Last week we had to do something that many pet owners have to do. We had to euthanize a well-loved pet. Our cat had been with us for more than 15 years. He was a kitten when the terror attacks in 2001 happened. A frolicking kitten helped take the edge off the pain of those days. He also meant my wife did not have to come home to an empty house during most of that decade, when I was away doing interim work for weeks at a time. (I used to joke that the cat thought I was just the old Tom who came around once in a while). Then, just a few years ago, he comforted us when we went through cancer, surgery and chemo-therapy.
He had developed kidney failure, a common problem for older domestic cats. He had reached the end-stage. The day we had to put him down sucked.
When the church had a week-night children’s ministry, I would ask for prayer requests at the end of the activities. Most of the prayer requests were about pets. This combining of spirituality with concern for pets would seem trivial to some.
I grew up on a ranch where we had a very utilitarian attitude toward animals. Still tough cowboys were shaken when they had to put down a dog or a horse.
In the Bible the attitude toward animals was usually also utilitarian. Animals were central to the economy in biblical times. They provided meat, milk, and wool. Sometimes they provided transportation or protection.
In his parable confronting King David, Nathan told of a poor man who had a pet sheep:
But the poor man had nothing except for a little lamb he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up alongside him and his children. It used to eat his food, drink from his cup, and sleep in his arms. It was just like a daughter to him (1 Samuel 12:3 NET Bible).
Although this is part of a parable, it reflects the fact that people bond closely with animals. If this did not sometimes happen in real life, people would not have understood the parable.
In our own time pets have become more important to adults. This is partly because of the smaller size of families. This allows resources to be left over for the care of pets. Pets fill an emotional need that probably did not exist in large, crowded families. Also, as we live longer, pets provide companionship for empty-nesters with far-flung families and for widows and widowers.
The death of pets has some spiritual meaning. It confronts us with mortality and prepares us to deal with the griefs that come to us all. Some of the condolences that came to me through social media contained the idea that I could hope to be reunited with my pet in the afterlife.
I am agnostic about this, but would like to believe it.
Some, like the ancient Egyptians, sent animals along with you when you died to serve you in the next life.
C. S. Lewis speculated that animals with close associations with humans grew spiritually closer to us just as we, through our devotion, grew closer to God. Perhaps, he thought, this would qualify some animals to be with us in the hereafter.
As I understand it, the reason this is not widely believed in Christianity has to do with the idea of the immortal soul. Humans have one. Animals don’t. However, the idea of a soul separate from the body seems weak on biblical grounds. Immortality is not based on having a soul with this immortal quality. It is based on God being powerful enough to renew his bond with whole people beyond death–in other words, resurrection.
So I don’t believe either humans or animals have immortal souls. What matters is the ability of God to renew us after death.
Jesus (according to Luke) talked about an eternal home populated by the friends we have made in this life (Luke 16:9). The picture seems to be that after death we may be welcomed by all those we have reached out to and benefited in this life. (I have not had much of the delusional wealth Jesus talks about in that verse, but I hope I have made friends in other ways. For instance, I would like to imagine myself being welcomed by the hundreds of people and their families that I have tried to help at the time of death.)
If we will be welcomed by those we have made our friends, then perhaps some of those will be the animals we have befriended.