What place does death have in the world?
Why do we die?
Why do things break and fall apart and decay? Why is there destruction?
As Christians, we have been taught that because of sin, death entered into the world. And that because of the one sin of Adam and Eve, all humankind was cursed to sin and to suffer and to die. This is what we call the Fall of Man and Original Sin. Because of that original sin committed by our first parents in the Garden of Eden, all of humankind and all of creation is fallen. And this is why we experience pain and suffering and this is why we die.
We have also been taught that as humans, we have only existed on earth for a relatively short period of time. Scientific findings place the existence of Homo sapiens to go back for only about 200,000 years. During that time, humans increased in knowledge of themselves and of the world around them. At the same time, throughout those 200,000 years humans experienced death. Their bodies experienced sickness and decay and they died, just like every other plant and animal on the face of the earth.
So at what point do we say death entered into the human condition? Evidence would say that death existed long before humans were formed. Our pre-human ancestors lived and died much as we do now. And their ancestors did the same. The Neanderthal was a close cousin to Homo sapiens. Neanderthals were very much like humans. They wore clothing, they communicated verbally, they participated in art, and they had an awareness of the spiritual. These creatures were so human-like, and yet they were not fully human. Their genetic code was certainly different from Homo sapiens, and yet similar enough that both species seemed to experience life in much the same way. Neanderthals were certainly sentient beings, and yet they were not truly human.
What are we to do with this? Both humans and Neanderthals, as well as the several other more fully evolved species of primates I have not mentioned, experienced death. They mourned for their dead, they suffered from pain when they were injured, they experienced sickness and frustration. All of these things have been blamed on the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, all of these things have been blamed on Homo sapiens, and yet, all of these things existed before Homo sapiens were created. Humans and Neanderthals and the other similar species all had a common ancestor – one also considered a primate. This primate also experienced death, yet this ancestor did not experience death in the same way. This creature was incapable of seeing the world in the same ways in which his human and Neanderthal descendants could. His brain was not designed to comprehend these greater intricacies of the created order. He could not ponder death and pain in the same way his descendants would. He was truly an animal without sentience. And while he may have been able to recognize to a certain extent the tragedy of death and the sorrow all creatures experience when a loved one dies, he did not experience these things in a fully cognizant way. His life depended upon instinct and upon his sensory capabilities. He experienced life through his senses, and while he did think, his thought could only go so far before his baser instincts kicked in. This was what he was created to be.
And yet this study of the evolution of the genetic code of primates fails to answer the question of where death came from. We believe that death entered the world through the sin of people, and yet death obviously existed at the time of this primate ancestor, before humans existed. We cannot say that this ancestor is the cause of the suffering we experience in the world, for he was not capable of the sin which we believe brought death into the world. As Wesleyans, we often say we believe that sin is only truly a sin if it is committed willingly and if the person who commits the sin is aware of what they are doing and that what they are doing is wrong. Surely, humans and Neanderthals and the like were capable of this kind of sin, and surely this primate ancestor was not. He was not capable of sin, because he was not aware of the ability to sin. So if we are to blame death on sin, we cannot blame it on him because he did not sin, and if we are to blame death on the specific sin of humans, we also run into trouble because death existed before humans, before creatures were capable of sinning.
And yet we cannot, as some have, just throw out centuries of church theology and millennia of progress in understanding how we relate to God and how our sin separates us from God and how death interacts with sin – not to mention the restorative work of Christ, which of all things oddly tends to be the most ridiculed by secularists. But at the same time, we cannot simply deny the evidence that science has given us, as others have, and say that evolution is a lie and the earth is only 6,000 years old while completely ignoring the overwhelming genetic and archaeological evidence against such claims.
As Wesleyans, we are not Fundamentalists. We believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God, but we do not mistake the word of God for the Word of God, which is Christ. We believe in the truth of the Bible, but we believe more so in the truth that is revealed in Christ. We do not believe that God simply dictated the words of Scripture to the people who wrote them down. We believe that those who wrote the Bible used their own minds and skills and incorporated their own thoughts and ideas into its pages while at the same time being influenced and led in a certain direction by the Sprit of God. This gives us room to say that perhaps some of things we read in the Bible reflect not so much the way God saw the world, but rather the way humans interacted with God within their own limited historical and cultural settings. If one were to take the Creation accounts in Genesis, for example, on a completely literal level, then one would have to conclude that the sky is actually a great glass dome overlooking the earth, behind which can be seen a great mass of blue water. Science has disproved this theory long ago, but this does not mean that the story is just a bunch of falsehoods and should not be trusted. On the contrary, this story paints a picture of the all-powerful God who created the heavens and the earth by his own will and love, and it shows how his image is stamped over all of his creation, and how people out of all of the creation were chosen to interact with God in a special way. All of these timeless truths are portrayed in a poetic way in Genesis, a way that the people of the time could easily remember. In addition to this, these truths are forever engraved upon an ancient near eastern understanding of the world, which believed in such things as the sky dome. These elements of the story do not detract from its intended message, even though some get overly distracted by them, rather they show how God has revealed himself in all generations, even to ancient near eastern people who did not fully understand the way the world operated on a grand scale, just as God continues to reveal himself today to us who do not fully understand the way the world operates on a grand scale.
And yet after all this time, we still do not have an answer as to exactly why death exists and how exactly the sin of humans is related to death. We believe that sin causes death, but what do we exactly mean when we say that? Death can have many different forms after all. Do we mean to say that all forms of death are a result of human sin? Do we believe that death came into existence because of sin? Or do we believe that the end result of sin is death? Does death truly exist in and of itself? Or is death merely the absence of life and all that truly does exist? Perhaps what we mean when we say that sin leads to death is that when we sin we die spiritually. Our sin cuts us off from the life-giving Spirit of God. So in a very real sense, our souls are being led to death when we sin. So maybe when we say that sin leads to death, what we are really saying is that our soul is dying when we sin.
However, this leads some other problems. While it is very true that our souls are dying when we sin, there is more to death than just a spiritual death. Some may argue that the spirit and soul of a person is all that matters, so a spiritual salvation from death is all that is required, but that ignores that fact that as humans we have been created to exist in both a spiritual and a physical sense. We are both physical and spiritual beings, and this cannot be ignored. The Gnostics believed that people were created from sinful matter, and the only way we could be free from sin was to die and live on as an eternal soul, but such an understanding denies the inherent goodness of God’s creation. We believe that God created everything good, and that this is not limited to some concept about an eternal soul. God made the physical as well as the spiritual, and he made both good. If we truly believe that, then what do we say when we say that sin only leads to spiritual death and not physical death? When we say that, we say that physical death is not truly bad. If only spiritual death is the result of sin, then that would mean that physical death must have come to be a reality by some other means. But do we really want to say this? Everything within us screams that when we lose a loved one, or when we are forced to see a loved one suffer physical pain or when we experience physical pain and suffering ourselves, that this is not the way things should be. If the creation was truly created good and our sin only leads to spiritual pain and death, then what is the deal with all of the physical suffering and death that we see? Where did all of that come from? And why do we resist it with all of our being? Something deep inside us tells us that it is all terribly wrong. And yet physical death and decay are a part of nature. Without physical death, the creation would not exist as it does. The created order is full of cycles and one of these cycles is the death of all things. As the creation continues to recreate and to replenish itself, it continues to discard the old and that which is no longer needed in order to make space for new creation. Is that all that physical death is? Is it just a natural part of the way the universe exists? Everything dies and decays after all – from people, to animals, to plants, to planets, to stars, to galaxies. And yet everything continues on regardless of death. People create more people before they eventually die. Plants make more plants. Even stars have a reproductive cycle. It would appear that everything in the universe was made with the purpose of eventually recreating itself in one way or another. Is physical death then, the way that nature makes room for new creations? Does physical death eliminate that which is less complete in order to replace it with something more complete? And what does such a belief say about us when we die? Are we to believe that the reason we die is to make room for better people, a more complete creation than we are, to come after us? Again, this type of thinking can also lead us into many additional problems.
While the evidence may lead us to believe that the natural way of the universe tends towards “survival of the fittest,” and while we cannot rule out such a claim, we must also recognize that such an understanding is limited when it comes to understanding death. We may be led to believe that physical death on its own is a good thing because it has helped lead to the creation which we see today and has driven the creation towards perfection. But does a natural physical death truly lead to a better creation, or just a different creation than what previously existed? Does death really make anything better? Or does it simply eliminate what nature perceives as lesser? One could argue that death not only eliminates the lesser and the imperfect, but it also eliminates that which is good. If we truly believe that the physical world was created good then why would anything in it need to be destroyed? And what are we to believe about ourselves? If God truly loves us, then why would he create us to die? While it might be easier for some to believe that death naturally occurs in creation in general, it is more difficult to claim that sentient beings such as humans, beings which we believe God loves personally and on an individual level, have been created to die and be replaced by other humans. Maybe that is how creation was meant to exist up to the point some branches of the primate family tree became sentient beings, but what about after this? Why does God let people die?
Perhaps the answer lies at the point in which the creation became sentient – the point at which the ancestors of homo sapiens and like-minded creatures were first given sentience. One could argue that a creature that cannot experience death on a cognizant level cannot ever have a problem with death. While a non-sentient animal can still experience death and pain on a sensory level, it does not ever have to wrestle with the meaning of life and death. However, we, as sentient beings, do. And this continues to beg the question, why do people experience physical death? It also causes one to wonder how deep physical death stings us, and not us only, but the rest of creation as well. We believe pain and anguish to be a bad thing on a cognizant level, but we also experience pain and anguish on an emotional and sensory level and it causes great unpleasantness to the point at which we recognize through our cognitive abilities that pain is a bad thing – not just because have the ability process that fact with our minds, but because our sensory bodies naturally feel that way when they are injured. This is true not just for us, but for the rest of the animal world. It is not just humans who dread pain and destruction. Animals also dread it on a very deep, though less cognizant, level.
So what does that lead us to conclude? It would seem then that while physical death is a natural part of the physical creation, it is also for some reason natural for the creation to fight against death. Why then is there this contradiction? One could perhaps say that without this resistance to death, the creation would summarily succumb to death. Without the natural tendency of the creation to resist death, death would be all that would remain and there would be no creation. If then, it is so important that the creation resist death so as never to fully succumb to it, why is death necessary at all? If God is the creator of the creation, then why did he allow a creation that includes death?
Perhaps the reason why death exists in the physical world is because God had in mind to create humans – people made in his image who would have the ability to think for themselves, fully sentient beings. Perhaps God recognized from the beginning that once sentient beings were created, they would immediately have the ability to distinguish between two different ways of thinking and living, two different paths if you will. A sentient being would be capable of recognizing the difference between good and evil, and would also be capable of choosing which path to follow. A sentient being would have the ability to perceive with the mind what the rest of creation could only perceive through sensory input abilities. It would be able to perceive with the mind that which other animals only recognized by instinct. A sentient being would have the ability to go against instinct to the point of making decisions that would affect the rest of creation on a grand scale. A sentient being would be able to recognize death and destruction with its mind, and more than that, would be able to choose whether or not to reject death and destruction, or to embrace it. A sentient being would also have the ability to recognize others of its own kind and love them and be able to ponder his or her responsibility towards protecting them as well as his or her responsibility to the rest of the creation, the choice to treasure or to abuse. It would seem then that these first sentient beings right on down the present state of sentient beings in us as humans chose to try both paths. From that point on down to the present time, they have always wanted both the good and the bad. They have wanted everything. They wanted power over good and evil, and the power to decide what was good and what was evil. In other words, these first sentient beings, whose sentience has continued on in Homo sapiens for the past 200,000 years, have wanted to play the part of God. We have wanted to be masters over good and evil. People over the millennia have chosen to both treasure and to abuse each other as well as the rest of creation. As a result, the entire creation has become what we might refer to as “fallen,” to the point that even other animals fear humans and have the ability to be influenced by humans for better or for worse. It would seem that animals in today’s world have developed in such a way as to become permanently subject to humankind in many different ways. The mental abilities of many animals can even mimic those of the humans who interact with them. Animals in turn can experience shame or happiness or fear or hatred at the sight of a human, depending upon their interaction with humans.
What does this have to do with the presence of physical death in the creation? It would seem that God allows physical death in the creation in order to destroy that which is not good. It would seem that God recognized that when he created sentient beings that they would have the ability to choose between good and evil, and that they would choose both good and evil. This attempt to replace God by being masters over both good and evil is what led to what we would call spiritual death among people, in which the human soul is cut off from the life-giving Spirit of God, from which it came. Because people would experience spiritual death would seem to be the reason why physical death was also allowed to continue. God will not allow spiritual death to reign over people forever. This is why people experience physical death – so that their spiritual death will not remain in the creation. What about those who desired good more than the bad? We believe that God is gracious and that he does not want any person to be destroyed. What he wants to destroy is sin, and the reason for that is because sin destroys us, we who are his good creation. Sin must be destroyed in us before it is allowed to destroy us itself. Because of our desire to be master over both good and evil, we have become a self-destructive creation. Paul in the book of Romans writes that all of creation has been subjected to frustration because of us. Our sin has changed the course of natural history. Paul also writes that it is through Christ, who was God in the flesh, fully God and fully human, who committed no sin, that the creation may be restored. It is through Christ that we have the ability to become “children of God.” It is through Christ that our bondage and tendency towards sin is broken, and it is through his death and resurrection that we are set free from sin and death. We are not only set free from spiritual death and separation from God, which is what we call “hell,” but we are also set free from physical death. Christ physically rose from dead, and because of this we will also be physically raised from the dead. When Christ ascended into heaven forty days after his bodily resurrection, he was entering into God’s space. God’s space is separated from this space that we occupy on earth, but it is not far away. Through Christ, we have access to God’s space. Eventually, God’s space will be united with our space, and when this happened we will see that everything that was truly good about this world will never be destroyed. God’s good creation is eternal, both the physical and the spiritual creation. The reason physical death exists now is to provide for the ability to rid the created world of sin and everything that causes despair and separation from God. The final goal is essentially to remove hell from the creation and into its own space separate from God forever. All that was truly evil in creation, all that continually chose to reject God in the creation, and chose to reform itself into the image of hell (or the image of the absence of God) will be separated from everything that is good in creation. All that has become hell will be removed, and since it is the Spirit of God that sustains life, one could argue that in the absence of God’s Spirit, there would be no life, and in hell, all of creation that refused to submit to God’s redemption would cease to exist.
In the absence of sin and the desire to sin, we would then see a new creation, one where nothing good from the old creation was destroyed, where we would be reunited with loved ones who had previously died, and a place where death itself would be destroyed and there would no longer be any spiritual death for God would always be there, and there would no longer be any need for people to experience physical death, because sin would always be absent.
C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain. HarperCollins Pub., 1940.
NOVA. Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors. WGBH Boston, 2009.
St. Augustine. City of God, Book XIV.