"Mama, where do dogs go when they die?" The troubled face of my eight-year old daughter pulls my attention away from dinner preparations as she attempts to disengage her new black Labrador puppy from her foot. There goes the shoe, the sock will soon follow, and Mercy will once again become Knox's unwilling "chew toy."
I realize the death of my brother's German Shepherd, a beloved family pet for fourteen years, has sparked her sad contemplation. "Where is Joe when I need him," I'm thinking, but plunge in anyway to answer the question that has plagued children since sin and death began to rain on our parade.
"Well, you know dogs don't have souls like you and I do, so . . . how do I know that? Uh, well, because God's word tells us that we, that is, people, are made in God's image . . . boys, too? Yes, of course, remember in Genesis, 'Male and female, created he them. . .' and dogs and other animals were created for God and us to enjoy and subdue for his glo.....OW! KNOX! Let go my foot! BAD DOGGIE!
"Where was I? So then, God created animals for his pleasure and our benefit — some help us do the work he calls us to do and . . . what can Knox do to help? Hmm, I guess right now he's just very entertaining but maybe someday he will hunt with Daddy or guard you when you are out walking together. And he can also be an example to us of how God wants us to obey him — unquestioningly and quickly. Right, he's not a very good example now — he's only eight weeks old, but he's already learned a lot. Yes, that's right, you are eight also — eight years old: think of all you've learned about obeying God in only eight years!
"Now here, Mercy, is where we begin to notice the biggest difference in you and cute little Knox. Not only does he have floppy black ears and a tail that wags like crazy when he sees his food dish coming — you don't look like that — but also, Knox will learn to obey with training, only for the physical rewards — a pat on the head or a doggie treat. But you have God's image stamped into who you are so that you are able to be holy, to live in a way that pleases God, that makes God smile and when God is smiling at you, you are happy. That's right, honey, just like the catechism question that says that our first parents, Adam and Eve, fell from the estate of holiness and happiness and became sinful and miserable. The two go together like peanut butter and jelly, popcorn and a movie, Laurel and Hardy . . . oh, never mind who they were, you get the picture? If you aren't holy, you can't be truly happy.
"What's that got to do with your puppy? Well, the level of happiness your puppy can know will never be any higher or different than it is right now — if he has enough food to eat, water to drink, a yard to run and play in and some companionship, he'll be happy — as happy as a dog can possibly be.
"But you see, that's not enough for us; people created in the image of a Holy God can never be truly happy by simply having their senses satisfied. God says that people who try to find happiness outside him are "like the beasts that perish," Psalm 49:20. Only God can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. You know how sometimes there is something you want to eat really badly — a big juicy hamburger (oh, that's right, it would be pizza with you) or a stack of Oreo cookies — and nothing else will do? In a much deeper sense, we can be happy only when we find our fulfillment in knowing and delighting in God because he made us in his image and as Augustine said, our hearts will be restless until they find rest in him.
"But what about little Knox — do you think his puppy heart longs after God and wants to please him? Hmm, well, I know that his 'dog-ness' glorifies God.
"When God thought up and made all the animals in Eden 6,000 or so years ago, he liked his magnificent cast of critters so much that he looked at each of them and said, 'This is good!' He planned each one to magnify his greatness, to reflect his complexity — from the tadpole that lives in a mud puddle to the most magnificent birds or the strange-looking platypus. God wants us to be amazed at and enjoy his creativity, too. One writer says that God's diverse creation proves that he loves pizzazz, and so should we!
"But your puppy and all the animals were created for different purposes than you and I, Mercy. Your puppy will best glorify God by serving us, being an obedient, companionable, protective pet. But we were created in God's image 'to glorify and enjoy Him' by delighting in all that he takes delight in — knowing and loving him and showing him we love him by obeying what he has told us to do in his word. We also enjoy God by enjoying his entire creation with its unbelievably vast array of creatures, including dogs!
"Yes, it makes us sad to think about our pets dying. We grow attached to them and when their life on earth is over, we mourn their loss. When I was a little girl, we would have a little funeral for them and thank God for the pet whose life had enriched and blessed us.
"But here's the other big difference between us and animals: when we die, unlike a dog, even a beloved dog, our souls will go on living forever either with God in heaven or away from God in an eternity of hell (yes, its a real place of terrible torment, body and soul, forever), which brings us back to your original question: 'Where do dogs go when they die?' Quite simply, nowhere.
"The life that God gives animals ends when they die. There is no spirit that dwells within the body of the animal that can long for or understand eternal life or sin or pleasing or displeasing God. No, that's not bad—that's just the way God intends for it to be and we should never call anything God does 'bad.' Sure, we could decide to never have pets and spare ourselves the pain of losing them, but then we would also be depriving ourselves of the joys we experience from having them.
"And since we believe that the 'new heavens and the new (or renewed) earth' will be all that God has made, recreated in eternal beauty and glory, fresh and new just like Eden only better, surely there will be plenty of pets, yes, even black labs, to go around for everyone to enjoy. I think they will surely already be perfectly obedient with no need for little girls to be turned into 'chew toys' for their little sharp teeth to munch!"
Earnest blue eyes search my face for confirmation of the truthfulness of my words. With a little sigh, she hugs me tightly, "Oh, Mommy, Mommy, I love you so much. Come on, Knox, let's go play." I hear the screen door slam as the two playmates race off across the pasture together. Their singing and barking mingle God's praises up through the bright January air, glimmer across the cold surfaces of communications' satellites in the expanse of space and roll like bright jewels up against the Throne.
"God made me and everything that in this world I see, for His own glory God made everything and me. . . ." Her voice trails off as she rounds the bend at the far end of the pasture disappearing into the pines that provide the boundary line between her home and the world beyond.
I marvel at the gift she is to us, our "laat lammelize," Afrikaans for the late lamb, born after lambing season is over. She blesses her father and me every day in ways we never dreamed possible, true to her name, filling our lives with reminders of God's mercy to us. Her sister, Anne at twenty-four and brothers, John Calvin, twenty-one, and Joe, IV, at twenty-two, stand around her, strong saplings, guarding and guiding and showing her that it is possible, with God's covenant blessings, to shine like stars in this wicked and perverse generation.
Lord, as your word and Spirit show us how and give grace, together, I think, we can handle this. This and much, much more. . . . Enable us to teach this deep-thinking, covenant child to embrace with ever-widening joy and deeper understanding who you are and what you are about and why you put her here in your wide world.
She will be 10 in the year 2000. Her name is Mercy.