Do Animals Go to Heaven? Medieval Philosophers Contemplate Heavenly Human Exceptionalism
By Joyce E. Salisbury
Athens Journal of Humanities and Arts, Vol.1:1 (2014)
Abstract: Beginning in about the second century C.E., Christian philosophers reflected upon the nature of human beings, our purpose on earth, and our path to the promised afterlife. In the course of these reflections, they considered our relationship to nature, and the non- human animals that share our world. Most thinkers accepted a Biblical mandate of ‘mastery’ to explain that humans should have dominance over animals, but that only described this world, not the next. Most theologians asserted that humans were exceptional because they had ‘reason,’ and most early Christians established a correlation between ‘reason’ and ‘soul.’ This meant that for them animals had no soul so there was no place for them in heaven. The question of immortality might have remained unambiguously in the hands of humans if theologians believed that only our souls were immortal.
As soon as theologians concluded that our flesh would join our souls in heavenly reward, the door was opened for animals to enter into paradise. For, after all, animals had bodies and flesh just as humans do. Some thinkers argued that just as human bodies will be transformed for salvation, animal bodies, too, can be redeemed and changed to enjoy an afterlife. For these theologians, God is prepared to save His whole creation – plants and animals — and we will all enjoy the next life.
This paper traces the various ideas about animals in heaven and suggests that these attitudes towards heaven reveal what we think about animals, humans, and the web of life.
In the fourth century, the Roman Empire became a Christian empire, and for the first time, thinkers considered the span of a human life to extend beyond death. During the pagan years, most people considered the afterlife a vague shadowy place, best ignored, and dead bodies were thought to be polluting, and best buried outside the walls of the city. With the coming of Christianity, however, the faithful came to hope for a Resurrection that defeated death and extended their life somewhere else and somewhere glorious. The remains of the Christian dead seemed no longer polluting, and cemeteries moved within the walls (or often people moved to be closer to the burial spaces) as people wanted to be close to the holy remains of the dead who were perhaps already participating in the expected afterlife. These attitudes toward death changed the geography of both Christian cities and human minds as people began to consider what heaven might look like. And these reflections included considerations of animals that shared this world. Would they also share the next one?