Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why Our Bodies Die

We read in Genesis 5:5 that 'Adam ... died.' Why did he die?  What was the origin of death?  Was it there from the beginning?  Certainly vegetable death was.  God created 'seed-bearing plants ... that bear fruit with seed in it' (Gn. 1:lff.). That is, the cycle of blossom, fruit, seed, death and new life was established in the created order.  Animal death existed too, for many fossils of predators have been found with their prey in their stomach.  But what about human beings?  

Paul wrote that death entered the world through sin (Rom. 5:12).  Does that mean that, if he had not sinned, he would not have died?  Many ridicule this notion.  'Obviously', writes C. H. Dodd with great self-confidence, 'we cannot accept such a speculation as an account of the origin of death, which is a natural process inseparable from organic existence in the world we know ...'(1)   We have already agreed that death is 'a natural process' in the vegetable and animal kingdoms.  But we must not think of human beings as merely rather superior animals, who on that account die like animals.  On the contrary, it is because we are not animals that Scripture regards human death as unnatural, an alien intrusion, the penalty for sin, and not God's original intention for his human creation.  Only if Adam disobeyed, God warned him, would he 'surely die' (Gn. 2:17).  Since, however, he did not immediately die, some conclude that it was spiritual death, or separation from God, which was meant.  But when God later pronounced his judgment on Adam, he said to him, 'Dust you are, and to dust you will return' (Gn. 3:19).  So physical death was included in the curse, and Adam became mortal when he disobeyed.  Certainly the Rabbis understood Genesis in this way.  For example, 'God created man for incorruption, and made him an image of his own proper being; but by the envy of the devil death entered into the world...'(Wisdom 2:23f.). This is why the biblical authors lament death, and are outraged by it.  They see it as demoting us, levelling us down to the animal creation, so that we (God's special creation) have become 'like the beasts that perish' (Ps. 49:12).  

The author of Ecclesiastes feels the indignity of it too: 'Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other.  All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal' (Ec. 3:19).   It appears, therefore, that for his unique image-bearers God originally had something better in mind, something less degrading and squalid than death, decay and decomposition, something which acknowledged that human beings are not animals.  Perhaps he would have 'translated' them like Enoch and Elijah, without the necessity of death.  Perhaps he would have 'changed' them 'in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye', like those believers who will be alive when Jesus comes (1 Cor. 15:51f.). Perhaps too we should think of the transfiguration of Jesus in this light.  His face shone, his clothing became dazzling white, and his body translucent like the resurrection body he would later have.  Because he had no sin, he did not need to die.  He could have stepped straight into heaven without dying.  But he deliberately came back in order of his own free and loving will to die for us.

--From " The Message of Romans" (The Bible Speaks Today series: Leicester, IVP, 1994), p. 165. Thanks John Stott.

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