Biblical quotations in the following article are from the The Jerusalem Bible. The Greek word which is translated as "beast" in the King James version has a negative connotation in modern usage. The JB version uses the word "animal" which is truer to the biblical intent.
With the advent of modern technology, people who at one time would have been left for dead have been resuscitated. And many of them have reported experiences in which they found themselves in another dimension of existence. A place filled with love and light. A heavenly place.
Of course there are those who reject such reports calling them fabrications, delusions, or chemical aberrations. But others accept them as a validation of what they have always believed--or known.
And people of faith, as well as non-believers, assume that Christian churches and their spokesmen are delighted to have these life-after-death experiences receive so much attention. But not all feel that way.
There are religious people and their leaders who reject reports of these experiences because they conflict with church doctrine or personal bias. And among the reasons given for this rejection is the fact that some survivors have reported encounters with animals in heavenly places. This is totally unacceptable to those who believe there is life after death for them, but not for other creatures.
The refusal to believe that animal, as well as human beings, will enjoy the eternal love and presence of their Creator has marked Christianity for centuries. It is the same kind of prejudice that caused religious people to consign to hell-or oblivion-those whose doctrines, creeds, or skin color, differed from their own.
The attempt to exclude non-human beings from heaven has endured even though the last book of the bible, the book of Revelation, gives a picture of eternal life in which all kinds of creatures, and many different species, join together in praising God.
The fourth chapter of Revelation begins with the Apostle John describing his visionary experience of heaven. He describes the scene before him. "I saw a throne standing in heaven, and the One who was sitting on the throne.... Round the throne in a circle I saw twenty-four elders sitting...In the center, grouped round the throne itself, were four animals...The first animal was like a lion, the second like an ox, the third animal had a human face and the fourth animal was like a flying eagle...and day and night they never stopped singing: Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty. Every time the animals glorified and honoured and gave thanks to the One sitting on the throne, the twenty-four elders prostrated themselves before him to worship the One..."(Rev. 4:2-9)
About a hundred years after the book of Revelation was written Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, took it upon himself to refute what scripture had revealed about human and animal togetherness in heaven. The Bishop decided that John certainly could not have meant that animals were grouped around God's throne, so he decided these creatures must really be men. In disguise.
But who could they be? Because there were four of them, and there were also four Evangelists, Irenaeus decided that the men-disguised-as-animals were actually Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And this man-made attempt to exclude animals from John's heavenly vision continues to be popular among chauvinistic humans.
This bigotry continues in spite of the fact that more knowledgeable scholars have pointed out that the four animals represent the variety of God's creatures to be found in heavenly places. In A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, E.W.Bullinger writes that the four represent "the heads of animate creation; the lion of wild beast; the ox of tame beasts; the eagle of birds; the man of all [mankind]."
Bullinger's understanding--and that of other competent scholars--is in accord with St. Paul's statement that "all creation" awaits redemption; a redemption which the Apostle discusses in the book of Romans. "The creature itself shall also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together, until now."(Romans 8:21,22)
The biblical passages in the book of Revelation that place nonhuman beings in heaven is the fulfillment of that longing for redemption which marks the "whole creation." And Revelation has numerous references to their heavenly presence.
In the sixth chapter, animals are described as giving orders from heaven, regarding what will take place on earth.(Rev 6:1-8) And in the seventh chapter, animals, humans, and angels are again pictured worshipping together. "All the angels who were standing in a circle round the throne, surrounding the elders and the four animals, prostrated themselves before the throne and touched the ground with their foreheads, worshipping God." (Rev.7:9-11)
Descriptions of the presence of animals in heaven continue in chapters 14, 15, and 19. These chapters describe God's redemption of all creaturesemdash human and animal. But in spite of what the scriptures say, there are those who insist that only humans are worthy of the Creator's eternal love.
This insistence serves a hidden agenda. If God does not care enough for animals to bless them with the solace and goodness of life-after-death, then men feel justified in ignoring their suffering and pain in this life. It is the same rationale that was used to justify slavery. Many religious people claimed that slaves were sub-human, therefore, they did not have an immortal soul. And since they did not have an immortal soul, they were obviously of little value in the sight of God. Consequently, they could be bought and sold, abused and killed, with no fear of eternal consequences.
It is this kind of rationale that makes the question of animal immortality a crucial issue in a "God-fearing" country. Just as the civil laws that once validated slavery borrowed their "morality" from a profane interpretation of the scriptures so, today, animals are tormented and killed by those who claim scriptural validation for their ungodly treatment of God's creatures.
This claim of divine sanction for the evil that men do is refuted by the Bible which proclaims the eternal value of all beings, and by the testimony of Christ, who revealed a loving God concerned for all creatures--even a sparrow.
People of Faith must be willing to challenge those who claim God's blessing on their violence and cruelty. In so doing, they will be following the example of Jesus who confronted the hatred and violence of the men of his time and said because he "had spoken to them" of God's goodness and love, they would "have no [religious] cloak for their sin." (John 15:22)
Reprinted from the July/August 1997 issue of Humane Religion. Copyright 1997 by Viatoris Ministries.