The first time I heard the song must have been as I was weaving in and out of traffic. I was too impatient to wait for the DJ to name to title so with one eye on the road and the other on my phone I shazam’ed it. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by The Pixies. By far my favorite song from them. Their music is a mix of discordant sound, screaming, and catchy loops; normally not my cup of tea. But anytime someone mixes environmentalism, a great hook, and esoteric Hebrew numerology they’ve won my heart…wait, hold up–do monkeys really go to heaven?
I know, I know, it’s just a song. And from The Pixies no less. In an interview the writer boasted that after someone casually mentioned to him the numerical play that is partly what the song is based on he “didn’t go to the library and figure it out.” He took the idea, however accurate or incomplete it was, and ran with it. But still, it’s a good question: Do monkeys go to heaven?
I’ve seen documentaries of cute little monkeys grooming each other and humorous videos of them cleaning themselves by gently picking bugs off their fur and eating them. At times they act almost human. They show empathy toward animals that suffer and mothers lovingly raise their offspring. I’ve also seen them fling feces at visitors gazing at them from the other side of a plexiglass wall. But I’d be throwing poo around too if I were locked up in a zoo.
Apart from their cuteness and my sense of pity when I encounter them imprisoned, is there any reason to think that monkeys will go to heaven? This question tumbled through my mind refusing to go away to a quiet recess until I answered it.
The first thing I had to get straight was what I meant by “heaven.” We all have our own idea of what this place is. A city in the clouds that’s populated with naked babies, rows of singing saints in a blank void, or golden streets leading to a gigantic McMansion. None of these pictures are remotely close to how the Bible describes the “world to come.” Instead, it persistently presents heaven coming to earth. To be sure, there are many texts that refer to people rising up to the skies in order to enter the divine realm, or projecting their prayers upward, or the heavenly hosts coming down to earth. But these verses speak to our present reality, not the future one.
When we look at passages that address an eschatological horizon we read of heaven coming to earth. Perhaps the most prominent passage that conveys this idea is Revelation 21 in which the holy city descends from heaven and comes to rest on Jerusalem. It’s true that immediately before this the first heaven and earth are said to have passed away and that the author saw new ones in their place. This “newness” implies a qualitative difference between the world that we now experience and the one that will be in the future. But Christian tradition has maintained that there are strong continuities between them as well. Just as resurrected saints retain similarities with their former identity, so will the new heavens and earth, or better, renewed heavens and earth, retain similarities with the present ones.
The second thing that I had to understand was that animals were not created solely for human use. Animals have their own intrinsic value within God’s creation. Like rocks that cry out (Luke 19:40) and the sun, moon, and stars that praise God (Psalm 148:3), animals worship by being what they were created to be. For these reasons the Hebrew prophets envisioned humans and animals living together in the eschatological future. Here is Isaiah of Jerusalem’s description:
A day will come when the wolf will live peacefully beside the wobbly-kneed lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf and yearling, newborn and slow, will rest secure with the lion;
and a little child will tend them all.
Bears will graze with the cows they used to attack;
even their young will rest together,
and the lion will eat hay, like gentle oxen.
Neither will a baby who plays next to a cobra’s hole
nor a toddler who sticks his hand into a nest of vipers suffer harm.
All my holy mountain will be free of anything hurtful or destructive,
for as the waters fill the sea,
The entire earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal. (Isaiah 11:6-9, The Voice).
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this. I’m comforted by the idea that I’ll see my dogs again but I don’t know what I’ll say to the hundreds of animals that I’ve eaten for dinner over the years. It doesn’t seem like a simple “sorry” will cut it.
What I do know is that this picture fundamentally changes the way I relate to animals here and now. They aren’t disposable commodities that exist merely to satisfy my perceived wants and needs. They are creatures created by God just like me. The breath of life flows through their lungs as well as mine (compare Genesis 2:7 and 7:22). As creatures that give glory to God in their own unique ways they deserve care and respect. Even though I eat meat I believe that I have a responsibility to make sure that animals have a happy and flourishing life while they are alive. That’s why I make it a point to avoid animal products derived from the horrors of factory farms. I’m going to live with these creatures for ever. It’s enough that I eat some of them; it’s beyond the pale of responsibility that I’d facilitate their torture as well.
When I first heard the song I never knew that a chorus which chanted “This monkey’s gone to heaven” would lead me into such deep ethical and theological contemplations. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Life is where theology and ethics meet.
The quote in the second paragraph is from Marlene Goldman, “Here and There and Everywhere,” Alternative Press, Vol. IV, No 22 (September 1989).
For a discussion of Revelation 21 and the new heavens and earth see Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 126-143.
For a discussion of the reasons why animals were created see Richard Bauckham, Living With Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 96-98.
For more on how our diet affects the lives of animals either positively or negatively see Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006).