As I was writing my latest post, I realized that I needed to reference a section from A Rational Faith that I had not yet published online. This brief essay is strongly related to a previous essay, “The Nature of God’s Provision”.
A Rational Faith Section 3.6 The Nature of Death
Having considered the nature of God’s provision, we can now consider the nature of death and murder. How can a good God treat human life with such callous indifference in the Old Testament? What does God mean when he says that we deserve to die when we commit sin? When previous generations of theologians have considered these questions, they have focused on the holiness of God and the evil of man. In their study, they have neglected to examine the nature of death and missed some important truths.
As we saw previously, God does an unimaginable amount of work to create and sustain the life of every human being. When God takes a human life, therefore, all he is doing is refusing to continue to do that unimaginable amount of work. Do we make God a slave by insisting that he must continue to do this work regardless of his own best judgment? How did that human being become entitled to the unceasing labor of the most high? And if it is acceptable for God to lay down the burden of sustaining a human life, then what difference does it make how he chooses to accomplish his purpose? Should he not be allowed to use that person’s death to accomplish good for those who remain among the living? The very least we can say, then, is that God’s work as the creator and sustainer of all things means that he is entitled to take human life in whatever way he thinks best. A more humanistic way of looking at this issue, however, is possible if we consider death as a transition from one state to another.
Let us imagine two car thieves coming to trial before a judge. One is a young hoodlum who wants to steal the car in order to sell it for drugs. The other is an elderly man of means who was trying to surprise his nephew by taking his car and replacing it with a superior model. Both were caught red-handed by the police and brought in to face charges. Is it reasonable to punish both men with the same sentence? Shouldn’t the fact that the elderly uncle had purchased a replacement vehicle and arranged to surprise the nephew with it be taken into consideration? If you do not think so, then I fervently pray that you will never be on a jury if I am brought to trial over some misunderstanding.
This distinction is the basis for why God can take life and still call Satan a “murderer from the first” without fearing the charge of hypocrite. When God takes a human from this life, he transitions that person to the afterlife. When anybody else takes a human life, they are merely taking a human life. Just as the uncle who took the car and replaced it is not a thief, God can take a life and it is not a murderer. Now some may say that the uncle would have been a thief if he had replaced the vehicle with an inferior model. These people would conclude that God is a murderer since he replaces the life here with an inferior life in hell. As we will see later, this will have implications when we consider the nature of hell.
The above insights also help us to understand what God means when he says that human beings who sin deserve to die. In the popular imagination, these verses evoke gruesome images. A murderer hanged by the neck by a righteous judge. A heretic burned at the stake by a righteous prophet. In my particular case, I see a grim Hebrew barbarian eagerly waiting to hack my head off with a sharpened piece of bronze when he learns that I have stolen a lollipop. These images are a distortion of what God means. When God says that the human soul that sins deserves to die, he is merely saying, “Now that sin that you committed was an act of selfishness. If I acted toward you as you have acted toward me, then I would not continue my tireless labors on your behalf and you would instantly cease to exist. This is what I would do to you if I was like you.” When we consider God’s selfless work on our behalf, the fairness of God’s words become clear.
Whether or not it is morally justified, whether or not it is a transition, the taking of a human life from this world is always ghastly. The horror that we experience when we see death colors all of our perceptions of God and the Bible. We see that God causes the slaughter of entire cities and we therefore interpret hell as literal flames that torment the unrepentant for all eternity. This is not an accident. As we will see when we examine God’s purpose in this life, God must use all of the tools at his disposal to combat human ignorance and human evil. As Christians, however, we must see the goodness of God even when it is veiled in something as ghastly as death.