Our family dog, Boots, died a few days ago. He was a good dog, a giant, slobbering, super-friendly, food-stealing behemoth. When we first saw him he was with a litter of pups in the back of a steel trailer on a farm in Texas. He was lying in the food dish, on top of the food, to keep the other pups from getting what he thought was rightly his. We adopted him and gave him a good life for thirteen years. He was fiercely loyal to his two boys. He kept our yard safe from raccoons, possums, and all other manner of ferocious Ohio wildlife.
If you’ve ever lost a pet, particularly one you’ve lived with for a long time, you know how hard it is. Our pets become like members of our family. They become part of the rhythm of our lives. It’s going to be strange walking in from work in the evening without being bombarded by a hundred pounds of unfettered canine affection. For our youngest son in particular, losing Boots will be hard. Boots was his friend, movie-making companion, competitor for pretzels and cookies, and sometimes a horse or a tug-of-war opponent.
Is Boots gone forever? Will we ever see him again? I think all of us who have lost beloved pets would like to know that, in death, they are taken into God’s providential care. Does God care about our pets? Does God care for animals in such a way that, like us, they will have life in the age to come?
For John Wesley, the answer was a definite yes. His sermon “The General Deliverance” shows he certainly thought that the animal world would partake of God’s redemptive new creation. Wesley had a soft spot for animals, which is not surprising since he was a generally compassionate person who spent most of his time on horseback. He believed that, in the world before the Fall, animals and humans lived together in harmony. Today, however, things are different. Among both animals and humans we find violence and savagery. While some animals demonstrate great ferocity, moreover, the cruelty of people far surpasses that of any other species. “The lion, the tiger, or the shark, gives [human beings] pain from mere necessity, in order to prolong their own life; and puts them out of their pain at once: But the human shark, without any such necessity, torments them of his free choice; and perhaps continues their lingering pain till, after months or years, death signs their release” (II.6). We’ve all come across these “human sharks” in our lives.
Christians, however, believe that God will make all things new, and that in the age to come there will be no more violence or cruelty. That is as true of animals as it is of humans. Think of Isaiah’s vision of a future peaceful kingdom:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea (11:6-9).
God’s perfect future is not just for people. It is for all creation. As Paul writes,
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom 8:19-22).
In God’s future, things will be different. It’s not just humankind that will be be made new. Everything will be made new. As we read in Revelation 21:5: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'”
Wesley took these passages to heart when thinking about the eschatological fate of the animal world.
But will “the creature,” will even the brute creation, always remain in this deplorable condition? God forbid that we should affirm this; yea, or even entertain such a thought! While “the whole creation groaneth together,” (whether men attend or not) their groans are not dispersed in idle air, but enter into the ears of Him that made them. While his creatures “travail together in pain,” he knoweth all their pain, and is bringing them nearer and nearer to the birth, which shall be accomplished in its season. He seeth “the earnest expectation” wherewith the whole animated creation “waiteth for” that final “manifestation of the sons of God;” in which “they themselves also shall be delivered” (not by annihilation; annihilation is not deliverance) “from the” present “bondage of corruption, into” a measure of “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (“The General Deliverance,” III.1).
And when in Revelation we read, “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:4), Wesley believed that this was true no less for animals than for humans. God will take away all suffering, all sadness and pain, for our furry friends as well as for us.
Oh, and by the way, Pope Francis made a similar comment recently. He probably got the idea from Wesley. 🙂
To those who would say that reflection on the ultimate fate of animals is an idle task, Wesley had a clear response. Reflection on God’s love for all creation “may encourage us to imitate Him whose mercy is over all his works.” Such reflection “may soften our hearts towards the meaner creatures, knowing that the Lord careth for them. It may enlarge our hearts towards those poor creatures, to reflect that, as vile as they appear in our eyes, not one of them is forgotten in the sight of our Father which is in heaven” (III.10). When we think about the character of God, we contemplate such unbounded love as to affect our own thoughts, words, and deeds.
So, yeah, I miss the heck out of Boots. But I also believe that God’s love and grace are for all creation, not just for people. When your beloved pet dies, take some comfort. God’s got this. God’s future is happier and more perfect than we can ever imagine.