While many Christians today are convinced that animals have souls, it’s likely that the majority believe they don’t. Whatever the opinion, it seems probable that the beliefs of most Christians on this issue are not based on clearly understood biblical passages. The reason for this is not hard to determine: the Scriptures that make reference to the soul are themselves general and somewhat confusing.
A simple answer based on the first two chapters of Genesis would affirm that animals do have a soul of some sort. In Genesis 1:20, 24 (NIV) the Creator calls for the water and the land to bring forth “living creatures.” The Hebrew words for this expression are nephesh chay. The term chay is derived from chayah, a root word meaning “to live.”
The term nephesh is from the root word that means “to breathe,” and it is translated throughout the OT as “soul.” The King James Version of the Bible translates the expression nephesh chay as “moving creatures that hath life.” Curiously, however, the KJV translates the expression as “living soul” when it is used to identify mankind in Genesis 2:7: “and man became a living soul.” It is likely that the two different renderings of the same terms have led to the understanding that animals merely have life but people have souls. The NIV, on the other hand, avoids this dichotomy by translating both uses of the expression as “living creature.”
To complicate matters even more, in Deuteronomy 12:23 the word nephesh is used to explain why blood should not be eaten with the meat: “But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life (nephesh) and you must not eat the life with the meat” (NIV). This is echoed in Lev. 17:11 and other passages regarding the levitical laws. This would appear to give nephesh a material meaning. So in one instance it seems to be more non-material as the “soul” and in another instance it seems to be material.
Even more confusing is the fact that in the account of the Flood it speaks of the destruction “of every creature that hath the breath of life (ruwach) in it” (Gen. 6:17 NIV). The Hebrew term ruwach is usually translated as “spirit” in most other OT passages where it is used. This word is used in Ecclesiastes 3:21 to refer to both the “spirit” of people and the “spirit” of animals. So it appears that even “spirit” can be attributed to both animals and mankind. The actual Hebrew meaning of ruwach is also “to breathe” or “exhale.”
So the two words that are variously translated “soul” and “spirit” actually have a similar meaning. This no doubt adds to the controversy about whether or not people are composed of three parts or two (trichotomism vs. dichotomism).
Nonetheless, these and several other Scripture passages give support to the belief that animals do indeed have a soul/spirit. Even conservative Bible scholar C.I. Scofield, who strongly influenced the Dispensational views of many Baptist and Bible churches, comments, “In the sense of conscious life [implied by the term nephesh], an animal also has a soul.” What is unfortunate is that many non-Christians conclude that there is no fundamental difference between people and animals. That conclusion, however, is unfounded. What clearly distinguishes people from animals is what theologians call the imago Dei: Mankind was created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Animals were not.
John Wesley in his classic sermon on the difference between man and animals, “The General Deliverance” (Nov. 30, 1781) makes this very clear. In the sermon, Wesley shows great compassion and concern for the “brute creation,” and even states his belief that man and animals share self-motion, understanding, will, and liberty. He even believed that before the Fall animals had “some shadowy resemblance of even moral goodness” in that as people were to obey God, animals were to be subservient to people. Yet when he speaks of people, Wesley says that “man was God’s vice-regent upon the earth, the prince and governor of this lower world. . . . What makes the barrier between men and brutes? . . . It is this: man is capable of God; the inferior creatures are not.”
Wesley also believed, as do many Bible scholars, that the animal kingdom was cursed because of Adam’s sin and that it does not give much evidence today of what its glory was in Eden. He understood that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ provided for the redemption of mankind—and of the animal kingdom. He was convinced that the present suffering of animals under the curse and under the cruel hand of fallen man would be recompensed by their sharing in the glory to come. In reference to Romans 8:19-22 and Revelation 21:5 he believed that “the whole brute creation will then undoubtedly be restored, not only to the vigor, strength, and swiftness which they had at the creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed.” Schofield adds, “Even the animal and material creation, cursed for man’s sake, will be delivered by Christ.”
This begs the question as to whether there is a soul or spiritual essence in each individual animal that survives death and will once again, in the “general deliverance,” be reunited with a glorified body. Do all dogs really go to heaven? The Bible simply does not say. However, since the Bible clearly states that in the future messianic kingdom there will be animals freed from the curse (Isa. 11:6-9), it is not out of the question to suggest that such animals could be the same ones who left their cursed bodies on the old earth and were graced by the Creator to now inhabit new bodies. However, that would indeed be merely an assumption—yet the hope of many (C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald, for instance).
Evangelical scholar John Piper in his book Future Grace includes a poem he wrote about the coming kingdom. These lines underscore the often unexpressed hope many of us have about pets that have died:
And as I knelt beside a brook
To drink eternal life, I took
A glance across the golden grass,
And saw my dog, old Blacky, fast
As she could come. She leaped the stream—
Almost— and what a happy gleam
Was in her eye. I knelt to drink,
And knew that I was on the brink
Of endless joy. . . .
In the light of all we know about the grandeur of God’s creation, about His love for mankind, about His care for the sparrow that falls, and about His plan to include the animals in the future kingdom, we certainly have grounds for considering with great remorse the manner in which mankind has added evil cruelty to the effects of the Fall already borne by the animals. It certainly would please the Creator for man, the crown of creation, to begin to behave more in keeping with the way we will be expected to behave in the kingdom to come when there truly will be “joy to the world.”
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow.
Far as the curse is found.
See you outdoors!