Opinion

Are there dogs in heaven? Let's hope not.

A misreported remark by Pope Francis has sparked an intriguing theological debate

Rolling Stone's catastrophic journalistic malfeasance in the UVA rape story is unquestionably the Big Media Scandal of the past two months. But surely a little attention must also be paid to The New York Times, which last week pronounced on the front page that Pope Francis told a boy that he would see his dog in heaven — when, in fact, the pope said no such thing.

Far more interesting to me than the question of how such a mistake could have been made by America's newspaper of record was the giddy reaction to the story in the days before it was revealed to be false. The guy who tweeted, "Ok. He wins. I'm Catholic again," may have gone further than most, but lots and lots of people expressed unconfined joy at the thought of dogs accompanying their human masters to heaven. And if dogs, why not cats? Or hamsters? Or goldfish? Suddenly the afterlife began to look an awful lot like...life! People swooned at the idea.

It's not hard to see why.

Part of what we long for in an afterlife is simply a continuation of this life on into infinity. In a beautiful passage from his memoir Self Consciousness (which Andrew Sullivan recently featured on his blog), John Updike described this longing:

The yearning for an afterlife is...love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience. Though some believers may think of the afterlife as a place of retribution, ...the basic desire...is not for some otherworld but for this world, for life more or less as we know it to go on forever...

The religion that may grasp this hope most keenly and take it to a greater extreme than any other is Mormonism, which claims that God himself has a body, and that each of us will have one in the afterlife as well. You'll also be married to your spouse, to whom you are eternally sealed, and be reunited with your entire extended family. Some Mormon folk traditions even go so far as to suggest that God lives on a planet (named Kolob) in the visible universe — and that righteous male Mormons will evolve into embodied gods who will reign over their own worlds elsewhere within the universe.

That's where things begin to sound a little like Scientology. But that shouldn't obscure the perennial human longings that these (largely unofficial) Mormon beliefs respond to — above all, the longing for life to continue on after death much as it was prior to death, including marriage and family, bodies and the satisfaction of the desires wrapped up with them, and the experience of filial and erotic love. And if there's filial and erotic love in heaven, then why not love for our pets, too?

But there are also problems with such a quotidian view of what awaits us — problems that the classical tradition of Christian theology aimed to avoid in its more abstract speculations about heaven. Foremost among these problems is that life as we know it is shot through with sins, most of them connected to our bodies and the senses. If we have bodies in the afterlife, won't we crave food? And if we crave food, won't we fall prey to gluttony? And won't we also long for sex, which could lead to lust? And won't we compare ourselves to others, producing pride? Before you know it, an afterlife filled with many of life's good things would become an afterlife filled with many of life's bad things, too.

The problem goes beyond concern for sins. (And beyond the riddle of whether your heavenly body would resemble you as you were at age 18, 38, 58, or 78.) Many of the sweetest, most enjoyable things in life are actually unstable mixtures of pleasure and pain. Eating when you're hungry is delightful not only because the food tastes good but also because in eating you're eliminating the painful pangs from which you were suffering before the meal began. The same holds for quenching thirst, satisfying sexual desires, and many other experiences. Are we to assume that heaven will operate according to the same logic, with every pleasure alloyed with pain?

And what about other, more purely bad or unpleasant things — like filth, disease, rats, cockroaches, defecation? If the afterlife really is just like life, then it would seem that all of these and countless other bad, unpleasant, base, and degrading things would have to be a part of it, too.

But then it would seem that the only difference between life and death would be that after death there is no promise of salvation at the end — just an eternal vale of tears.

St. Augustine, along with the Christian theological tradition over which he exercised so much influence, didn't think that this is what we have in mind when we hope for an afterlife. He thought that we long for a purer pleasure and satisfaction than is ever possible in this life. This ecstatic joy can be fleetingly glimpsed in terrestrial pleasures and satisfactions, but they are a pale approximation of what awaits us in eternity, once we've left behind the corruption, sin, and suffering that has disfigured all the good in creation since the fall. That means a heaven without the bodily sins and mixed pleasures of this life, including food, drink, and sex.

But this raises a whole new set of perplexities. To what extent, for example, are you "you" without your earthly body and the sinful desires for your own good that are wrapped up with it? What about your senses? Everything about your experience of the world is mediated by sense impressions of it — sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Would a being lacking in these means of accessing reality still be you? Can you even conceive of what it would be like to be this "you" who is never hungry or thirsty or amorous or struck speechless by beauty? Would there be any continuity between the "you" who is using your eyes to read this column at this very moment and this disembodied, purified, far more perfect being the Christian theological tradition presumes you will be after death?

No matter which direction we go in thinking about these questions, we encounter puzzles and enigmas. That doesn't mean that there isn't a heaven — or even that we won't be greeted by the many dogs we have loved when we arrive there. But it does mean that no one — including the pope — has any clue one way or the other.

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