EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is part of Religion: Got questions?, a series answering your biggest religious questions. Each week, we will answer one submitted faith question. To send a submission visit https://bit.ly/30cTYzx or email email@example.com.
Question: If a really smart chimpanzee who knows sign language dies, is it possible for him to go to heaven? I mean I've heard it said that adult chimps have the intelligence of 8-year-old children, and children can go to heaven, so why not chimps?
Father Pat McCloskey laughed, then made it clear he is not an expert on chimpanzee intelligence.
The Franciscan Media editor does know a lot about theology and understandings of heaven, a place that does not require answering a multiple-choice test to enter, he said.
"Going to heaven or not is not really a question of intelligence," McCloskey said. "A person who has the lowest possible score on an IQ test could go to heaven. Knowledge is not going to guarantee that someone is going to go to heaven."
What it takes to enter heaven — faith, good works, etc. — depends on the specific faith tradition. But if a chimpanzee learned the same things as humans — and modern research suggests they can — most people would agree a chimpanzee does not have the same freedom as humans to choose between good and evil, McCloskey said. Some people would argue including animals in heaven would diminish the value of that human freedom, he said.
"I don't think [that's] trivializing human freedom," he said. "But humans certainly have a freedom that chimpanzees and snakes and otters and cabbages and rose bushes don't have."
Sections of the Bible do include the animal world in talking about the divine, such as a section of Romans 8 describing all of creation wanting God. Similar to St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic saint of animals, a growing number of theologians point to this section as evidence that humans are not the only ones going to heaven, McCloskey said.
For a theologian like Michael Gilmour, Providence professor of New Testament and English literature, there is no ambiguity: Animals go to heaven. God made a point to save animals in the story of Noah's Ark. In the book of Genesis, land creatures are created the same day as humans. God breathes life into humans, which is the basis for the idea of humans having a soul, and breathes life into animals, too, he said.
"In that sense, animals do have a soul," Gilmour said. "To dismiss them as just backdrop to the human story is to miss the point."
Historically, understandings of the Bible story have focused on humans rather than God, said Sarah Withrow King, Evangelicals of Social Action co-director of Creature Kind. Animals are always present but rarely recognized. Even the Revelations story details how animals will reconcile with humans and each other in the end, she said.
Everyone wants to know whether their pet goes to heaven, but just recognizing that animals and plants are part of God's creation opens an important conversation about the lives of creatures on earth, Withrow King said.
"Whether we think animals are going to share with us in eternity, the ways we are treating them in the here and now are not reflecting God's love," she said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.