I’m not actually going to talk about the brilliant but dark Don Bluth animation All Dogs Go To Heaven (which possibly emotionally scarred me as a child), but just the concept that animals have worth and value to God, and indeed, that He loves and cares for them individually.
Last Sunday’s The Big Questions, a BBC One morning discussion programme hosted by Nicky Campbell, featured the rather childishly phrased question: ‘Do Animals Go to Heaven?’ The question was started by referencing the auction at Christie’s for a poem allegedly written by Bob Dylan (but which actually turned out to be a song written by the late country singer Hank Snow), which contained the lyrics ‘I’ll meet my precious buddy up in the sky.’
In the audience there was a curate, Helen, who ran an animal prayer group at Gloucester Cathedral. In response to panellist James O’Brien commenting that the animals he’d eaten were going to have words with him in heaven, she responded ‘well, I mean, I choose not to eat them.’ YES! She was a vegetarian. She wasn’t just praying for people’s pets, she had compassion for all of God’s creatures. It was pretty exciting to hear a Christian talking about this issue, and so calmly and peacefully (Angry vegan? Me? Never...)
Talking about the foundation for her beliefs, she said ‘I believe in a loving, compassionate, and an involved God, who continues to have a relationship with His world. The Christian scriptures, the Psalms, for instance, talk about God and animals relating one with the other. St. Paul talks about the renewal of the whole creation and a place for animals in eternity.’
Interestingly, Nicky Campbell then asked a question which pretty much sums up the problem with our attitude to God’s creatures, the idea that some are valuable and some are not, a belief lived out by many and illustrated by their devotion to their pets and then their consumption of inhumanely treated farm animals. He said: ‘Where do we draw the line? Species wise, what’s the cut off point? Scorpions? Snakes? Spiders? I mean a lot of people say ‘oh, I’m not going to heaven if they’re, you know...’
Helen replied: ‘I’m afraid I believe that even wasps make it. God renews the whole of creation and the whole of creation has a place within his renewed kingdom. I don’t claim that I understand the logistics of that, and I don’t think Christians claim that they understand the detail of exactly what heaven will be like.’
Nicky responded: ‘Now Wasps in heaven truly does surpasseth all understanding.’
In the discussion that followed many issues came up, including issues about morality and the notion of heaven and hell (which was being dealt with rather naively, as a few people pointed out). Colm O'Gorman, the Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland and founder of the charity One in Four which represents victims of child abuse, described how he used to live on a farm and that ‘there is a deeply spiritual component of being in nature, of being surrounded by life.’ Lucy Bryson, who earlier on the show discussed the life of prostitution and drugs that she had escaped, works as part of a therapeutic animal project that helps to rebuild the lives of people broken by their involvement in prostitution, alcohol and drug addiction. She said: ‘God used an animal to reach me, because I couldn’t trust anybody, I wouldn’t let anybody me near me. Sometimes we can’t reach people, but the animals can.’
I don’t necessarily think that a discussion about whether or not animals go to heaven is actually that fruitful in itself, but the idea that animals are loved by God, since He loves His creation, is fundamental in changing our attitudes towards what He has created and called good. Another interesting aspect that unfortunately didn’t receive any attention in the discussion is the importance of God’s justice. It is, in my opinion, the fact that animals suffer, both mentally and physically, that suggests that this must be made right by God in some way. Maybe it is just that I cannot bear the idea that the poor pig in the factory farm - that never gets to run or see the sky - is just forgotten by God. If I do believe that God will make all things new, that creation will be restored, then surely I can depend on his justice for anything in His creation that has suffered unfairly. And I firmly believe that the injustice of factory farming is one of the greatest injustices going on in our world today. As Colleen Patrick-Goudreau writes: ‘Lions don't breed gazelles in order to eat them. We artificially create life only to destroy it. That's not nature. That's not the natural cycle of life and death. We manipulate nature for our end and then say it's natural. Not so.’
Regardless of whether or not we believe that animals have a place in God’s kingdom, we are called to act lovingly and with justice. Colm O’Gorman said: ‘I really do feel that we spend so much time focusing on what’s going to happen in the next life that we forget about this one. Frankly, if we could put as much energy into treating each other with love and with compassion and with respect, we’d probably all be living in a much greater heaven right now.’ And he wisely concluded the discussion saying: ‘If we were meant to know, we’d know. We don’t. Let’s focus on this, let’s live with as much life and dignity and love as we possibly can. We’ll find out that bit when we get there.’
For me, part of living with as much life, dignity and love as I possibly can entails adopting a vegan diet and lifestyle, even if that means feeling awkward at dinner parties. Being vegan (when living in a consumerist, Western country) is part of the fight against a world which sees people and animals – life itself – as expendable, profit making factory parts.
Being vegan is just one step we can take towards living compassionately, but I feel it is ultimately a very important one. Our attitude to the weak and helpless impacts our attitude to others in our lives. Once we start regarding all life as precious and God-given, we can really begin to appreciate the miraculous nature of the gift of community and stewardship that God has bestowed upon us. We can truly wonder at God’s creation when we treasure it.
And the vegan cupcakes aren't bad, either.