If the soul is responsible for consciousness, animals must either have souls or not be conscious. Many religious people appear to be uncomfortable with either of these conclusions, however, which perhaps explains why orthodoxy has never sought to establish a direct link between consciousness and the soul.
Denying that animals are conscious appears to ignore the evidence of our own eyes. If they were not conscious, for example, then there could be no such thing as animal cruelty. And for most people this would be a completely untenable conclusion.
On the other hand, believing that animals have souls appears to undermine the unique position of man in God’s creation. It also gives rise to a number of difficult questions. Why, for example, does the Bible allow us to eat animals? And how could apparently unthinking and amoral creatures attain salvation?
It is tempting to think that this dilemma could perhaps be resolved by arguing that animals are conscious but their souls are not immortal. This, however, would only give rise to a further serious problem: why would God allow animals to suffer, when He could have created them as unconscious biological machines instead? If animals have no after life, this would make God the cause of unnecessary suffering.
Some people argue that, whilst animals display the outward signs of consciousness, these could simply be built-in responses to protect other members of the species. According to brain specialists, an animal’s cerebral hemispheres could be removed altogether and it would still react to pain and show rage and fear (The Self and Its Brain, K. Popper/J. Eccles p 440).
In considering whether animals are conscious, some draw attention to differences between the structure of animal and human brains. Others see significance in the lack of linguistic skills or a sense of humour in animals to compare with those found in human beings. However, none of this actually proves that animals are not conscious. Animals might experience pain; they certainly react to it in a very similar way to human beings. They also communicate with one another, albeit at a more basic level, and indulge in behaviour that could be interpreted as practical humour.
The absence of a highly structured language does, of course, make it difficult to obtain further evidence that animals are conscious. Having said that, some mentally handicapped people can only communicate at a very basic level, but most people do not assume that they are unconscious.
Many religious people, of course, base their beliefs entirely on the Bible. Some of those people will point out that the Bible does not make any reference to an after life for animals, and it only tells us that man was made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). It also teaches that we are more important than animals (Psalm 8:6-8; Matthew 10:31; 12:12), and that we are allowed to kill animals for food (Genesis 9:3; Acts 10: 9-16; 1 Timothy 4:3, 4). All of these facts, it might be argued, are incompatible with the idea that animals have souls.
However, the scriptures do not actually say that animals do not have souls. In fact, the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are used in relation to animals on a number of occasions. In some instances the words do simply mean ‘life’ (Deuteronomy 12:23, Philippians 2:30) and ‘breath’ (Job 15:30, 2 Thessalonians 2:8) respectively. In other contexts, however, they are clearly used in a spiritual sense. The phrase ‘living soul’, for example, is used to describe both man and animals alike (Genesis 2:7,19), and Ecclesiastes 3:21 refers to the ‘spirits’ of animals after they have died.
There are also numerous statements in the Bible which indicate that animals are conscious. They are said to experience fear (Genesis 9:2; Psalm 104:29; Joel 2:22), desire (Psalm 145:16), confusion (Joel 1:18), pleasure (Job 39:21) and pain (Romans 8:22). They also possess qualities which imply consciousness, such as subtlety (Genesis 3:1), cunning (2 Corinthians 11:3), knowledge (Isaiah 1:3, Jeremiah 8:7), and understanding (Jude 1:10). If animals are unconscious, why does the Bible not state this clearly, to avoid us causing unnecessary suffering?
In addition, a specific example of animal consciousness is provided by Numbers 22:21-34. Here, we are told about Balaam’s donkey, which rebukes the prophet for kicking her after an angel had blocked their path. Although the ability to speak was clearly miraculous, it is also clear that the donkey was conscious of being kicked and of the angel’s presence.
Furthermore, in Proverbs 12:10, we are told that ‘the righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, but the compassions of the wicked are cruel.’ This proverb contrasts the actions of the righteous and the wicked man. It only makes sense, therefore, if the good man’s behaviour is an act of compassion. If it is an act of compassion, however, then his animal must be conscious. It is impossible to be compassionate towards something that is unconscious and incapable of suffering.
As regards the reference to man being created in the ‘image of God’, this could refer to other attributes, such as man’s creativity or ability to reason, rather than to his possession of a soul. These qualities, coupled with his greater capacity for mental suffering, might also explain why man was given dominion over animals, and why Jesus said that we were ‘worth more than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10:31).
It is true that the Bible says little about an after life for animals. Having said that, the scriptures also tell us very little about the creation of angels or their salvation. The reason for this, of course, is that the Bible was written for human beings, and, as Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us -
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children for ever, that we might follow all the words of this law.
In several places, however, the Bible does tell us that God’s plan of redemption includes animals. We are told that God’s grief about creation included the animal kingdom, as a result of which both man and animals were punished by the Deluge (Genesis 6:7). After the Flood, the covenant and the laws that were given to Noah also applied to animals (Genesis 9:5,10-16), as did certain Mosaic laws relating to the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:14) and sexual conduct (Leviticus 20:15,16).
Later in the Old Testament, we are told about animals repenting (Jonah 3:8) and honouring God (Isaiah 44:20), and in Isaiah’s famous prophecy animals are portrayed as an integral part of God’s vision of the perfect world -
The wolf also will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear; their young ones will lie down together: and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child will play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s nest. They will neither hurt nor destroy in all of my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Later in Isaiah we are told that this vision will be fulfilled when God ‘creates a new heaven and a new earth’ (Isaiah 65:17-25), a prophecy which the New Testament identifies with the reign of Christ (Romans 15:12). The same epistle emphasises that the ‘the whole of creation will be liberated to the ‘glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21), and Revelation contains this vision of heaven -
Then I heard every creature that is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea and all therein, say, ‘Blessing and honour and glory and power be unto him that sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever’. (Revelation 5:13)
Whilst the Bible does not refer to the after lives of individual animals, therefore, it does clearly teach that animals are not only included in certain covenants and laws, but also in God’s plan for the redemption of the world.
This leaves one final question: why have man and carnivores been permitted to eat animals, if they have souls? To answer this question, it is important to note that the Bible effectively divides history into three periods –
1. from creation to the Fall - man and animals are herbivorous (Genesis 1:29, 30)
2. after the Fall - man is allowed to kill and later to eat animals (Genesis 4:4; 9:3)
3. from the new creation - meat eating is prohibited for all (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:17-25).
Eating animals was not part of the original creation and it will not be part of the new heaven and earth. Clearly, therefore, it is not an ideal state of affairs, but was only permitted after sin had entered the world.
The Bible does not tell us why eating meat was permitted, but the reasons are not hard to see. Sin brought death and decay into the world (Roman 5:12) and with this came a new set of moral problems. Death was now inevitable for all, so speeding up that process was no longer the worst thing that could happen. There was something potentially much worse – suffering.
Had we not been allowed to eat animals, many people would have died slowly of starvation. This would have occurred during periods when there was insufficient plant food, such as immediately after the Flood or following serious crop failures. It would also have happened in very hot or cold areas of globe, where there was little or no vegetation.
If herbivores had been allowed to reproduce without any restriction, they would also have depleted the plant food until both they and human beings died of starvation. Without predators, sick animals would also have been able to spread disease to other members of their species much more easily.
If people and animals had been allowed to die slowly from old age, sickness, and starvation, this would have resulted in much more suffering than allowing some creatures to be killed for food. As animals have a lower level of consciousness than man, the least cruel option was to allow us to eat animals. Some carnivores were also allowed to survive the Flood, presumably to help keep the number of herbivores under control, for example where human population levels were low.
The effect of this was to create a balance in nature to prevent excessive suffering. This balance, however, also serves as a permanent reminder to us that we live in a world which is far from the paradise that God created. Violence and death are now, sadly, an indelible part of our existence.