“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” These are the first words of the Apostles Creed, articulating the first article of Christian faith: belief in the creator God. And what did God create? “Heaven and earth” is the Christian’s answer. In other words, “everything.” But according to the Book of Wisdom, which Catholic Christians regard as Biblical, there is one thing that God did not make. “God did not make death” (Wis 1:13).
If God did not make death, how did death come to be? Is death an exception to the rule that “all things came to be through [God’s Word] and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:3)? The Church’s philosophical tradition (or at least a prominent part of it) would say No. Because death is not something but nothing. Death does not have being, but is a lack of being, the privation of a life that God made. I think the philosophical distinction between beings and privations of being is a necessary part of how we can account for the presence of death and other evils in the world God made. But it is not a sufficient answer to the question of how death came to be. Nor does it answer the question of what the creator God plans to do about it. Those answers are revealed to us in Sacred Scripture.
“Through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death” (Rom 5:12). “In Adam all die” (1 Cor 15:22). Saint Paul gives a definite answer to the question of where death came from. It came in and through Adam. Saint Paul is referring to the sin of Adam (and Eve) that is narrated in the Book of Genesis. In that narrative, God warns Adam, “When you eat from [the tree of knowledge of good and evil] you shall die” (Gen 2:17). After God discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden tree, God makes known to them the consequences of their disobedience, concluding with the sentence, “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
What are we to make of this? Genesis seems to present death a punishment that God inflicts. But the Book of Wisdom says, “God did not make death.” Furthermore, Saint Paul not only identifies death’s source, as we have seen. He also describes death’s relationship to God. To God, Saint Paul says, death is “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor 15:26). How can we make sense of these different Biblical teachings about death? Is death God’s enemy, God’s punishment, or something that God is not responsible for making?
I think all three are true. I think death is the enemy of God’s life-creating purpose, the merciful punishment for life-distorting human sin, and the negation of the life God has made in His image. God did not make death, but God did permit death to enter the good world He made. Why? Because human beings sinned and thereby distorted God’s good creation. For God to allow His good creation to remain perpetually distorted would be to accept defeat. Paradoxically, God chose to permit death as a consequence of life-distorting human sin, so that God might defeat death and thereby restore life. The Christian gospel proclaims that God has done that and is doing that through Jesus Christ. “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life” (1 Cor 15:22).
The Christian account of God and death has several meaningful and consoling consequences for every human person, and especially for those who experience death as an immanent or present reality.
Firstly, it tells us that death is not a punishment that God arbitrarily inflicts. Death is not something that God is doing to me or something God has done to someone I love. God permits death in order to defeat it. God has allowed my loved one to die so that she might have eternal life, not in a world marred by sin and suffering, but in God’s new creation. Death does not happen because God is angry and cruel, but because God is merciful and wills that we should all share His righteousness.
Secondly, the Christian gospel proclaims that God has defeated death through Jesus Christ, and especially through Jesus’ own death and resurrection. In other words, death is not just something God prescribes for us. It is something God takes upon himself. In Jesus, God died a human death and, by rising again, inaugurated a new and everlasting human life that has left sin and death behind. Our death is not separation from God and the life God created. Our death is the way we accompany God who, in Jesus, shared our death so we could share His life.
Thirdly, death is not God’s way of revoking His creating love. We might be tempted to read the Genesis account in this way: In His love, God gave life to human beings; when they sinned, God revoked that love and inflicted death. We might be tempted to interpret the deaths of our loved ones that way: God made them in love, but for some reason God now hates them and decrees their deaths. Jesus puts the lie to that way of thinking about God and death. “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8)