When my dog Jack died, I believed in heaven. After his burial, my mother-in-law gave me a card with a little story in it. It’s about a man and his dog walking along the afterlife road looking for heaven’s gates. At the beautiful golden and pearl gates with a sign saying Heaven, they’re told “sorry, no dogs allowed.” They continue walking. At a rickety gate in front of a small farm, a sign also says Heaven. The man asks if his dog can come in and is told “Of course he can.” So in they went.
It made me feel better to think of Jack in that heaven, met at the gate by my dog Jamie and cat Cedric who died before he came to me. I knew they would recognize him as one of the family. Doug, the German Shepherd who had ‘mothered’ him when he was a pup, would be there too.
They would take him to Heaven’s Porch, where my dad would be sitting with his brother and brothers-in-law. Dad would pat his side and say, “well hello Jack, so you’ve come to join us.” Dad’s brother would say “so you’re the sonovabitch she named after me, are you?” Jamie would run around in front of the porch, barking and tail wagging, legs dancing. No trace of the arthritis that had crippled him up.
That’s what I pictured the night Jack died, thanks to that story in a sympathy card. It comforted me.
No sin means no heaven or hell
I had read the story aloud to Jack’s mourners and, of course, I cried. My mother looked askance, and said “dogs don’t have souls.” I put the card away. That was a debate I wasn’t taking on right then. Neither was my mother-in-law. Like my mother, she was a church-going woman of strong faith. But a different church.
Mom’s thesis, I knew, is that animals cannot sin and do not have immortal souls. They are innocent beings, so do not have consequences in the afterlife. Heaven and hell do not apply to them.
It has famously been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Of course there aren’t! Why, when you are in danger or great despair, would you not cling to anything that gave you hope or solace? Part of that solace is that you can make it anything you want or need.
You can picture your enemy burning in hellfire, screaming and clawing at the walls of the pit. You can even picture it before he dies, and enjoy the anticipation. If you reconciled yourself with him by the time of his death, perhaps you’d see him being welcomed into the arms of Jesus. Even if his sins hadn’t changed, you can see what you want his afterlife to be, and believe it to be reality. You can maybe see yourself going beyond the white light to “a better place”. If you picture yourself in the pit of hellfire, you might find yourself looking for a way to avoid that place.
Heaven needs Hell
The afterlife, being something we can’t know about, is pretty much whatever you believe it to be. Different faiths have different pictures of it, some more detailed than others. In the fundamentalist Christian belief system in which I was raised, one of the truths is that animals have no souls and therefore are incapable of sin. Their death is final with no afterlife, either good or bad. Heaven cannot be an option if Hell is not also a possibility. If my dog Jack cannot go to hell, he also cannot go to heaven. Thinking of him in heaven is misinterpretation or blasphemy. It’s nothing personal toward the dog; it’s just the “reality” of the world we don’t yet know.
I don’t like thinking about a heaven without dogs. So I’d rather stick with my fuzzy and situational spirituality and comfort myself with the picture of Jack on the Porch of Heaven with my other animals and my dad and Uncle Jack and other family and friends. That gives me comfort. If I were in a foxhole, I’d be praying non-stop to God to keep me alive or at least ensure that I go to the Heaven where I can sit on the porch with Jack.
James Herriot wrote a lovely story about dogs’ afterlife. “Prince and the Card Above the Bed” is in a small, beautifully illustrated volume entitled James Herriot’s Favorite Dog Stories, New York: St. Martin’s Press 1996.
If you haven’t seen this, Church Wars is a concise little debate on the question of dogs’ souls.
This was first posted July 31, 2010 in Stories on my St. Thomas Dog Blog. This Saturday, Jan. 30th, marks the eighth anniversary of Jack’s death.