My wife and I were recently awakened by the tears of one of our children. They’d found our dog, Nellie, dead on the floor.
Nellie was a cross-eyed Chihuahua who had brought our family so much joy. She was about as good a dog as a Chihuahua can be.
As the tears flowed, so did the questions.
Why did Nellie have to die? Why did God take Nellie so soon? Will we see Nellie in heaven?
While some may consider these questions silly, I don’t.
The longer we live on this fallen planet, the more sorrow we face. Some suffering is small, and some is great, but it all hurts. Some families experience tragedy early and often. Our family has been spared significant tragedy, but times like these still leave their mark.
After a little while, we were able to talk about what we were feeling and the questions we were processing. Here are a few highlights.
1. We know why our pets die.
Death is one of life’s saddest and most certain realities. Whether it be a pet or a fellow image-bearer, few things sober us like death. A cold, stiff body that lacks the life it once supported is a heavy reminder that something is tragically wrong with our world.
The Bible tells us plainly that when Adam and Eve revolted against God, a curse was put not just on humanity, but on all creation (Gen. 3:14, 19). Because of this, death comes for all of us, humans and animals alike.
In Deuteronomy 6, God gives Israelite parents this charge: “You shall teach [my commands] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (v.7).
Discipleship in the home happens as we live together—and as we bury pets together. Some may want to shield their children from discussions of death, but we don’t. We tell our children that death exists because of the curse of sin. All of us will die; even our beloved animals are not exempt.
2. We don’t know why our pets die when they do.
Death comes for all of us in a time and manner that’s mostly unexpected. Nellie was, as far as we could tell, a healthy little dog. She seemed to go peacefully in her sleep. I’ve lost other pets in much more traumatic ways. When my daughter looked at me and asked, “Why did she have to die now?” I simply held her and said, “I don’t know.”
When we love someone, it always seems our time with them was too short. I encouraged her that our family loved Nellie well, and she loved us in like measure. I also reminded her that we need not fear losing those we love; instead, we should love them as well as we’re able while they’re with us.
3. God isn’t cruel; he’s caring.
The God of the Bible isn’t a cruel, distant, absentee father who expects his suffering children to “suck it up.” Rather, he gives us precious promises.
One we discussed is Psalm 34:18: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
If your god doesn’t care about the tears of a child who’s lost her beloved pet, then your god is too distant.
When pets die, it’s a fine time to grab a promise from the Lord and let it comfort you. Again, for some this may seem petty. But I assure you it’s not. In fact, if your god doesn’t care about the tears of a child who’s lost her beloved pet, then your god is too distant.
4. God doesn’t tell us what happens to our pets when they die, but we can trust him.
Virtually everyone who’s lost pets has wondered, “Will I see them again?” Some give hearty assurances based on what they hope will come to pass. But hope is far too precious to cast it on what we merely want to be true. It’s safer to anchor our beliefs in what God says is true. And on this issue, he just doesn’t say.
Animals don’t have the same hope humans do, because humans are distinct among all God’s creations. We’re made in God’s image; animals (and angels) are not (Gen 1:26–27). Among living beings, we have a unique ability to reason (Ps. 32:9). Jesus came to save humans, not angels or animals.
Yet the Bible does speak about the presence of animals in the life to come. In Isaiah 11:6–8 and 65:25, the prophet lists numerous animals while describing the eternal kingdom of God. God’s promises portray a world to come in which animals will know the peace they too have longed for (Rom. 8:18–25).
I think this gives us good reason to assume God will fill the new creation with redeemed image-bearers, elect angels, and all sorts of animals.
Will our animals be in heaven? It’s best to be honest and say we don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if God, in generous wisdom, allows us to enjoy the company of familiar animals in glory. But we can be certain of two things.
First, we can be certain that if it will bring God more glory and help us to enjoy him forever, then God will reunite us with our pets. God knows what good gifts to give us, both now and forever (Luke 11:13). As Paul reasons, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). God knows what’s best for us, so we can trust him.
Second, we must guard our hearts and not allow love for pets or animals to diminish our affection for God. No matter how good a gift is, only he—not the gift itself—is worthy of our devotion. Pets included.
So how did I answer my kids?
I told them that we don’t know exactly what happens to Nellie. But we do know God is good. We can trust him to do what’s best, and I won’t be a bit surprised if we see our pets again in glory. If I’m wrong, that’s fine. There’s no serious doctrine in danger, nor are my children’s hopes tied to anything other than God’s wisdom in dealing with us, his own beloved children.