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Why the Incarnation Matters for Our Pets (and Subatomic Particles)

December 23, 2014

We all know now that Pope Francis didn’t say that our pets are going to Heaven.  What he said was:

Sacred Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this marvelous plan cannot but involve everything that surrounds us and came from the heart and mind of God.

But that doesn’t answer the question for us as to whether they are indeed going to Heaven or not.  And, as Jeff Schweitzer puts it well, it’s not enough to ask if our pets are going to heaven.  We have to ask then about all other creatures too.  He concludes:

Face it; we all know that viruses, bacteria, plants and some animals like sponges are not going to heaven. And we know that because of our instinct for what it means to be intelligent, self-conscious and self-aware.

But is that true?  I have argued that, on the contrary, we can be fairly certain that all creatures, from the most intelligent to the smallest subatomic particle are indeed going to Heaven.  And the reason is the mystery that we celebrate in a few days.  


One of our hangups about this is the so-called immortality of the human soul.  As I hear constantly reiterated: Human animals have immortal souls, but other animals don’t.   I’ve never been convinced by arguments for the immortality of the soul, either made by Socrates or by Aquinas.  I tend rather to agree with Karl Rahner:

From the perspective of a genuine anthropology of the concrete person, in this question we are neither justified nor obliged to split man into two “components” [body and soul] and to affirm this definitive validity [immortality] only for one of them.  Our question about man’s definitive validity is completely identical with the question of his resurrection, whether the Greek and platonic tradition in church teaching sees this clearly or not (my emphasis).

In other words, if we can get over our Neoplatonic hangover, then we’ll be able to move beyond the notion of an “immortal soul,” and accept the much more Jewish and biblical understanding of “natural bodies” and “spiritual bodies” (1 Cor 15:36-49).  Spiritual bodies are bodies that have been raised to life in Christ.

But still, why should we believe that all of created reality will get raised to life with Christ?  Aside from important passages from Scripture such as Romans 8:21 and Colossians 20, I think we can turn to the well known Cappadocian dictum, that what has not be assumed has not been redeemed.  As I explain:

Elizabeth Johnson has coined the term “deep resurrection” to reflect on the eschatological hope that exists for all of created reality.  Johnson derives the term deep resurrection from the idea of “deep incarnation” put forward by Danish theologian Niels Gregersen.  For Gregersen, St. John the Evangelists’ use of sarx (usually translated “flesh”) describes the incarnation in a far more extensive way than the language of soma (“body”) eventually adopted by the Council of Chalcedon (the Council that set the standard for how the Church still talks about the incarnation).  John’s language draws on the Hebrew meaning of the term for which sarx is the Greek Septuagint translation, i.e., all physical reality.  The flesh of Christ taken up in the incarnation, therefore, includes all of physical reality.  Similarly for Johnson, deep resurrection, drawing upon deep incarnation, means precisely that in the resurrection of Christ’s physical body, all physical reality enjoys the promise of being raised.  By taking on our “flesh,” Christ took on the reality of all created existence, and by rising from the dead, he offers the promise of resurrection, not only to self-conscious, conscious, or sentient beings, but to all created beings that have ever existed.

If all creation has been “assumed” in the flesh of Christ, then all creation awaits the same redemption and transformation of us human animals.  Christmas matters, not just for us, but for the animals that stood around the manger of Christ, and for any creature that ever has or ever will inhabit this universe.  

  1. Julia Smucker permalink*
    December 24, 2014 8:22 pm

    I seem to recall Elizabeth Johnson somewhere else having a problem with the idea of a male savior because of that very dictum “not assumed = not redeemed”. Unless I’m remembering wrong and that was somebody else, there would seem to be a contradiction between having that as a sticking point and the “deep incarnation/resurrection” idea here.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      December 25, 2014 12:37 pm

      She said something like this, but as part of a longer argument. I have not taken time to parse it, but I did find this article:

      • Julia Smucker permalink*
        December 25, 2014 2:50 pm

        Interesting. I had seen some of these deconstructive feminist Christologies but not a solid critique like this. I’ve never had much of a stomach for the former, and I especially agree with this point about the logical conclusion of requiring a particular experience of humanity as a starting point (emphasis in the original):

        Since Jesus did not know how it felt to be a heroine addict, diabetic, a white male, homosexual, handicapped, geriatric, Albino, quadriplegic, deaf, etc., then are none of these able to be redeemed by Jesus? He did not “assume” any of these particularities in his flesh. It seems, contextually, then, if what Jesus “assumed” is saved, then only Jewish males will be redeemed. But the issue is much greater than simply the issues of women’s salvation in Jesus; the issue is whether or not Jesus is the Messiah at all, and the savior of the world.

        This is exactly the point that feminists miss related to the humanity of Jesus, especially with reference to their reaction to historical statements related to Christology, such as Jesus was “truly God and truly man” and “what he has not assumed he has not healed.” The point they miss is that Jesus has take upon himself in the incarnation a common human nature inclusive of all people, male and female alike. This does not mean that Jesus was androgynous, however, since he was a man. What this does mean—and this would relieve many of the feminist arguments of their potency—is that Jesus became a human being in order to represent our race, including women (Rom 5:12-21).

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
        December 26, 2014 10:58 am

        Julia, I took the time to read the whole critique and while it is quite powerful, it is not overwhelming. In particular, it seems to me that the author danced around a central point in the feminist critique. Unlike all the other characteristics of Incarnation, (“Jewish”, etc.) the maleness of Jesus seems to occupy a more substantial role in classical Christologies. Part of this stems from defective anthropologies (e.g. Thomas Aquinas’ views of women as defective or incomplete men) but it goes beyond this. Witness, for instance, the long argument in the text for why Jesus “must” be male, an analysis that rests on a number of unquestioned assumptions.

        One can see this in the arguments against the ordination of women, that the priest acts “in persona Christi” and must therefore be male to be a proper “sign” of Christ present to the people. As the feminist scholars have argued, this treats maleness as essential in a way that other aspects of Jesus are not. I think this can be answered, but this is a point where feminist theologians have raised a point that needs to be discussed carefully.

    • December 26, 2014 10:21 pm

      @Julia & David: I too found the critique (response to feminists objections) very interesting. I was most taken by this remark,‘While it makes sense to say that Jesus’ maleness is an accident in the technical philosophical sense, the narrative context, such as it is, would not allow a female savior.’

      That remark appears both truthful and conciliatory if I understand the authors intent correctly. Thus, I would have to say that I agree with it. I’m curious what the two of you (and anyone else) think of that remark.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
        December 27, 2014 11:21 am

        I would need to go through the arguments more carefully, but, to expand on what I said to Julia above, the 12 reasons listed shortly after this have the flavor of a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument: Jesus was born a male, and therefore he had to be a male. That Jesus was, historically, male is undeniable and must be relevant at least in that sense. But in a broader sense, how much weight should be put on this fact in the scheme of salvation history? I think this is an important question, one which I do not know the answer to.

        • December 27, 2014 12:46 pm

          But in a broader sense, how much weight should be put on this fact (Jesus is born a male) in the scheme of salvation history? I think this is an important question, one which I do not know the answer to.

          As regards the dignity of the person, male or female, absolutely none.

          One of the points brought out in the ‘critique’ was that given the reality that each person is fully and truly human as either a male or female (and neither is deficient in any sense), then a choice was necessary in order to hold to the dogma that Christ was like us in all ways, other than sin. Even if the salvation ‘narrative’ had been constructed with a female outcome the issue would have exactly the same, except that the ‘tables would have been turned’. Not only is this not a solution, but its an indication that we are chasing up the wrong alleys for a resolution to the ‘problems patrimony’; which in mind are real and need to be addressed.

      • Julia Smucker permalink*
        December 27, 2014 4:51 pm

        I suppose my simplest answer would be that too much soteriological weight is given to gender on both sides of that debate – or in the fact that there is a debate on this in the first place. I’m not really interested either way in speculating on whether or not the savior could have been female; to me it sounds like a postmodern equivalent of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

        My problem with feminist Christology is that by absolutizing “women’s experience” as (at least in its more extreme forms) an almost infallible standard, it does the same thing it critiques, seeming at times to demand or even require a female savior. I’ve always had a hard time understanding what the issue is there; as one of my professors once put it to me, the scandal of particularity is not really scandalous for me. To get back to the original post, maybe this does have something to do with eschatology and the hope of cosmological redemption. (I am a systematician after all, and can’t keep the theological sub-disciplines separate for very long!) I mean, if a human savior can redeem all of creation down to the sub-atomic particles, then how hard can it be to believe that a male savior can save women?

  2. trellis smith permalink
    December 25, 2014 3:48 am

    One of the best posts yet embracing creation spirituality.

  3. December 29, 2014 6:01 pm

    In the book (written from an Orthodox perspective) Women and the Priesthood there is an article, “Orthodox Arguments Against the Ordination of Woman as Priests”, by Nonna Verna Harrison. Making use of Patristic sources, particularly the Cappadocian Fathers, she argues that in traditional Orthodox anthropology, gender is not seen as in any way essential to humanity. God has no gender, and we are in the image of God; so in a sense gender is accidental (in the Aristotelian sense of that word) and not constituitive of our humanity in the way that intelligence, for example, is. Everyone is either male or female, of course, but gender is, in one sense, not the deepest part of who are are. For this reason, gender is essentially irrelevant in terms of soteriology.

    I’m inclined to agree with this, and I think it supports what Julia says in terms of not putting too much “soteriological weight” on gender, one way or the other. As to the new heaven and new Earth, and Christ’s taking up into himself of everything in the cosmos, that makes intuitive sense to me. I’ve always wondered if there’s a whiff of Gnosticism in the thought of those who too easily dismiss the idea that animals and nature more broadly might be in the World to Come. I mean, the Gnostics said God didn’t create the material world; but we insist, as a matter of faith–first line of the Nicene Creed–that He is indeed “maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible.” It seems an odd sort of craftsman who makes the material universe, pronounces it “very good”, and then ultimately chucks it all in the end, since apparently only humans really count!

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