This week's question comes from Olivia, a fifteen-year-old reader from England. She asks, "Do you agree with the statement 'God gives life and only God can take it away'?"
At first glance, this statement seems like a biblical statement. Certainly some have said that God is the only one who can decide when a life begins or ends. This has been especially true after an untimely death and someone thoughtlessly said, "God called them home" or some other theological platitude such as this.
But when I began my research I found that Olivia cited a theological statement in that it claims something about God, but it is not a biblical statement. The closest I could find was Deuteronomy 32.39: "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." However, notice the lack of absolutes in the verse. As readers we might interpret the words to mean "Only God puts to death" and "Only God brings to life," but that isn't at all what this verse says.
So, is God the only life-giver and the only life-ender? I guess that depends on the definition of life.
There are two "types" of life we read about in the Bible. The first is, of course, biological life. "And God said, 'Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky'" (Genesis 1.20). Biological life, as we've come to understand it in the past several years, is biomechanical; that is, at the cellular level, life is the mechanics of genes, DNA, RNA, mitochondria, and the like, all doing their respective tasks repeatedly. But there is a second type of life the scriptures refer to: Spiritual life. The first mention we have of this is, once again, in the creation stories, but this time in Genesis 2. "And the Lord God formed human of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and human became a living soul" (7). This second "type" of life is referred to throughout the Bible and this is the life Jesus speaks of when he talks of eternal life.
So, on to our questions: Is God the only life-giver? In the past several years there have been a couple of reports from the scientific community about the "creation" of life. It wasn't so many years ago that in-vitro conception was under debate in the religious community. There was a hue-and-cry that science was trying to create life and that only God could do that. But today, couples with fertility difficulties may be helped by this very common process. Then there is cloning-but to date cloning is not the creation of life, but the manipulation of life. However, there have been reports of the scientific community creating "life," that is, cellular life, in one form or another. And again, there has been a cry against this process; indeed, even against the experimentation of these processes. And although there are certainly moral and ethical issues when it comes to the experimentation with life, the reality is that experimentation isn't likely to end. So, perhaps one day science will succeed in creating biomechanical life.
But what of the ending of life? Is God the only life-ender? This question forces us to examine our thoughts on God's interactions in our world. There are at least two traditional ways of looking at God's interactions.
Some believe that God is "in control" of everything on earth and that nothing happens that God doesn't ordain. This is really an Old Testament view of the world that has God rewarding the good with health, wealth, and blessings and punishing the wicked with sickness, poverty, and misfortune. Indeed, one psalmist whose life was in disarray beseeched God, "Leave me alone, that I may rejoice again before I depart and am no more" (39.13).
The second traditional way of looking at God's interventions in the world is that God created humanity with choice to do good or not, and to bear the consequences of those actions. Thus, if someone gets in a car who has been drinking, the consequences may well be the loss of life-and the life that's lost may be an innocent three-year-old child playing in their own front yard. Did God "take away" the child's life? In this view the answer is "No, an irresponsible human chose to do evil instead of good and there were consequences." So too would be the loss of life when smokers died of lung cancer, when overeaters died of heart disease, and so on.
But what of "natural" loss of life? Did God take that life away? The fact is, biomechanical life breaks down and comes to an end. Period. It's the way the universe works-and if God's to blame for setting up life that way, then God's to blame. But that's a biomechanical process. There is something more.
And that's the second kind of life-the spiritual life. Does God both give and take that life as well? We'll talk more about that next week.