Is death natural? Was it meant to be this way? Can it be reversed?
|“If a man dies, can He live again?” So asked a man in ancient times, a man beset by tragedy, illness and sadness, a man who just wanted to die.
We all know that death is a fact of life but, do we know why death happens? Is it a natural process and, can it ever be changed? To answer these profound questions it is enlightening to consult two very different sources on the subject of death - science, and the oldest most widely circulated religious book, the Bible. Surprisingly, both science and the Bible come to the same conclusion about death.
Assuming that a person is relatively happy, has loved ones and is not in pain or suffering a terminal illness, does anyone actually want to die? It may sound like a strange question but it does provide us with a clue to the human condition of death.
Human beings, unlike their animal counterparts, cannot cope with the concept of death. We fight it, we dread it, we anticipate it and we are paralyzed by mourning when it happens to those we love. Why? If death is a natural process and part of an evolutionary necessity, why do the most advanced minds on the planet struggle with it so much? And if death is just a transitional stage to being with our creator, why did he not just create us in heaven in the first place, why make us suffer, and why do we fight so desperately against dying? There must be an answer that makes sense.
Science can define death and, to a certain degree, explain the physical and mental processes involved. But what science struggles to do is answer the question “why?” The Bible, on the other hand, does offer an explanation for death. Before considering that explanation, it is necessary to evaluate what science has recently discovered about death. It throws up some surprising possibilities. But first, consider the scientific definition of death and compare it with the Biblical definition;
Death according to the dictionary, is “The total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/death. Science does not recognize a separate part of life that survives after death, a “soul” or “spirit.” Compare this with what the Bible actually says;
“They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust” (Ecclesiastes 3.20).
“For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished, and they have no portion anymore to time indefinite in anything that has to be done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9.5).
Does the Bible say that something in the person survives death?
“The soul that is sinning - it itself will die” (Ezekiel 18.4).
The Biblical word “soul” ("Nephesh") does not mean an ethereal living part but simply the animated body, the living person. The soul dies when the body dies.
But the ageing and death processes raise questions, when other biological factors are considered. First, think of the human brain. It has been said that the human brain is vastly superior to that of any other creature. Science author Isaac Asimov concluded “There is no question, then, that RNA presents a filing system perfectly capable of handling any load of learning and memory which the human being is likely to put upon it - and a billion times more than that quantity, too” (The New York Times Magazine – October 1966), (http://spiderbites.nytimes.com/pay_1966/index.html. Why would either evolution, or a creator, equip humans with such an unending capacity for knowledge when their lifetime is restricted to 70 or 80 years?
Consider the heart. Most mammals appear to have a life expectancy of roughly a billion heartbeats. Therefore, a mouse, with 550 heartbeats a minute, may live close to 3 years; whereas a blue whale, with roughly 20 beats a minute, may live more than 50 years. Humans are an exception. Judged by our heart rate, our life span ought to be about 20 years. A healthy human heart, however, may beat three billion times or more and thus live in excess of 70 or 80 years! Why the discrepancy? Could it be that humans were designed to live longer than they actually do at present?
Next, the human cell. Scientists have discovered that cells are rigid and self- perpetuating, they renew themselves on a daily basis with near fidelity. The complexity of DNA instructions for creating new cells has been described as a “code,” a written instruction for building cells. Interestingly when describing the anatomy of humans, the Bible uses similar language, it reads “Your eyes saw even the embryo of me, and in your book all its parts were down in writing” (Psalm 139.16).
Yet geneticists are puzzled by the sudden deterioration of the human DNA. The Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Locked within the code of the genetic material are instructions that specify the age beyond which a species cannot live.” The process of cell reproduction, which sustains the life process should, in theory, continue on indefinitely but, something happens at a certain stage of development. Molecular biologist Dr. John Medina writes: “There seem to be mysterious signals that simply show up at certain times and tell cells to quit doing their normal adult functions.” He also notes: “Genes exist which can tell cells, and indeed entire organisms, to grow old and die.” He goes on to conclude “We don’t really know why we age in the first place. ... After declaring a war on cancer decades ago, we still have not found a cure. And the process of ageing is infinitely more complicated than the mechanisms underlying cancer.” The book "The Clock of Ages" says: “In ageing research, one of the great mysteries is trying to understand why cells stop replicating and start dying.” http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item1155953/?site_locale=en_GB
When answering a question concerning the “Incredible paradox of the aging process,” put to him by Paris weekly L’Express, Nobel-prize-winning biologist François Jacob admitted: “The mechanism is not understood. Indeed, it is utterly paradoxical that an organism that managed to produce itself by an extraordinarily complicated process should then be incapable of maintaining itself in good condition. The fact that a human being can be produced from a fertilized egg cell is probably the most stupendous event that could happen on earth.”
Regarding the human thinking process, a recent study by Columbia University found older people continued to produce neurons in the hippocampus – a part of the brain important for memory, emotion and cognition – at a similar rate to young people. The strange thing is though that, scientists have already established that the ability to generate new hippocampal cells, a process known as neurogenesis, declines with age in rodents and primates, the closest biologically linked mammals to humans.
Science can offer no explanation for the above phenomena. The Bible however does offer an explanation which brings all the information together. Genesis describes a period of perfection, biological and moral perfection. It then goes on to relate how humans sought independence from their creator. The consequence of that wrench from the creator’s authority was a new genetic deterioration or, as the Hebrew language puts it “chat·ta’th” meaning to “miss,” in the sense of missing or not reaching a goal, or right point. The English word for this condition is “sin.” The Bible makes clear the cause of this condition when it says “They have acted ruinously on their own part. They are not his (God’s) children, the defect is their own” (Deuteronomy 32.5). This self-inflicted defect is further underlined where the Bible reveals “The true God made mankind upright (perfect), but they themselves have sought out many plans” (Ecclesiastes 7.29). Human beings, severed from the support and protection of their creator, are like an electric fan that has been unplugged from its power source, they gradually stop working.
Regarding the innate human desire to continue living, the Bible explains “Even eternity (forever) God has put into the heart of man” - (Ecclesiastes 3.11).
The Bible writer Paul sums up mankind’s frustrating struggle against lifes end when he wrote “Miserable man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body undergoing this death?” (Romans 7.24).
Both science and the Bible suggest that it is possible that one day, humans will continue living indefinitely. Scientists speculate that, once the genetic code is fully understood and controlled, they will be able to manipulate and replace cells to extend life perpetually. Unfortunately this could take centuries, if at all possible, and could create unethical sales of DNA, and power struggles to control and market such breakthroughs in medical procedures. The Bible promises a more positive outcome and for a different reason, for a select number of humans, and by the power of our creator. Jesus referred to the restoration of perfection of the human mind and body as “The re-creation” (Matthew 19.28), and this is only accomplished when those that reject the creator’s authority are removed from our earth. The words of the Bible then describe the outcome of that restoration in beautiful words;
“But the meek ones themselves will possess the earth, and they will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace” - Isaiah 37.11
“Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, neither have there been conceived in the heart of man the things that God has prepared for those that love him” - 1 Corinthians 2.9
For the condition of death, the Bible informs us that the human cell degradation will be reversed and that this miserable condition will no longer apply to the human body;
“God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning, nor pain be anymore” - Revelation 21.4
But what of those who have already died, did they live for nothing? Is there any hope for them? The man quoted at the outset was the Biblical Patriarch “Job.” In the very next verses He reveals his confidence in God’s justice and mercy
“Oh that in Sheol (the grave) you would conceal me, That you would keep me secret until your anger turns back, That you would set a time limit for me and remember me! All the days of my compulsory service (death) I shall wait, Until my relief comes. You will call, and I myself shall answer you” (Job 14.13-15).
Job was expressing the Israelite belief in the physical resurrection (Greek “A·na´sta·sis") as expressed in the book of Hoseah; “From the hand of She´ol I shall redeem them; from death I shall recover them. Where are your stings, O Death?” (Hosea 13.14). This is the most astonishing claim of all from the Bible, that even those who have already died will be restored to life. This may sound implausible to many but, consider the following; if one accepts the existence of a creator of life, then one has to admit that such a being can cause such an event again. Even though we have all lost loved ones, their appearance and personality are deeply embedded in our memories. Imagine the capacity of the memory of God! The Bible tells us that “He well remembers the formation of us” (Psalm 103.14). The Biblical character Job did not die at that time but was rewarded. But have a close look at the reward, it is very revealing! Job was eventually given twice as many of everything He lost (you can count this at the end of the book of Job). This was according to God’s law of restitution for theft, that a victim receive double the stolen goods back. The only thing Job did not receive double of was His children, why? Because they would live again “on the last day” as Jesus revealed (John 11.24).
For those that object, pointing out that indefinite life would cause overpopulation, consider that it has been estimated that if every person ever born were to be given an acre of land, over 50% of the earth would remain untouched. The Bible says that God commanded humans to “Fill the earth.” When pouring a drink, a responsible person “fills” the cup until it is adequately full and then, he stops. Although the Bible does not elaborate on this, it is possible that God could either end the expansion of the human race or, prepare other worlds for their habitation.
Death is illogical and undesirable. It defies the natural processes and deprives mankind of endless knowledge and achievements. Both science and the Bible indicate that it will not exist forever. The Bible reassuringly testifies that “The last enemy (death) will be swallowed up forever” (1 Corinthians 15.54). When will this happen? That is covered in my other articles.