September 13, 2019

Will Fluffy Be in Heaven?

If it hasn’t actually happened personally to everyone at some time in life, the almost universal story, recounted again and again, lives on in the collective human memory. A child in utter innocence faces death for the first time in the loss of a deeply loved family pet. The child looks up in wide, trusting eyes and asks, “Will Fluffy be in heaven?”

It is times like this that parents usually realize how little qualified they are for the responsibility of raising a family—what a supreme moment it is to call on God’s wisdom in answer.

That child’s simple question reflects a relationship with the others of God’s creatures that seems only to grow into something greater in adulthood. In social media and beyond a photo of a pet dog or cat that has been recently lost to its owner—whether from causes natural or otherwise—elicits all kinds of sympathy.

It often includes personal accounts from others of pets lost and the assurance that their memory will live on. The grief appears every bit as evident as that over the loss of a human loved one. And there is absolute confidence that in life the animal loved the bereft every bit as much. In a comment on the nature of unqualified love, Madeleine L’Engle writes, “Doc, my golden retriever, loves me.” (Interestingly, she goes to a “lesser” animal—rather than a human—to illustrate unqualified love.)

Here and there the occasional bumper sticker asks: “Who rescued who?” Sponsored by the SPCA or the local animal shelter, and notwithstanding the grammatical anomaly, it points up the devout belief in the relationship between a pet and its owner. In fact, it may even imply a new meaning for “owner.”

But “love”—from both human and animal—is used more and more to describe this relationship. Just looking into the searching eyes of that dog in that photo elicits the conviction that one is loved.

Those searching eyes, in fact, are explained away, in a sense, by evolutionists. “The sad, soulful expression that turns dog owners into total pushovers,” says one report, “is the result of tens of thousands of years of evolution and an eyebrow-raising muscle. . . . In the early days of domestication,” researchers said, “the [domesticating] wolves that could elicit the most sympathy from our Stone Age ancestors, would have received the most scraps of food. Ancient canines with expressive eyebrows had an evolutionary advantage that they passed on to their descendants.” It’s kind of like “survival of the fittest” in this case, would have been “survival of the searchingest”!

Whether this study truly explains the origins of the connection between humanity and lesser animals, there is plenty of other evidence in support of the relationship. Even Ellen White (perhaps unexpectedly) makes an interesting observation: “The animals,” she writes, “see and hear and love and fear and suffer. . . . They manifest sympathy and tenderness toward their companions in suffering. Many animals show an affection for those who have charge of them, far superior to the affection shown by some of the human race. They form attachments for man which are not broken without great suffering to them.”

Such words as “love,” “sympathy,” and “affection” certainly seem to imply something more than brute, animal intelligence, qualities surpassing mere reflexive, naturalistic characters. And though the affective measure of the so-called “lesser animals” has never been considered among the most cardinal of biblical doctrines, it has received some attention.

In “The Salvation of Animals?” Adventist seminary professor, Richard Davidson, observes that “Genesis 9:10 and Hosea 2:18 speak of God making a covenant with the animals.”  It is difficult to imagine a covenant between two parties without there being some kind of sentience in both parties, even if that of one were superior to that of the other. God made a covenant with His people in the Old Testament; surely this suggests His people’s awareness of it.

With Davidson’s qualification that his thoughts on the subject are only “suggestive at best,” he refers to other scriptural allusions to animals exhibiting what has long been considered exclusively human behavior. “Psalm 148 describes ‘Beasts and all cattle; creeping things and winged fowl’ (verse 10, NASB) as among those creatures that praise the Lord. In Revelation 5:13, John describes “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever.’” Also worthy of note: Bible translators differ in their language characterizing live animals and humans; but both animals and humans are called souls (Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30; 9:10). And today, “a host of recent studies of animal behavior, intelligence, and emotion” are providing increased support for a more respectable view of animals.

This apparent congruence of thought between Scripture and science may be a bit unusual for our times, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is absolute agreement over the definition of terms. What, for example, is meant by “intelligence” or “emotion”?

The recognition, however, of the connection between humankind and lesser animals is probably beyond dispute. Overheard comment in a recent visit to the dentist’s office: “I couldn’t live without a dog!” A popular meme on Facebook at the time of this writing: “Heaven is a place where all the dogs you’ve ever loved run to greet you!” What is it in the behavior of a pet that elicits expression of such a warm, reciprocal relationship?

The scientific study of animal intelligence and emotion raises some interesting questions too. The classic example of Pavlov’s work with dogs, for example, certainly seems to suggest some kind of intelligence as defined by an ability to learn, even though it may be little more than a reflexive learning. Measuring—or documenting—behavior that indicates emotion may be more challenging. What is it, empirically, that a dog may do that indicates love, that proves love?

Again, from Ellen White: “the animals . . . love and fear.” This may come as a disturbing idea coming out of a worldview that has included in its past the call from God for a system of animal sacrifice. God’s requirements of the Israelites in the book of Leviticus do not of themselves suggest kindness to innocent lesser creatures.

Knowing of the symbolic nature of this system, though, its pointing to the ultimate in the suffering and death of an innocent deity Himself, can only mean that that signal sacrifice 2,000 years ago made possible the salvation of humankind—and possibly even that of all other sentient creatures in these sickeningly sin-ridden 6,000 years.

Gary B. Swanson edits Perspective Digest.