This week we continue the question from Olivia in England. She asked whether or not God is solely responsible for the giving and taking of life. Last week we looked at the creation of biological life with a brief caveat at its death (there have been several past columns dealing with death and God's responsibility in that-these are available at www.rockinauburn.com.) This week we'll look at spiritual life and spiritual death.
The fact of eternal life, or life-after-death, is assumed in the Scriptures, although mostly in the New Testament. However, when the translators of the King James Bible released their work in 1611, they had translated Hebrew words nephesh chaya in the creation story as "soul." This is found in Genesis 2.7 which reads: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." This is really the only place where the initial creation of souls is mentioned, so we can really say little more other than to accept the creation of our spirits in some way.
On the other hand, the destruction/death of souls is mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament.
In the gospels, Jesus spoke a number of times about eternal life and regularly about the opposite fate. Probably the most famous of these passages is John 3.16-18 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son."
The eternal life part is pretty clear-we've already established that. However, neither Jesus, nor other scriptures, specifically speak of eternal death, at least not in terms we generally associate with death. In our vernacular, death generally means the cessation of life. If the death of our biological being means we cease to exist, then we might assume that the death of our spirits would mean the same. However, in both biological and spiritual terms, death actually means the cessation of life as we know it-apparently nothing ever really ceases to exist, it just takes on a new and different form. Our bodies become "dust" and commingle in the earth which becomes food for the plants, and so on. Well, apparently this is true for our spirits as well.
The most traditional view of what is often called eternal "death" is found in a parable Jesus told. This story is found in Luke 16.19-21 and tells of the deaths of a beggar and a rich man. Whereas the beggar ends up with Abraham, presumably in heaven, the rich man ends up in hell where he is in torment because of the "fire." But he is very much "alive" there, in that he is sentient and even conversational.
So, this "judgment" isn't death, as in ceasing to exist, but death as in hopelessness and torment. Now this is clearly a metaphorical story; however, the general tenets of the story are repeated through the New Testament. Such is the case in the apocalyptic account in Revelation 20.14-15. There we read that both Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire along with anyone whose name was not recorded in the Book of Life. This judgment is called "the second death." But again, this death doesn't seem to be about the ceasing of existence, but the end of hope.
And yet, Jesus spoke less metaphorically about the spirit life on one occasion, and although he didn't really elaborate on the issue, he gave this warning: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10.28). The interesting thing in this passage is that Jesus speaks of fearing the one who can kill the soul, but then leaves open exactly what that may mean. Once again, the death of the soul doesn't imply a cessation of existence, but of a change-and that change isn't for the better, at least not in these passages.
So, is God in charge of life and death for both body and soul? Certainly we'd have to admit that God has the ultimate power over both (Bill Cosby's comedic words float through my mind: "I brought you into this world and I can take you out!"). Biologically, we don't generally control the beginning of life, although scientifically that may come. And the only control we have over death, at this point, is when we deal with the dignity of death. But when it comes to our spiritual lives, the scriptures imply the ultimate choice is in our own hands. What we do with that is up us.