Q: I wrote in a few months ago but received no response, so I'm trying again. Where do our pets go after they die? Do they simply return back to Earth? And if so, what exactly does that mean? With the recent passing of Winston, our beloved dog of 14 years, I was devastated to learn that he won't be waiting for me in heaven.
— B., Appleton, Wis.
A: You haven't been reading my column diligently enough. I've answered this question several times in the past, but since you are in need and in grief, and since I grew up in Milwaukee, here goes.
The official line of the major faiths is that animals don't go to heaven because they don't have souls. Like us, animals are created by God, but unlike us, they were not created in the image of God and therefore do not have souls.
To put this with an unfortunate spiritual bluntness: Animals are holier than vegetables but less holy than people. This doesn't mean that they can be abused, however, and it doesn't mean they're not capable of love and loyalty.
My Grandpa Lepa was a keeper at the Milwaukee Zoo and my wife, Betty, and I raise guide dogs for the blind for the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, N.Y. (Note: Let me encourage you to support them or your nearest guide dog foundation. They do holy work and need help.)
I love animals with all my heart, and dogs most of all. However, I'm not privileged to know all the admission standards in heaven. It does make spiritual sense that animals don't have souls. If they did, then eating them would be a sin. (Of course, most people don't dine on dogs.)
I deeply appreciate the spiritual sensitivity of vegetarians who, for various reasons, some religious and some not, believe that eating another living being who can feel pain is bad faith, bad karma, or just plain bad.
The biblical support for this vegetarian argument comes from Genesis 9:3-5, where God decides after the great flood to allow Noah and his descendants to eat meat for the first time, saying, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it..."
What this passage clearly indicates is that we'll be held accountable to God for every animal we eat. Maybe, after we die, we'll have to stand in a lineup while chickens point and say, "That's the guy who ate me on Sunday at the Chinese restaurant."
What I believe is that there's an intuitive distinction between the life of animals and the life of people. Whether that difference extends to heaven, I don't know.
The point is, animals are also spiritually significant beings. They're not as significant as people, but they present a test for us as to how deeply we can make our compassion real in our wounded world.
As for me, I believe we won't be separated forever from those we love, including our pets. So, despite the official line, I believe that in heaven, your beloved Winston will be waiting for you, ready to lick your face and chew up your couch (provided there are couches in heaven).
May God comfort you, and may you live in such a way that the hidden things remain a matter for God. Our job is to love unconditionally until we know everything we were created to know.
E-mail questions to email@example.com.