There are many facets to death and death is a character of many hats. Death wears a natural hat and a spiritual hat, both of which I will address. My proposition I want to make a case for is that death is designed by God.
First point of discussion, natural death. Natural death will, of course, entails theological implications. This is also an issue of fine-tuning. Does death happen today? Yes. Does decay happen today? Yes. Via astronomical inquiry can we see if the physics of the universe have ever changed? Yes. Have they? No. I think there can be a strong case for a geological inquiry, but because I believe an astronomical inquiry ultimately encompasses a geological study, we shall include that. Being that death and decay were predetermined by the laws of physics (that God created and designed), we have an issue don’t we? If we assume that death is bad and had never been intended, then why did God create a universe of inevitable death? I think the answer is quite obvious and that is that we were never intended to live forever in this universe. Well, okay, but that only puts the question back a step. Why is there still death in this creation? Why do animals and humans die? I mean, death entered the world as a result of sin, right?
Let’s have a thought experiment. If Adam, before sin, had tripped and fell on a big sharp rock and cut his head open, would he die? Think about it, the neurological and cranial damage would be tremendous and even if that wasn’t damaged, there is still the risk of infection. What if Adam wanted to enjoy a swim in the river, what if he got a cramp and couldn’t swim anymore and drowned? I hear the objections already, “Well God could alter the physics or perform a miracle,” or, “Adam would have seen that rock or would have known not to swim at that time.” Sure, these are possible, but not plausible. I think those objections won’t work because you have a problem of a theodicy on your hands, why wouldn’t God interfere with Adam sinning? Both were free decisions. Also, you have a problem of noetic sin if you play the cognitive card. Was Adam’s cognitive faculty super human (in comparison to today’s faculty) in that he would have known where all the big and sharp rocks were and would he have known where to step and what to do and when to do it to avoid any harm? I think both objections are too ad hoc and are cases of special pleading.
I think it’s obvious that death occurs/could have occurred prior to the fall (personally, I believe non-human death did happen before the fall). The death of plants and animals are crucial for health ecosystems (see William Lane Craig give an example). Butterflies, grass, plants, bacteria, and all animals are not moral agents and thus, the consequence of the fall, the entrance of sin into the world, did not apply to those things listed. The penalty of death into the world for humans is a spiritual one (and a physical one, God removed the tree of life, which we see returns in the new creation Rom. 5.12; Rev. 22). In conclusion, natural death is good and is necessary in light of thermodynamics and healthy ecosystems.
Though theology was briefly discussed in the previous facet, this point will entail the personal impact and understanding of death and how it relates to God. Let me try to bring this to a reality. This past week a Liberty student died in an extremely improbable accident. One of the last Facebook posts for the student was,
It’s awesome when you follow God in what he is calling you to do. I got an internship doing social work and a possible summer internship as well. God is so great and he truly has a bigger plan for you than what you have for yourself. (Not verbatim, words and structure changed for privacy).
Remember, this student died just a few days later! Read the last sentence again, “God is so great and he truly has a bigger plan for you than what you have for yourself.” She thought she was doing social work, but no, that wasn’t it at all. God had a greater plan, and I do believe that. I believe that God’s bigger plan was her death at that time. We often say, “God has a purpose,” but do we understand what that means? If death is teleological, purposeful, it was also designed. Now let’s put this in a bigger perspective of divine providence. God has designed and purposed every person’s death at an appropriate time. If death wasn’t designed then it has no purpose, and if it has no purpose then God is not truly providential if something is to happen outside of his control. Death certainly has a facet of mourning and sorrow. We just lost someone who we will no longer be with in this life. We see the dreams our loved one and how they will never be able to seen or fulfilled. We naturally see it that way, we’re going to miss those who die. Ecclesiastes 3 says there’s a time for everything, for mourning and weeping and a time for celebration and rejoicing. Let’s think eternally, our loved one’s joy and ultimate dream is being fulfilled in the next life, not this life’s dreams, but an eternal desire and glorification of the self to be with Christ. The mourning must turn to rejoicing for that person. However, we are still here in this life and our pain may continue on and we may never know why that person died. We may never have closure and we may have thorn in our side our whole life wondering, “Why?” I wish I could answer that for you, but I can’t.
So why does God allow pain and suffering? I don’t know and I don’t think we can know. We are not spatiotemporally privileged enough to know why God permitted something to happen. As long as humans are free and responsible for their actions, God is all powerful, and God is all knowing, then I cannot ask God, “Why?” without him asking me the same question in return. Pain and suffering isn’t an illusion, it’s really there, but we must take comfort in the God who knows what we don’t. So why does God allow death? Because he designed and purposed death to happen so that he may usher in the new creation and a new life. The metanarrative (for the lack of a better word) of life and death is incredibly beautiful. Ecologically, death must happen so that life may happen. Theologically, death is necessary for us to have life. Christ had to die so that we may live. Die to yourselves daily so that we may live in him! What a beautiful design. I must say, the design of life is the most beautiful design ever, but the design of death is beautiful as well. It’s ironically comforting, to be able to know that death brings life. Let’s not be naive, unless you’re in an intimate relationship with this providential designer, death is horrifying and the end to all things beautiful. The design of death isn’t beautiful to the lost and perishing. It’s beautifully just, yes, but only Christ’s death allows death to be the comfort that it is.
The book of Ecclesiastes