Of all of the sticky pastoral questions that present themselves, the fate of dearly departed pets is among the stickiest. When a five year-old child whose beloved dog has just died asks if his dog is now in Heaven, it would be sappy and sentimental to say with utter certainty "Why yes, he is." While perhaps more theologically correct, the response, "Your dog was just a dog and had no soul; she no longer exists," is hardly gentle and loving. One friend of mine once heard a pastor who was rather bombastic in most other instances give the amazingly wise response, "If, when you are in the presence of God in Heaven, beholding Him in all of his glory, you need your dog to be with you for the perfect joy that will be there, he'll be there" (one might call that kind qualification).
My thoughts on this were prompted by a couple of unrelated events that have taken place over the past couple of days. Tomorrow, transferred to Monday, is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi and so this morning, as is my wont, I took my faithful Black Lab-mix Sabrina to the Church of the Holy Communion for the Blessing of the Animals; as always, it was a great and blessed time for both of us (she always enjoys getting out and we went for a walk in downtown Charleston afterward). Last night I picked up Charlie Wilson's War, a movie that I'd been wanting to see for some time (I loved it as it combined many elements of which I'm quite fond: history, politics, and the military -- the Liberal from Lufkin is a rake whom I disagree with on many issues but he is a lovable rake and helped defeat the Soviets, for that he has my kudos). As is often the case when I watch history, either in dramatic portrayals or in documentaries, I wanted to know the rest of the story and did some looking around on the Internet. I knew that Charlie Wilson is living in retirement in Texas and that Gust Avrakotos had died of a stroke in 2005, but Joanne Herring, the Houston socialite who spurred Wilson to support the Freedom Fighters (portrayed expertly by Julia Roberts in the film), intrigued me and I came across her website in which she talks about various aspects of of life, including her Christian faith. There, on a page that's hardly theologically precise, she makes the interesting statement: "Your dogs and cats are here [in Heaven]!!! He [God] never gives you something to love that he does not give back."
Mrs. Herring's postulation may seem a bit sappy and perhaps it is, but I must admit that it got me to thinking. Admittedly one must guard against taking it to the point of universalism (God can, and often does, give us people to love but as some of them know not Christ, our loving them certainly won't redeem them), but in this case we're not talking about people with moral agency but rather about pets who have been loved (and have loved). While Revelation 22:15 lists dogs as among those outside the gates of the New Jerusalem, there is some legitimate question as to whether the term there literally refers to Canis lupus familiaris or whether St. John is using the term, as would have been typical, to refer to Gentiles or some other group of humans (the term was sometimes used to refer to homosexuals, for instance) -- in that case, St. Paul's words in Ephesians 5:3-10 are particularly worth noting. Even if "dogs" (Gk. κυνες) refers to canines, the Rev'd Dr. Rick Strelan, a Lutheran minister and classicist, has demonstrated that their exclusion stems not from any particular animus that God has toward dogs (much like I feel toward cats!), but rather from their involvement with pagan worship of the day.
C.S. Lewis held out hope that pets would join us in the new Heavens and new Earth ,* and while I am hesitant to speak with any certainty, I think that a hopeful agnosticism is an appropriate view and will be delighted to learn that that is the case. The Rainbow Bridge, while a very comforting concept, is speculative theology and speculative theology is to be shunned at every turn -- as Christians and especially as Christian preachers our task is to proclaim what God has taught in Scripture, not our (pardon the pun) pet theories; on the other hand, negative speculation is just as bad as positive speculation. Where Scripture has not spoken about the world which is to come, we need to concede that it is a mystery.
*While I found Connolly's article a helpful summary of Lewis' writing on the subject, particularly since my reading of Lewis (which I've enjoyed and profited from) has not included either The Problem of Pain or The Great Divorce (although I am going to make it a point to read the former as soon as possible given my current ministry), I do not concur with everything that he stipulates (goes a bit far toward the animal rights movement).