"Do animals go to heaven? I hear a lot about people going to heaven, but what happens to animals when they die? What does the bible tell us about the spiritual afterlife of animals?", (Question from Patricia Sutter).
Animal life vastly outnumbers human life on this planet. This often leads us to wonder whether or not animals go to heaven. If animals don't go to heaven then where do they go? In other words, do animals have any kind of an afterlife?
The bible says very little about the spiritual nature of animals, much less where they go when they die. There are a few scriptures from which we can glean information, but none that explicity tell us about the spiritual afterlife of animals.
The fact that the bible doesn't directly tell us if animals go to heaven doesn't mean that it's a bad question, or that we shouldn't ask it. However, we probably shouldn't overly concern ourselves with the spiritual afterlife of animals. It is enough to know that God loves animals, and they do have value in his eyes, "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel" (Proverbs 12.10 KJV bible). We have to leave certain questions about the spiritual nature of animals in God's hands, trusting in his righteousness.
To understand whether or not animals go to heaven, we need to consider whether or not they can go to heaven. We know that heaven is a spiritual place, and not a building floating around in the sky. Therefore, to be able to go to heaven, an animal would need some kind of spiritual soul that continues on after death.
Solomon helps us to understand whether or not animals have souls in Ecclesiastes 3.18-22. He starts by speaking of the nature of flesh man, and how that he is like the animals of the earth, "I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts" (Ecclesiastes 3.18 KJV bible).
Solomon tells us that in the end, flesh man is nothing more than an animal. Some of us might have lofty notions of ourselves, but we are frail creature of flesh and blood, often living according to our own self-interests and desires. The end of both flesh man and animal is the same, and all are equal in death, "All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecclesiastes 3.20 KJV bible). Flesh man has no place above the beasts of the earth, because all are born, strive, and inevitably return to the dust.
However, Solomon tempers his statements by also recognizing that there is a deeper spiritual nature to both man and beast. There is a soul that continues on apart from the flesh, "Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 3.21 KJV bible). Solomon inquires into the mystery of the afterlife for both man and beast. He asks whether the spirit of man ascends upward, and the spirit of the beast descends downwards. In this question, he is recognizing a spiritual component or vestige to both man and beast. Solomon doesn't tell us where animals go when they die, but does indicate that animals have unique personal spirits that continue on after the flesh.
One passage that can help to fill in some of these gaps about animal life is Romans 8.18-23, "For the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now" (Romans 8.19-22 ASV bible).
There are many differing interpretations of Romans 8.18-23, and a lot that can be said about it. First we need to consider what Paul means here by the term "creation" (Greek: krisis). What is clear is that in referring to the creation or created thing, Paul is not talking about the children of God. He says that the creation looks forward to being liberated by them. Neither can Paul be referring to nonbelievers, as they will more or less receive wrath at the revelation of the sons of God, "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn..." (Matthew 24.30 KJV bible). Clearly the passage is not referring to mankind, but some other part or parts of the natural world.
While we don't know exactly what part of the natural world is meant by creation, Paul is most likely referring to plant and animal life. Paul says that the creation groans to be set free from the bondage of corruption. The nonliving parts of the world such as rocks, atmosphere and soil aren't subject to death and corruption, at least not in the normal sense. They change and deteriorate over time, but don't experience the travails of living creatures such as predation, stress, disease, and senescence. So in Romans 8, Paul is most likely referring to the collective desire of living creatures to be set free from the state of bondage and corruption to which God has subjected them.
So Romans 8 connects back with Ecclesiastes, and Solomon's description of the futility of the flesh. Similar to Ecclesiastes, Paul speaks of the vanity to which the creation has been subjected to, namely the transient nature of the flesh, "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever" (Isaiah 40.8 KJV bible). Therefore, Romans 8.18-23 tells us that on some level living creatures desire to be set free from their fleshly state of futility and corruption.
Now if we assume that animals and living creatures only exist in the flesh, then how is it possible that they desire the revelation of the sons of God? More specifically, why would they desire the Day of the Lord, when Christ will reign with the children of God?, "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (1st Peter 3.10 KJV bible).
The vanity and futility of the flesh will be brought to an end at the revelation of Christ and his Kingdom. If animals don't continue on at a spiritual level, then why would they long for their own destruction at the second advent? Clearly they long to exist at the spiritual level, and this will happen when they are freed from the bondage of corruption within the flesh.
So it is through the destruction of the world on the Day of the Lord, that the things of the world will be ultimately reconciled back to the one who created them, "And he [Christ] is before all things, and by him all things consist...And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven" (Colossians 1.17,20 KJV bible). This is why the creation collectively desires the revelation of the sons of God. Christ's return, and the tearing down of the current order, will lead to the things of the world being reconciled back to their creator.
All things considered we know very little about the spiritual nature and afterlife of animals. There is no biblical refererence to anything other than people dying and going to heaven. However, the bible does indicate that animals do have a spiritual existence beyond the flesh. It also tells us that they collectively long for the time when they will be reconciled back to their creator.