It goes without saying that the news has been a little dour of late — from racial tensions in the states, to unveiling of the use or torture on terror suspects, to the ongoing reports of violence against Christians in the Middle East. Such events certainly give extra weight to cries of “Come, Lord Jesus” in this Advent season. Perhaps, though, I might be forgiven from letting up a bit on the weeping and gnashing of teeth to focus on some happy news that for once breaks through the media din — Pope Francis, it seems has made news yet again with his recent declaration that all animals may, indeed, go to heaven.
Francis’s comments are more appropriate than you might imagine in this season leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In an time before Starbucks started pushing its Gingerbread Latte on November 1, Advent was not a time of joyfully awaiting the birth of Jesus, but a time of sober reflection on “the four last things”: Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgment. Suffice it to say, these topics don’t get top billing in December church services anymore. But Francis’s comments offer food for thought on these oft-neglected seasonal topics.
First, lets be honest. Despite the way it is being reported, Pope Francis didn’t really say anything so simple as “All Dogs go to Heaven.” The actual quotation is: “The Holy Scriptures teach us that the realization of this wonderful plan covers all that is around us, and that came out of the thought and the heart of God … heaven is open to all creatures, and there [they] will be vested with the joy and love of God, without limits.”
Perhaps more interesting than the Pope’s pronouncement itself is what the media’s overly simplistic coverage reveals about the unnuanced way in which we as a society are conditioned to think about salvation. We think of salvation so often in black and white, highly individualistic terms. If indeed we think about theological concepts such as “salvation” at all, our concern is for who gets to go to heaven, and who finds themselves condemned to hell. From the progressive to the conservative ends of the spectrum the answer of who falls into which camp might be somewhat different. But we’re typically still working with the same question–who’s in, and who’s out. We can see this concept of salvation at work in the secular blogger who criticized Francis for saying “animals go to heaven, even as some humans are supposedly sent to hell.”
I think Francis’s comments point us to a whole different concept of salvation that is not about the eternal fate of individuals but the work of Christ to redeem ALL of creation. We render salvation such a small thing when we make it a matter of me, or you, or the fate of my poor dog Bilbo.
The book of Revelation paints for us a picture of a “new heaven and a new earth.” As Christ sits on his throne in that coming kingdom, he declares: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). Salvation is a gift Christ holds out to the whole of creation. I see no reason why Bilbo would not be a part of that new world where we are assured that the lion will lie down with the lamb. Indeed, maybe he won’t even bark at passing joggers in his redeemed state.
The point of Francis’s statement is this — salvation/redemption/the full revelation of Christ kingdom is bigger than us, and it is bigger than anything we can imagine. To suggest that Christ’s redeeming work cannot extend to all creatures seems to me … a lack of spiritual imagination. And perhaps what sets us apart as human being graced with reason and free will is not that we are somehow uniquely capable of experiencing salvation. But we are uniquely the set of beings who can actively choose to be a part of the redeemed creation … or not.
As we await the coming of Christ, it is worth considering how we can participate in that mystery of the redemption of God’s creation in the world around us. Especially when it comes to loving our animal companions.