One of the most serious obstacles to Christian faith is the problem of suffering. We believe that God is good and loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. It seems, then, that God would not want anything bad to happen in the world, and he certainly has the power to stop them from happening. Yet bad things—unimaginably horrific things—happen every day. Over many centuries, philosophers and theologians have attempted to solve this problem by explaining why God would choose to create a world like ours, where humans and animals frequently endure physical pain and emotional anguish.
From a moral and emotional perspective, human suffering is certainly more serious than animal suffering; however, philosophically speaking, animal suffering poses an especially serious problem. Most of the attempts to solve the problem of evil (known as “theodicies”) focus on human suffering and give very little, if any, attention to animal pain. In this brief discussion, I want to help remedy that oversight. To begin, I will explain why animal suffering is a serious problem that we should be worried about. Second, I will argue that the best (perhaps only) way to solve the problem of animal pain is to say that animals will be resurrected and will enjoy eternal happiness in heaven.
Why Animal Suffering is a Serious Problem
Let’s start with the many ways that animals suffer. Some animals have excruciating diseases or birth defects. Others are unable to escape natural disasters. They are drowned by floods, starved by famine, and battered by hailstones. Still others are badly injured in freak accidents. Even worse, a lot of suffering appears to be built into the world, as if on purpose. There is violent competition for limited resources; parasites consume their hosts from the inside out; prey animals live in constant fear of being eaten, while predators must kill or else starve to death.
The overall amount of animal suffering in our world is also horrific. Just think about the many billions of sentient animals that have ever lived or will live. Even if just one thousandth of all animals suffer terribly, that would still mean that many millions of animals will endure overwhelming pain or emotional trauma at some point in their lives.
Leaving these more general concerns aside, consider specific events. One philosopher famously described a young fawn who is trapped in a forest fire, severely burned, and lingers in agony for days before finally dying. Even if something good came from the fire, there is nothing good that comes from the fawn’s suffering, at least as far as we can tell. To us, such events seem utterly pointless and entirely, unequivocally bad. If there were a good and loving God, the argument goes, there would be no pointless suffering. And yet things like this happen all the time.
Of course, evils like these affect humans as well, but the most common explanations for human suffering cannot be applied to animals. They do not benefit from free will in the same way that humans do. They do not have a sense of right and wrong and thus cannot become morally better because of their suffering. They have no awareness of God and cannot draw close to God for comfort.
A common strategy for explaining why God allows animals to suffer is to show that they are a part of God’s plan and that our world is very good overall—better, in fact, than if God made a world without any suffering at all. The problem with this thinking, as I mentioned before, is that these accounts fail to show how God can be loving toward every creature. A successful theodicy, therefore, must not only vindicate God’s goodness, but his perfect love as well. The most plausible solution, in my opinion, is that animals will be in heaven.
An Argument for Animals in Heaven
Since the debate about the problem of evil is extremely complex and nuanced, a short article like this cannot hope to address every point, counterpoint, and counter-counterpoint. And since a detailed, formal argument for heaven would have too many caveats and qualifiers to be useful, here instead is a simplified, “business casual” argument:
1. God loves every creature completely and perfectly.
A being whose love is flawed somehow or fails to love at all would clearly be imperfect; however, God is perfect in every way. Therefore, God loves every creature completely and perfectly. Or, as 1 John 4:8 and 4:16 put it, God is love: Love is part of God’s essence and thus is one of God’s defining traits. Consequently, God could no more fail to love than a square could be five-sided.
In 1 John and throughout the New Testament, God’s love is denoted by the Greek word agape.Although agape is difficult to define precisely, Christ’s earthly life gives us a perfect illustration. Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, befriended sinners and the unclean, washed his disciples’ feet, and ultimately died for the whole world. In each of these actions Christ was meeting the needs of those around him, even at great cost to himself. He was genuinely concerned for the well-being of others, and desired what was best for them. He valued them for their own sake, not because of what they could do for him or how they fit into a greater plan.
So, if God loves all creatures perfectly, and love is (in part) a concern for the well-being of others, we can conclude that
2. God genuinely cares for animals and desires what is best for them.
The Bible frequently affirms God’s love and concern for animals. In the creation stories of Genesis 1-2, God creates animals to populate the world and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. In Eden, Adam and Eve’s primary task is to tend the garden and care for the animals. The re-creation (flood) story of Genesis 6-9 begins with God’s anger at the violence among humans and animals but ends with a new covenant, given to Noah, his family, and to all living things.
In Exodus, the Israelites’ livestock are unaffected by the plagues and are later commanded to rest on the Sabbath. In Numbers, an angel rebukes Balaam for abusing his donkey, remarking that if it had not been for the donkey, the angel would have killed Balaam and spared the donkey.
My favorite passage about God’s love for animals occurs at the end of the book of Jonah, when Jonah is furious about God’s mercy toward Nineveh. God could have pointed out Jonah’s hypocrisy; a giant fish had just saved Jonah from God’s wrath and yet now Jonah is full of wrath. Instead, God explains that he wants to have mercy on all things: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
God’s love for living things implies at least two things, 3a and 3b:
3a. God will do what he can to provide a good life for every living thing.
In the present, fallen state of things, the needs of one creature often conflicts with the needs of another. (Why God would choose to make a world like ours when he knew beforehand that it would be fallen and corrupt is an extremely difficult question, but not one that we can address here.) As a result, God may not be able to guarantee a perfect life for every creature. Even so, if God truly loves a creature, he will ensure that its existence is good and worthwhile for it.
3b. God will do what he can to redeem the undeserved suffering that each creature endures.
Again, God may have good reasons to allow bad things to happen, but if God is truly loving, he would do whatever he could to make it up to the victim, either by bringing some good out of the pain, or by compensating the victim somehow.
4a. Unfortunately, the earthly lives of many animals are overwhelmingly bad.
Some animals suffer in completely life-ruining ways. If their whole existence were limited from birth to death, it would have been better for them if they had never existed.
4b. Furthermore, there are many animals whose horrific suffering is never redeemed in this life.
Recall the fawn who was burned in the forest fire. If any good came from its suffering, the fawn did not benefit from it, and God did nothing to redeem its suffering while it was alive.
Nevertheless, despite these problems, there is good news:
5a. God can guarantee that each animal will have an extremely good existence by granting them everlasting joy in heaven.
However much pain an animal may experience, God may grant at least as much happiness in heaven. And since earthly suffering is temporary, it would pale in comparison to everlasting joy. Therefore, the overall existence of an animal in heaven would be extremely good, no matter how bad its previous life was.
5b. God can also redeem suffering in heaven.
One way to redeem animal suffering is to defeat it—to incorporate it into the animal’s life story in such a way that good comes out of it. For example, in music there are often discordant notes that sound bad on their own, but when we hear them in their full context, that discord actually contributes to the beauty of the whole song. An animal’s suffering could be defeated in a similar way. For instance, God could reveal to that creature how its suffering contributed something of value to the world. Or, if an animal was the victim of cruelty, it would have a chance to be reconciled with its tormenter. Perhaps suffering would allow the animal to more closely identify with Christ and thus allow for a more intimate relationship with Him. Or, perhaps earthly suffering contrasts with the joy of heaven in such a way that the animal can appreciate heaven even more.
Of course, in order for suffering to be redeemed in these ways, each animal’s mind would have to be elevated so that they could know God and understand his plans for the world. But this should not be a problem for God.
A quick caveat: 5a and 5b mention ways that God can address the problem of animal suffering; however, since God is powerful and wise, there are probably many other ways. However, heaven is the most plausible option and the one most consistent with Scripture and Christian tradition. (Little-known fact: Luther, Calvin, and Wesley all argued for animals in heaven on the basis of scripture. More recently, in The Problem of Pain C. S. Lewis argued for it as well.)
6. Therefore, at least some animals will be in heaven.
Namely, those creatures whose suffering has not been redeemed and whose earthly lives were overwhelmingly bad. Based on the above argument, we cannot say much about organisms that cannot feel pain, like plants and (probably) insects. Nor can we say much about sentient animals who enjoyed a good earthly life. Except for this: It would be good for those creatures to be in heaven, so God has at least some reason to give them eternal life. And since we can think of no good reason for God not to do it, there is at least room for hope.
There are good reasons—philosophical, biblical, and theological reasons—to believe that animals will be resurrected in heaven. In this article, I have given a brief philosophical argument based on God’s perfect love and the problem of unredeemed animal suffering. The biblical and theological cases are even more compelling, but unfortunately they must await another time.