I will never forget a particular prayer request I received once at the end of a middle school youth group. An 8th grade guy nervously raised his hand, requesting that we pray for him because his cat had died earlier that day. As he was sharing his request, he started crying–very intensely. I could sense that this 8th grade student was literally destroyed because his little cat had died. He wanted God to not only heal is pain, but also to know if he would ever see his cat again. I was so moved by his sincerity that I couldn’t help but get a little emotional as well.
And then, 3 weeks later…
We had a question and answer night during youth group and guess what was the most frequently asked question was?
Do animals go to heaven?
After these 2 episodes, I was determined to explore why teens care so much for animals. Here are a few of my brief observations as to why animals/pets have such a huge impact on teens:
– pets unconditionally love, accept and play with their teenage owners even if the teens are awkward and smelly.
– many animated movies use animals to connect with early adolescents. For example: Finding Nemo, Lady and the Tramp, Ratatouille, Bolt, Jungle Book, Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians, Bambi, The Fox and the Hound, Lion King, Open Season and Lion, Witch and The Wardrobe (the list goes on and on). So, the desire to care for and connect with animals has been engrained in the minds of children and adolescents in our culture through movies.
– pets have grown up with their teenager owners. Essentially the pets have journeyed with them through the good, bad and awkward years. So the pets represent consistency, safety and unconditional companionship.
My theological answer: Your pet, because it doesn’t have a soul, does not go to heaven but…………… I feel like there is more of an ethical piece that early to mid adolescents are wanting to explore. My middle school students wanted to know how they could protect animals here and now so I had to do a bit of research to figure out how other Christian scholars would address this question without being insensitive or inhumane. So who do I turn to?
Lewis had such a huge love for animals.
Wheaton scholar, Dr. Jerry Root , investigates a lot of Lewis’s work to make a case for human responsibility for animals. Root concludes that Lewis does not believe animals exhibit signs of possessing a soul or self consciousness, therefore they cannot experience eternal life. Although Lewis always stressed a very serious attention to the matter of sharing life with animals on this planet and the human responsibility to care for and love them. Lewis had the same affinity for animals as today’s teenagers. Today’s teens are wanting to know that God cares for animals just as much as they do.
My point: It is undeniable that early adolescents have a natural affinity for animals. Teens care for and are deeply compassionate towards animals. So it may be wise for youth groups to capitalize on this opportunity. In fact, I have been corresponding with The Humane Society of the United States asking how youth groups can empower teens to care for animals. The Humane Society of the United States has faith outreach programs that guide and educate the next generation to develop and foster humane attitudes and behavior toward animals. To find out more about these programs provided by the Humane Society of the United States click here. And feel free to email the HSUS faith outreach if you have any questions. The HSUS is really helpful and want youth workers to understand the connection between teens and animals.
Have you observed the same affinity between teens and their pets in your youth group?
Why do you think teens immediately connect with animals?
Have you ever been asked by your students if animals go to heaven? If so, how have you answered this question?