The Problem of Death

by Dr. Terry Mortenson on September 1, 2017; last featured April 19, 2020
Featured in Answers Magazine
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At some point, everyone struggles with tragedy. Without the Bible’s account of creation, there are no good answers.

Why is the world filled with death? Why did my friend’s three-month-old son recently die in the ambulance on the way to the hospital? What kind of God would make a world where three-month-old babies die?

And what about natural disasters like the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands in Haiti in 2010, or the tsunami the next year that killed thousands in Japan, or the hurricanes and tornadoes that kill hundreds every year? Did God make a world with earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes? Indeed, we struggle with the problem of death.

But we don’t just struggle to explain human death. What about the death of so many animals that we find buried in the earth’s fossil-filled rocks? On every continent, thousands of feet of sedimentary rock layers are filled with billions of dead plants and animals. Why are they there? Did God make the world that way?

And it’s not just the death seen in the fossil record. We also see evidence of pain (some creatures were buried alive), killing (some creatures were in the stomachs of other creatures), disease, thorns, and extinction. Mass graveyards are full of bones from thousands of animals jumbled together. Would a truly good God create such a world?

A Good God and the Problem of Death

God is good. He didn’t create a world riddled with death, disease, and natural disasters. You see, Genesis 1:29–30 tells us that humans and animals (“every beast” and “every bird” and “everything that creeps on the earth”) were all originally vegetarian. They didn’t eat each other; they ate the plants and the fruit of the plants. And God called the creation “very good” (v. 31).

But it didn’t stay very good for very long because Adam and Eve rebelled against God, and their rebellion resulted in God’s judgment not only on mankind but on the whole creation.

Genesis 3:14–21 tells us that God cursed the animals. He cursed the ground so that thorns and thistles would grow. He caused increased pain in childbirth, and the physical death process began in Adam and Eve. Furthermore, the passage implies that God killed the first animals to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness.

But God did not leave mankind without hope. He created us to know him and enjoy him forever, and he cursed the creation to turn our eyes back to him.

Romans 8:18–23 says that the whole nonhuman creation was “subjected to futility” and now groans in “bondage to corruption,” waiting to be set free at the return of Christ. The vast majority of Bible teachers throughout church history have taught that this futility and bondage result from the Fall and were not part of the original “very good” pre-Fall creation.

Another Explanation

Sadly, many Christians have bought into an unbiblical view of death. For the last 200 years, the majority of scientists have been telling the world that those rocks and fossils represent millions of years of earth history. Those scientists have convinced most people, including most Christians, that the Bible is wrong or that it doesn’t teach that the creation is only a little more than 6,000 years old.

But this introduces a serious conflict for a Christian. The evolutionary view of death is diametrically opposed to the biblical view.

According to evolution, millions of years of death, bloodshed, disease, and extinction occurred in the animal world before people came into existence. But the Bible says that humans were created before all this death and natural evil. So evolutionists say death came before man. The Bible says man came before death. Both statements can’t be true.

If we accept scientific claims about earth and cosmic history over millions of years, then we must reject or ignore the biblical truth that the Fall brought death into a perfect world.

If we accept geologists’ and astrophysicists’ claims about earth and cosmic history over millions of years (even if we reject belief in biological evolution), then we must reject or ignore the biblical truth that the Fall brought death into a perfect world. And that means accepting a God who calls death “very good.”

If God cursed the ground with thorns after Adam sinned, Christians who follow the majority of scientists have a big problem because rock layers that evolutionists say are 350–400 million years old contain fossil thorns. If true, then God lied in Genesis 3:18.

We also find evidence of cancer, arthritis, and brain tumors in dinosaur bones. If dinosaurs truly lived over 65 million years before humans, then God called all that disease “very good.” But what kind of God would do that? Not the loving God of the Bible.

So the conflict over the age of the earth is a conflict over two different histories of death and two different views of God’s nature. The Bible teaches us there was no death in the beginning and there will be no more death when Jesus comes again. Death is an enemy and a temporary intruder in history.

But in the evolutionary view, as long as there’s been life, there’s been death; in fact, evolution requires death. It’s gone on for millions of years, and it will continue for millions more.

Every Christian attempt to fit millions of years somewhere into Genesis 1 puts all that death, disease, and natural evil before Adam. But that destroys the Bible’s teaching on death and the curse. It also calls into question the Bible’s teaching about Christ’s future redemptive work in the whole creation (Colossians 1:15–20, Acts 3:20–21, and Revelation 21:3–5 and 22:3). The age of the earth matters because the Bible’s teaching on death and redemption matter!

Because of Adam’s sin, even three-month-old babies die. But our suffering is only temporary. The gospel assures us of a future without death when Jesus comes again and removes the curse of Genesis 3.

Dr. Terry Mortenson is a well-known speaker and writer for Answers in Genesis–US. He earned his doctorate in history of geology from Coventry University in England, and his master of divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago.

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