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Is the Gospel Relevant to the Death of a Pet?

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In January, we adopted a calico kitten that we named Beans. She was intelligent and affectionate. I called her my “theology kitty” because she’d sleep in my lap or among the piles of books in my library as I studied and wrote. She was a delightful addition to the household.

Then last week, while the kids were playing outside, the neighbor’s pit bull got into our yard. The little neighbor girl was holding Beans when the dog lunged at her. She dropped the kitten, who had no chance to run, and the dog chewed her up in front of all the kids.

I heard screams of terror as Scout ran into the house, shouting, “Beans is dead! Ace killed Beans!”

I ran to the backyard. The dog still had the kitten in his jaws. He dropped her on the ground as the neighbor boy tried to push him back into their yard, when they disappeared into their house.

My girls were shaking and wailing uncontrollably in a vivid illustration of Biblical mourning.

Zane alternated between howling in sorrow and screaming over the fence about how he hated that dog and wished it was dead. He pounded the dirt, the pickets, and the trees with his feet and fists, yelling to heaven, “Why did this have to happen?!?”

I stayed with Beans, my hands covered in her blood, as she took her last pained breaths.

After some time, the bawling simmered down to sobs and whimpers. Zane and I dug a grave, wrapped Beans in one of his old t-shirts, and buried her.

I know that in the grand scheme of things, the death of one kitten isn’t a big deal. But in a child’s world, it’s enormous. It’s one of the biggest things that have ever happened to them. This was my kids’ first encounter with a violent, traumatic death of a creature they had grown to love. And it raised theological questions, especially from Zane (as is often the case).

As Christian parents, you must do theology when you can, where life happens, redeeming those occasions by helping your kids make sense of their lives in light of the gospel.

While I usually write devotionally, let me take this time to go a little deeper than I usually do.

The Christian gospel is a story.

It’s a true story—a history of God’s actions in Christ from the creation of the world to its end and beyond. As such, Christ’s story makes sense of the world, including your life, even the death of a pet.

We can only properly understand our lives—where we come from and where we’re going—in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. But our children won’t know that unless they’re told. They must learn the big Story to make sense of their little stories, otherwise they’ll learn about themselves from the culture, which is so fundamentally confused and fractured that it doesn’t even know which bathroom to use.

We’ve all heard that Christendom is collapsing (and maybe that’s a good thing), but so is secular culture—and quickly.

It began with modernity, where intellectuals tried to tell a story about a world without the Christian God. As Robert Jenson summarized, “Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.” They were optimistic for a time but soon found out that it was impossible to live off of Christianity's moral and existential capital for long. As Nietzsche, a pastor’s son, saw in the 19th century:

“They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality…When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality…Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands” (Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man, section 5).

Nietzsche was right. When modernity took God out of the story, they broke the narrative to pieces. It turned out modernity was like an acid that ate away its own foundations. Without God, there was no going on as before as though nothing important had changed. On the contrary, without God, they no longer had a world, but a void. Without Christ, there’s no point, no direction, no rules, purpose, or meaning to life except what you have the strength of will to will for yourself during your lifetime. Any story you tell will be highly idiosyncratic, subjective, and apt to change with the winds. So self-destructive modernity led to what we call postmodernism.

Postmodernism is the recognition that modernity failed to tell a coherent narrative of the world without God. Without God, the world has no story. Robert Jenson again: “If there is no God, or indeed if there is some other God than the God of the Bible, there is no narratable world” (Jenson, “How the World Lost Its Story”).

In other words, without Jesus, the only real alternative is nihilism. That’s what the ancients found so scary about the gospel (and why, I think, moderns find it so scary today). As Jenson says, “The gospel has been our great debunker. The early Christians were not, after all, persecuted for being too religious but for being anti-religious, enemies of the beliefs which hold society together, atheists” (Jenson, Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics, p. 11). The gospel proclaimed that all the gods, myths, and rituals that held together ancient society were lies. Caesar isn’t divine. Olympus is barren. And Thor’s Oak is only good for firewood.

The modern story of life without God collapsed to nihilism, and hedonism, and different ideologies (political and sexual) that try to replace religion’s role in giving people some semblance of meaning and purpose.

Meanwhile, Christians as a community have to stand out. That starts at home by teaching our children how Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and soon return make sense of the world and of their lives, such as when a pit bull kills your kitty.

So Zane asked his questions, and made his objections, and I did my best to answer them.

 “This isn’t fair!”

Not, it’s not. But this reminds us that there is such a thing as fair and unfair. Beans’ death wasn’t fair. And this world isn’t fair, either. Not yet. It’s a world in rebellion against God. That’s why we need Jesus. He will make the world right again.

“Is Beans in heaven?”

I don’t know. But I believe God loves animals. He created them for a purpose. He made laws about how to take care of them. Jesus didn’t die on the cross only to save people. He died so that all creation could be renewed. I believe there will be animals in the kingdom, but I don’t know if Beans will be there.

“I hate Ace!”

Being angry is normal and right, especially in tragic moments like this. This isn’t how the world is supposed to be. You can be mad at that dog, but don’t be angry at your friends. It’s not their fault. They’re just little kids who are as horrified as you are. We have to ensure they know we’re not blaming them for what the dog did.

“It’s not fair that Beans hardly got to live!”

No, it’s not fair. But Beans’ short life blessed our family. And I think we gave her a good life, even if it was only for a while.

“That dog is evil!”

He’s not evil. He didn’t choose to do something he knew was wrong. He was doing what his breed does. He’s not evil. But he is dangerous. And your mother and I will keep you guys safe from him.

“This is the worst thing to ever happen!”

It isn’t good. But it’s not the worst thing. Imagine if Ace had attacked and killed Scout. That would be much worse. Or can you imagine if you were a little kid and your parents were killed in a war? That would be one of the worst things ever. What happened to Beans is very sad. And it hurts. It should hurt. But maybe it should also help us see when other people are hurting.

“Why did this have to happen?”

I don’t think it had to happen. God didn’t cause this to happen. He doesn’t cause any evil to happen. Some people believe God does, but I don’t. Sometimes evil is senseless. Maybe it always is. Evil doesn’t have a purpose, the way that goodness has a purpose. But God can still bring good out of it. At the very least, this reminds us that we live in a sinful world and that Jesus is coming with a better one.

There were more questions to answer. But those were the big ones.

Pain is not foreign to the gospel. The gospel is a story about pain—the pain that entered the world and which the Son of Man endured so that creation could finally be free of pain.

God can use the pain of losing a pet to cut through the fog of cultural relativism and help a child long for the truth of better world when Jesus reigns, and death will be no more.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


One comment on “Is the Gospel Relevant to the Death of a Pet?”

  1. Dear Shawn and family, I am so sorry for your loss. May you sense the presence of the God of all comfort in this time of grief for Bean. Love and Prayers, Miss Tina
    ps - I am so glad that dog did not harm the children. Pit bulls are very dangerous dogs.

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