This article traces the process of butterfly metamorphosis and points out spiritual parallels to human salvation as soul transformation.
The small blue butterflies gracefully hovered over the young shoots of the cycad (trunkless plant with palm-like leaves). While I knew it spelled trouble for the new shoots, the fragile, gentle, seemingly defenseless creatures fascinated me.
Butterflies come in various colours, shapes and sizes. Watching the flight of a colourful butterfly from flower to flower cannot help but elicit a sense of awe and wonder. Our marvel may increase as we reflect on where the beautiful butterfly came from – a clumsy, earthbound caterpillar that during its maturing stages can be highly destructive. And yes, the tender shoots of the cycad were indeed devoured by the caterpillars hatched from the eggs laid by the blue butterflies.
It’s not surprising that the transformation of an unsightly crawling caterpillar into a strikingly beautiful airborne butterfly has been seen in spiritual terms – such as a symbol of the transfiguration of the human soul at death. Indeed, analogies can be drawn between the transformation that occurs in the life cycle of a butterfly and the spiritual destiny of humanity as alluded to in the Holy Scriptures and other spiritual writings.
Life Cycle of a Butterfly
A butterfly life cycle consists of four basic stages – egg, caterpillar (larva), pupa (chrysalis), and adult butterfly. Only a small percentage of the eggs develop into a butterfly because of the complexity of the process and the numerous dangers along the way. Nonetheless, the transformation from a caterpillar to butterfly is awe-inspiring.
The life cycle begins with the mating of a male and female of the same species. In some species, males and females look very similar. There are also similarities between butterflies of unrelated species, therefore finding a suitable partner is a challenge.
In the process of mating, the male passes to the female a package containing sperm as well as nutrients for the eggs and for the female herself – a so-called “nuptial gift”. This essential package, created over a period of time, can have up to half the weight of the butterfly.
After mating, the female must locate an appropriate host plant in a place with favourable conditions – another complex course of action. She then lays eggs on a leaf (or another suitable surface) that will supply food to the offspring once they have hatched.
In about five days, the caterpillars (larvae) emerge and start feeding, quickly increasing in size. Caterpillars consume huge amounts of plant food and can leave a bush or a tree bare. They grow at an almost exponential rate and are able to gain over 3000 times their original weight!
As it grows, each caterpillar sheds its skin (molts) several times. The periods between molts are called instars, and each instar may be characterized by a different appearance. At the end of the last instar, the caterpillar turns into a pupa.
During the last instar phase and the time in the pupa, a period of several weeks, a complete reorganization of body parts takes place. The caterpillar body is dissolved and a butterfly body is assembled from previously undifferentiated cells – an astounding marvel of nature. At the end of this period, the pupa splits and the butterfly is almost ready to start its new life. Before it can fly, however, the wings need to be expanded by pumping body fluid through the veins. The fluid is then withdrawn so that the wings can dry. Only then is flight possible.
While the caterpillar grew phenomenally, the butterfly does not grow. Its main functions are to pollinate flowers and to reproduce. It needs quality food, however, to have sufficient energy for flying. In contrast to the caterpillar stage, the butterfly also has excellent sensory capabilities – sight, smell and touch.
A great variety in appearance, lifestyle and behaviour exists among the eggs, caterpillars, pupae and butterflies of the more than 18,000 butterfly species. Diversity is found even within the same species living in different areas. Butterflies also have complex relationships with other creatures and the environment.
These extraordinary creatures have fascinated humanity for millennia. The ancients saw butterflies as symbols of the psyche, soul, mind, resurrection and purity. The next section examines from a biblical perspective and personal reflections how this remarkable insect can give us insights into the human life and our destiny beyond this life.
The butterfly life cycle starts with the male finding a suitable partner of the same species to mate with. Mating is the result of mutual attraction and compatibility. While the analogy breaks down, certain similarities can be seen between the searching butterfly and a truth seeker desiring a close relationship with a Higher Power – in whatever way they understand it.
In the process of mating, the male butterfly gives the female a “nuptial gift” – a provision for her and the offspring. This can be compared to the gift of the Holy Spirit we receive upon repentance and deciding to submit our will to God’s will. The Holy Spirit imparts Divine Love into the human heart and soul, which is a beginning of one’s union with God. The Spirit / Divine Love provides for our spiritual needs and guarantees our future resurrection to glory and immortality – or “butterfly emergence” in the Celestial Kingdom of God.
The egg stage can be compared to human conception and birth. Every person starts as a fertilized ovum (or egg). Just as the female butterfly provides a place for its offspring where food is abundant, the human embryo and then foetus is fed and nurtured inside the mother where it grows and develops sufficiently to be born into the world.
There is also a spiritual analogy here. The created child of God, once he or she partakes of God’s Love, analogous to the fertilizing sperm, starts a journey to becoming a true child of God and a divine angel. The Divine Love brings about a spiritual transformation of the soul from a divine image into divine substance.
The rapidly growing caterpillar stage, comprising a number of sub-stages (instars) separated by molts or skin shedding, may be seen to represent this earthbound life consisting of several distinct stages – infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Rapid physical growth and development occur in the early stages. During adulthood, we grow in wisdom, kindness and compassion. With growth, maturing and aging, appearance also changes.
Once on a spiritual journey, a person may also proceed through rapid or not so rapid progression. Circumstances may affect the rate of spiritual growth. There can be ups and downs and even periods of seeming retrogression, which may be stepping stones to further progress.
The caterpillar goes through several stages of transformation during its lifespan. Interestingly, it is able to slow down or delay going from one stage to the next – a phenomenon called diapause. As humans, we are intended to grow spiritually and become transformed by the renewing of our mind and heart/soul. Yet, not unlike the caterpillar, we can resist making needed changes to which we are led by God, our spirit guides, other people, or circumstances.
The caterpillar stage can be very destructive in that whole trees and bushes may be denuded and even killed. History shows how humans can also be extremely greedy and destructive to their environment and one another.
This stage of the butterfly life cycle faces many dangers and obstacles, such as being eaten by predators, becoming a source of food for the larvae of parasitoids that lay their eggs inside the caterpillar, or failing to get to another food source after exhausting the previous one. To compensate for its vulnerabilities, the caterpillar has multiple survival strategies, which include camouflage, warning colours to deter predators, or a silken thread on which it can drop off of a leaf and thus escape.
While at times some of us may feel invincible, human life too is fragile and can be quickly and unexpectedly snuffed out or significantly impaired. Our defenses include using knowledge and wisdom to avoid (as much as possible) dangerous situations. The Scriptures also describe spiritual defense apparatus for our use – the Holy Spirit and “the armour of God”, which consists of truth, righteousness, faith, the hope of salvation, the word of God, and continuous prayer. Additionally, we are promised a way of escape when a situation becomes too difficult to bear – a spiritual version of the silken thread.
Differences exist in appearance, lifestyles and behaviour among and even within the thousands of butterfly species. The same is true of humanity. While we are all of one species, we too differ in appearance, lifestyles and behaviour. And, like butterflies, we also have complex relationships with our environment, including each other, the plant kingdom, and other living creatures.
Unlike butterflies, we are not programmed by instinct to successfully deal with one another and other species, but rather are given free will and the accompanying responsibility to choose our attitude and behaviour toward others and our surroundings. If we fail to act in respect, love and tolerance toward fellow humans, other creatures, and the environment, we inevitably bring problems and potential disaster on ourselves and others.
During the last instar and the pupal stage, a reorganization of body parts occurs – the caterpillar parts disintegrate and new butterfly parts are formed. The pre-pupal stage can be compared to our aging – time when some of our body processes cease and we lose certain capabilities due to degeneration of organs. The pupal stage can be analogous to physical death – a cessation of life as we know it, characterized by such activity as physical movement, food intake, elimination, and thought processes. A disintegration of the physical body occurs over time – where ultimately it ends as dust.
The Scriptures reassure us, however, that there is hope beyond death. They speak of a resurrection to a new, eternal, life – which on the one hand may have similarities with this life, yet also be very different. Like the butterfly compared to the caterpillar, we will transcend our earthbound existence – and then greatly exceed what can be done through modern technology, have far more highly developed senses, and achieve exceedingly more than we could have ever dreamt.
Jesus Christ is the pioneer of our salvation – he was the first to experience the gift of Divine Love and brought the news that this gift was now available to humanity for the asking. He is the Master of the Celestial Kingdom of God, and once we enter the Kingdom as born-again children of God (or metaphorically, full-fledged butterflies), our future appearance will be similar to his – though not quite as brilliant. Yet, we will have a new and glorious body with increasing brilliance as we grow in God’s Love and soul progression. Our future appearance will resemble his – and we shall see him as he is, for we shall be like him. He could appear and disappear at will, transcend physical barriers, and manifest in glory – with his face and body shining as the brightness of the sun. He could foresee events and knew what people were thinking. We will no longer be selfish, greedy and destructive, but rather, like Jesus and other redeemed children of God, abounding in love, kindness and grace. 
Quoting butterfly researcher, Jo Brewer: “The science of butterflies is neither dull nor dogmatic. It is like the unfolding of a mystery, the ending of which is not known until the last page is turned.” The same is true of life – we will not know its ultimate outcome till we reach the final stage. Until then, may we each follow the Holy Spirit imparting Divine Love into our hearts in working out our salvation, looking in faith and hope to the time when our metamorphosis is complete and when, like the butterfly, we will transcend this earthbound existence and be able to soar to new, previously undreamt of heights.
 John 14:20; 17:23; Acts 2:38; 10:45; Romans 8:26; Philippians 1:19; Colossians 1:27
 2 Chronicles 10:6-11; Job 32:6-9
 2 Peter 3:18; Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:22-27, 30; Acts 7:51; 1 Thessalonians 5:19
 Ephesians 6:11-18; 1 Corinthians 10:13
 Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:43-44; Luke 24:13-43; Revelation 1:12-18; 1 John 3:2
 Jo Brewer is a co-author with her husband, Dave Winter, of Butterflies and Moths – A Companion to Your Field Guide (Phalarope Books) and author of other books on butterflies.
 Philippians 2:12-16; Galatians 5:22-25; Romans 8:13-17, 28-32; Ephesians 1:13-14
© Eva Peck, 2013, 2022
Photo Credit: Alex Peck
This and similar stories of how the physical can illustrate spiritual realities can be found in my three books Divine Reflections downloadable from this website.
Related articles on this website:
Divine Plan of Salvation
A New Hope – Reflections on Natural Love and Divine Love (PDF book)
Salvation as New Birth
At-Onement with God (PDF)
Pentecost-Holy Spirit-Divine Love (PDF)
Bible as the Word of God