Sunday, August 5, 2007

Is God responsible for death?

See now that I myself am He!
There is no god besides me.
I put to death and I bring to life,
I have wounded and I will heal,
and no one can deliver out of my hand. (Deut 32:39)
This was already brewing, and now recent events have forced the topic to the forefront of my mind. When a man has a heart attack, when a child miscarries, when a bridge falls with dozens of people on it, is God responsible?

I think the only scriptural or intellectually honest answer is a qualified yes. You don’t have to believe God fatalistically determines our deaths (and everything else) to see that He is at least passively responsible for them.

Jesus said not even a sparrow falls without His Father’s notice, so surely the death of one made in His image is noticed. But if God knows that our death is at hand, surely He must make a choice – to permit it or not. God does not have to cause our deaths to be responsible for them.

If you watched my baby girl drown in the bathtub, you would not be the cause of her death. Your inaction, though, would make you partly responsible. The legal term would probably be criminal negligence: you didn’t do it, but you didn’t stop it.

In the same way, God becomes responsible for human death. He does not have to cause them; choosing not to act is choosing death. This doesn’t remove moral culpability from human agents when they actively cause deaths, but it does mean that God has a role to play.

Now, I’m not saying God is “criminal” or even wrong to allow death. 1) Everyone dies at some point. 2) We die because of sin. 3) We deserve to die long before we actually do. So it doesn’t make God “bad” to be responsible for our deaths; it just makes Him God.

Now some will say that God hates death. That’s right! In fact, He went to great lengths to conquer death. But the fact that He didn’t introduce death to humanity does not mean that, now that it’s here, He doesn’t control it.

For God to not be in any way responsible for death, at least one of two things would have to be true: Either God would have to not know a death was coming (and a lot of people today take this route), or God would have to be incapable of stopping it. But God knows the end from the beginning, and He can do all things, so God must choose not to act. And now we have very nearly restated the classic “problem of evil.”

God, for His own purposes and in His wisdom, chooses to permit death. Every sparrow that falls and every child that dies does so under the watchful eye of a wise and loving God who chooses to allow it. Personally, I feel better knowing the power of life and death is in His hands.

We know that God is loving and wise and good and just. We also know that He (in the person of Jesus) knows first hand what it means to watch someone you love die. He even knows what it is like to die. He has joined us in our pain. Who better to have the final say in the matter of life and death?

It does not protect God’s honor to suggest that He does not control death; it only makes Him out to be less than God.


Danny Wright said...

As I read this post I kept thinking about "reference points". In our finite existence our reference point on these concepts, I would think, has to be so skewed as to be unreliable and worthless. For that reason when I hear anyone question God's sovereignty, and goodness, I have to begin questioning their definition of good. There is clearly so much more than we know or probably can know. I personally find it more comforting to think when people die, God knows it's going to happen;could stop it; and doesn't rather than he doesn't know, and can't stop it. This takes the "monkey" off of God's back for allowing bad things to happen sure, but it cast a shadow I think on the attributes of God. If my little girl drowns in the bathtub, God is still good. If he could have stopped it but didn't, he is still good. Who am I to question God's will without using myself as a reference point, i.e. it was terrible for "me" that my little girl should die so therefore it is bad, therefore if God could have stopped it and didn't, his goodness comes into question.

Great post, and one that does and has caused me some mighty struggles.

ChrisB said...

This is the most difficult topic to discuss with people because, with a few exceptions, the people who bring this up are really hurting. I work in a hospital, and we are surrounded by things you never wanted to see. My coworkers struggle with this all the time, not to be smarmy but because it really can eat you up. Pediatric cases are the worst.

The more I read, though, the more I get the sense that if you have a big enough picture of God, the problem of evil will be bearable. So to innoculate Christians against this issue, I wonder if we should give them The Problem of Pain or Knowing God.