Thursday Theological Triflings by Joseph Ostrander
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. ~Isaiah 11:6
The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord. ~Isaiah 65:25
Okay imaginative Coastlanders, put on your theological thinking caps with me as we go back in time to the beginnings, or the Genesis of creation (no matter how you understand it), and consider an interesting premise that Bethany Sollereder’s article posted in BioLogos raises…
Context: this intriguing consideration visits the theological implications about the pain and suffering of the non-human animal kingdom with regards to evolution. Is the claim that human sin (The Fall) is responsible for all animal pain and suffering? Does our faith in a loving and redeeming Creator God suggest that the pain and suffering of the natural world will ultimately be redeemed in the eschaton (the “last thing” or the end—Christ’s return)?
Many sincere animal lovers have pondered: “Will our beloved pet dogs/cats/rodents be with us in heaven?” The question is raised because we want to know if we will be reunited with our beloved pet dog Rex, or our cat Mrs. Finicky, or our pet rodent Ratatouille again. Important as this is, the question has more profound theological implications than meets the eye. If God’s creative process was ‘crafted’ evolution over the course of millions-of-years, it means countless creatures have suffered throughout the eons in a competitive struggle for life. I happen to believe in a wild, raw earth that was in existence long before Mankind appeared on the scene. If animal suffering was not due to human sin, because they lived long before humans were around, how are we to understand their suffering? And what does God’s love and redemption mean for both the hunter and the prey in a violent world we observe today?
The theological consideration that death is not the end for non-human animals—that heaven or the new creation awaits them as well—is not new. However, the common objection raised that animals don’t have souls does invite deeper discussion.
What constitutes a soul? Following the works of Aristotle and Aquinas, all living creatures were thought to have a vegetative soul, while creatures that moved around had an animal soul too, and that only humans had a rational soul (or self-awareness). It was thought that the animal and vegetative souls could not exist apart from the body. So, when creatures with only these died, the entire soul ceased to exist. Only rational souls—independent from the body—could survive death. Therefore, only humans could experience life-after-death in heaven and enjoy being a new creation because only humans had some part of themselves that survived after physical death. The existence of non-human souls was never really a question; the debate was whether they were the kind of souls that could survive death.
Can we challenge the rational soul requirement just for the sake of argument? Two thoughts come to mind; 1) can other types of non-human souls survive death; and 2) could the ancient Greek understanding of soul hierarchy be deficient? If so, then human and non-human creatures have some other body/soul composition. Ancient Near Eastern thinkers viewed life this way, and it is reflected in Old Testament writings. In Genesis 2:7 when God breathes life into the inanimate human form, it becomes nephesh, or a “living being.” Humans are sculpted dirt that breathes. Yet, other creatures are also called nephesh. All the land and sea creatures created in the first chapter of Genesis (1:21, 1:24) and also the other creatures that the adam (the man) names in the second chapter (2:19) are called by this term. There is greater continuity in Hebrew thought between the essential composition of human and non-human beings—all are understood as air breathing and made from the dust of the earth—and consequently there is a greater possibility of thinking they can enjoy being part of the new creation as well. The Isaiah passages at the beginning of this post describe the wolf, leopard, lion, lamb, goat, yearling, serpent, ox, and child all co-inhabiting the messianic kingdom. This can be understood as poetic imagery of a restored Paradise, but it could also imply they are the “same stuff” as we are and if we can survive death, so can they.
Curious consideration, no? But what animals would be welcomed into the new life? Some theologians, like C. S. Lewis and John Polkinghorne, considered the scope of redemption is in relation to humans. Through contact with humans, non-human animals are brought into the sphere of redemption offered to humans. Pets, for example, become part of the household or part of the fabric of life people, and that grants them a place in the new world since redemption for that human requires those creatures. The argument is this: “Heaven would not be heaven without my dog, so my dog must be there with me.”
Is it a comforting thought that beloved pets will rejoin us in heaven? But if creatures are only redeemed through direct relationship with humans, most likely it means no dinosaurs will be there. Shucks. Or any of the countless life forms that once flourished and are now extinct. Not only would the new creation be poorer for lacking these wondrous creatures, but there would still be nothing to say about God’s attitude toward those animals that suffered all that pain with no afterlife to gain.
What do I think? No matter if you believe in a guided evolutionary process over millions of years, or if you believe in a young earth and the impact of mankind’s sin that left a pox on the animal kingdom, will animals be included in the “restoration of all things”? I believe that everything God has created that we limited humans are totally clueless about (think of the size of the universe and every living thing we have no knowledge of) was originally intended for us to discover throughout the eternities. It could be there will be living examples of every critter that God has fashioned: every bug, every ant, every bacterium, every plant, and every pterodactyl. Numerous unspoiled living museums of every living thing in its unique ecosystem/habitat. Heck, why not? There is no reason to think that there will be a lack of space, or resources, or human caretakers. To include all living beings in the new creation also places the concept of redemption squarely where it should be: in the redeeming character of God. Remember, redemption and the new creation was God’s idea in the first place, and it seems to be one of God’s most satisfying expectations. Shouldn’t all creatures participate in this new life because God loved them into being and included them through His masterful craftsmanship? Is there any limit to the love of God?
Think about it...