Death’s Reign and God’s Reign

By David Feddes

If God is real, how can horrible things happen? That’s a very old question, but it gets asked with new urgency when trouble strikes you personally or when a huge disaster affects large numbers of people and floods your television with images of death, destruction, and grief.

When life is pleasant and you feel happy and healthy, you might not ask many questions about God. But if you’re diagnosed with cancer or your child is killed, you may wonder how God can let such a thing happen.

When peace and prosperity prevail, you might not ask why God is being generous. But when terrorists or tornados kill, when earthquakes and tsunamis wipe out thousands, you might wonder how it’s possible to believe in God.

Cancer can eat away not only bodies but beliefs. A tornado can blow away not only houses but worldviews. An earthquake can shake not only the ground but the religion of many. A wall of water can wash away not only towns and people but also a cheery outlook on life.

Even strong believers agonize over tragedy. The Bible records cries, groans, and hard questions directed to God by people of faith. God’s heart goes out to believers who weep over their own suffering, and he tells us to weep with others who weep (Romans 12:15). Tears don’t always mean a loss of faith. Tears can be marks of honesty with God and sympathy with others. Even as believers cry, they know that God is real and that he hears their cries.

But not all cries are cries of faith. There’s another kind of cry—a cry of unbelief. Some cries of unbelief come from people whose beliefs have been wrecked by tragedy. Their beliefs about God and the world seemed sensible in pleasant times but collapsed when tragedy struck.

How could their view of the world be shattered by suffering and death? Perhaps because their view of the world was false all along. They thought the world offered a long, happy life; they somehow didn’t notice that death reigns over everything and everybody on earth.

How could their belief in God by crushed by crisis? Perhaps because the god they believed in was a phony all along. They thought God only brings happiness; they somehow didn’t realize that God reigns over all things that happen, pain as well as pleasure, death as well as life.

Two of the most basic facts about reality, two of the most basic truths in the Bible, are the reign of death and the reign of God. When death strikes a loved one or threatens me personally, it is terrible and overwhelming, but it should not be surprising. Death strikes everyone at some point; it’s a matter of when, not if. If thousands of deaths are supposed to be evidence that God does not exist, what about billions of deaths? Billions of people have died, and billions more are going to die. Everyone dies. Any realistic view of the world must take account of these two facts: death reigns, and God reigns.

As long as life seems pleasant, we might view the world as gentle Mother Nature. Then trouble strikes, and we find out the hard way that “gentle Mother Nature” is not so gentle or motherly. Nature kills. Nature can kill people one at a time through disease or old age, nature can kill thousands at a time through huge disasters, but in the end nature kills everybody. The world around us is beautiful but also terrible. It is not a lovely, friendly circle of life; it is a death trap. Death reigns.

As long as life is seems pleasant, we might view God as a sweet buddy who protects his pals from pain. But disease, disaster, and death destroy the idea of a deity whose job is to make our lives pleasant and prevent bad things from happening. Whoever God is, he obviously doesn’t exist merely to make our lives comfortable and trouble-free. After recent disasters killed thousands, some liberal clergy spoke of doubting God. Well, the more they doubt their god, the better. Their god—a wimpy, eager-to-please little deity—was never real. The sooner we forget phony religion, the sooner we can start seeking the real God, the God who reigns over hard times as well as happy times.

Human Gnats?

While some people cry out against God because they feel let down by the sweet, helpful higher power they imagined, others have long been unbelievers. They’ve been realistic enough to see that death reigns, but they’ve taken this as proof that God does not reign. They know death is real; they think God is not. Indeed, they treat every new tragedy as one more proof that there is no God.

In their view of the world, death is accidental and meaningless because life is accidental and meaningless. “Of course accidents happen to humans,” they say. “The human race itself is an accident of evolution. Everything is an accident. The only meaning is that there is no meaning.” Some non-believers seem to enjoy sneering after some awful event: “Why did those people die? Because nature doesn’t care about us, and there’s no God to care about us. If you didn’t know it before, now you do. We told you so!”

Not all are smug about this. Some dismiss God not gleefully but regretfully. After the deadly tsunami last December, David Brooks wrote in The New York Times:

Human beings have always told stories to explain deluges such as this. Most cultures have deep at their core a flood myth in which the great bulk of humanity is destroyed and a few are left… In most of these stories, God is meting out retribution, punishing those who have strayed from his path…

In the flood stories, death reigned, but God also reigned. However, that’s unacceptable to David Brooks. He says,

Nowadays we find these kinds of explanations repugnant. It is repugnant to imply that the people who suffer from natural disasters somehow deserve their fate. And yet for all the callousness of those tales, they did at least put human beings at the center of history… Stories of a wrathful God implied that at least there was an active God, who had some plan for the human race…

If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami [says Brooks] you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe’s main concern. We’re just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and [thousands of] gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves.

That’s the logic of thinking that death reigns but that God doesn’t reign: humans are just gnats who die at the shrug of huge natural forces. Not inspiring, is it—but it’s not true, either. God is real, God reigns, and it’s a colossal error to think he doesn’t.

None of us knows the full explanation for why a particular tragedy struck this place and not that one, or why these people died and not those. But if we listen to the Bible and face the reality of death’s reign and God’s reign, we get a truthful framework for understanding reality. We won’t fall for the falsehood that humans are gnats or that death’s reign prevails over God’s reign.

Healthy Realism

We won’t get far, however, if we won’t accept what God tells us in the Bible. We must listen to God’s Word even when we don’t happen to like it. David Brooks dismisses flood stories about God punishing the world simply because modern people find them “repugnant.” But so what if we find something repugnant? The aim is to believe what is true, not to believe what we happen to like or dislike.

Reality is often different from my personal taste. I don’t have much taste for cancer or heart attacks, but they happen. I don’t like floods, tornados, or earthquakes, but they happen. Besides, if we rule out any idea we find repugnant, is the ancient flood story more repugnant than the modern view that people are meaningless gnats?

What basis do we have to dismiss the biblical flood as a myth? It’s odd to say, “Almost all cultures tell of a flood. This proves the great flood was just a myth.” If most cultures tell stories of a worldwide flood, might that not be evidence that the Genesis flood really happened?

If we believe in the ancient, worldwide flood, our faith won’t collapse in the face of a smaller, modern flood. If you believe that God once flooded the whole earth and wiped out all but a few people, you won’t stop believing in God the moment some lesser disaster comes along. But if you ignore the Bible and make up your own god, if you believe in a god who wouldn’t harm a fly, then the first tragedy that comes along will smash your faith and make you see yourself as little more than a fly.

It’s unwise to disbelieve the word of God, and it’s almost as unwise to apply bad logic to it. David Brooks seems to think that if we believe in the biblical flood, we must see every disaster as God’s direct attack on people he is especially angry at. But that’s bad logic. Even if there was a worldwide flood in the days of Noah, and even if the flood was a punishment from God, that would not mean that in our time all victims of disaster and disease are being singled out by God to be punished for being worse than people who were not struck down. It’s lousy logic to take one case and apply it to every case.

Jesus spoke of the ancient flood as a real event and as a punishment from God (Luke 17:27), but Jesus also spoke about some tragedies in his own day and warned against thinking the victims were more guilty than people who weren’t killed (Luke 13:1-5). When disaster kills others, we have no call to judge them and no call to judge God.  Rather, says Jesus, we have a call to repent.

Those who have died are beyond repentance once death comes. Nothing can change their destiny anymore. They are either safe in heaven or damned in hell. Their death reminds us that we too will die. We live under death’s reign and under God’s reign, so we must repent and get right with God while God gives us the opportunity—before death comes and no more repentance is possible.

To have a faith that can stand the test of reality and can stand firm in any disaster, we need a faith that knows (1) God’s reign (2) death’s reign and (3) how God’s reign in Christ triumphs over death’s reign.

God’s Reign

When disaster strikes, we may be tempted to think that nobody is in control, that evil and chaos have taken over. Even those who believe in a divine being are tempted to think that God has nothing to do with trouble, disaster, or death. These things “just happen.” In such thinking, God rules over pleasant things, not painful things. But the truth is that God reigns over all things. Even the most shocking events do not take God by surprise. Even the most dreadful disasters are part of his plan and purpose.

God rules over life and death, health and disease, ability and disability. It is impossible to deny this and still believe the Bible. In Exodus 4:11 God says, “Who makes a person deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” In Deuteronomy 32:39 God says, “I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).  In Isaiah 45:7 God says, “I bring prosperity and I create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). Amos 3:6 says, “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” (Amos 3:6)

That’s not easy to accept, is it? When disaster comes, we want God to sooth us. We don’t want to think that God somehow had a hand in the disaster. But whether we like it or not, whether we understand it or not, God says, “I put to death. I wound. I create disaster.” God is not so small, not so safe, not so tame as we might like. And he certainly is not surprised or overwhelmed by events; rather, he plans and directs all events.

Now, we must not picture God only as a cruel dictator who does all sorts of terrible things. God is more than a king. He is also a father, a helper, a healer, a friend. In Jesus he is even a fellow sufferer with us. God doesn’t just rule; he loves. So we should not picture God only as a monarch who rules by raw power. But though God is more than a king, God is not less than a king. God is all-powerful, the Maker and Ruler of all things. God is good, loving, wise, and merciful, but he is also sovereign, fully in charge. It’s wrong to make God smaller than he really is, to limit his power, or to deny the scope of his reign by saying that some events are beyond his doing and outside his plan.

When tragedy strikes, it’s not without God’s knowledge and plan. Even as we lament our losses, we must say as Job did in the Bible, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised… Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (Job 1:21; 2:10).

We cannot deny God’s absolute right to do as he pleases with what he has created. Too often we act as though we have a right to judge God, and we complain about how he treats us. We act as though God must answer to us, not we to him. In Isaiah 29:16 God says, “You turn things upside down as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’? Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing’?” In Isaiah 45 God goes on to say,

I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God… I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things… Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker… Does the clay say to the potter, “What are you making?” … Do you … give me orders about the work of my hands?” (Isaiah 45:5-11)

It is foolish to try to point out God’s flaws; instead, we need God to reveal our flaws, and we need to ask how God might rescue us from them. The prophet Isaiah said,

“How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags… Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people” (64:5-9)

Reign of Death

The problem of sin goes all the way back to the first man, Adam. In Romans 5:12 the Bible says, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” Scripture goes on to say that from Adam’s time onward, “death reigned” (5:14). God created Adam as the first human and as the head of the human race, so when Adam disobeyed God and gave in to Satan’s temptation, Adam made not only himself but all his descendants guilty of sin and subject to death. Romans 5:17 says that “by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man.”

Adam’s sin was a catastrophe for the human race and for the whole created world. Romans 8:19-22 says that “the creation was subjected to frustration,” trapped “in bondage to decay.” Indeed, “the whole creation has been groaning.” God in his goodness keeps the creation going and blesses it with many beauties and delights, but since Adam’s fall, the created world has become a frustrated, dying, decaying deathtrap, groaning for something better.

Every pleasure and positive experience is a taste of God’s kindness and an invitation to seek him and find eternal life in him, but every hardship and death is a reminder that we live under the reign of death unless we can somehow be set free. Sometimes the groaning earth quakes, sometimes the groaning oceans roar ashore, sometimes the groaning atmosphere unleashes hurricanes and tornadoes, sometimes the groaning animal kingdom attacks and devours, sometimes groaning cells grow into cancers. Groaning creation and dying humanity is evidence of the reign of death, unleashed by the sin of Adam.

Every death is a result of sin, not in the sense that a particular disease or accident is God’s direct punishment for a particular evil deed of the individual affected, but in the sense that death and decay entered the world through the sin of Adam, and we are all involved in Adam’s fall. So when a person or a large number of people are struck down by death, we shouldn’t single them out as guiltier than the rest of us. We should see their death as a result of death’s reign over the world since Adam fell, and as a preview of our own unavoidable date with death.

It’s not popular to talk this way. Some religious leaders avoid the word “sin.” They emphasize “progress,” not bondage to decay and death. They may even deny that there ever was a real Adam whose sin brought death to all of us, just as they deny that there was later a real Noah or a real flood. Such anti-biblical opinions may sound appealing for a time, but when the waves of death roll over people, progress turns out to be empty, and the reign of death proves all too real. The same religious leaders who deny the reality of Adam and the disastrous results of his sin on all of us are often the same people whose faith flounders when trouble comes and who express doubts about God’s very existence. Death reigns; the Bible explains why.

Reigning in Life

The Bible tells tough truth for tough times. Scripture doesn’t sooth with sugar. You might not like to believe that death has reigned since Adam, but fact is fact. You might not like to think that God’s hand is somehow reigning in all this, but God says in no uncertain terms, “I put to death and I bring to life. I bring prosperity and I create disaster.” We must believe what God says, not argue against him or invent a more user-friendly religion.

When we believe portions of God’s Word that we don’t like to hear, we can also benefit from God’s provision of victory over death. Death’s reign is limited; God’s reign is total. The same God who decreed that Adam’s sin would bring humanity under death’s reign and put the world in bondage to decay—this same God decreed that a new Adam would liberate humanity from death and open the way to eternal life in a creation made new.

Romans 5 says, “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man [Adam], how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!… For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (v. 15, 17).

Should we complain that God would appoint Adam to represent all of us and involved all of us in sin and death? No, let’s instead praise God that he appointed Jesus to represent a new humanity, to die as the payment for our sins, to credit us with his perfection, and to involve us in his resurrection? The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

You cannot avoid death by pretending death doesn’t reign. You cannot avoid God by pretending God doesn’t reign. You must face the reality of death’s reign and God’s reign. You will die, and you will answer to God. That leaves two possibilities: either you can die as God’s enemy, or you can die as God’s friend. Faith in Jesus transforms God’s enemies into his friends. Faith in Jesus brings the dead back to life. In Jesus you can triumph over death, and in Jesus you can be right with God and be part of God’s family forever. So admit your sin. Repent and put your faith in Jesus. Then sin will not determine your destiny. Death will not reign over you forever. Instead, you will reign with Christ, and the Lord’s reign will be your everlasting joy.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.