Putting death in its context
Yes, Covid-19 is a killer but…
Published: 14 April 2020 (GMT+10)
There has been a lot of talk about death recently. During the current Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic people are watching videos and studying all sorts of graphs, charts and figures—trying to work out mortality rates and identify which groups are most at risk, in order to attempt to keep themselves and others safe. As some horrific figures on numbers of deaths per day come in, from Italy, Spain, and other countries around the world, lots of people are being forced to consider their own mortality in a greater way. The BBC reported that palliative care doctors in the United Kingdom were urging people to have conversations about dying.1 This crisis allows us some time for reflection as we respond to traumatic events at which people often cry out in anger against God, questioning his character and goodness.
Asking the right question
A number of years ago I undertook a course on dealing with grief following trauma, which considered how best to speak with someone following the death of a loved one. I got the opportunity to put a question to the trainer, who had covered this topic for more than twenty years. I enquired if anyone had ever asked, when did death start? He thought for a moment before replying, “Until now, no”. Yet, this is a fairly basic and fundamental question.
This is of course because death is the presumed natural state of affairs for many, perhaps most people. It is humanity’s current experience of the order of life. We live, then we die. The majority of people do not think that death had an origin, but rather that it has always been present; and they’re also used to seeing nature as “red in tooth and claw”. But this is not the case. Instead, present day death has a context. To understand what is going on, and why people currently die, the history of humanity has to be considered.
No death – Creation
The true history of the origin of humanity can be found in the opening chapters of Genesis. Only Genesis adequately describes the origin of death. Genesis clearly describes God’s creative activities over a 6-day period, in which he formed and fashioned everything in the universe. This included the pinnacle of His creation, humanity (Adam and Eve). At the end of day six God looked at his creation, everything he had made, and declared that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). At this time there was no death of any human or animal, nor carnivory (Genesis 1:29-30). Death was not part of the order of life for animals and humans whom God had imbued with the biblical life principle nephesh chayyāh (as opposed to plant life which God had not).
Death – The Fall
God placed the first man and woman, Adam and his wife Eve, in the Garden of Eden. There were two trees placed in the middle of the garden, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam was explicitly informed that he could eat of every tree in the garden except one, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He was also told of the direct consequence should he disobey God: “For in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Adam sadly chose to disobey God’s command: he ate of the forbidden fruit and, as a consequence, sin and death entered the world.
The events described above were historical, and his sin was no petty thing. Adam rebelled against a holy God who cannot tolerate sin. As the federal head of humanity both Adam’s sin nature and its consequence, death, have passed on to all of his descendants (Romans 5:12). So, we see that the death of human beings was never intended to be the natural state of affairs at all. And the same was true for other nephesh life too. Death had a specific entrance and starting point; only after that was it both possible and present.2 The whole of creation was cursed by God (Genesis 3), and every person and animal over the succeeding 6000 years has experienced, or will, experience death.3 That’s why we see death now, as it ravages humanity in any number of different ways, including the current Covid-19 disease pandemic.
No death – Redemption
Just as there was a start to death, there is also an end to death. This is part of the Good News of the Christian message! The Bible is clear that sin and death have a time limit, and there is a future state to come in which neither will be present. God has decreed that in the future, on the day of judgement, death itself will be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). Anyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life will also be cast into the lake of fire where they will spend eternity in hell, what is called the second death (Revelation 20:15). But those whose names are in that book will dwell with God forever; “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Hallelujah, death will be no more!
The Bible is clear that death is an intruder, an enemy, and was not part of God’s original creation. It is also clear that Jesus Christ is the author of life (Acts 3:15), who has destroyed death (2 Timothy 1:10), so that the Christian can gloriously proclaim, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). On what grounds can the Christian so victoriously shout this? What Jesus accomplished for us at the cross. While the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)—and as we all sin we all deserve death—God did not abandon us, but rather throughout history has interwoven his plan of salvation. This culminated in Jesus being born just over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. Being both fully God and fully man, he lived a life without sin, and gave himself willingly on the cross to shed his blood and pay the price for sin. One sacrifice for all time. And was gloriously resurrected three days later. In paying this price which no-one else possibly could, he satisfied the wrath of God and opened the door for reconciliation. This is the good news of the Gospel that all those who repent and believe on him can be saved.
An impassionate explanation?
Of course none of this is to minimise the heartache that naturally ensues after a loved one’s death. And someone in the midst of grief will not always be ready for a full exposition of the facts surrounding the origin and end of death. People may display anger, anguish, horror, and vexation as they try to work through their grief and other emotions. Therefore, Christians need to speak, explain, and deal with people wisely, through much prayer and empathy. We all have family, friends, etc., who are not believers. As there are many who die unsaved this compounds the challenge of how we get alongside a grieving person. We must speak the truth with love to those left behind. It is not an impassionate subject, purely academic in nature, but one that cuts us to the bone when we have to deal with it.
Just as death’s origin is a historical reality, so too is its finality for every human being is very real. It is the ultimate leveller with approximately 150,000 people dying every day globally. It is no respecter of wealth, status, accomplishments, awards, effort, or anything else that humanity has chosen to esteem. But, just as there is finality in death for us all, so too death’s reign over humanity itself has a finality.
Death is currently framed in the context of our present day infirmities, but the Christian’s hope and confidence is that, in the future it will be no more. Whether it be due to Covid-19 or some other pathogenic virus, cancer, war, old age, or a fatal traffic collision, we can be certain of our physical death. But there is life beyond the grave, offered by Jesus who proclaimed, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”, then immediately asked, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26).
“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
References and notes
- Kirkland, F., Coronavirus: Doctors urge conversations about dying, bbc.co.uk/news, 21 March 2020. Return to text.
- The first death most likely being Genesis 3:21, “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them”. Return to text.
- With of course the notable exceptions of Enoch (Genesis 5:4) and Elijah (2Kings 2:11), who were both translated. There are also a select few who have died more than once, such as those raised from the dead, mentioned throughout the Bible. Return to text.