06 June 2014


'Do Animals Go to Heaven? Medieval Philosophers Contemplate Heavenly Human Exceptionalism' by Joyce Salisbury in (2014) Athens Journal of Humanities & Arts comments
Once Christians came to focus on the flesh itself as the immortal vehicle for heaven, they immediately had to confront the animals of this world. Life and growth required people to eat, and most ate animals. Scholastics of the thirteenth century wrestled with this problem as they considered resurrected flesh, wondering if such flesh represented cows and sheep in heaven. Not surprisingly, they decided that the imprint of the human soul was sufficient to miraculously transform the animal meat into real human flesh so that humans, not the animals they ate, populated heaven (Bynum, 1995). Some writers have suggested that this is the way animals get to heaven – by being converted, that is perfected, into human flesh. This is human exceptionalism taken to an extreme.
Death, too, marked a point of intersection between the human body and its animal counterpart. Augustine wrote, ‘All men born of the flesh, are they not also worms?’ (Augustine, 1884). In the end, if the body had not been eaten by beasts, fish, or birds, then worms consumed this flesh that had been promised to enjoy paradise. On resurrection day, how were these consumed bits of human flesh – that as they had been eaten by animals became animal flesh – supposed to be reassembled in order for the saved humans to be given back their original flesh, leaving the animals behind?
Animals, too, had to be resurrected so they could return the human flesh they had eaten. The cathedral at Torcello, near Venice, has an eleventh-century mosaic that shows animals and fish resurrected on the last day and dutifully vomiting up the human body parts they had eaten in their lives. In this incident, we can see that the theology of the resurrection of the flesh opened the way for animal flesh, too, to be resurrected. Then the question became where do the animals go after they were resurrected? The answer to that depended upon what heaven might look like. In this, too, Christians had a difference of opinion.
The first question that plagued thinkers was what animals would do in heaven. Medieval thinkers did not believe animals had any purpose independent of their service to humans. Thus, animals served as food, clothing, and labor for their human masters. Aquinas decided that since humans in heaven would need not clothing, food, nor would they work, there was no need for animals in heaven, so they were excluded (Aquinas, 1952). For medieval thinkers, for animals to exist in any other capacity in heaven, depended on their vision of what heaven might look like. Was it an animal-free city or a garden that might have animals?
Many of the early Christians saw heaven as a great and beautiful city. The ‘Book of Revelation’ in the Bible saw a heavenly city that awaited the end of the world, and Augustine most famously saw the City of God as an ideal Platonic form of a perfect city that awaited the faithful. Other visionaries who claimed to see heaven also echoed this view. For example, a fourth-century text, called ‘St Peter’s Apocalypse’ describes a ‘City of Christ. It was all gold, and twelve walls encircled it, and there were twelve towers inside’ (Gardiner, 1989). If heaven was a city, there was no question about the presence of animals – they weren’t there.
Things became more complicated in visions of heaven as a garden; a perfected return to the garden of Eden. The second-century Apocalypse of St. Peter described a heaven full of flowers, and a ‘great garden, open, full of fair trees and blessed fruits, and of the odor of perfumes’(Gardiner, 1989). The influential third-century account of the martyr Perpetua’s dream of heaven added additional details to the heavenly garden;; ‘I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb;; tall he was, and milking sheep. . . . he gave me a mouthful of the milk he was drawing. . .’(Salisbury, 1997). Here, we have the presence of an animal in heaven.
Heavenly gardens presume the existence of food, decay, and animals. By the fourth century, some people certainly believed that animals would be resurrected on the final days, whether it was to return the body parts they had eaten, or to go to Hell to eat the resurrected bodies of the damned, or to join the saved in a garden of paradise. A second-century bishop, Papias, described an extraordinary vision of a heavenly garden, in which plants – like grapes and grain – would bear miraculous yields, and ‘all animals, feeding on these products of the earth, will become peaceable and friendly to each other, and be completely subject to man’(Bynum, 1995).
Here we can see a distinct split between the prevailing intellectual view of animals – no soul, no heaven -- and a more ambiguous popular view that could not really imagine a heaven that lacked the pleasures of this world, whether a sweet, fragrant fruit tree, or tame animals. In the fifteenth century, we see some famous people burying their beloved pets with hope for the afterlife. For example, one epitaph on the headstone of a little dog named Viola insists that the dog now resides in heaven. One courtier wrote an elegy for the wealthy Isabelle d’Este’s dog, Aura, describing ‘the playful Aura’s ascent to heaven,’ though Aura’s heaven was the stars, where she could join the ‘dog star’(Walker-Meikle, 2012). How could these ideas be reconciled?
Christians who wanted to see their animals in heaven could look to biblical precedent. In the Psalms the poet claims ‘Man and beast thou savest, O Lord’ (Psalm 36:6b), and the New Testament in the letters of Paul, promises that the whole earth will be saved, and Christ would ‘unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth’ (Ephesians 1:9-10) (Linzey & Regan,1990; Linzey & Yamamoto, 1998). Once theologians believed that the flesh itself would have eternal life, the way was opened for animal flesh, too, to join humans in the afterlife. The problem remained to consider exactly how this would work. Animals still didn’t have souls and animals had no reason – no self-identity – so what exactly would be resurrected?
Most people who today think about animals in heaven consider their beloved pets, like Isabella d’Este’s Aura. C.S. Lewis offered an explanation that provided a path for pets to get into heaven while leaving less desirable creatures – tapeworms and mosquitoes – behind. He suggested that pets are transformed by their encounter with humans, they are given personality and individuality, which would extend into the next life. As he wrote, ‘in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters’(Linzey & Regan, 1990). This preserves the striking anthropocentric view that kept animals out of heaven in the first place. Animals have no independent value in this world and no access to the next unless good pets can slide in on the coattails of their masters.
This was not the end of the story. Remarkably, there was a less anthropocentric vision that stayed on the margins of medieval thought. Some people saw God’s creation as a unity, a great web in which all are linked together in this world, and transformed into the next. In this view, the question is not whether animals would go to heaven, but whether a whole environmental web of creation might be risen to an afterlife. As St. Irenaeus wrote, on the last day, Jesus would ‘sum up all things in Himself’ (Linzey & Regan, 1990). Susan Crane (2013), in her recent book, Animal Encounters analyzes medieval texts that show this kind of interconnectedness. She sees Irish hagiographers who see the world horizontally, in which all are ‘intricately enmeshed in dynamic environments stretching outward and upward beyond our ken’ (Crane, 2013). She even sees connections within the bestiaries, those texts that organize the animal world in ways that make sense to humans. Here, animals and humans are joined in a web of creation that links creature to creature (Crane, 2013). In this vision, heaven is a perfected earth, recreating the biblical vision in which ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’ All will be vegetarians, for the lion will ‘eat straw like the ox,’ and children will play with previously poisonous snakes. (Isaiah 11:6- 8) Presumably, in this blissful paradise, even vegetarian bedbugs will sleep in harmony with humans.