A crucial, but ignored question

July 9th, 2012 by L. James Everett, III.

There is a question that is so strange to people. When I ask it, it’s like I am speaking a different language, and they can’t understand my syllables.

And yet there is nothing strange about the question. And it is one of the first questions that the Bible answers, without even explicitly posing it.

The question is: “Why do we die?”

Let me point out a few things.

A. “How did life come about?” makes perfect sense. On the Biblical view, and its current rival, materialistic secularism, there was stuff before physical, biological life. The difference between these views is that the Bible says that life came from something alive — God. The other view says this is false. Life came from something not alive. But ask a biologist why things die. If they start explaining reproduction, or foraging, scarcity, climate, etc., ask again. Yeah, but why do things that the universe went through all that trouble of making alive, why is it that some silly thing like climate, or scarcity, gets in its way of continuing on, and being alive? I mean, there’s this jump from rocks and gas to life. And some dumb thing like not having some food for a little while, or it being “hot,” makes it die?

Yep.

But why?

There is no answer.

B. Everything with physical life in the past either has already died, or will die. The question is an interesting one.

C. We are in denial about death, especially our own, or things we love. Think about the term “survivor.” George Washington, he’s a survivor. He’s tough. He survived the fire. He survived the accident. He survived war.

Recall, “survive” means to escape death. George Washington didn’t survive life.

Recall, Washington is dead. He is no survivor. No one is. Everyone either has, or will, die.

“Survival of the Fittest” is a falsehood, because nothing survives. You could be as fit as the day is long; your fitness will not beat death for you. And the day will eventually grow dark, and end.

I was arrested recently. You can be arrested in America for saying true things. I was arrested in the airport security line for saying this to the TSA agent who was looking at my ID: “Say, you ever thought about the fact that we are all going to die?”

We are in such denial, that the TSA agent became visibly agitated, and asked, “What do you mean?” As if there was anything remotely unclear with that statement.

What the hell do you think I mean? Then, I was arrested and taken in for questioning about what I meant.

Eventually, they all agreed. Yes, we are all going to die. True. But, just not yet! There is a sale at Macy’s! Not here! I’m not dying in the airport! Not like we thought that you…

“All I said, is we are all going to die.”

*(I made up the story about the TSA agent, but it really did happen, in my mind).

If you wonder about death too much, there is something wrong with you. If you never wonder about it, there is something wrong with you. How much is the right amount to think about it? Well, the Bible tackles it in its opening chapters, and I think it gives a pretty clear and compelling answer to the above question.

There are 50 chapters in Genesis, and this subject gets pretty serious treatment in chapters 2-11.

There are a couple of commands that God gives the first humans. One is, don’t eat from this tree, or on the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.

The command not to eat of the tree is broken on purpose and there is a curse in response. They do not die on that day, however. Something else does die. It is the first death in the Bible. It happens so quickly, the lazy reader misses it entirely. Genesis 3:21. Something else, an animal, died, instead of Adam and Eve. And it’s skin covers their self-created shame.

Despite this alienation, God still talks nicely to people. In Genesis 4, God asks Cain about his anger. God makes an effort to dialogue, to commune in conversation, to help a man understand. Cain avoids God, lies, and ultimately fails by committing an unthinkable act — to unjustifiedly make die, one who’s blood cries out to God from the ground (way before Exodus 20:13). And, Cain refuses to take responsibility.

He complains about his punishment, not about his action.

In Genesis 5, there are all of these very long life-spans for humans. However, the same phrase occurs exactly the same way for each person (except one). “And then he died.”

And then he died.

Disobedience is why people die, no matter how long they live.

______

Image credit: toonpool.com/cartoons/Death_6906


11 Comments

  • Eric

    You’re misrepresenting Survival of the Fittest, here. Darwin never suggested that the Fittest organisms survive, he hypothesized that the fittest genetic lines survive, by being able to reproduce and pass those genes on to further generations.

    You’re correct when you say that the biological question of why we die is fundamentally unanswered. There has been some interesting research that suggests that the process of converting energy to action is a fundamentally entropic one (http://calerie.dcri.duke.edu/about/index.html). Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that we make when we consider evolutionary biology is that we expect it to answer the question “why”. That’s not the purpose of the science behind evolution. It’s there to answer the how and what questions.

    It’s important to remember that the question “Why do I die from old age” is a phenomenally recent one. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that we’ve been able to build societies where there’s a never-ending abundance of food, clean water and anti-biotics. For the vast majority of human history, the primary causes of death were either not having enough to eat, not being able to find clean water or being eaten (whether by an animal or a biological agent).

    If we couldn’t reproduce until we hit the age of 100, then our genetics would be predisposed toward people living to be 100. It’s clear that our genetics are predisposed toward making us as healthy as possible until we hit reproductive age (reference the significantly lower number of serious health issues in pediatrics versus people outside their reproductive age i.e., forty and above). After that, it’s something of a crap shoot. This is where survival of the fittest came in. Genetic lines which cause deformities in children don’t get passed on, because those children never reproduce. Biologically, the question “Why do we die” can simply be answered with the statement “Because there was never an evolutionary reason for us not to”.

  • L. James Everett, III.

    Eric,

    I wasn’t aware that Darwin knew about genes.

  • L. James Everett, III.

    Also, how is it that “genetic lines” are alive?

    I thought only organisms were alive.

    So, I am unconvinced, so far, that I have mis-represented anything, Darwin or otherwise.

    :)

  • L. James Everett, III.

    Eric,

    One more thing for now: I think you could benefit from reconsidering what is meant by “evolutionary reasons” in your last paragraph.

    I think if you reflect on it, the term has no content, doesn’t mean anything. Evolution doesn’t have “reasons.” Only intelligent agents act for “reasons.”
    :)

  • Mandy O

    Such a great TSA story – I wish it were non-fiction.

    Anyways, so you think we would have lived forever if A&E refused the fruit? There are reasons why we would have died even without that misstep. I take that story of the garden as allegorical rather than literal, so I could interpret that death that day as a metaphorical death, like I interpret Paul’s exhortation to be “dead to sin” as not literally dead – we all know it would be easier to not sin if we were literally dead, but this isn’t what Paul is prescribing here.

    Along the same lines, A&E died that day, but in a different way. We can’t take this entirely literally because we read it and see that A&E didn’t die that same day they ate of the fruit. I take this as a figurative death that day.

    But it sounds like you are drawing the conclusion that we literally die because of this disobedience. I’m not sure I understand how you arrive at your conclusion.

    • L. James Everett, III.

      Hi Mandy,

      I wish my story about being arrested was true, too. Actually, I have been arrested 4 times, and once spent the night in jail. But that’s another discussion.

      In any case, in order to respond adequately, I think I’d need to hear from you again on what you mean by “literal death”. I don’t see the word literal helping–in fact, I find it confusing. Please enlighten on your view.

      I’ve written about “literal interpretation” before, here:

      http://soulation.org/breakfastreading/?p=1327

      Maybe you could read it, and let me know if you think it is relevant.

  • Mandy O

    I thought I explained what I mean about a literal death. Like Paul said we are to be dead to sin. It’s not an accurate death in the sense of I stop breathing and my brain activity ceases. It’s actually a figurative death. Likewise, when I read the creation story, when God warns that A&E will die on that very day they taste the fruit, I am forced to either interpret this as something other than exactly what the words say or to view this as an empty promise from God, and I refuse to take the latter stance.

    • L. James Everett, III.

      Hi Mandy,

      Well, it’s still not clear to me (I think you’re illustrating non-literal death with the Paul reference, not literal death, which is what I was asking about). But I’ll work with what you’ve put out there. The word “literal” is not helping me. I avoid it like the plague. If you like the word, great. But I’ve seen too many assumptions smuggled in with it. If I am over analyzing this, please give me the benefit of the doubt, I’m not trying to be difficult.

      I think that interpretation of Genesis and death could be best illustrated by a reference from Paul, but here are some considerations:

      1) Paul himself took Adam and Eve to have been real, and to have died–the same meaning of death as Jesus dying–what we are all scared of and that happens to us all.

      2) When Paul says “dead-to” that is the same idea of death, but everyone sees the “to” and so knows its referring to “to the power of sin”

      3) The Paul reference isn’t the most natural, contextual background for interpreting Genesis. Genesis 3 has to be read in context of Genesis 2. They both are helped a great deal by Genesis 4 and 5. Genesis 3:21 is key, as I pointed out, and as I noticed that you skipped over in your comment. I take it that an animal died in the place of Adam and Eve “on that day.” Similarly, Genesis 6-9 provide even more help. There is a lot of death, there. Not once is death given an allegorical meaning. They all died. We all die. There is nothing allegorical about that. Genesis takes itself to be describing why: as a penalty for sin. Some death is to come as a penalty for murder–see Genesis 9.

      4)God is gracious and merciful. Your dichotomy–the two options you provided above–is false. There is a third option. Genesis 3:21. God delays punishment, and sometimes forgives, but something else is required instead. These are major themes that are developed throughout the rest of the Torah, and the rest of the Bible, in fact. Paul’s theology stands firmly upon it. Jesus died “for our sins.” In our stead. But, of course, we still die. Yet we shall be raised again to everlasting life, for those you put their faith in him and his provision for atoning their sin.

      If you take Genesis 2-5 as allegorical, where does the allegory begin, where does it end (like, exactly?) Is Joseph allegorical? Moses? David? Jesus? There is no indication IN THE TEXT or any of the texts that interpret the text IN THE TEXT that suggest it is allegorical. It is the bare assertion of it being allegorical that needs argument and support, for it is not the natural reading.

      Well, this gets things a bit further ahead, hopefully, please push back if you sense I am missing anything. I’m all ears.

      :)

      Lj

    • L. James Everett, III.

      One further thing:

      Interpreting the text means hearing it as it is, as it was intended.

      Many don’t like how it was intended. Many don’t agree with it’s message, but want to find a way to agree with it.

      The wanting to find a way to agree with it, but not really agreeing with it, leads many (not saying you are doing this, but many, like Whoopi Goldberg, on The View) to create the Jewish author from the Ancient Near East living perhaps 3,000+ years ago in their image.

      “If I were writing this, it would be allegorical–because everyone can see that this isn’t how things really happened,” that kind of thing.

      The problem is, “I” didn’t write Genesis 2-5. Some ANE Jew did. And he was very different than me. (Whoopi Goldberg didn’t write it, either).

      So, I think we need to let the text talk to us the way IT wants to, not necessarily the way WE might prefer it to, post-Darwin.

      Those Jews cared not a lick for Darwin, how could they have?

      Sorry if this is way off, I don’t know you. Please be patient with me if I am, well, energized.

      :)

      Love and respect,

      Lj

  • Mandy O

    Forgive my delayed reply. Yes I am illustrating a non-literal death Paul has told us to die, and it makes sense that if there is one non-literal application then there can be more without compromising my faith. We just need to look for them and we need to study God’s word and learn more about how He intends us to live and love Him. There is a lot of responsibility in this.

    I understand what you are saying, I understand that when we give a little a lot more can be taken, and I don’t mean to imply that the whole Bible is non-literal or up for interpretation. I believe that the Bible is inspired and true, 100%. But I also see areas where the Bible uses literary devices like similes and personification that are not to be taken exactly as they are written. They are to be interpreted.

    I respect your opinion but I disagree with you on this. Thanks for the great discussion. I’m glad to see dialogue on this.




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