I’m exploring (slowly) how God’s goodness relates to suffering in the world. Check out part 1 here.
One of the fundamental issues that comes up as we look at suffering is God’s view of death. Our society has a strange view of death. On one hand, it is seen as the natural conclusion of a life and a part of the universe’s cycle of things. No one has an expectation that will live forever, as it is seen to be totally unrealistic.
On the other hand, when we experience death, we instinctively feel that death is unjust and we grieve for whoever we have lost. This is seen particularly in the death of children and young people. When the young die, the universal sentiment that they died unnaturally, that they should have had more time and you can see that their grief is heightened. The story of Jessica Keep, the baby who was swept out of her mother’s arms during the floods in Grantham is particularly heartbreaking and tragic.
God’s view of death is quite different from ours. Death isn’t a product of biological degeneration but it is God’s judgement on humanity for its rebellion against his rule. We find death’s origins in Genesis, chapter 2:
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. (Genesis 2:15-17)”
A man, made by God in his likeness, is placed in the garden to run it and control it under God’s rule. The man is told he can eat of any tree in the garden, except this tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Note carefully, man has just been told of what is good and what is evil by God. Man isn’t without a moral compass – he has just been given one by God!
What we see here in that tree of the knowledge of good and evil is actually about humanity deciding what good and evil is for themselves, confirmed by the snake in Genesis 3, where he tells the woman that if they eat of the fruit, they will be “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Eating of this tree is about usurping God’s rightful place in the world as Creator and Ruler and placing humanity in his place. Sin is rebellion against God, placing ourselves in the place that God alone deserves.
So when God curses them with death, it is more than just the expiration of bodies – the heart stopping and the brain dying. Death is physical, as shown by the long list of all who died in Genesis 5, but it also penal and spiritual– that is, it is the punishment of God on rebels (penal); and it involves a broken relationship with God, the source of life (spiritual).
As we see through Genesis 4-12, the rebellion of humanity and its consequences start to take hold within the world, destroying all it touches. Death and decay become a universal phenomenon as humanity continues in its rebellion, infecting the whole of creation, culminating in God’s damning indictment in Genesis 6:5:
The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.
This fundamental reality – that death is God’s punishment on a humanity that has turned its back on God, and who live without him, is critical to understand when we come to the topic of suffering. All of humanity is a product of a system that has rejected the Creator and Sustainer of the world and has instead wrongly elevated themselves to God’s place. Each one of us has run our lives with ourselves in charge and so each one of us has been brought under the penalty of death. When people die, it is because they are guilty of sin, rebellion against God.
When we come for answers from God on suffering, we must face the reality of a fallen humanity – under death’s penalty for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).