Animals and the Kingdom of Heaven

C.S. Lewis, known for his love of animals, had some interesting ideas about what happens to animals after they die. Sean Connolly, a priest of the Diocese of East Anglia, is currently studying the works and thought of C.S. Lewis for a doctorate at Oxford University.

By Sean Connolly

'I feel just the same,' C.S. Lewis confessed in correspondence with an American lady who had written to him and admitted her adoration of the feel of animal furs. 'I like them on the beasts, of course.' It seems sad to me that 47 years later this issue of fur in fashion can still be ongoing. But, I suppose, education is a slow process, particularly when it involves the letting go of the somewhat selfish 'perks' which we may perceive to be a part of our stewardship over creation.

C.S. Lewis was famous for many things: his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien and their inner circle of associates known as the Inklings, for one; his hugely successful children's books, the Narnia Chronicles, for another; his numerous works in defense of the Christian life and on morals and prayer; his academic career as an Oxford don and, later, as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English in Cambridge, which led to an impressive outpouring of literary works. 

But he is also famous - at least amongst those of us who consider ourselves his fans - for his love of animals. Those who visited him at his Oxford home, The Kilns, were often surprised to find the place not only spilling over with papers and books but also overrun by cats and dogs. His works of fiction, perhaps especially his Narnia novels, are filled with animal characters. And it is interesting, if not perhaps particularly significant, that his final step towards Christianity was taken whilst on a day-trip with his brother, warnie, to whipsnade Zoo. (Incidentally, warnie records in his memoirs that Jack Lewis was rather taken by a bear at that zoo which he called 'Bultitude' and which came to have a cameo role in the third instalment of his space trilogy, That Hideous Strength). 

Most notably, in one of his earliest Christian works, The Problem of Pain, Lewis devoted an entire chapter to the issue of animal suffering. Reading it today one is slightly stunned by the curiosity of argument. Lewis is painstaking in his distinctions between vegetative and animal life, between sentient and non-sentient being, between sentience and consciousness. He is at pains to present a position he perceives to be in line with orthodox Christian theology and thus, while he does speculate about animal immortality - i.e. an animal heaven - he is clear not to suggest that animals have souls in the same way as humans, nor that they enjoy quite the relationship with their Creator that we do. In terms of suffering, the issues that concerned him were:

(a) the extent to which animals actually suffer; 
(b) the origins of pain and disease within the animal world; and 
(c) the way in which we can reconcile such suffering with the justice of God. Of course, Lewis was concerned here with the 'natural' suffering of animals (e.g. disease, the brutality of being in an environment that makes them part of a food chain, and so on) rather than the suffering humans might inflict upon them: this latter was taken as wholly unacceptable.

what interests me the most in Lewis' thought is his speculation about what we might call 'animal eschatology.' Eschatology is simply the doctrine of the 'Last Things,' in other words, death, judgement, heaven and hell. 'Animal eschatology,' then, concerns what happens to animals after they die and what place they might have in the Christian doctrine of the New Creation - that is, the 'new heavens and new earth' referred to in the book of the Apocalypse (Rev. 21:1). 

Animals and the General Resurrection

The theological dilemma is thus: according to Christian doctrine humans possess immortal souls which endure beyond physical death and, in cases of the justified, achieve Beatific Vision (i.e. a place in heaven) whilst awaiting the resurrection of their bodies. Animals have no such souls and therefore, it is presumed, do not have a place in heaven. But, come the end of time and what is called the General Resurrection, Christianity talks of a new creation that those justified souls - now restored to their glorified bodies - will enjoy. A new creation to my mind (and to many others) implies the existence of animals too and the biblical data certainly seems to support this. Lewis, then, wondered if perhaps there was a place for animals in heaven after all and, if so, on what basis that place might depend. 

He began by suggesting that whereas humanity is to be understood only in its relation to God, 'the beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man, and through man, to God.' Lewis made this assumption on his understanding of Genesis 1: 28b: 'Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living creatures that move on the earth,' and of Genesis 2:19: 'So from the soil the Lord God fashioned all the wild animals and all the birds of heaven. These he brought to the man to see what he would call them; each one was to bear the name the man would give it.' Humanity's stewardship over nature as guaranteed in Genesis meant, for Lewis, a central position for humankind in creation's relationship with its Creator. This theme is given dramatic depiction in Lewis' Narnia Chronicles where, although the 'sons of Adam and daughters of Eve' have no natural place in the Narnian creation - it is first and foremost a land of sentient, conscious, and talking animals - nevertheless they are its natural rulers and indeed play a pivotal role in its redemption. Thus Lewis argued for an animal immortality in which the animals that achieve heaven do so through their being caught up in the lives of their human masters. As Lewis put it:

The theory I am suggesting ... makes God the centre of the universe and man the subordinate centre of terrestrial nature: the beasts are not co-ordinate with man, but subordinate to him, and their destiny is through and through related to his. 

And so, in Lewis' vision of heaven, the pets I had as a child - and indeed those I have now or may come to have later - may well be caught up in my experience of the heavenly realm when I die. The best expression of this idea is found in Lewis' theological fantasy, The Great Divorce. Here he describes a woman in heaven surrounded by a train of young children, angels, and - significantly - birds and beasts. The following dialogue makes explanation:

'what are all these animals? A cat - two cats - dozens of cats. And all those dogs ... why, I can't count them. And the birds. And the horses.'

'They are her beasts.'

'Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.'

'Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.' 

Of course this position raises almost as many problems as it solves and Lewis was ridiculed for it even in his own lifetime. Firstly, it confuses somewhat the need for animals living immortally in heaven with what the Apocalypse says of the creation of 'a new heavens and a new earth'. One can argue that there may well be animals come the end of time but they may not be necessarily continuous with the animals we know here and now. Secondly, for those who want to admit of animal immortality, Lewis seems to extend it only to domestic, household pets - or, at best, tamed animals. what of those wild birds and beasts that have no contact with humanity? And thirdly, some would say Lewis' position actually takes a too narrowly anthropocentric interpretation of creation: in other words, animals are not dependent upon humans for their redemption. However, it seems to me that Lewis was merely attempting to make sense of St. Paul's position as recorded in his letter to the Romans. Here Paul spoke of the whole of creation awaiting its freedom from slavery to corruption by being caught up in the same glorious freedom as the children of God (Cf. Rom. 8: 20-23). This text - particularly in the light of Genesis 1: 28b and 2: 19 - suggests a link between our salvation and the future of all of creation. Lewis himself, in The Great Divorce, explained his position thus:

It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and concentric waves spread further and further. who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life

At its heart, then, Lewis' doctrine is highly Christocentric. Christ - God made man - redeems humanity. Humans, through their redemption become alter Christi - 'other Christs' - and continue his work of redeeming all of nature, including the animal kingdom. If Lewis' theology is ultimately somewhat unsatisfactory - and I agree that it is - it is no more so than our current Christian position. It seems strange to me that the Church in her Catechism can remind us that we 'owe [animals] kindness' and that 'it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly,' whilst at the same time remaining largely silent about those Catholic countries that promote bull-fighting and other such 'sports.' 

It seems sadly inconsistent to me that a Church which encourages us to coo over the cattle in Bethlehem's stable each Christmas, and to be inspired each Advent with Isaiah's beautiful prophecy of wolves lying down with lambs, lions eating straw, and infants playing over the cobra's hole (Cf. Is. 11: 6-9), should at the same time promote a rather utilitarian view of our stewardship over the animal kingdom. If Lewis didn't really succeed in making sense of some of these more difficult theological issues, at least he tried. And most importantly - and quite characteristically - he tried to provide a rational basis for what was most surely his instinctive love of animals. Our work for animal welfare will always be the better for being more than 'mere sentiment.' For myself, as someone interested and working in eschatological theology, Lewis pointed a way. 

And quite clearly swishing down Parisian catwalks covered in fur wasn't it.