My dog, Bailey, is the best pet I have ever had the privilege to live with. We’ve had a number of dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, lizards and guinea pigs over the years, but in my mind, Bailey sits at the top of the list. As I enjoy her company (now that I’m working at home more than ever before), I can understand why so many of us hope that our pets will be part of our eternal life with God. I’m convinced from scripture that animals have souls, but I still have my reservations about whether or not the souls of animals are eternal. I’m not sure that the Bible is emphatically clear on that issue. One thing is certain, however: we humans are different. According to Genesis 1, we have been created in the “image of God”; we are His last creation, placed carefully in our world after God prepared our environment and filled it with other creatures. Much can be said about what distinguishes us from the other creations of God, but three characteristics of humans seem to stand out as the key to understanding what it means to bear the image of God:
Humans seem to be uniquely capable of measuring difficult and weighty moral issues. We understand the value of sacrifice, even when a noble cause may cost us our lives. As humans, we are able to move beyond survival mechanisms and base desires. We have the capacity to distinguish between what “is” toward what “ought to be”. This ability defines us as humans and it is something that we share with our creator. In fact, this innate understanding of morality comes from the creator (Romans 2:14-15). God’s moral law is not written for animals. We don’t assign or recognize moral culpability on the part of creatures other than humans, and the Old Testament also recognizes this difference between animals and humans (Exodus 21:35-36). Humans are held to a different standard; a standard that is a direct reflection of their ability to comprehend and act on the moral law written in their hearts.
For this reason, it really shouldn’t surprise us that we are inherently spiritual. If we possess a conscience that has been given to us by God, it makes sense that we would eventually want to know who gave us this burdensome knowledge of right and wrong, and how we can be forgiven for our mistakes. And even though we live in the same environment as other creatures, we alone seem to find ourselves questioning how an environment as magnificent as this could exist without a creator (Romans 1:19-20). We seem to be uniquely curious about our origin, purpose and meaning, and unlike other animals, we desire a relationship with the creator of the universe. This desire to commune with God is unique to the human species.
Humans also have a uniquely refined self-awareness (consciousness) that allows us to see our place in the world and understand our identity. We have the ability to understand the natural and spiritual hierarchy, and we recognize our place within it (Job 42:1-6). We also have the ability to act outside of ‘natural’ desire. We can be inspired to make choices that are self-sacrificial, benevolent and moral. While the desire for food, pleasure and sex are still strong forces in our lives, we have the free-will ability to act in contradiction to these desires. This ability to choose is an important aspect of our nature in the image of God, because it is with this ability that we choose to seek, follow and trust God (Joshua 24:15).
Fashioned in the image of God, humans have the ability to consider and make moral decisions that are unique to the animal kingdom. We are also uniquely culpable for those decisions. In my entire career as a detective, I’ve never arrested (nor prosecuted) an animal for causing a death. Humans are held to a higher standard for a reason. So as I think about it, I wonder if the ability to decide to accept God’s offer of forgiveness is essential to the eternal life of souls. If it is, animals that are incapable of making such an important decision may be excluded from the next life. On the other hand, animals do lack the moral culpability that burdens humans; perhaps this lack of moral responsibility makes them perfectly suited for the next life. In any case, I hope that pets are a part of God’s plan for eternity; I can’t imagine sitting at the table without Bailey at my feet.