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God Squad: Your funeral can feature your pets - up to a point

Q: I am an animal lover and at the age of 81, sometimes I think about planning my funeral. Over the years and many four-legged children, we have quite a collection of ashes, as each was cremated. Can I have their ashes mixed with my dirt and used to cover my grave? There will be at the least two dogs and one horse.

—From W in Ocala, Florida

A: My grandfather was a zookeeper. We have raised guide dogs for the blind. I stand with you and with all animal lovers ... however, I think a line is crossed when we refer to animals as "four-legged children." I love animals as you do, but I do not love them the way I love my family. I suspect and I hope that you are just exaggerating your love for your pets to make the point that you want them near you even in death. For us to keep love true, we must make love appropriate.

Now, on to your question of mixing their ashes and using the mixture to cover your grave. I approve. I would not approve of your cremated ashes being mixed with your pets' ashes; but mixing their ashes with the earth that will be used to cover your grave seems to me a tender act of love. Go ahead, but you might want to follow my advice: 1) Wait until you die before doing this, and 2) do it discreetly and without having your pets' names announced at your eulogy. You don't want the clergyperson to say, "Today we bury Fred and Bongo the horse." Some people might not understand. But if your actual children who visit your grave want to bring a carrot along with flowers or a pebble, I will understand. God bless our four-legged friends.

Q: Is there any possibility that we have no free will? Could God control our every thought and action, causing us to act like robots? Is there any evidence that this is not true?

—From J in Wilmington, North Carolina

A: Yes, J. It is possible that free will is an illusion. Yes, it is possible that God controls our every thought and action causing us to act like robots. There are, however, several problems with this possibility.

The first problem with the possibility that God controls everything we do is that God seems to be doing a really poor job. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful and all good, there seems to be no good reason the world is filled with so much evil and so many bad choices.

The second problem with a world without free will is that nobody would be morally responsible for their bad choices. It would all be God's fault. We humans would merely be "robots" — and robots are not moral agents. Robots cannot be held responsible for what they do. Moral accountability requires free will.

The third problem is that the Bible explicitly teaches us that we do have free will precisely because God wants us to grow into our humanity and accept moral responsibility for our actions.

The first text that clearly addresses free will is the Garden of Eden narrative. Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit from the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." The act that humanizes them is an act of acquiring moral free will. Now there is a Christian problem with the Eden texts that was highlighted in a roaring 16th-century debate between Erasmus and Martin Luther. Erasmus thought that people had free will. Luther thought that since the eating of the forbidden fruit was the original sin, people could never use their free will to overcome sin. People were doomed without the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus and thus were not really accountable for their sins.

A more direct and definitive text bearing on the biblical teaching about free will is from Deuteronomy 30:19 (King James Version), "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." So God has set before us a choice between good and evil, life and death, and expects us to use our free will to make the choice of life.

I do not know, nor can anyone know with absolute certainty, whether free will is real or just an illusion in a fatalistic universe, but I do know without a shadow of a doubt that I can only live in a world where I am not God's robot, but God's partner.

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