It is not unusual for someone to ask, “Why would a loving God allow death?” Usually, the question comes at a time when they are reeling from the death of a loved one with whom they have been close. It is very difficult to engage in a theological conversation of depth in that kind of pastoral environment. Since no one has asked me that for some weeks, I’ll use the opportunity to weigh in on it.
Death was not God’s initial plan. He is perfect. He is good, and He is eternal. He created things to be good and to be eternal like Him. Death entered into creation because men, who are free, have the capacity to sin and rebel, and the consequence of sin is death. Now, He allows death to assault us because the real issue we face is eternal separation from Him-Hell. Dealing with death is the closest challenge there is to being separated from Him forever.
It may seem that the way He has ordered the world makes him like a terrible school master who uses death to help to tutor us toward redemption and eternal life in Christ. Even so, that is what has happened. Death is still around because there is still a need.
In everyday life, it seems that many people escape the consequences of their actions. Last night, we were reading a book together that had been assigned reading for my granddaughter who is in fourth grade. It is called “The Indian in the Cupboard.” In it, deceiving parents, and even stealing whiskey from the parents liquor stash, is presented as normative, but without any negative consequences for those actions. It is a surprising choice for a Christian school! It’s not that fourth graders should be shielded from everything that happens in the world, but it would be better to have choices presented with consequences.
Consequences are such a big deal to God that He even allows us to go through death. Kept in Christian perspective, however, death is not the great victor, Jesus is. In the light of the resurrection, we read, “Death where is your victory, grave where is your sting?” (I Cor 15:55) When we come to know Christ and His redeeming love, our hearts begin to be filled with the knowledge of the eternal life which has been wrought for us through His death. No longer need we be prisoners of horrific fear, we can actually begin to live in the eternal life which has been won for us. While we still have to pass through death’s portal, now we can do so with our eyes fixed on Jesus and His redemptive power.
Rightly ordered, Gospel conversation will present the Good News of redemption in such a way that people will begin to know Christ and will begin to assimilate that redemption into their lives. Hopefully, the wonder of knowing Christ will impact the way they live, and even, eventually, the way they die.
Far worse than death itself is the prospect of being separated from the love of God for all eternity. Of course we should be motivated by love to reach out to people with kindness and to share with them about God’s love. It is not particularly effective to try to preach people into the Kingdom from a fear of Hell, but, nonetheless, a genuine relationship with Christ does deliver people from eternal death. The assurance of His love for us and His relationship with us can carry us through terrible temporal times.
Last week, four young Iraqi boys all under fifteen were captured by ISIS. They were told that they would be killed unless they renounced their faith in Jesus and promised to follow The Prophet. They refused, saying “No, we love Jesus.” As a result, all four were beheaded. Such things used to seem far away from a different land and a different age, but now, the truth is that those same pressures are coming against us. It could be any place and any time that we are challenged.
For decades now we have been fighting the liberal message that there are no consequences from sin, either temporally or eternally. We went so far as to break with those who preach this false Gospel. It is not that we insist on puritanical behavior because otherwise our sensibilities would be offended. We have stood up against the departure from Scriptural faith because the faith that we have received teaches us that to depart from it brings the consequence of eternal death. The battle has been about whether or not people go to Hell. A compassionate people could not wish Hell on anyone. We should be loving with such poignancy that our lives will have traction in other people’s lives. Hopefully, they will be able to hear the words that can free them. The reason we have fought so hard is not that we hate anyone, but rather that we love them. We do not want people to perish, not temporally, and especially not spiritually for all eternity.
It is remarkable that behaviors such as pursuing other gods or sexual license can result in death, but it is so. In these news reports of Christian children in Iraq, we read however, of young people who have so deeply experienced the Love of God that their faith is stronger than death. That is not the hope for a select few saints. It is the rightful inheritance of every Christian. God appears to be allowing things of that great magnitude because the weight of the consequences of sin is so utterly horrific—even worse than the consequences of death itself. He wants all people to find redemption in Christ and eternal life. The truth is that few people wander into a relationship with Christ. Most come to Him while they are dealing with deep crisis in their lives. For many, death is the ultimate question with which they have had to deal.
If it seems harsh to use death to help bring us to our senses, we need to remember that the price that comes from a life lost and unredeemed by Christ, is far greater even than death. We would be well served to remember that there are issues that are salvation issues. We need to be committed to utter fidelity when it comes to those. No matter what it takes, we must stay faithful to present the truth regarding them. The failure to do so means that precious people that God loves (and we should love) will be lost for all eternity. This is really the heart of the divide that assaults today’s church and world. People might like to ignore the possibility that a person can be separated form Christ’s redeeming love. It may be hard, but sadly, many choose to do so. We are called to reverse the trend.
We do that by praying for people, demonstrating Christ’s love to them concretely, and then sharing with them about Who He is and how He can work in their life. When people come to know Christ, the joy that He brings can overshadow anything that the world, the flesh, and the devil can throw at them. We, too, can be people who can say, “No. We love Jesus.”
The Rt. Rev. Bill Atwood is Bishop of the ACNA’s International Diocese and an American Anglican Council contributing author.