QUESTION: Hi Pastor Rick, I have some questions on what is the Christian stance on euthanizing pets? We have a sick pet and I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know if we should run more tests or if euthanizing is the answer. But I guess I just don’t even know what God feels about that. Too many emotions right now going on to know what the right decision is I guess.
ANSWER: Thanks for reaching out. Great question. I’m so sorry your pet is sick. We are sometimes guilty of minimizing the loss when a beloved animal dies. In terms of the grief experienced, losing a family pet can often be very much like losing a human family member.
Two things frame Christian thinking about how to handle our animals.
One is that we are God’s stewards of creation. Adam was an overseer and friend to the animals. So we are called to manage them well and that would mean caring for their welfare as much as possible.
The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel. -Proverbs 12:10 NIV
Secondly, we care for them because we are special, not because they are special. Make sense? God doesn’t ask the porcupines to manage the humans. Lions don’t care about the elephant population. We have God’s image, alone in creation.
Because of that, we can domesticate or even eat animals, and it is permissible to do so when it would of course be horribly immoral to do that with a person. It is also wrong for us to make quality of life choices for another human but not for an animal, because you do not kill an Image bearer without inviting the wrath of the One whose Image we bear. (Genesis 9:5-6)
A person is a special thing indeed.
So on both counts you have a manager’s right to determine if your animal is suffering too greatly. You must not be callous to its pain. You must also not think that you don’t have a right to end that pain if it seems destructive to its flourishing in the world. You can make quality of life decisions for animal life. You cannot make quality of life decisions for innocent human life.
Now, what other things can we say about our pets’ spiritual or eternal nature, if any? Well, interestingly, not many Christians talk about this, but your animal does share “soul” with you, though not necessarily immortality.
On the 6th day of Creation, the Bible says,
Gen 1:24-25: Then God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that crawl, and the wildlife of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so.
“Creatures” is a translation of the Hebrew “Nephesh”. Astronomer Hugh Ross says that this word can mean, abstractly, the soul. In fact, most of the times it is translated as “Soul” not “creature”. So Ross calls this the creation of the “Soulish” animals. Adam also, when he was made is said to be a “living Soul”. (Genesis 2:7) What this means is that Nephesh describes an array of life-forms which share with humans a combination of intellect, will, emotion, and volition.
Now, when God makes the higher “soulish” animals in Genesis 1, it’s one of only three places where the author uses the word, “bara” – Create. Bara means, to fashion something out of nothing. In every other part of the creation narrative, the word “Asah” is used – “make”. Asah means to fashion something out preexisting matter.
It seems the author is saying at three places God brought something into being in the universe that had no preexisting form at all. They could not have come from preexisting stuff because natural processes couldn’t possibly produce them.
- The first is the making the universe itself, out of nothing.
- The second is when he creates the higher “nephesh” – the “soulish” animals.
- The last is when he creates humans in his image.
Interestingly, when God makes (asah) Adam out of the dust (Genesis 2:7), we are described just like the animals – a living soul. However, the image of God is created, not made – we were physically formed out of preexisting material, but what we are spiritually came into the world out of nothing. Which explains why we have so much in common with animals physically, even genetically, but why we are so alarmingly, glaringly different from them in other ways. We represent something new in the world.
So the Soul is special but the Image is even more special. The Image is our ability to think abstractly, and with this, use language, information, and do math. Also our moral nature and our religious nature – animals lack all of these higher characteristics that we alone in creation possess. However, the soulish animals clearly have consciousness, which can only come from God’s mind. They possess, with us, an immaterial soul.
That’s why we bond with them so easily and that’s why we rightly mourn the loss of that in the world when they die. They are not soulless biological machines, as some (sadly some Christians) will say.
One final bit of speculation on that immaterial nature: CS Lewis wondered if we could be like “the Christ to the animals” meaning whatever of the Divine nature they are capable of sensing, they can only sense through us, just as we will only taste God’s Nature through Jesus. That was your gift to your pet, and whatever they imprinted on you, may, Lewis speculated, carry with you at the Resurrection (though there is no explicit biblical assurances of this) just as Christ carries you with him to God by his Resurrection.
Leaving aside speculation, it is certain that your pet was made by God with a soul to bond with you, just as you were made in God’s image to bond with Him. That is the root of your grief and it’s OK to acknowledge it. I hope that helps with the theological questions you have.
Returning to a practical level, I’ll share something our vet shared with me when we put down our 11 year old Malamute: if he can no longer do two of his three favorite things, it’s time. That gave us some way to measure his quality of life and determine when his suffering was too much.