Shall We Blame God for Death?

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Sunday, January 8, 2017 - 9:00pm

1 Corinthians 15:19-26, 50-55, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 8, 2017

            It was a moving thing to walk into St. Andrew Church on Monday and see it full to overflowing with people wanting to grieve the loss of a 42-year-old mother. At first I was pinned in the rear of the sanctuary, but was guided to stand along the wall and eventually was given a seat on the third row. From that spot, I was acutely aware of family members crying, and just in front of me a friend from the rescue squad had tears streaming down her face. We were all facing the reality of death together—both the death of one person now gone from our lives, and our own death.

            It was in most ways a beautiful service and far less maudlin than I would have expected. Father Joe did a wonderful job. But at one point his words pushed me back into my pew. My friend Joe’s purpose was to comfort those who might be feeling some guilt, thinking that they had contributed to Marty’s death by something they said or failed to do, so he said, “It’s not your fault. With the full authority of the Roman Catholic Church I can say that the entire responsibility for Marty’s death rests on the shoulders of one person—God. God knew when and how she would die, and she died not a moment earlier and not a moment later than God intended.”

            That is the question I want us to think about this morning: Shall we blame God for death? Do we really believe that God plans every death and is instrumental in causing it to happen? As you can guess from my question, I don’t believe so.

            It is a common enough belief. People say “God ‘took’ my father ten years ago.” Did he? I, for one, believe that God received my father to himself when he died, but I do not believe he ‘took’ him. If we believe that God took our loved one—that it was part of some plan, that God decided he wanted that person in his presence rather than in ours—it’s no wonder so many people are mad at God. I suppose we use such expressions thinking that it will comfort others to know that the death was not random, but I’m not so sure. I would prefer randomness to the notion that God snatched him away from me.

            Most of the things people say to comfort those who experience the loss of a family member are pretty inane and it would be better to remain silent. “She’s in a better place” might be true, but it doesn’t address the feeling of loss. “I know what you’re going through” is not only false but self-centered. But the ones that bug me are the theological ones, like “It must have been God’s will” and “Everything happens for a reason.” Do you really believe that? Don’t you think that many things happen that are not God’s will? Why then do we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” which carries Jesus’ assumption that God’s will is not being done on earth now. Do you really believe that this is not a tragic world, and that many things are tragic even in the eyes of God? Have you noticed how many times in the Old Testament God is in agony or in anger, frustrated or pleading because of things that are happening on earth?

            Of all the things that people say at funerals that make my skin crawl—especially at the funeral of a young person—the worst is “I guess God needed another angel.” I actually saw that in a “comforting” Facebook post recently. First, there is the assumption that God snatched this young person away because God cared more about his own personal needs than about the needs of us down here. Second, do you really think God has a shortage of angels? Don’t you think that God has created just about as many angels as he wants? Third, people don’t become angels, ever. Angels are a completely different order of creatures not related to humans. The idea that we turn into angels with wings and haloes, sitting on clouds, is a concoction of Hollywood and cartoons, not an idea that the Church has ever taught.

            But what really disturbs me about the talk of God needing an angel is the picture it gives of God—that God decided that person X should die, now; that God is completely in control of everything and controls it in line with his own selfish purposes; that God’s main concern is how many angels he has singing his praises because God is the ultimate narcissist; that God is oblivious to the suffering that is caused to parents and siblings and friends when a child dies young.

            If you think that God causes everything that happens, you will inevitably get mad at God, because a lot of bad stuff happens, including in some cases death. A psychologist at Case Western Reserve University named Julie Exline has done a series of five studies on the subject of anger at God. It is a common experience, she found, that stems from the belief that God is responsible for our bad experiences. 62% of the people in her study admitted that they are angry at God on occasion; Protestants admitted it less than Catholics or Jews; older people were less likely to be angry at God than younger people. Even people who don’t believe in God get angry at him! Atheist and agnostic college students were more angry at God than religious students. Since people see God as ultimately responsible, they think they have been abandoned or betrayed when something bad happens—especially when someone they love dies.

            Do you believe that God causes everything that happens? Well, you might say, Jesus said that God knows how many hairs are on our heads. But did he say that God causes your hair to fall out? Jesus said that our Father knows when even a sparrow falls, but did he say that he makes sparrows fall? I can live with the idea that God knows everything, but I have trouble with the idea that God causes everything. You can have omniscience without omnipotence.

            It is comforting, in a way, to think that nothing ever happens without crossing God’s desk first for his stamp of approval. But is that the way the world works? The way I read the story of God and Israel in the Hebrew scriptures, there is a great deal of sadness in God. God does not want Israel to cheat on him with other gods, but they do. God does not want them to mistreat the poor and widows and orphans and foreigners, but they do, and it wounds God’s heart. God’s voice is full of both judgment and longing, of complaint about what is wrong with human choices and a spurned lover’s longing for the beloved to come back to him. The whole framework of covenant and commandment assumes that humans have a choice to obey or not—that there is a significant degree of free will.

            If God created beings with enough freedom that they would be able to choose love and faithfulness, he intentionally created them with the freedom to choose to do things outside his control. I doubt that the strict conception of God’s omnipotence is a biblical concept; it’s more an idea from Greek thinking and philosophy as something that must be logically necessary. It is one of those Greek ideas that infected (in my opinion) the church in its early centuries and then was reinforced during the Reformation—in its most pure form by John Calvin. I’ll admit there is a certain happiness to be obtained by accepting that everything that happens is God’s perfect will, but I think it requires you to put on blinders or wear some very odd lenses. It is also a happiness based on accepting that any choice you ever make is of no consequence whatsoever. It only feels like free will, this view says, but God is actually in control.

            I don’t think that’s the story that either the Bible or reason or experience tells. Adam and Eve have the freedom to disobey, and their choices have very serious consequences. The story says that their son Cain made the free choice to murder his brother Abel—and never implies that it was God’s will. By the time you get to the story of Noah, God is so upset with things being done that are not the way he wants them that he is ready to wipe out the human race and start over. I don’t want to get into whether that is historical—or even an accurate picture of God—but I want to point out the constant theme of human freedom at cross purposes with God’s plan. That is the definition of sin. The existence of sin means that God is not in control.

            In order for us to have freedom, God has limited his control. Think about it: if you want to have a real relationship with someone—your child, your spouse, your employee—you have to limit yourself and the degree to which you control the other. Otherwise it's not a relationship. There has to be freedom to choose, to give and to receive. Baptist theologian Frank Tupper refers to “the self-limitation of God,” which means “that God has created space between God’s self and human persons so that we can experience in that personal relationship the affirmation of love and the affirmation of the radical freedom that God has given us.” Tupper says that the sovereignty of God is not “the sovereignty of control” but “the sovereignty of God’s love” which triumphs in the end [“Theologian Says God Not in Control,” Baptist News Global, 12-29-16]. I’d like to express it simply: God is Parent, not Tyrant. Jesus taught us to approach God as Father when he could have emphasized God as absolute monarch.

            Does God cause people to die in the Bible? Yes, he does, but in the context of judgment on a particular evil. Does everyone die in the Bible? Pretty much, although there are the mysterious stories of Enoch and Elijah. The good die just as the wicked die. God says in Ezekiel (33:11) “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” It’s not what he would choose if he were perfectly in control. 2 Peter (3:9) says, “God is not willing that any should perish.” God doesn’t want anyone to die without a relationship with him; he wants everyone to turn to him. Everyone does not turn to him, though, because God has limited his degree of control. Jesus weeps when he comes to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Interpreters concoct explanations for why Jesus cried, avoiding the most obvious one: it made him sad that his friend was dead, and it was not what he wanted. Jesus weeps again when he looks down on the city of Jerusalem, wishing the people had turned to him, and crying because he knows that due to their own choices they will be destroyed by the Romans. This was not the will of God written in stone. It was a choice and a consequence Jesus had hoped to prevent, but he could not.

            Did God make death as part of the world from the beginning? That is the matter of some debate. Paul says that death entered the world because of Adam’s sinful choice—and that Christ’s obedient choice will ultimately take death out of the world. I think Paul would agree with those who say that in the Garden of Eden there was no death, not even animals eating each other, and that was God’s perfect intention. Others would say that there had to have been death in the world long before the creation of the first humans, so the story of a death-free Eden is a symbolic myth. Myth or not, it points to the future in which we expect that God will restore all things, and there will be no more death or sorrow.

            When Paul writes about the Resurrection and its consequences, he says that Christ has defeated death by rising from the dead. In the future, all who belong to Christ (by faith) will be made alive in Christ—raised to life as he was. Then comes the end of history, when Christ has destroyed every ruler and authority and power that stood against him (whether empires and governments or demonic forces). “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). So in that version of the story, death is not something that God does to people. Death is an enemy that God will someday destroy, and death will be no more. Death, Paul says, quoting Isaiah, “has been swallowed up in victory” (15:54). Death is no longer victorious over God, and death has lost its sting.

            I’m not going to blame God for my death—just for my resurrection. That’s the part that depends on God’s action, not my own. Does God know the exact moment I will die? I don’t think so—too many variables, too much freedom on my part and on the part of others who might kill me, on purpose or not. When I die, I do not want anyone to say it was God’s fault, that God took me or failed to intervene or any such nonsense. I just want them to praise God for giving me life in this world and life in the age to come. I am confident that God’s love will be victorious, that the forces of life will be victorious over the forces of death, and that I will share that life that is life indeed. As we prepare to remember Jesus’ death and his victory over death, I hope that you will join me in that confidence in God’s love.

1 Corinthians 15:19-26, 50-55, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 8, 2017

            It was a moving thing to walk into St. Andrew Church on Monday and see it full to overflowing with people wanting to grieve the loss of a 42-year-old mother. At first I was pinned in the rear of the sanctuary, but was guided to stand along the wall and eventually was given a seat on the third row. From that spot, I was acutely aware of family members crying, and just in front of me a friend from the rescue squad had tears streaming down her face. We were all facing the reality of death together—both the death of one person now gone from our lives, and our own death.

            It was in most ways a beautiful service and far less maudlin than I would have expected. Father Joe did a wonderful job. But at one point his words pushed me back into my pew. My friend Joe’s purpose was to comfort those who might be feeling some guilt, thinking that they had contributed to Marty’s death by something they said or failed to do, so he said, “It’s not your fault. With the full authority of the Roman Catholic Church I can say that the entire responsibility for Marty’s death rests on the shoulders of one person—God. God knew when and how she would die, and she died not a moment earlier and not a moment later than God intended.”

            That is the question I want us to think about this morning: Shall we blame God for death? Do we really believe that God plans every death and is instrumental in causing it to happen? As you can guess from my question, I don’t believe so.

            It is a common enough belief. People say “God ‘took’ my father ten years ago.” Did he? I, for one, believe that God received my father to himself when he died, but I do not believe he ‘took’ him. If we believe that God took our loved one—that it was part of some plan, that God decided he wanted that person in his presence rather than in ours—it’s no wonder so many people are mad at God. I suppose we use such expressions thinking that it will comfort others to know that the death was not random, but I’m not so sure. I would prefer randomness to the notion that God snatched him away from me.

            Most of the things people say to comfort those who experience the loss of a family member are pretty inane and it would be better to remain silent. “She’s in a better place” might be true, but it doesn’t address the feeling of loss. “I know what you’re going through” is not only false but self-centered. But the ones that bug me are the theological ones, like “It must have been God’s will” and “Everything happens for a reason.” Do you really believe that? Don’t you think that many things happen that are not God’s will? Why then do we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” which carries Jesus’ assumption that God’s will is not being done on earth now. Do you really believe that this is not a tragic world, and that many things are tragic even in the eyes of God? Have you noticed how many times in the Old Testament God is in agony or in anger, frustrated or pleading because of things that are happening on earth?

            Of all the things that people say at funerals that make my skin crawl—especially at the funeral of a young person—the worst is “I guess God needed another angel.” I actually saw that in a “comforting” Facebook post recently. First, there is the assumption that God snatched this young person away because God cared more about his own personal needs than about the needs of us down here. Second, do you really think God has a shortage of angels? Don’t you think that God has created just about as many angels as he wants? Third, people don’t become angels, ever. Angels are a completely different order of creatures not related to humans. The idea that we turn into angels with wings and haloes, sitting on clouds, is a concoction of Hollywood and cartoons, not an idea that the Church has ever taught.

            But what really disturbs me about the talk of God needing an angel is the picture it gives of God—that God decided that person X should die, now; that God is completely in control of everything and controls it in line with his own selfish purposes; that God’s main concern is how many angels he has singing his praises because God is the ultimate narcissist; that God is oblivious to the suffering that is caused to parents and siblings and friends when a child dies young.

            If you think that God causes everything that happens, you will inevitably get mad at God, because a lot of bad stuff happens, including in some cases death. A psychologist at Case Western Reserve University named Julie Exline has done a series of five studies on the subject of anger at God. It is a common experience, she found, that stems from the belief that God is responsible for our bad experiences. 62% of the people in her study admitted that they are angry at God on occasion; Protestants admitted it less than Catholics or Jews; older people were less likely to be angry at God than younger people. Even people who don’t believe in God get angry at him! Atheist and agnostic college students were more angry at God than religious students. Since people see God as ultimately responsible, they think they have been abandoned or betrayed when something bad happens—especially when someone they love dies.

            Do you believe that God causes everything that happens? Well, you might say, Jesus said that God knows how many hairs are on our heads. But did he say that God causes your hair to fall out? Jesus said that our Father knows when even a sparrow falls, but did he say that he makes sparrows fall? I can live with the idea that God knows everything, but I have trouble with the idea that God causes everything. You can have omniscience without omnipotence.

            It is comforting, in a way, to think that nothing ever happens without crossing God’s desk first for his stamp of approval. But is that the way the world works? The way I read the story of God and Israel in the Hebrew scriptures, there is a great deal of sadness in God. God does not want Israel to cheat on him with other gods, but they do. God does not want them to mistreat the poor and widows and orphans and foreigners, but they do, and it wounds God’s heart. God’s voice is full of both judgment and longing, of complaint about what is wrong with human choices and a spurned lover’s longing for the beloved to come back to him. The whole framework of covenant and commandment assumes that humans have a choice to obey or not—that there is a significant degree of free will.

            If God created beings with enough freedom that they would be able to choose love and faithfulness, he intentionally created them with the freedom to choose to do things outside his control. I doubt that the strict conception of God’s omnipotence is a biblical concept; it’s more an idea from Greek thinking and philosophy as something that must be logically necessary. It is one of those Greek ideas that infected (in my opinion) the church in its early centuries and then was reinforced during the Reformation—in its most pure form by John Calvin. I’ll admit there is a certain happiness to be obtained by accepting that everything that happens is God’s perfect will, but I think it requires you to put on blinders or wear some very odd lenses. It is also a happiness based on accepting that any choice you ever make is of no consequence whatsoever. It only feels like free will, this view says, but God is actually in control.

            I don’t think that’s the story that either the Bible or reason or experience tells. Adam and Eve have the freedom to disobey, and their choices have very serious consequences. The story says that their son Cain made the free choice to murder his brother Abel—and never implies that it was God’s will. By the time you get to the story of Noah, God is so upset with things being done that are not the way he wants them that he is ready to wipe out the human race and start over. I don’t want to get into whether that is historical—or even an accurate picture of God—but I want to point out the constant theme of human freedom at cross purposes with God’s plan. That is the definition of sin. The existence of sin means that God is not in control.

            In order for us to have freedom, God has limited his control. Think about it: if you want to have a real relationship with someone—your child, your spouse, your employee—you have to limit yourself and the degree to which you control the other. Otherwise it's not a relationship. There has to be freedom to choose, to give and to receive. Baptist theologian Frank Tupper refers to “the self-limitation of God,” which means “that God has created space between God’s self and human persons so that we can experience in that personal relationship the affirmation of love and the affirmation of the radical freedom that God has given us.” Tupper says that the sovereignty of God is not “the sovereignty of control” but “the sovereignty of God’s love” which triumphs in the end [“Theologian Says God Not in Control,” Baptist News Global, 12-29-16]. I’d like to express it simply: God is Parent, not Tyrant. Jesus taught us to approach God as Father when he could have emphasized God as absolute monarch.

            Does God cause people to die in the Bible? Yes, he does, but in the context of judgment on a particular evil. Does everyone die in the Bible? Pretty much, although there are the mysterious stories of Enoch and Elijah. The good die just as the wicked die. God says in Ezekiel (33:11) “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” It’s not what he would choose if he were perfectly in control. 2 Peter (3:9) says, “God is not willing that any should perish.” God doesn’t want anyone to die without a relationship with him; he wants everyone to turn to him. Everyone does not turn to him, though, because God has limited his degree of control. Jesus weeps when he comes to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Interpreters concoct explanations for why Jesus cried, avoiding the most obvious one: it made him sad that his friend was dead, and it was not what he wanted. Jesus weeps again when he looks down on the city of Jerusalem, wishing the people had turned to him, and crying because he knows that due to their own choices they will be destroyed by the Romans. This was not the will of God written in stone. It was a choice and a consequence Jesus had hoped to prevent, but he could not.

            Did God make death as part of the world from the beginning? That is the matter of some debate. Paul says that death entered the world because of Adam’s sinful choice—and that Christ’s obedient choice will ultimately take death out of the world. I think Paul would agree with those who say that in the Garden of Eden there was no death, not even animals eating each other, and that was God’s perfect intention. Others would say that there had to have been death in the world long before the creation of the first humans, so the story of a death-free Eden is a symbolic myth. Myth or not, it points to the future in which we expect that God will restore all things, and there will be no more death or sorrow.

            When Paul writes about the Resurrection and its consequences, he says that Christ has defeated death by rising from the dead. In the future, all who belong to Christ (by faith) will be made alive in Christ—raised to life as he was. Then comes the end of history, when Christ has destroyed every ruler and authority and power that stood against him (whether empires and governments or demonic forces). “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). So in that version of the story, death is not something that God does to people. Death is an enemy that God will someday destroy, and death will be no more. Death, Paul says, quoting Isaiah, “has been swallowed up in victory” (15:54). Death is no longer victorious over God, and death has lost its sting.

            I’m not going to blame God for my death—just for my resurrection. That’s the part that depends on God’s action, not my own. Does God know the exact moment I will die? I don’t think so—too many variables, too much freedom on my part and on the part of others who might kill me, on purpose or not. When I die, I do not want anyone to say it was God’s fault, that God took me or failed to intervene or any such nonsense. I just want them to praise God for giving me life in this world and life in the age to come. I am confident that God’s love will be victorious, that the forces of life will be victorious over the forces of death, and that I will share that life that is life indeed. As we prepare to remember Jesus’ death and his victory over death, I hope that you will join me in that confidence in God’s love.

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