Within any culture there exist urban legends. Things that are heard and repeated so much that they are simply assumed to be true, regardless of there being no basis for them in the realm of fact.
Christians are not immune to this--in fact, we are often quite guilty of perpetuating many urban legends...some even centuries old!
In coming posts we will examine a few of these Christian urban legends and try to separate fact from fiction.
It's not uncommon to hear this claim, even from some pulpits. The reasoning goes something like this:
- Jesus died to save human souls from sin.
- Animals don't have souls or commit sin.
- Therefore Jesus didn't die to save animals.
- Therefore animals will not be in Heaven.
This is standard reasoning among many forms of Christian 'folk-theology'...but it is wrong on many levels.
First of all, the Bible does teach that humans were the guilty party in terms of sin. However, since humans were created as the head stewards of all Creation, when humanity rebelled against God the effects of sin were felt throughout the created world. We see this in the Hebrew Bible in numerous places where God speaks of human sin 'polluting' or 'corrupting' the land (e.g. Gen. 6:11; Lev. 18:28; Num. 35:33; Ezr 9:11). But the clearest expression of this concept of all creation being in need of salvation from sin's effects is found in the New Testament:
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." (Romans 8:18-23 NRSV)
So it's not just humans who await salvation, but all Creation longs for the day when Jesus returns and restores all things!
Secondly, the idea that animals do not have "souls" is also one that is not found in Scripture. In fact, from the very beginning in the Hebrew Bible we find animals described using the very term used for "soul"--the Hebrew word nephesh:
"And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living (nephesh) creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." (Genesis 1:20 NRSV)
"And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living (nephesh) creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so." (Genesis 1:24 NRSV)
"then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (NIV: "living soul"; Hebrew: nephesh)." (Genesis2:7 NRSV)
"So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living (nephesh) creature, that was its name." (Genesis 2:19 NRSV)
So the notion that "animals don't have 'souls'", while popular among Christians, is not an idea found in Scripture. What makes humanity distinct from animals is not having a 'soul', but rather being created in the 'image of God' (Genesis 1:26-27).
Finally, the biggest problem with the notion that 'animals don't go to Heaven' is the very idea that 'Heaven' is the goal of everything and the final state of existence.
Heaven is the realm in which God dwells and where those who die in the Lord go to be (Revelation 6:9-11; Philippians 1:23; etc.)...but it's not where they stay!
The goal of salvation is not "going to Heaven when we die"...rather, it's the vision given to the Hebrew Prophets and the New Testament Apostles of a 'new heavens and new earth' (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21-22). The final vision Scripture leaves us with is of Heaven and Earth being united. Death is defeated, our bodies are renewed and perfected, and all creation--including animals!--enjoy life with God as it was originally intended to be before things were derailed by sin and evil.
If God went to the trouble to create the vast diversity of life on this earth (and perhaps elsewhere!), what makes us think He intends to scrap it all because of humanity's sin and settle for taking disembodied souls off to an ethereal 'Heaven'??
No, the message of the Gospel is the message of Jesus' reign over ALL the earth. And the depictions of the New Creation found in Scripture include things like plants and animals...perhaps including those animals through which we have been blessed with companionship.
Let's put this urban legend to rest once and for all, shall we?