If you’re a pet lover, you know about Rainbow Bridge, a land of fields, flowers and eternal sunshine “just this side of heaven,” where deceased pets run to greet their owners. These days, the anonymous internet poem describing this place has become almost as beloved as if it were a piece of Scripture itself.

Of course, “Rainbow Bridge” isn’t Scripture. But the place it describes—a place where the dogs, cats and other animals we come to love here on earth live on in heavenly guise—has deep spiritual roots. In fact, it is one of the oldest spiritual ideas around.

Why a bridge? Countless myths and legends from around the world tell of a bridge separating this world from the next, a bridge that can be crossed only by a soul who has lived a good and pure life. Earth and heaven were once so close together, these myths suggest, that traveling between them was a simple and easy affair (as it is for the angels in Jacob’s vision of the heavenly ladder in Genesis).

But in the wake of the Fall, heaven and earth broke apart and the links between them grew ever weaker. Like the strands joining a piece of taffy that has been pulled in two, they finally grew so thin that the last of them broke and fell away.

With one exception. Though earth and heaven were now separated, one way—one bridge—still remained open between them. And it is this bridge that the soul of the deceased must cross if he or she is to get to heaven.

In certain mystical traditions, this bridge is said to be guarded by an angel who is, in fact, our heavenly self. If we have lived good lives, this angel is beautiful to look at and quickly and easily lets us pass on to the other world. But if we have lived badly down here on earth, the angel is frightening and terrible to behold, and lets us pass (if it does let us pass) only after a terrible and purifying struggle. The troll who guards the bridge that the three Billy Goats Gruff need to negotiate in the famous fairy tale is another version of this same figure.

In spiritual terms the bridge is the ultimate symbol of the fact that heaven, though separate from earth, isn’t out of reach completely. That’s why the great American poet Hart Crane chose a bridge (specifically one right here in New York City, Brooklyn Bridge) as the subject for his most famous poem, “The Bridge,” in which he longs for “one arc synoptic of all tides below.” In plainer words: a spiritual bridge that will join earth and heaven together again, once and for all.

Why a rainbow bridge? We have one man to thank for that. That man, of course, is Noah.

Everyone knows the story. God, tired of the mess that humans are making of things down here on earth, finally loses patience and releases a torrent of waters. Noah, warned by God of what is coming, builds an ark and gathers two of every animal on earth into it. When, after 40 days, the waters at last subside, God hangs a glorious arc of color across the heavens: the world’s first rainbow.

This bow in the sky stands as a promise. “I establish my covenant with you,” God says to Noah, “and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you.... I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.”

The repetitions in this passage (“every living creature,” “all that go out of the ark,” “all flesh”) are important. It’s not just Noah and his family that God is addressing in this speech. It’s all of creation. Not only will God never shut himself away from humankind again. Neither will he abandon any of the other living creatures with which we share the earth, either now or in the future.

In the end the question of who wrote “Rainbow Bridge” doesn’t matter all that much. Whether we see the poem as an exact description of what awaits us in the life to come, or whether we choose to see it more as a metaphor for a reality too great for us to fathom here below, the promise at work in this beloved piece of writing is one that we can take completely seriously. Nothing of what we love down here on earth is ever truly lost. Though this world is imperfect and fallen, there exists a place where the pain of that imperfection will be healed. Not just for humans, but for every creature, great and small.

That’s a promise.


Click here to learn about the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah.

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