Church Culture Life Theology

Animals and Evangelicals

Recently, friends of mine lost their very first cat. Only months old, the kitten contracted a deadly disease; it was quite sad. I’m not entirely sure what the disease was exactly, but apparently it was pervasive—causing this little creature tremendous pain, seizures, a loss of appetite and overall disorientation. They had no choice but to put it down.

Many of us know what it’s like to lose a pet. Whether it’s having to put down that 15 year old dog who everyone saw as part of the family, or that new puppy whose hopes for life are suddenly dashed by the early onset of disease, some of us —though not all—feel considerable grief for animals when we see them suffer. I imagine this is because we were created to care for animals—so goes the creation narrative in Genesis. So when we see animals suffering and put to death unjustly, something in us cries out in compassionate pain.

“The righteous care for the needs of their animals,” says the wisdom writer in Proverbs 12:10. Jesus himself—being God incarnate—got in on the “animal loving” action when he said that God cares for “the birds of the air” (Matt 6:26).

I’ve come across Christians—evangelicals in fact—who are troubled by Christians who ask the question: do animals go to heaven? “Animals don’t have a soul!” they squawk. “How could they be saved!” Surely, such a question—to them—is heretical for even thinking.

We should remember what Jesus actually says in Matthew 6. Yes, the text clearly says that human beings are far more valuable to God than animals, but it doesn’t say animals are worthless to God. The implication in the text is that God surely cares for animals too. They are not a write-off in God’s redemption plan. In other words, God is mindful of their needs, both today and tomorrow.

Since evangelicals today in general have neglected animal care in their theology of salvation and ethics, it would do us well to know that many great evangelical thinkers and Christian disciples in the past were fierce animal activists and conservationists.

John Wesley (1703-1791)

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, embraced an interpretation of the gospel that was holistic—extending God’s love to creation, including animals. Wesley writes: “insignificant as they seem, [animals] are the offspring of one common Father, the creatures of the same God of love.” [1] 

In his eschatology of hope, Wesley foresees the removal of pain and the restoration of all creatures: “Nay, no creature, no beast, bird, or fish, will have any inclination to hurt any other. For cruelty will be far away, and savageness and fierceness forgotten.” [2]

In contrast to rapture theology where salvation is divorced from the earth, God’s plan—and thus the Christian hope—is in God’s power to renew the earth through the power of the resurrection.

Animals are very much a part God’s salvation where all creation will be healed. “On the new earth,” writes Wesley, “no creature will kill or hurt or give pain to any other.” [3]

John Woolman (1720-1772)

John Woolman—an evangelical in the Quaker tradition—was a successful business owner, journalist, abolitionist, and itinerant preacher in America.

Woolman envisioned “the holy life as the exercise of justice and peace not only among people, but between people, animals, and the rest of creation.” [4]

In his essays and articles, Woolman often wrote about the vulnerability of animals and their worth to God. He was an animal activist and believed that when humans abused and exploited animals that this was a “contradiction of the love of God.” [5]

“The Christian’s vocation, according to Woolman, is to liberate people, animals, and the earth from oppression, in whatever form it presents itself.” [6]

William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

William Wilberforce is most known today as the politician who relentlessly fought to abolish slavery in England. His sense of justice and compassion for the most vulnerable also translated into a love for animals and nature in general.

In fact, Wilberforce’s home was “filled with pets of every description.” [7] His diary includes numerous reflections on nature and God and the joy he received from observing nature’s beauty. In one letter to a friend, he wrote:

I am staying in the country, enjoying the first greetings of summer—the nightingales are abundant and, my dear friend, while through nature I look up to nature’s God, and still more, when from regarding the Author of nature, I further contemplate Him in the still more endearing character of the God of grace and consolation; my heart is warmed and thankful for the unequalled blessings I enjoy.” [8]

Wilberforce’s love for animals led him to co-found one of the first animal welfare organizations in the world: The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now called The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

Just like John Wesley and John Woolman, Wilberforce’s evangelical convictions led him to pour out is life for vulnerable people and animals—to do otherwise would be to contradict the love of God.

What is our Responsibility?

When evangelicals talk about salvation, evangelism, and living ethically in our world today, we must remember that animals are not worthless to God. Therefore, as Christians—and humans in general—we bear a “unique responsibility to facilitate the healing of creation.” [9]

For, “[Christian] evangelism is not good news until it is good news for all creation.” [10]

[1] John Wesley, “The New Creation” in The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, eds. Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), 654.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Elaine Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 108.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Ibid., 110.

[7] Kevin Belmonte, William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 2007), 264.

[8] Ibid., 263.

[9] Heath, 107.

[10] Heath, 114.

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