DEATH AND THE WILL OF GOD
BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
The Cruel Sea is the title of a World War II story about a German U-Boat loose in an American convoy. It had already sunk several ships, but a destroyer escort had finally picked it up on the sonar. As the destroyer prepared to launch its depth bombs, the captain saw that the U-Boat was taking a course where dozens of American men were in the water as survivors of one of the sunken ships. It was a clever maneuver and the captain of the destroyer had to make an agonizing decision. Should he plow ahead and kill his own men and get that U-Boat, or should he veer off, saving the men in the water, but loose the U-Boat which would be free to sink other ships. He decides to go ahead, killing the men in the water, but destroying the U-Boat. He choose what he thought was the lesser of two evils. It was not good those men had to be sacrificed, but he felt it was better that they die than have the U-Boat free to kill others.
This story represents the actual decisions that men must often make that determines the life and death of other people. There is a popular theory that says God in His sovereign will determines the precise time of every man's death. If this is true, it takes a great burden off men, for it relieves them of the responsibility of their decisions. This theory is also a great comfort to those who loose loved ones in tragic ways, for it gives some meaning to what otherwise seems so meaningless. If God willed their death, then even as tragic as it is, the will of God is being fulfilled. The important question, however, is not, is it a comforting concept. The doctrine of reincarnation is a comfort to millions. Is that the basis on which we are to determine truth? Is anything true because it is a great comfort? Almost all illusions are comforting, and people follow false prophets because they offer what is comfortable. No, the question is not, is the concept comforting, but for the Christian, the question must always be, is it true. Or put another way, is it Biblical.
To answer this question, I want to look at Dr. Luke's account of the death of Stephen-the first Christian martyr. It is of interest to note that this first Christian to die in the New Testament died as did the first man to ever die, namely Able. Able and Stephen were both Godly men, and both died by violence at the hands of angry men who were jealous of them. Murder and mob violence were the means by which their lives were ended.
One's immediate impression is that murder and mob violence do not sound much like the will of God. In fact, they sound very definitely like things out of His will. As we look at the details of Stephen's death, it is confirmed that the entire proceeding was contrary to the revealed will of God. In chapter 6 verse 11, we are told that the Jewish leaders secretly instigated men to lie and bare false witness against Stephen by charging him with blasphemy. In verse 13 it says again that they found other false witnesses to lie before the council. It is clear that men are making decisions to eliminate a life they do not want in total disregard for the laws of God.
In his defense speech, Stephen is brutally frank in his denunciation of their injustice. He charges them with the same crimes as their fathers who murdered the prophets, and they now have murdered the Prophet of all prophets-the Messiah. You would have a hard time convincing Stephen that the Lord called his prophets home. The Jewish leaders would like that theory, for it would take them off the hook. But Stephen tells it like it is, and says, not that the Lord called them home, but that hardened and blind leaders thrust them out of this world by violent murder, contrary to the will of God.
In other words, the prophets did not die because God had appointed a certain time for them to die, or because they have fulfilled their purpose in life. They died because evil men made decisions to take their lives, just as Cain decided to kill Able. It may not be a pleasant thought that evil can be so powerful, but Jesus did not say that pleasantness shall set us free, but that the truth shall set us free. It is always better to know the truth about death than to cover it over with pleasant illusions. I am convinced that the idea that you can only die when it is your appointed time is just such an illusion.
Jesus taught the very same thing that Stephen said in his defense. He taught that Godly men die because of the wicked decisions of others to resist the will of God. Jesus told the parable of the man who rented out his vineyard and went to a far country when the harvest came he sent his servants to collect the rent. The wicked tenants beat them, stoned them, and killed them. Other servants were sent, and they were treated just the same. He finally sent his son, for he thought they would respect him, but they even killed the son. So evil and unjust were these men that the owner had no choice but to come and put these wretches to a miserable death, and rent his vineyard to those who would be honest. When the chief priests and Pharisees heard this parable they knew Jesus was speaking about them, and they hated Him, just as Stephen was hated for saying the same thing to the Jews in his day.
The point is, we are kidding ourselves if we think God in any way approved of the death of His servants. He held men accountable for their decisions to kill them, and the idea that the Lord called them home because He had appointed the day of their death is repulsive, for if true, it would make God the author of the very evil He condemns. If God wanted His prophets killed, and willed that they die when they did, then the Jewish leaders were not disobedient at all, but fulfilled the will of God. The theory that God's people only die in His will is great cover-up for the wickedness of men.
I can just imagine the leaders of Israel telling the gullible people that the Lord must have needed the prophets for greater work elsewhere when they were found dead. It may have been a great comfort to the people, but it was a cover-up of murder. I can just hear Cain using this theory as he came home and Adam would ask, "Where is your brother?" Cain could say, "I last saw him lying in the field very still. I think the Lord has called him home. Apparently his number was up, and he had fulfilled his purpose in life." Now, if you agree that would be a cover-up of his own wicked deed, why is it any more justified to speak that way today concerning the tragic deaths of God's people?
If a missionary is murdered on the field, by what authority do we dare declare that the Lord called them home, or assume that their work was complete? In my mind, a modern murder is no different than the ancient murder of the prophets-It is an act of evil contrary to the will of God, and not an act that fulfills His will. If evil is real, and death is an enemy, then we have to face the facts, and stop the cover-up. Christians can die in many ways that are not God's will. They not only can be murdered like Stephen, but they can be killed by less personal means such as cars, airplanes, or cancer.
Is cancer more friendly than Cain? The only difference I can see between cancer and Cain is that one kills by an act of the will, and the other by impersonal laws of nature. Both are killers, however, and when they strike there is no more reason to think that cancer does the will of God then Cain. You might just as well say the Lord called Able home as to say this of a cancer victim. Nature has fallen just as man has, and there is much in nature, just as in human nature, that is defective, and which does not function as a part of God's perfect harmony.
All of the true comfort is unchanged by facing the reality of evil in both nature and human nature. The Lord did not call Stephen home, but that is where the Lord took him. He did not die because God appointed that day, but that day he was with Christ in paradise. The truth does not alter our hope and victory at all-It just gives us a more realistic view of evil and death. The believer goes home to be with Christ regardless of how he dies, but to say all death of the believer is the Lord's calling is to make a confused mess out of what otherwise is easy to grasp by common sense.
Common sense tells us death is an enemy, and that is why we rejoice when we or a loved one is spared. That is why we spend a fortune to fight all the diseases that kill. That is why we spend a fortune to provide safety equipment to prevent accidents that kill. All of life is based on the basic idea that death is a foe to be fought, and escaped as often and as long as possible. The Bible supports this common sense view of death. It nowhere encourages Christians to court death as if it was a friend. If the theory is correct that God appoints the day of death, and all His children die in His will, then death must be seen as a friend, and always the best thing for us, for it always does the will of God just when He wants it to. Death, according to this theory, is the perfect servant of God. And if this is the case, one can only wonder why God treats it so unjustly, for when history is over God casts death and hell into the lake of fire, and makes sure it has no place in His eternal kingdom. A very strange judgment indeed, for such a loyal servant. One can only conclude that death is not a loyal servant, but a rebel power that deserves destruction and damnation because it has done so much evil in the course of history. This is the logical and the Biblical view.
Some may look at this account of Stephen and say, God certainly wanted him to deliver this scathing speech that lead to his death, and, therefore, he died in the will of God. It is true that God willed for him to tell the truth even if it cost him his life, but it was not God's will that the Jews respond as they did. He wanted them to repent, but they chose an evil response, and if you say God willed their evil response that led to murder, you have destroyed the distinction between light and darkness. John says that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If God willed both Stephen's speech and the hated response, then God is on both sides of the battle, and Jesus said a house divided cannot stand. The whole theory that God wills all death is a contradiction to the Biblical revelation of the battle of light and darkness. Stephen, as he was dying, kept this distinction clear. He saw his death, not as the will of God, but as the result of the sinful wills of men.
In verse 60, he prays that God will not hold this sin against them. Stephen identifies the cause of his death as sin. If God willed it, then God willed sin, and you have eliminated all meaning to the Biblical revelation. The theory that God wills all death is not only not true, it is a dangerous error, for it actually links God to evil, and makes Him the responsible agent behind the greatest tragedies of history. If the murder of Stephen was a sin, and it was, there is no way you can justify saying the Lord called him home. He saw Jesus and did go home, but not because his time was up, and not because God willed it, but because evil men chose to disobey the will of God. If the first Christian died out of God's will, it is likely many others all through history would do so also. This means evil is real and has real power, and the battle of good and evil is not fake, but very real.
Now this is the common sense view of Scripture and the facts of life. Many Christians who are unwilling to face up to the reality of evil and its power go on assuming that all death is the will of God. By so doing, they make God the author of all the tragic things that happen to Christians. They assume that everything has a purpose, and this includes murder, rape, stealing, and every other form of evil. It is so hard to get people to see that facts do not cease to exist simply because they are ignored.
We stayed in a motel one time that was on road under construction. Just beyond the motel it was totally blocked so that a tank could not get through. Three or four blocks down the other way there were signs on both sides of the road saying the road was closed. In the space of two minutes we saw four cars drive past those signs and go until it was obvious that the road was closed. When we went out for supper we met another car which had passed the four conspicuous signs. He rolled down his window and asked us if he could get though ahead. I told him you just as well turn around here for you can't get through. In the few minutes that we were in that area we saw five people who were hoping to change the facts by ignoring them. I would assume that dozens of people every day keep driving past those signs until they confront the facts, and have to back up.
This is what we see in the realm of theology on this issue of death. You can ignore the signs and evidence of Scripture, and chose to hold to your own theory, but the facts will not change however they are ignored. Let me share some of the facts that nothing can alter.
In Hebrews 2:14, Jesus is said to have taken on human nature so He could die. It says, "That through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil." The fact is, death is not a tool of the kingdom of light, but is a weapon of the kingdom of darkness. That is why resurrection is the great weapon of the kingdom of light. Resurrection overcomes death. Every time Jesus raised someone from the dead He did not reverse the will of God, but, rather, the will of Satan. Death is the devil's doing, and Jesus demonstrated that He was superior to the devil by conquering death.
If death was God's appointment, and people died because God had set the time, then resurrection was a reversal of His will. Jesus would not than be destroying the works of the devil by resurrection, but he would be destroying the works of His heavenly Father. The theory that God appoints all death reverses the major facts of Scripture, and reduces the great power of the resurrection to an in-house conflict between the Father and the Son. This is in total conflict with the Biblical picture of the victory of the Prince of Light over the black tyrant of darkness-the devil.
Death is an enemy that we are fighting, and our only hope of victory is in Jesus Christ, who has conquered this foe. If it is a fiend to be defeated, how can we call it a friend by saying it is a faithful servant of God doing His perfect will by taking His people home to heaven at His appointed time? As much as I love paradox, and see it often in the word of God, I cannot believe that death, which is the last and ultimate enemy of man, so directly connected with sin and Satan, is also the faithful servant of God doing His perfect will. This is not a paradox, but a clear contradiction. It contradicts the very instincts God has built into us.
We are made to fear death and do all we can to avoid it and prevent it. This instinct of self-preservation would be a defect in us if death was God's servant doing His will. If that was the case, we should desire nothing more than to embrace death. The fact of our natural repulsion from death, and the facts of Scripture that shows resurrection to be a victory over death will not change no matter how often you pretend death is good by saying the Lord called someone home.
Peter Kreeft, in his book, Love Is Stronger Than Death, writes, "When the Christian church collaborates with a pagan culture by covering up death, it seals its own death warrant. For the whole reason for the church's existence, its whole message, is a good news or gospel about a God who became man in order to solve the problem of death and the problem of sin, which is its root...... The resurrection is the heart of every sermon preached in the New Testament. For the church to cover up death is for it to cover up the question whose answer is its own meaning. Nothing is more meaningless than an answer without a question. The good news of Christianity claims to answer the bad news of death..... The Sermon On The Mount does not answer the problem of death. The resurrection does. But the answer presupposes the problem, presupposes facing death as a an enemy."
What He is saying is that if you say death is not an enemy then you have eliminated the need for the good news of the resurrection, for death itself becomes the good news. Death is good if it fulfills God's will, and takes us home to heaven. Death replaces the resurrection, and ceases to be an enemy. Such thinking may sound very pious, but it undermines the gospel which is the good news of Christ victory over the enemy of death. No theory can change the fact that death is the final enemy to be destroyed. There are numerous facts about death that cannot be changed by being ignored. Here are a few-
1. Death came into the world as a result of sin, and the rejection of God's will. It was not a fulfillment of His will.
2. Death is always associated with evil. Even when it is a result of God's judgment it is in no way good, for God's judgment is always the result of evil, which He in no way wills. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
3. Scripture and history are full of the evil works of men who murder and destroy life. None of this can be attributed to God without making Him the author of evil.
James makes it clear that any theory that links God as a cause of evil is false. In James 1:13-15 we read, "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: For God cannot be tempted with evil and He Himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death."
What this means, in the light of our theme, is that a born again Christian may die as a direct result of his own folly, or the folly of others. His desire for fame may drive him to a life-style that leads to a heart attack at age 45. His desire to conform to the world could lead him to have a few cocktails and be killed on the highway because of poor judgment. The point is, a Christian can die by natural causes or by accidents, or by the violent forces of evil. Seldom to never do they die because God says, now is the best time, the precise time I have appointed.