We could see his sister in the next room, standing up straight, alert, obviously happy to meet the stranger who had unexpectedly asked to see her. He stood in the room facing us, shrinking back a bit, with a nervous look on his face, watching us carefully while he peed on the floor. It was a little awkward, with the person who had introduced us leaning against the door and grinning, hoping we’d hit it off, as the puddle of urine grew and eventually flowed across the floor and out between his front paws.
We took him home from the Humane Society that day, and in the fourteen happy years since I’ve often thought that if we hadn’t, no one would. An adorable, classic golden-haired mutt with big eyes and long floppy ears, he was still utterly pathetic, and not in a winsome way. Some bored veterinarian’s assistant would have pumped him full of whatever drug they use, and then put the body in the incinerator bin.
A few days ago, Ben suddenly stopped eating, and eventually laid down on his bed in the kitchen and spent the day sleeping fitfully. He lapsed into a coma, and a few hours later, with our two sons sitting by him, died. They shook him, because you always hope you’re wrong, but of course they weren’t.
Our eldest, whose dog he had been, was coming home the next day for a weekend visit. My wife called her with the news, and she burst out, “Just one more day!” But that would have been the kind of ending that happens in books and only rarely in life.
The death of a beloved dog naturally raises for many of us the question of his possible immortality. And not just the death of dogs, but of the other animals who seem to have personalities and to us seem to become friends, like horses and (I would like to think) guinea pigs. The question doesn’t really arise for those that don’t, that seem to be creatures entirely of instinct (and sometimes evil instinct, from the human point of view), like hamsters, turtles, parrots, snakes, tarantulas, and house cats.
Yes, of course different cultures view animals in different ways, and the affluent West gives pets a place they don’t have elsewhere (though I wonder if the shepherd in the desert sees his dog simply as an tool and does not feel for him what we feel), and the affection some people feel for their animals would be pathological were it directed to their children, and what we may feel to be personality is only instinct, even in dogs. Yes, true, all of that, but we hope anyway because we loved Ben, even if our feelings may have been culturally determined and scientifically naive.
We have no biblical warrant for the hope, and apparently no theological warrant either, animals having no souls and therefore nothing that can last into the afterlife. But still, we hope. It is natural and right to hope that love will last beyond death, including the lesser love we may have for a dog.
Even the hard-boiled realist grieves at the death of Spot or Rover, grieving at his death as something that should not be, a loss we should not sustain, and his grief at least hints to us that we may hope that in the end we should not sustain it. Even he buries his old dog and marks the grave.
My friend Darryl Hart doesn’t deny that hope, though he does call it “eery.” Yet he also suggests that is not the whole story. (And he buried his cat, and marked the grave with a big piece of slate.) Even if, he writes,
an animal has no soul, even if it cannot worship its maker, even if it will not be resurrected either for eternal life or destruction—even if it is an it—it is way more spiritual than many of the creations with which humans share the planet . . . . Twice in that Psalm of the Sons of Korah  comes the refrain, “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” . . . [I]t does liken an animal to man, the crown of the created order. Granted, the beast is only as good as man without his dignity. But that is obviously an upgrade from those parts of creation without souls or spirits.
C. S. Lewis built upon this idea in his own argument for the possible survival of the animals men have loved. “You must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that,” he wrote in The Problem of Pain.
You must take the whole context in which the beast acquires its selfhood—namely “The-goodman-and-the-goodwife-ruling-their-children-and-their-beasts-in-the-good-homestead.” The whole context may be regarded as a “body” in the Pauline (or a closely sub-Pauline) sense; and how much of that “body” may be raised along with the goodman and goodwife, who can predict? . . . If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the homestead, where its personal identity resides, I answer, “Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life”in its relation to the Body and, specially, to the master who is the head of that Body.” In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master, and, in knowing him, will be itself.
I’d like to think he had the answer, or at least that he was right, thinking about Ben, remembering what he meant to our first child, and also to our last, born a year after we got him and within a year dashing his hopes of rising from the bottom of the pack; and how when called he would, from any place in the house, detour around the dining room table in the hope (inevitably vain) of finding food; of his joy in chasing down a thrown ball or stick and his inability to remember what he was supposed to do with it; of his implacable hatred for our neighbor’s cat Paws, whose step across our yard he could hear though (I am not making this up) the windows were closed, the stereo was playing, and he was sound asleep.
I’d like to think Lewis had the answer, thinking of Ben’s ecstasy when he heard the word “walk” and his wetting the floor when he heard the word “bath,” and how he eventually learned every euphemism for “bath” we could think of, and duly wet the floor once he learned them; of how he would snarl at anyone wearing black yet want to play with them if he saw them again in other clothes; of how we knew that, should a burglar walk in and pet him, he would escort the burglar around the house, wagging his tail as the man took everything he wanted to take; of how he could hear from upstairs and through closed doors the tiniest piece of bread dropped into his dish and would come running; of his constant loyalty and affection and good nature.
Love demands the particular things that have been loved. We hope for Heaven, and for those things that will, as far as we can tell now, make Heaven more heavenly. My family doesn’t want the ideal golden-haired mutt romping with us around the New Jerusalem. He will be perfect, but he won’t be good enough. We want to see Ben, because he is the dog we loved, even if he keeps wetting the golden streets.
David Mills was formerly Executive Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Darryl Hart’s Taking Every Cat Captive.