About a year ago, I unexpectedly lost my 13-year-old yellow Labrador. I was heartbroken. Ruby had been part of my family since I was in grade school. She saw me grow up and go to college; I saw her age gracefully from a young puppy full of energy to an old hound who enjoyed life. Her passing was like losing a family member—because she was a family member.
But despite my sorrow, I don’t believe she’s going to heaven, canine or otherwise. Imagining a loved one (including pets) resting peacefully in the Great Beyond is a comfort to many people. But in the case of dogs—indeed, any animal—the possibility that they will join us in eternal bliss is a long shot, if not purely impossible.
In the faith journal First Things, David Bentley Hart and Stephen Webb have both written recently about their shared beliefs that heaven, in the general Christian conception of it, can be populated with the animals of this life, dogs included. Webb writes:
Needless to say, when the beatific vision is reduced to intellectual intuition, only rational souls will be able to see God. Traditional Thomists deny that humans can love dogs for the same reason that they deny that dogs can enter into heaven: dogs do not possess a rational soul. If dogs can go to heaven, as both Hart and I agree, then much of the classical theistic tradition will have to be rethought. The mind’s dependence on embodiment will have to be more firmly stated. Theologians will have to explain how petting a dog in the presence of the divine could be as fulfilling as contemplating eternal, silent truths.
Webb here makes two dense assertions, only one of which is correct. First, he says “traditional Thomists,” or those who follow closely the writings of Thomas Aquinas, deny that dogs can go to heaven because of the kind of souls they have. This is correct on both counts: traditional Thomists do believe this, and, contrary to Webb’s latter claim, dogs do not have rational souls. Secondly, Webb says that to deny the possibility of dogs in heaven is wrong, for reasons he explains deeper in his essay.
Animal Souls Are Different than Human Souls
To assert that dogs have souls is nothing new. Aquinas even agreed to that basic assertion. But Aquinas was careful to distinguish between animal souls and human souls, a distinction which is necessary but also less black and white today than it was when Aquinas was writing (as Webb’s essay belies).
Indeed, animals and humans both have souls, but the difference is massive. Human souls, Aquinas says, are “subsistent,” meaning they are eternal, even after bodily death. Aquinas contends that animal souls do not have that eternal property, so when animals die their soul does not carry on.
Understanding Aquinas’ conclusions means understanding his philosophical underpinnings. In order to assert that animal souls do not carry on after death, Aquinas consulted and modified Aristotle’s philosophy of souls. Aquinas and Aristotle agreed that “souls” were what gave animation to the body. But to be considered “subsistent,” a soul has to carry with it more functions than just providing existence (as in a plant, for example). Human and animal souls both animate their bodies, but only human souls provide for an intellect. On the contrary, animal souls provide for sentience, but they still lack the ability to determine the essence (“quiddity”) of something, a task only humans can do.
Thus, Aquinas’ conclusion is clear: animal souls are not intellectual souls, and as non-intellectual souls they are not subsistent souls. This implies that the intellectual property human souls inherently carry makes them eternal.
Heaven Transcends the Happiness We Get from Dogs
Webb knows this conclusion and rejects it under a two-pronged belief. First, Webb believes Aquinas was wrong about intellectual-ness begetting eternal-ness. Secondly, because heaven will be a place of eternal joy, and dogs can make humans happy, dogs will be in heaven with their human companions. Indeed, Webb concludes, “Heaven could be seen as a place where all kinds of bodies flourish—and where love, not reason, would have the last word. In that kind of place, petting a dog would matter very much.”
I believe it is Webb, not Aquinas, who is wrong on the intellectual souls question. But Webb’s contention that heaven is a place “where love, not reason, will have the last word” is wrong as well, at least under the construction that he built to reach that conclusion.
Dogs do make people happy (Ruby made me very happy, and it was better to have her than not to), but the nature of heaven goes beyond just joy, or any feeling for that matter. The joy that pets bring to our lives is a type of joy not derived from many other places. It is perhaps a joy formed in a bond between living things, both aware of each other and appreciative of each other in their own ways. It’s a rare bond.
But heaven is the place of ultimate fulfillment. It is true, unadulterated happiness. The beatific vision, or being in God’s exact presence without the limitations of our bodies and sin, is the fulfillment of a human. This is why Augustine wrote his famous passage in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” Dogs and pets no doubt provide joy. But what joy is greater than the eternal presence with God, our Creator?
Yes, There’s Something Way Better than Dogs
No matter how good dogs are (and they are good), they don’t compare to the majesty of God. The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the bliss of heaven:
Man is complex in his nature and activities, sentient and rational, cognitive and appetitive. There is for him a well-being of the whole and a well-being of the parts; a relatively brief existence here, an everlasting life hereafter. Beatitudo, perfect happiness, complete well-being, is to be attained not in this life, but in the next. Primarily, it consists in the activity of man’s highest cognitive faculty, the intellect, in the contemplation of God — the infinitely Beautiful. But this immediately results in the supreme delight of the will in the conscious possession of the Summum Bonum, God, the infinitely good. This blissful activity of the highest spiritual faculties, as the Catholic Faith teaches, will redound in some manner transcending our present experience to the felicity of the lower powers. For man, as man, will enjoy that perfect beatitude.
Webb seems to understand the implication of having dogs in heaven when he writes, “Theologians will have to explain how petting a dog in the presence of the divine could be as fulfilling as contemplating eternal, silent truths.” But this doesn’t need much of an explanation.
Consider what God is—His quiddity, so to speak. God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-perfect, just, and merciful. God is all those things, and He also just is—God is existence itself. Being in the immediate presence of such a being would be more fulfilling than anything on earth. As good as dogs are, why would they be needed in such an environment?
Perhaps this view is pessimistic by human standards. Dogs may not be necessary, but they can still be provided. Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it.