Did God Create Death?

One of our listeners, Lisa, wrote in and asked “Did God create death?”

Thanks for asking, Lisa. This is such a simple and short question, but it is actually pretty complicated! It pulls on a lot of strings of one’s theology.

Where to start, right?

Well, let’s agree to a frame of reference or else it’ll be impossible to be brief. Let’s set aside the skeptical worries surrounding God’s existence for a moment, and imagine that God exists and that God is creator - everything owes its existence to God either directly or indirectly. If you are an atheist, agnostic, or skeptic, hang in there - this is still interesting to consider!

Let’s also agree that death is a real phenomenon. Things that are alive, at least in the biological sense (itself a bit of headache to articulate), at some point die. My grandfather died last year. I used to be able to visit with him and now I can’t. This shouldn’t be too controversial.

Now for the tricky part.

Given that God exists and death “exists”, did God create this phenomenon?

God clearly created a world (think of “world” here not as Earth but the entirety of the cosmos) where things that have been alive died at some point, and will continue to do so. That is, he allowed this feature of the world, that certain things die.

But, I think Lisa really wants to know if God intended that death be a prominent feature of this world. Correct me if I’m wrong, Lisa!

Let’s also go with the notion that God initially creates this world ex nihilo (out of nothing) and instantiates it through some kind of big bang occurrence like our best science suggests. Now, does God intend all of the foreseen consequences that would occur because of this creative act? What if God knew when he created that a certain number of deaths would occur as a result of this later down the road - does that mean that God intended those deaths?

There’s a fairly lively debate in the philosophical literature about this. The question is do I intend all the foreseen consequences of a given action, or merely the action itself, or some hybrid.

Consider this example to illustrate this idea if it’s a bit confusing. I have a daughter. One day she’ll come of legal age to drive a car. I also know that the probability of getting into some degree of car accident for the average driver is pretty high (Google it - you’ll be in 3 or 4 in your life). When I take my daughter to get her license, and provide the resources necessary to do so - am I really intending that she get in those accidents?

At this point, you’re probably like, “well, what do we mean by ‘intending’?” Check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Intention” if you want to cry yourself to sleep with how complicated philosophers make this stuff. Unreal! (I actually love it and find it super interesting, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea).

Ok, I’m not going to answer that for you, but let’s look at another angle of this:

Is it obvious to you that life could occur without the possibility of death?

I’d like to think so. I’m no biologist (though I do have a B.A. in biology, which is the weirdest degree you can get), but I wonder if being composed of “living” matter, being organic, comes with the trait “able to die”. The organic machinery that comprises you can fail to work. Maybe we can get to a point where we stave off that failure and bodies could theoretically live forever. Then there’s the whole mystery of a “resurrection body” that Paul speaks of - what in the world is that thing?! Even if it was a perfect machine, couldn’t you lop it into pieces and it wouldn’t work anymore - it would die, right? Bizarre stuff.

But, Clint, none of this matters, because ultimately you are a soul. You’ve been focusing on bodily or physical death, but what really matters is “personal” death, whether the soul, the locus of your personhood and identity, can die.

That’s an interesting idea. Perhaps God did create and intend “physical death” but God has no intention whatsoever that anyone should “personally” die; all souls live forever. In the grand scheme of things, one might say, it’s not so bad that God had us all do a bit of physical dying if there’s this great boon of unending living. We can wonder and philosophize about what God’s reasons would be for souls to undergo a whole physical birth-death process to then persist for a potentially infinite amount of its existence as a non-mortal. Some good ideas have been offered over the centuries to be sure.

If you’re worried about “unending living” in an eternal state in some kind of heaven because it would grow boring or unfulfilling, (you know what I mean if you’ve seen the finale of The Good Place) you can see my published work on this in Cambridge’s Religious Studies journal.

There’s so much more to unpack. We talk about this and more in this week’s Mailbag Special. You can watch on Youtube or on your favorite podcatcher.

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Stay Curious!