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Death – Enemy or Friend?

© 2012, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact the author for permission
to reproduce this essay in whole or in part.

men carrying a casket out of a church
“It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.”
– Wm. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act II Scene ii
Any casual reader of the Bible is going to get the message that death – the end of someone’s life – is wrong, a horror, something which at its core is evil.  In fact, both St. Paul, and the author of the book of the Revelation see it as an “enemy” which God will ultimately destroy.1

Paul even argues that death was not part of God’s original plan for creation.  Pointing to the story of the Garden of Eden he says that death only emerged as a consequence of human sin.2   Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and became creatures who die.  Had they refrained, he implies, they would be alive today.  In this, Paul was not being innovative (unusual, for him); he was solidly within the mainstream of Jewish religious thought.  Dozens and dozens of passages – most notably in Job, Psalms and Proverbs – suggest that death comes to people when their lives are wicked, while those who are righteous will live, if not forever, then for a very long time.  In the Bible, death is bad – very bad.

Meanwhile, the Bible also says (and a vigorous thread of Christian teaching over the years has echoed) that God’s created order is good – very good.3

Is it possible to affirm, then, with words of faith, that death is some kind of vicious intruder, which has no place in God’s beautiful and good universe?

This is hard to do.  I don’t have a lot of training in science, but it seems pretty obvious to me that death and decay are central features of nature.  In the “life cycle,” tiny organisms are the food of larger ones, and die in the process of nourishing more complex forms of life.  Plants are eaten by animals and humans, and large animals are also on the diet of other large animals.  If vegetarians should ever succeed in persuading all humans to stop eating meat, they will have a hard time persuading lions and alligators and dogs and cats to do likewise.  Heck, even if that impossibility were to happen, and all carnivores – human or otherwise – were to switch successfully to a diet of nuts and berries, our natural functions require the death, or ending of life, of some kind of living thing – even if it is just a leaf of lettuce, or a berry or a nut (the latter two are sort of embryos of new plants, aren’t they?).  I’m not saying that grass and wheat have “rights” here, but that our biological systems are built in such a way that living things must die and be consumed and absorbed by our bodies, if we are to live beyond our weaning.

God’s creation is good alright, but in the matter of eating, the swallowing of one living thing by another is pretty much built in.

I am told, too, that through “cell division” the cells of our body replace themselves over time – that probably none of the cells in my body today were there when I was a child – but that each of my cells can only do this replacement trick a limited number of times.  After it accomplishes fifty-two divisions,4 a particular individual cell is done, and the skin, or organ, or hair of which it is a part, begins to die.  Even if I were unusually healthy, so that I never get a disease or even a cold at any time in all my born days, after every last cell in my body has replaced itself fifty-two times, my journey is over.  I’m dead.  Death is built in.

Note to the reader:
This essay has been in draft format for nearly six years – indeed the above paragraphs are merely the opening statements of a much larger work – but dozens of visitors have accessed it all the same.  Clearly the topic is of great interest.  As of 2012 the completion of this essay is now “Job Number One.  If you wish, you are welcome to send me a note and ask for the very latest draft as a private message.


FOOTNOTES

1 1 Corinthians 15:26 and Revelation 21:4

2 Romans 5:12-14

3 Genesis 1:34 – “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good;” Romans 14:14 – “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself;” and 1 Timothy 4:4 – “everything created by God is good...” In the Twentieth Century, a U.S. Roman Catholic priest named Matthew Fox developed a theology now known as Creation Spirituality.  When his views became too extreme for the Roman Catholics he became an Anglican/Episcopalian, and now calls himself a “post-denominational priest.” However, while components of his teaching are now outside the strictest bonds of Christian theological orthodoxy, his primary message about the goodness of God’s creation is central to both Judaism and Christianity, and date back to some of the earliest strands in the Bible.

4 This is called the “Hayflick limit.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayflick_limit.



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