When I first saw a grizzly bear, many years ago in the Canadian Rockies, for some reason the desire welled up within me to pet him. He was so big and furry. It would be marvelous, I thought, to pet a grizzly bear. Of course, one could pet a sedated grizzly bear, but that really wouldn’t count. That would be cheating, and so the joy of petting him would be absent. The obvious problem is that before I could get close enough to pet a grizzly bear, he would “pet” me, and that would abruptly and conclusively end my endeavor. Which brings me to my point.
Any good Thomist would tell us that animals, even the eminent grizzly bear, do not have immortal souls, and so upon death, they cease to exist. That may be true. I know, however, that at the end of time, when Jesus returns in glory, he will usher in a New Creation, a New Heaven, and a New Earth. Normally, when we envision this new creation, we think that all the stars, mountains, plants, and trees will take on a newness and a splendor that is beyond our imagination. But the animals are missing.
Yet, the Bible speaks, particularly in the Old Testament, of all creatures being encouraged to give praise and glory to their Creator, and so they do. Not only do the sun and the moon praise the Lord, but “the beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds.” (Psalm 148) The Book of Daniel tells us that all of God’s creatures – whales, birds, beasts, cattle – are to “exalt him forever.” (Daniel 3) All that God created is good, and so animals, in their merely being who they are, in their inherent goodness, exalt and praise God.
The flying bird praises the Lord, the howling coyote praises the Lord, even the arrogant sleeping cat praises the Lord – not to mention that the lumbering grizzly bear praises the Lord. What strikes me even more, though, is that “forever.” That is the prayerful hope of the Biblical vision. If animals as a species cease to exist entirely, however, they are incapable of praising God forever.
Isaiah prophesies that with the coming of the eschatological Messianic Age, “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together; the cow and the [grizzly] bear shall feed; and their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw with the ox.” (Isaiah 11:6-7)
A number of years ago, a fox regularly meandered on our friary grounds in Washington, D.C. I began to feed him each evening with the scraps from supper – fat, chicken bones, etc. After some time, he would come within four or five feet of me, whereupon I would toss him his daily fare. My goal was to have him eat out of my hand. Some of my confreres castigated me for feeding a “wild” animal. My riposte was: “I am preparing him for the eschaton.” I figured that if our founding father, St. Francis, could tame a wolf, I could tame a fox. In the end, the anti-eschatological friars won the day, and I was forbidden to feed my friend, the fox.
Nonetheless, St. Paul declares that “the whole of creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” Creation itself “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” St. Paul concludes: “We know that the whole of creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:19-23)
In communion with us, all creation – stars, mountains, plants, trees, and, yes, animals – are groaning, eagerly awaiting to be set free from sin’s curse of death. Only when Jesus returns in eschatological glory, and raises us bodily from the dead, will the whole of creation share in the glorious liberty of the sons of God.
I do not know whether all of the animals that ever existed will come back to life within the New Heaven and the New Earth. Nonetheless, I am confident that nothing of God’s good Creation will be lost, precisely because the good God created it good. As God created the whole of Creation good through his Word, so God re-created the whole of Creation through his incarnate Word. And as God first gave Adam and Eve “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), so the redeemed sons and daughters of God will care for the new creation.
The New Heaven and the New Earth will partake of humankind’s risen glory – there will be no more groaning and decay. This is the hope that resides within the full coming of the Messianic Age. When Jesus appears upon his heavenly throne, we will hear him proclaim: “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)
So, my hope is that if I am not able to pet a grizzly bear in this Creation, I will be able to do so in the New Creation. And I am convinced that he will eagerly give me a big enthusiastic bear hug in return. More importantly, we will together, forever, each in accordance with our natures, exalt and praise Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
*Image: Saint Francis Preaching to the Animals by Jan Siberechts, 1666 [Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium]
You may also enjoy:
Tom Sleigh’s The Animals in the Zoo Don’t Seem Worried
Taynia-Renee Laframboise’s All God’s Creatures