There is something about animals that fascinate us. We study how ants communicate and build communities. We are impressed by the cunning of predators, and the learning capacity of birds and dolphins. We have even taught primates how to use sign language.
But the animals that endear us the most are our pets. We learn their unique personalities. We see how happy they are when we return home after a full day of work. And they look to us for comfort and security. And we wonder, is there a soul inside that affectionate ball of fur that has captured our hearts?
Animals do not have an eternal spirit. But they do possess a measure of personality that could be described as a soul. We must use these terms with care so that we can understand the important distinctions between the two.
Soul or Spirit?
In casual conversation, we often use the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ interchangeably. And for the most part, this doesn’t run us into any confusion. But for the purposes of this discussion, it is crucial that we establish definitions for each term, in order to properly understand not only the answer but the underlying question.
Paraphrasing from common dictionaries and other sources, we define our terms as follows:
Soul: The personality of a being, the seat of a being’s emotions, intellect, and will.
Spirit: The immaterial and eternal part of a human being.
So we can think of it this way. The soul is the character, personality, and expression of oneself. It is all of the information and programming mapped into our brains and coded into our cells.
The spirit is that part of us that exists in the spiritual world. The spirit is connected to the body through the soul, but lives on in the spiritual world after the soul ceases to operate and the body dies.
Restating the Question
So if we ask ‘Do animals have an intellect, emotions, and will?’ the answer is obvious and clear. All animals have some capacity (in varying degrees) to experience emotions and exercise willpower. Animals do not possess the complex emotional palette of humans, or the ability to reason or distinguish right from wrong. However, the instincts, trainable memories, and base emotions (such as fear) that animals do possess are a simplified form of soul.
But the question that we probably mean to ask when we ask if animals have souls is, ‘Do animals live forever?’ More specifically, we want to ask, ‘Will I see my dog in heaven?’ To answer this question, we really need to ask, ‘Do animals have spirits?’ This is the question that we will address for the remainder of the article.
Made in God’s Image
As we established at the onset of this article, animals do not have spirits. Among all of the creatures that God created, only humans have been given a spirit, because only humans have been made in God’s image.
In the creation account recorded in Genesis 1, God first created the heavens and the earth, the land and the seas. He then created the animals in groups, saying “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let the birds fly above the earth… Let the land produce living creatures,” (Genesis 1:20, 24). But the creation of humans stands apart from the rest of the creation events. After the animals had been created, God said “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” (Genesis 1:26).
To be created in the image of God means much more than being formed as a bipedal, upright humanoid. The plural pronouns that God speaks in Genesis 1:26 point to His triune nature. And while the full mystery of the Trinity is beyond our complete grasp, God has made us to uniquely reflect this aspect of His nature.
In His likeness, each of us is made of body, soul, and spirit. And not only are we given the most complex and complete souls of all of God’s creatures, but we are specifically and uniquely imbued with the eternal essence of a spirit.
The Breath of Life
The next chapter details God’s creation of man, again giving humans a unique consideration not provided to the animals. The bodies of man and animals alike were formed from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7, 19). But only man was given the breath of life. This is not the breath of biological life, but of spiritual life.
The Hebrew word for ‘breath,’ (transliterated as neshamah), is used also for ‘spirit’ in some passages. A similar Hebrew word (transliterated ruwach) also serves to mean both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit,’ as well as ‘wind’. In three separate instances, Job intertwines the two words poetically, declaring in one such instance, “The Spirit (ruwach) of God has made me; the breath (neshamah) of the Almighty gives me life,” (Job 33:4).
The Greek equivalent (transliterated pneuma) carries the same dual function into the New Testament. This Greek root is seen in modern English words relating to breathing (pneumonia) and air (such as pneumatic). And in the New Testament, it also means ‘spirit.’ The Holy Spirit is pneuma, as are the demons cast out by Jesus in several gospel encounters.
But most telling is the account of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2, where a mighty wind (pnoay) filled the house where the disciples were gathered (v2), causing each to be filled with the Holy Spirit (pneuma) (v4). If these two words, ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ appear similar, it is because they derive from a common root word, (pneho) meaning ‘to blow or breathe’.
Life and Afterlife
This gift of spirit is made available only to humans. From their initial creation, through the history recorded in scripture, and beyond the present life, no equivalent spirit is seen in animals. The writer of Ecclesiastes understood animals as returning to the earth upon their demise, even as he struggled to understand a greater hope for human existence.
I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them? Ecclesiastes 3:18-22
Made for Different Purposes
Both animals and humans are created by God, with care and with purpose. Both are part of the original created order, which was perfect and good before sin entered the world. Both are meant to multiply and fill the earth with the beauty of God’s creation. But animals are provided as livestock and as helpers, whereas humans, as God’s image-bearers, are given the responsibility to care for God’s creation.
We may be disappointed to realize that our beloved pets will not join us in the next life. We cherish them when they are with us, and miss them when they are gone. But we can take comfort knowing that their existence, however brief, was good for us and fit God’s purpose.