Sunday School for Atheists: Why can’t pets go to heaven?


My friend John Cole over at the excellent sight Balloon Juice lost his cat unexpectedly last night. Cole’s cat Tunch, named after former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle and two-time pro-bowler Tunch Ilkin, was a most unlikely bloggy superstar. But because his antics were posted to a high traffic site on a regular basis, thousands of people from all over the world grew to appreciate him. He even appeared on T-shirts.

There are a lot of things that attracted me in the early years to Balloon Juice. Cole’s journey to political awareness mirrored my own in many ways. He started out as a relatively apathetic center-right Republican and, over time, moved toward the center. As the malfeasance during the Bush admin grew, Cole was able to examine his own beliefs and rather quickly came to cast off the conservative trappings that snare so many for life. Today he may call himself a moderate progressive, or he may not as I really don’t know, but based on most every issue I’ve seen him write about he comes across like a well informed, raging lefty. Another appealing feature is Cole will let fly, with a rare mix of passion, love, and anger, on people, places, and things he cares about. Plus he’s done a great job of recruiting like-minded writers who do the same and with whom he does not always agree with.

By the edge of a woods, at the foot of a hill, Is a lush, green meadow where time stands still.
Where the friends of man and woman do run, When their time on earth is over and done.

For here, between this world and the next, Is a place where each beloved creature finds rest.
On this golden land, they wait and they play, Till the Rainbow Bridge they cross over one day.

No more do they suffer, in pain or in sadness, For here they are whole, their lives filled with gladness.
Their limbs are restored, their health renewed, Their bodies have healed, with strength imbued.

They romp through the grass, without even a care, Until one day they start, and sniff at the air.
All ears prick forward, eyes dart front and back, Then all of a sudden, one breaks from the pack.

For just at that instant, their eyes have met; Together again, both person and pet.
So they run to each other, these friends from long past, The time of their parting is over at last.

The sadness they felt while they were apart, Has turned into joy once more in each heart.
They embrace with a love that will last forever, And then, side-by-side, they cross over… together.

I like that poem for a lot of reasons. Here, it might be good to point out that it offers comfort to those grieving, something religion is still capable of, regardless if the underlying cosmogony is valid or not. But it brings up another point, anyone remember when you would ask if dogs go to heaven as a child, and the answer would be no?

Heaven was only for people, or so we were told at a young, impressionable age, often while burying our best, furry friend. Yet another crushing let down thanks to the modern day rigidity of Bronze-age based mythology. Probably there is some convoluted scholarly thought on why this would be. Maybe something like animals are not born in sin, i.e., there is no animal equivalent of that traitorous bitch Eve, they cannot/do not accept salvation through Christ, and therefore cannot be saved for eternity.

That’s crazy of course. But then heaven has many strange restrictions, clauses, and properties. Kill toddlers, screw their corpse, then roast them for dinner all before their captive mother’s horrified eyes, and don’t worry if you are caught! Simply mumble a few magic words prior to being executed, and you are welcome in heaven for eternity! Where I imagine your version of paradise would have to include plenty of infanticide-necrophilia or it could hardly qualify. But heaven forbid if one of those terrified moms died in her sleep from stress before inciting the same spell, or dared to commit suicide rather than be subject to more torture! Why these are offenses in the eyes of God-eh! Offenses so foul, so unforgivable, that that mom deserves to be tortured for eternity.

Any creature that would let such a conditions exist, despite being able to end with the wave of a magic hand, is worse than the serial baby killer. And we’re supposed to fall to our knees and worship that kind of monster?

While we’re on the subject, loss doesn’t always happen all at once, death is not always as fine a dividing line as our goat herding farmers believed thousands of years ago. People lose parts during life. Does the body of a diabetic in late stage PAD reassemble in the hereafter as it reduces here on earth? How does that work for Alzheimer’s or massive stroke or traumatic head injury, is there a cognitive assembly holding tank in Sheol somewhere along the way, where bits of mind and matter patiently await the final pieces before magically reforming themselves into the whole person and moving on to heaven?

What kind of paradise could immortality be without those abilities we had at our prime, or all those creatures, human or animal, who have touched our lives in the past? How could heaven be heaven, for us, without them?

I suppose the threat and promise of an afterlife, hellfire and paradise in many religions, served it’s grisly purpose for Caesars and Pharaohs at one point, just as it has for suicide bombers and cannon fodder more recently. But it doesn’t work any more. We are growing up as a species and part of growing up is taking responsibility for our collective fate.

If we want a paradise, the only sure fire way we’re going to get it is to make it ourselves, “down here,” here and now. And if we want longer, healthier lives, maybe one day hundreds or thousands or even millions of years longer, we know what fields of study will most likely pay off there, too. In that paradise, dogs and cats will be welcome.


  1. jacobfromlost says

    I can remember being told as a child by a neighbor that the heaven for dogs was “in the ground”.

    Didn’t sound like much of a heaven to me.

    It is sort of odd in the mythology that in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, none of the animals even ate each other…and all was in harmony.

    But when HUMANS screwed things up, the ANIMALS became wild for some reason. And then we are told animals don’t go to heaven. Well, why were they affected by human sin at all then? If their “souls” weren’t affected, what the heck affected them?

    (And really, do we actually have “dominion” over the animals? Tell it to that to that hiker who got eaten by a mountain lion. I think they even wrote that into an episode of “Six Feet Under”.)

  2. otrame says

    You know, now that I think of it, it may have been the certainty in the voice of a youth pastor who informed us that animals did not have souls and therefore could not go to heaven that may have created that first little crack in my non-denominational-Protestant-because-we-lived-on-an-Air-Force-Base religious upbringing. That crack didn’t spring a leak until later, when the doctrine of hell was explained (you see in those days most protestant churches did not spend a lot of time teaching young children about hell. They saved that for the teenagers.)

    It was one of the other kids who had lost a pet and asked about it, but we had recently heard that my dog Nimbo, who had been given to my grandparents when my Dad was stationed in South Carolina, had died at a respectable age for a shepherd-mix. I was still mourning him and wondering how visits to the farm in Texas could ever be the same without Nimbo. I was 10-11.

    I remember clearly listening to the youth pastor (not a monster, he was actually a pretty good guy) who understood and regretted the upset at what he had said. He told us that it was natural for animals to live their entire existence here on earth, and that it was true that when they died, that was the end of them, but they had lived as they were supposed to and that there was no pain or suffering in their deaths. They just weren’t anymore.

    I remember thinking at the time that that didn’t sound so bad.

    I still think it doesn’t sound so bad, now that I know that I am an animal and when I die that will be the end of me, but I will have lived as I was supposed to live–here on earth.

  3. jacobfromlost says

    “that animals did not have souls and therefore could not go to heaven that may have created that first little crack”

    That’s as far back as I can trace mine as well. It was the utter unfairness and injustice that bothered me. If there WAS a heaven, how could it be heaven without my beloved pets? I had a dog at the time that would have died to protect me without hesitation…and that kind of loyalty is rewarded with heaven “in the ground” (and I don’t even get to see him again when I die, in that place that is supposed to be wonderful to me)?

    I can also remember thinking slightly less of my neighbor for not just THINKING such a thing, but saying it out loud, to me, as if it was some kind of proper fact–as if this is the way things should be.

    Reminds me a little of Hitchens story about how, when he was a child, he thought “bullsh*t” when his Bible teacher told them that god made all the green plants to be pleasant to look at because green was the most pleasant to the eyes, lol. He said he wasn’t old enough to know exactly what was wrong with that statement, but it just didn’t make any sense–and that’s the same way I felt about the “heaven for dogs is in the ground” comment. It was not only nonsense, but the nonsense offended me deeply enough to come back to the question at an older age to find out why.

  4. Robert Harvey says

    In his daily advice column in my local paper, the Reverend Billy Graham once pointed out to a concerned pet lover named Mrs.Y. that non-human animals do not have souls. Dr. Graham admitted that the possibility of a “no animals in Heaven” policy poses a problem for pet owners like Mrs. Y who cannot imagine being happy in Paradise without their pets. He resolved this paradox by suggesting that individual pets will be allowed in Heaven if their owner’s happiness depends on the presence of their companion animal.

  5. Randomfactor says

    And of course Rev. Billy would make the same exception for a grieving parent in Heaven whose child was roasting eternally in Hell…right? Exceptions Will Be Made.

  6. Robert Harvey says

    Right. It makes no sense at all. I couldn’t live happily in heaven without a thousand altar boys sucking my cock. Maybe that is where Heaven and Hell overlap.

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