“God never intended death! Death in all its forms is a contradiction of God’s creation, and a result of sin!”
The preacher’s voice boomed out from the pulpit. He had been building up to this point for a good half hour, and I was ready to join his rhetorical heights with enthusiasm. But, as chance would have it, I had an itch on my arm. When I scratched it, I noticed some skin came away under my nail. Looking at that little bit of sloughed off skin, the spell was broken. This was death too. Was my skin cells’ death also a result of sin?
The preacher was talking about human death, of course. But every human’s life is dependent on the death of others. When I eat, I destroy life. Robert Farrar Capon has reasonably said, “A vegetarian creation is no answer. It is only our human chauvinism that is satisfied when literal bloodshed is ruled out. The lettuces still, in their own way, take a dim view of having to cease being lettuces; as they can, they fight it.”1 When I breathe, I inhale whole ecosystems of microbial organisms. The cells in my body are continually dying. During my fetal development, countless cells underwent a programmed death (called apoptosis) so that I could form normally. My ability to hear and see the preacher denounce death was dependent on the ongoing death of millions of perfectly healthy cells in my body.
So, perhaps the preacher’s statement “God never intended death!” was too strong. Perhaps there are only certain types of death that God did not intend.
When we begin to investigate the biblical claims, we can see that the preacher’s viewpoint—that death was never a part of creation before sin—is hardly clear and obvious. In the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God says “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Gen 3:22, NRSV). The implication is that the humans were made mortal with the potential for immortality if access to the tree of life was granted. Immortality was not inherent, but conditional.
Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, death itself is not seen as problematic. Untimely death is decried, but the peaceful deaths of those who were old and full of years, like Abraham or Jacob, are portrayed in non-tragic terms. The life and death of all creatures, and the food they provide each other, rests in God’s hands and are part of his good creation. Psalm 104:27-30 expresses it most eloquently:
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
Death as a normal part of creation was also echoed by Augustine. In his Literal Meaning of Genesis, he muses on why predation happens. His answer is typically matter-of-fact:
The answer, of course, is that one animal is the nourishment of another… To wish that this were otherwise would not be reasonable. For all creatures, as long as they exist, have their own measure, number, and order. Rightly considered, they are all praiseworthy, and all the changes that occur in them, even when one passes into another, are governed by a hidden plan that rules the beauty of the world and regulates each according to its kind.2
But even if some death is a natural part of creation we can be certain God never intended human death, right?
The strongest statements linking death to sin come from Paul’s writings:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. (Rom. 5:12)
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Cor. 15:21-22)
This is the very heart of the Gospel: sin brings death, and Christ brings life. Take this away, and there is not much of a point in being a Christian. But can this central tenet of the Gospel be true, while the biological observation that life depends on death also be true? I think it can by a simple distinction: death without sin, physical death, was intended by God, but death with sin—physical death caused by or touched by spiritual death—was not.
Why do I think this?
First, recognize that Paul’s language is pretty flexible when it comes to what he means by “death.” In Romans 7:9-11, Paul writes:
I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
It is an odd thing for a dead man to write a letter. Whatever he meant that sin “killed me,” Paul did not mean that he experienced the cessation of metabolic processes in his somatic cells. Similarly in 1 Corinthians 15:31 he talks about dying daily, and how the body must be sowed in the ground like seed so that it can be raised again. Paul does write about physical death, but he writes as often about a death that cannot be reduced to the one-time physical event: spiritual death. This is the death that entered with sin.
Second, the heart of the Gospel itself actually shows that mere physical death is not the result of sin. After all, we believe that Jesus deals with our sin problem: completely, totally, once-and-for-all. But Christians still die physically. In one of the most moving accounts in the Gospels, Jesus visits the village of Bethany shortly after Lazarus’ death. He speaks to Martha in her grief and says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11: 25-26, italics mine). Even Jesus allows that there is a death that can be experienced that nevertheless will leave the person alive. This “though they die, will live” death is the counterpart to the physical life that one experiences when one is dead in sin. The Gospel is about a living death being replaced by a death-proof life. But the death-proof part does not mean “will not pass through death,” but “even death will not destroy.”
Third, physical death would be experienced differently if there were no spiritual death. In the lives of some saints we perhaps get a taste of the original intention of death: a willing and joyful surrender into the waiting arms of God. Painful still, yes, agonizing even, but that is a normal thing for a birth. The goodness of God can be present even in death.
When we consider death, one of the complexities is that there are many different kinds of death. There is the “invisible” death of our cells, which contributes to our life. There is the visible but necessary death that we cause when we eat. There is the physical death due to all mortal beings. And there are also many types of death deeply impacted by sin. Each type of death requires its own theological evaluation, and when we look at Scripture we see some of these various types discussed in very different ways. Sometimes the types merge and overlap or it is unclear which type is being discussed. Death is perfectly natural and we rely on it every day. At the same time, our experience of death is deeply affected by sin. Death may be intended by God, but not always in its present form.
There is one more type of death that God certainly does intend. Jesus said: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”3 Calling for people to take up their crosses and follow a crucified Messiah, the Gospel can be summarized as a call to come and die. While death may have become an enemy to be defeated, it paradoxically remains the doorway to new life. But this dying-to-live is a theme I leave to the preachers of tomorrow, hoping they will be more nuanced than the preachers of yesterday.