Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not? In this podcast, I reflect on grief, pets, and the nature of heaven.
My little dog died last week. Her name was Gidget. The end was sudden. That is to say, it was unexpected by me. Looking back I can see that my pup’s health had been in decline for a few weeks, perhaps even for months, but I was unable to recognize the signs. We took her to the vet hoping for an easy fix. There was treatment available but the cost was prohibitive and the overall outcome uncertain. We chose to put her to sleep. This is the second dog I have lost. I was hoping that the experience would be easier. It wasn’t.
Picturing a world without my beloved pet is hard. There are moments when I forget that she is gone. I think that I can hear the jingle of her tags or the sound of her paws as they pad across the floor. I listen for her quiet breathing at night. Then with a stab of sorrow, I remember that she is gone. I am alternately impatient with God and irritated with myself. Is this an example of the goodness of God we read so much about in the Bible? Wasn’t there something he could have done? Should I have done more? I am an adult and not a child. I am a person of faith. I have experienced losses in my life that were far more serious than this. I should just get over it. But I don’t.
I can’t decide if the grief that I feel is for myself or for my pet. I suppose it is both. Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not?
When I examine the question through more detached eyes, it seems foolish to me. What would heaven be like for dogs? When I look back on my dog’s short life, I realize that it consisted mostly of sleeping, eating, and sitting on my lap. She did not read books or think deep thoughts. She did not even watch television. She did not have a job or contribute to the greater good of society. Indeed, she did not have a regard for society at all. Only for the squirrels who sometimes strayed into our yard.
The prospect of a heaven which includes dogs raises any number of theological questions for me. What would they do? To whom would they belong? Some dogs have had more than one owner in their lifetime. Some have no owner at all. The Pharisees once asked a similar question about wives. Jesus was impatient with them. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of
Might not the same be true when it comes to our pets? Perhaps in eternity the need we feel for their companionship disappears along with the rest of the old creation. Or is it possible that at the end of all things when the world is made new they too will be changed along with us? C. S. Lewis seems to suggest that such a thing is possible. As Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, “…the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master, and in knowing him, will be itself.” Lewis later admitted that he was on speculative ground when making this statement. He was not stating a fact: “All that we can say for certain is that if God is good (and I think we have grounds for saying that He is) then the appearance of divine cruelty must be a false appearance.”
When we cannot understand God’s actions or the reasons behind them, we must cling to what we do know. Jesus is right, of course. My doubts, as well as my questions, are born of ignorance. I do not really grasp the extent of God’s power: “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). The eye that sees the sparrow fall sees the falling tear as well. I do not think God will answer my questions. But his word does assure me that my pup’s life was in his hand. Just as mine is.
The day after the funeral dawns fresh, like the first day after creation. Black crows taunt one another and dart in and out in a game of tag. A breeze casts about, tumbling the bees and making the flowers turn their heads. In the distance, a mourning dove on a wire calls out to me, “Who?” “Who?” It almost seems as if yesterday’s brush with death has somehow rejuvenated everything so that the old world is made young again.
Yet to me it feels as if the world is emptying. I know this is not true. One generation goes and another comes. If the world is divesting itself of old souls, it is also filling up with new ones. But the day after the funeral, I feel the absence of the departed more than the presence of those who remain. In my mind, I run through the list of names I know of those who are already gone. Some are friends, some are family, and some are merely acquaintances. In this roll call of the dead, their absence presses upon me like a crowd.
People like to think that the dearly departed are somewhere nearby, hovering above our lives like a bird that is ghosting on a sea breeze. The silent dead watch benevolently as we go about our business, like invisible guests at our meals, weddings, and family reunions. I do not believe that this is true. Such affairs are tedious enough for the living. It is hard to see how the dead would derive much pleasure from them.
Yet there are times when the absence of someone who was once close to me presses in hard. There is no sight or sound. Only a sense of real presence, like the way it once felt to be in the same room with my father or to sit in comfortable silence with an old friend.
Taking note of the dead puts me in a calculating frame of mind. So I count up the number of years that I have worked and try to estimate how many years I might have left before I make my own exit. Could the ten-year smoke alarm I bought outlast me? It occurs to me that the house I am sitting in has seen generations come and go. The more I do the math, the shorter time seems. We are all hurrying toward the exit.
As a Christian, I believe that there is a life beyond this life. But I do not really know what form it takes. At least, not in detail. There must be some continuity with the life I now live in this world of earth and trees. When Jesus met the disciples on the road after His resurrection, His appearance was so ordinary that they could not recognize Him. It was only after the fact that they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
What I do know is that for now at least, this old earth is not a final destination. It is a point of departure. Those of us who remain watch as others leave, their lips pursed in the determined features of the dead. We bid them farewell as they set out on that journey to a distant shore. But if they return our wave, we do not see it. The sight of it is lost in the mist. On the day of the funeral, we are left with our memories and with the task of caring for the house they have left behind.
But the day after the funeral dawns fresh. As if the world has already moved on and I have moved with it. That is when it occurs to me, I am not really standing on the shore bidding farewell. I am standing in line.
I am afraid of death. I know that I am not supposed to be. Hebrews 2:15 tells me that one of the reasons Jesus shared my humanity was so that He could “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). I believe that this is true and I am still afraid. I know some Christians who are afraid of dying. But they fear the crossing, not the destination. It is death itself that I fear.
Perhaps that is why, as far as Christian holidays go, Easter has always seemed to me to have a more somber tone than Christmas. Christmas is about life. It celebrates the birth of the Savior. Easter is about life too. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. But in order to get to resurrection, you must first face death.
Jesus’ experience of death was different from ours. Most of us do not seek death. Death finds us and when it finds us it always comes as a surprise. To me this is one of the proofs that death is an intrusion. Romans 5:12 says that sin entered the human race through sin. Death was Adam’s gift to the human race, the fruit of his disobedience.
But in Romans 5:15 the apostle Paul also writes that the gift of God that comes to us through Christ is not like Adam’s trespass: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” Death did not come to Jesus. Jesus ran to meet it. Jesus pursued death and defeated it like a champion.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Jesus treated death lightly. There was certainty when Jesus spoke of His own death but no flippancy. Matthew 26:37-38 says that on the night of His betrayal Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples and “began to be sorrowful and troubled.” He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” The savior’s distress is a comfort to me.
It is a comfort because it means that Jesus understands my fear. The fact that Jesus did not take death lightly means that He will not dismiss my fear of death. Because He knows what it is like to be sorrowful and troubled at the prospect of death, Jesus will treat my fear with compassion by providing grace to help in the hour of my need.
But more than that it is a comfort because Jesus faced death and defeated it on my behalf. My fear of death is personal and individual. It is my death that I fear and when I die it will be my own fear that I feel. But Jesus’ death was different. There was a corporate dimension to Jesus’ death. Jesus faced death but not for Himself. Jesus experienced death but not for His own sake. Christ died for us. Christ died for us so that whether we live or whether we die, we may experience life with Him.
And this ultimately is what makes Easter different from Christmas. This is why the early Church celebrated Easter instead of Christmas. Christmas is about life. It is about the birth of Christ. But the life of Christ would have no real value, if it were not for Christ’s death. At the same time, the message of Easter is not merely that Christ died. It is that Christ died and rose again. Both facts are fundamental to understanding the significance of who Jesus was and what He did. Both facts are foundational to my hope.
Does this mean that the fear of death automatically dissolves when I place my faith in Jesus? While this may be true for some, it has not yet proven to be true for me. I still have moments when I am gripped by the fear of death. Does this mean that my faith has failed me? Not really. I believe that God’s grip on my soul is greater than the fear that often takes hold of me.
What is more, we should not be surprised if some of us feel ambivalent about death. The Bible itself is ambivalent when it speaks of the believer’s death. On the one hand, the apostle Paul describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). Yet when writing about the prospect of life and the possibility of his own death in Philippians 1:21-24, Paul also said that he was torn between the two explaining: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
I confess that while I do not always share Paul’s enthusiasm at the prospect of death, I do share his hope. I know that in the hour of my death this same Christ, who boldly strode out to meet and face death like a champion, will rise up to welcome me as a friend. In that moment all my fears will be forgotten forever.