This week has marked the six-year anniversary of the death of my friend’s two year old daughter. I’ll never forget the date because she died on my son’s birthday. It was all so wrong. How could this happen? A two-day sickness couldn’t lead to this, surely? Night after night I’d dream that it had all been a mistake. That Angie wasn’t dead. Then I’d wake up to the nightmare – she was! How could her mother endure it?
The Sunday after Angie died, I told the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection to the kids at church. I remember the look on Angie’s sister’s face when I got to the end of the story and talked about how Jesus is stronger than death and how he’s powerful enough to give us life even if we die. Nine-year-old Mia was so attached to her sister. Jesus can give life to the dead? Please, Jesus. Do it now. Bring Angie back to life! I prayed that same prayer myself, but still Angie remained dead.
The message of the New Testament is that Jesus has power over death. He said he was “the resurrection and the life,” (John 11:25) and he proved it to be true – first in raising Lazarus, then in his own resurrection. But since then, billions and billions of people have died and they’ve stayed dead. And those grieving rightly ask, what was the point? If Jesus can raise our dead now, why doesn’t he?
An Unnatural End
I’ve just finished watching a sci-fi TV series where the alien heroes could bring dead people back to life again. The interesting thing is that while they have this power, the aliens tend not to use it. They see death as part of the ‘natural’ order of things that shouldn’t be messed with. At their most compassionate, they might temporarily revive a dead person to allow the family time to say goodbye, but to do more than that would be to go against nature.
Is that why Jesus chooses not to raise people now? Is it because death is somehow “natural”?
No. We must not suppress the voice in our heads that screams out “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” as we lower a loved one into the ground. We were not made for death. God created us to eat freely from the tree of life, that we might live with him, and live forever. Life is our created purpose. Life is natural. Death is the aberration. Death is unnatural.
Why then did Angie have to die? I have to confess that I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us why one person dies while others, far more wicked, go on living to a ripe old age. But it does tell us why people have to die. It tells us what has happened to the human race as a whole and why death is a necessary thing – even a good thing.
Because life as it is must not go on forever. On the day that our ancestors first sinned they cut themselves off from life with God – so he, in his mercy, also blocked their access to the tree of life. By limiting their life he rescued them from a hellish existence: going on and on forever without hope and without him.
An End to Sin
Death also limits the damage we can do. When someone dies, the cry is often: “but they had so much still to offer the world; so much love to give, so much good to do.” Perhaps, but death also draws a line under our potential for evil.
Can you imagine what it would be like if sinful people did not die? Imagine if political dictators, serial rapists and mass murderers were allowed to live forever, their thirst for power and destruction going unchecked into the centuries. If they knew they couldn’t be stopped by a bullet or a bad heart or rampant cancer cells, what evil might they then achieve?
Death is necessary as a limiting force on the harm that sinful humans can cause. If our lives were without end, even normal people like you and me could cause incalculable damage. I’m no Pol Pot, but if my ambition and greed and pride had time to really brew, if over the decades my body increased rather than decreased in strength, if I didn’t have the knowledge of my own mortality to humble me, imagine what I’d be capable of. All the little hurts that I now cause would escalate into big hurts. Perhaps this is what God has in mind when he speaks of his Spirit “not contending with humans forever” (Gen 6:3. NIV)
A Wider Perspective and a Deeper Hope
Again, this doesn’t tell us why little Angie died when she did, and how she did. But it tells us why we all die. All of us, Angie included, die because we’re a part of a messed up species that has ruined itself and made death a necessity.
This is a wider perspective, but it’s the perspective we need. Because even if God had answered my prayers and raised Angie to life, sparing her family that horrendous grief, eventually she’d still have had to die. She would still have been part of a fallen and damaged humanity. Angie, needed, like we all need, a more radical deliverance.
But this is just what God has given us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus said he was “the resurrection and the life,” he wasn’t just claiming be able to delay death. Just one week after he raised Lazarus, Jesus himself died. Jesus’ death was God’s way of dealing with the problem of sin that renders death necessary in the first place. Jesus was settling the accounts of sin, and buying new hearts for us that will sin no more. He was wiping out the old life so that we could begin a new life in relationship with God. With Jesus’ resurrection God was ushering in a new world where there will be no sin at all – a world where we will once again have free access to the tree of life; a world so good that death will be unnecessary.
This is the promise of a permanent, sin free resurrection is the future that awaits Angie and all who die in faith. This is our comfort and our hope as we endure death’s blows through this life.
Photo: William Murphy, Flickr