Life after Death for Nonhuman Animals?

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Spitz

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I must have been about seven years old when my Spitz, Fuzzy, died from being hit by a car. I remember Daddy and Great Uncle Bill searching and finding the body near a mailbox. I could not accept that Fuzzy was really gone, and for days I would look for him to come back, jump on me, and lick me half to death, as was his habit. I lost other dogs through the years, and the pain remains to this day. Five years ago my wife and I lost both our cats, Liebchen and Sienna–Liebchen from squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth and, a month later, Sienna, from kidney failure. I was at work when Liebchen was put to sleep, but I helped bury him; when Sienna was put to sleep I was there, crying my eyes out. Sienna used to curl up and sleep on my leg almost every night. The heartbreak in losing both cats was as bad as the heartbreak from losing members of my family.

Is there any hope for animal afterlife? Living only with memories and not the hope of a reunion with beloved pets is a painful prospect. Mama had always said that animals didn’t have souls and couldn’t go to Heaven. I disagree on both counts.

Many Christian theologians and philosophers have supported the idea of animal afterlife, although one must be careful to distinguish the view that there will be, for example, dogs in heaven from the view that dogs who once lived on earth will live in heaven. Joseph Butler, John Wesley, and C. S. Lewis all supported some form of animal afterlife. Lewis supported the notion that pets who were close to humans would be raised from the dead. In some of his early works, the contemporary British theologian Keith Ward supported animal afterlife. Stephen Webb of Wabash College has defended animal afterlife in his fine book, Of God and Dogs. Several works were written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the subject of animal afterlife. Today there are a few popular-level works available, such as Kim Sheridan’s Animals and the Afterlife. My focus, however, is on philosophical and theological reasons (within Christianity) for supporting an afterlife for individual animals.

First, the notion that animals do not have souls is a modern one stemming from Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who thought animals were nonfeeling, nonthinking automatons and that only human beings have souls. But earlier thinkers, from Plato to Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas, all believed that animals had souls in the sense of a wholeness that is more than the sum of their parts. Aquinas believed that the souls of animals were destroyed at death, but he was not aware of modern research on animals that suggests that they have rudimentary reasoning ability.

The ape-language studies of the 1970s were controversial, but more because of a backlash from neo-Cartesians who believe, like Descartes, that animals are automatons. Despite the objection that the apes were just emulating humans or picking up subtle body language, the evidence of real communication through language seems to be the stronger position. Birds have shown a great deal of intelligence, especially parrots, and one (who is now dead) could speak, apparently using not just syntax, but also semantics. Animals have shown some basic math ability. Many animals use tools. It is clear that they are conscious at some level; whether they have self-consciousness in the same sense as human beings is difficult to tell. From my experience of dogs and cats, they reveal their individual personalities so strongly that the idea of them being resurrected with those same personalities and memory patterns does not seem absurd. I do, after all, believe in an omnipotent–and loving–God. Surely He would raise up the animals we love, our beloved companions such as dogs, cats–and other animals that are objects of our love. But unlike C. S. Lewis, I believe that God might raise up other individual animals as well.

Animals suffer a great deal–both by the hand of man and from the natural cycle of the food chain. An antelope caught by a lion isn’t saying to itself, “Boy, this feels great! Just what I wanted today, to be killed by a lion!” Instead, the antelope really feels fear and pain. It is only human presumption that denies that it anticipates such pain. And with so many animals damaged in cruel experiments (such as rats which were made to run or drown–until some died of either exhaustion, stress, or sleep deprivation), animals require justice. Raising up the species will not provide justice for individual animals. If animals have some sense of selfhood, even if not as developed as human beings, and could appreciate continued life, then a good God could raise them into a world without suffering. In that world these animals could live in peace with one another and with human beings–a subject of so many great works of art in the Western World–“the Peaceable Kingdom.” Best of all, we have every reason to believe that we will see our beloved companions again.

Two years ago, I was visiting my aunt’s church, which is across the street from where Fuzzy was run over. I was thinking about Fuzzy. Suddenly I saw a large white Spitz, the spitting (sorry about the pun!) image of Fuzzy, who crossed the highway and went behind a house–the house where Fuzzy had visited a female friend–and where he was going when he was killed. Now this may well have been a dog who lived there or somewhere else in the area. I looked behind the house–no dog–and in subsequent trips I have not seen him since. That experience I leave as a mystery–at the very least it was a nice coincidence or “synchronicity,” to use Jung’s term. Perhaps it was a foretaste of the future. I hope so.

Thoughts on the Death Penalty

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Title capital punishment

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Back in the 1970s, a father tortured his small daughter to death. He forced her to walk without stopping, denied her food, and when she asked for water, he gave her hot sauce. She died slowly, agonizingly. The father was given a prison sentence, and if I remember correctly, it wasn’t life in prison.

In a famous case in Indianapolis from the late 1960s, a teenaged girl was left with a neighbor while her parents were away. The neighbor tortured the girl to death, helped by her own children and by children from the neighborhood. This torture continued over a period of weeks until the girl died. The neighbor was given only a few years in prison, and died a natural death after her release.

Such heinous crimes are those in which I think the death penalty would be justified. Those who kill in this most gruesome way most often lack any conscience or even a concept of a conscience. Ted Bundy probably had a moral sense to some degree, for he would not kill any woman he could not dehumanize. But he deserved to die in Florida’s electric chair.

The only proper justification for capital punishment is the ancient notion of desert–not the “desert” a person eats after dinner, but “desert” in the sense of a person getting the justice he deserves. Although the death penalty deters the person executed, it does not tend to deter crime in any other way. When the British had over 200 capital crimes in the eighteenth century, including pickpocketing, crooks would pick the audience members’ pockets at a public hanging of a pickpocket. But an argument from desert is not concerned with utilitarian considerations. Someone who commits murder damages the very fabric of human society so much that such a person deserves to die.

The real problem with the death penalty, from my perspective, is practical–what if someone innocent is executed? That is why I believe that unless a case is as solid as the case against Bundy or the murderers in the two cases mentioned above, life in prison is the preferable option. In addition, since some murderers retain a moral sense and a conscience, it may be best to give those murderers life in prison in case they repent. Just because a person deserves to die does not imply that he must be put to death.  But in the case of sociopathic or psychopathic murderers, and in the case of murders that are particularly heinous (such as the two cases mentioned at the beginning of this post), these individuals should be executed. This argument assumes that the murderers have free will; a delusional paranoid schizophrenic who commits a brutal murder while delusional belongs in a mental hospital.

Many Christians oppose the death penalty even though Jesus told Pilate in the Gospel of John that Pilate had no authority unless God had given it. St. Paul, in Romans 13, states that the governmental authority “bears not the sword in vain,” a clear reference to deadly force. For those Christians who hate St. Paul, I would remind them that St. Paul is in the canon of Scripture–and they are not.

It is sad that the moral fabric of some human beings is so destroyed by their murderous choices that they deserve death. Christians should be, I think, more reluctant than many secular proponents of capital punishment to put it to use. But some people are “desperately wicked,” as my Greek teacher at David Lipscomb College, Dr. Harvey Floyd, used to say, and death is the only proper punishment for them when they commit atrocious murders. It seems to me that those who deny any need for capital punishment are blind to the extent of human evil and cruelty in a fallen world.

The False Lure of Power

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Napoleon Bonaparte

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Case 1: In my lifetime I have been a member of three churches which have split–in three different denominations. One of them split twice. Theology was rarely the issue; it was a person or group of people wanting power over others. Some the agitators were most like sociopaths–but otherwise good people followed them.

Case 2: I grew up in a small town that then had around 5000 people (it’s up to over 30,000 now–pseudo-progress). My family lived outside the city limits in the country, where they rented a house. When the house burned down in 1965, it didn’t even make the local newspaper. However, the society pages were filled with news of what was going on with the “in-crowd” of those who wielded power in the town. As one resident from a northern state said, “In this town, natives believe they are the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and the Morgans.”

Temptations to excess in seeking money and sex I understand–but I have never understood a lust for power, especially when such lust is fulfilled in a cutthroat way. What good did it do the agitators when they got the power they wanted over a church? In one church, the main instigator left shortly after gaining power, and the rest fought with each other. It took many years for the church to recover. When a person is six feet underground and liquefying inside a casket, what good does the power he had while alive do him? What good will it do to win out in petty small town politics after one is dead? To be wielded properly, power must be linked to a sense of service–then power is inclusive, wielded with concern for everyone, including people who may not fit well into a town or church. Raw power is exclusive, leading to an “us vs. them” mentality. When will those who lust after power realize that the most powerful person in the world gets up every morning and “takes care of business,” to use the euphemism? When will they realize that their legacy of good or evil will be all that remains of their position of leadership?

I suppose there is a natural tendency of people to feel self-important, that they’ve accomplished something in their lives. Seeking a leadership position out of a servant mentality and a sense that one can make an organization better is a good thing–and can lead to real accomplishment. But power for power’s sake only leads to tyranny, heartache, division, and hatred. How many people will attend the funeral of a ruthless, heartless person who divides a church or other organization because of a desire for power? Is it worth the small satisfaction that ultimately will fade into regret?