envisioned was the legacy of descendants. God’s promise of blessing to Abraham and Sarah, for example, was not that they would live forever with God in heaven, but that they would have descendants as numerous as the stars. But later in the history of the OT people began to think that a day would come when God would raise the dead to new life—breathe the Spirit back into them—and restore creation to its original state of beauty and goodness. This is not a matter of a disembodied soul joining God in an immaterial heaven, but a renewal of this world and all that is in it.
In Jesus the promise of the resurrection was fulfilled. When he rose from the tomb on the third day he became the first fruits from the dead, to be followed by many more. His new life was just the beginning of God’s project to renew and restore this world, a project that will be completed on the last day.
So when Christians speak of resurrection, we are not speaking about “dying and going to be with God in heaven;” actually it’s the reverse! It’s about God restoring us to our bodies in a renewed creation and then being near to us in a way we don’t experience in the present world. The majestic finale of the book of Revelation offers the splendid vision:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21)
Which finally brings me to the question at the top: will there be animals in heaven?
For me the answer has to be Yes. It’s not a question of whether animals have souls or not, and therefore eligible for heavenly existence. (I’m not even sure humans have them; the scriptural view is that we are physical beings animated by God’s breath, not a unique soul of our own.) It’s not a question of whether animals are qualified to enter into God’s presence by virtue of being created in God’s image (Genesis clearly reserves that distinction for humans alone).
The reason I say Yes is that animals are a beautiful, wondrous, and mysterious part of the creation we know. It is unimaginable to me to live in a world without horses, lemurs, whales, blue jays, chameleons, salmon, or cats. All these are part of the creation that God called good (Genesis 1:25). How much more should these creatures be part of a new creation that will be even more beautiful, more wondrous, and more mysterious than the present world? No, a new creation without such creatures would not be a renewal but an impoverishment of the world we know. But the resurrection is abundance of life, peace, renewal, and reconciliation of all things. It is the time when
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
An image of the new creation that includes animals comes from my experience serving communion in my last parish. There was a member of that congregation who had a service dog, a calm and friendly golden lab named Basil. Every Sunday she came to church and Basil would help her with her balance and guide her as she came to join the circle around the communion table. It was beautiful to see this faithful animal companion at her side; the profound relationship they had was obvious to all. When I came to offer the bread to the woman I was always moved to bless Basil too, as a member—in his own way—of the body of Christ.
Will there be animals in heaven? I saw an animal in the foretaste of the feast to come and it leads me to hope that I will see many more in the great feast itself.