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Death and the Sovereignty of God

Jessalyn Hutto

A Question from a Reader:

I recently had another (this makes 4) friends from high school die. It wasn’t until I heard the Pastor at my friend’s funeral say “God didn’t want Cody to die at such a young age” that I realized I guess I believed God knew what was going to happen before it happens. I had no idea I thought that all this time, and then started questioning my whole belief system when it comes to death. I don’t believe God knows everything we’re going to do, we have to be left to make our own decisions (and hopefully the right decisions) otherwise you get into predestination etc… So I’ve completely confused myself and would love your input if you have the time! ~Lindsey

Dear Lindsey:

I’m so sorry to hear about your friend (and even friends) who died recently. The questions you raise about death and God’s knowledge are all very important and also very loaded. You are right to assume that what you believe about God’s knowledge effects what you believe about our “free will” and so on (because it does). All of these topics are intricately related to one another and usually what you believe about one leads you to have certain beliefs about another. The most important thing I can encourage you to do is let the Word of God itself speak to your concerns. It is easy to allow emotions, past experiences, even the opinions of your parents sway your understanding of God, but he should have the final say in what you believe about him. He has so graciously provided the Bible to us in order that we might know him and have a deep, knowledgeable relationship with him.

There are so many things that I would love to get into, but I think the two major thoughts you are having are: “Did God know that my friend was going to die?” and “Did God want him to die?” I will try to keep my response focused on these two questions, but will inevitably have to address the issue of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility.

The first passage of scripture that immediately came to mind when I read your question was Psalm 139. I would encourage you to take a little time to meditate on and pray through these first 18 verses. What truths about the Lord are being communicated?

“O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.”
(Psalm 139:1-18 ESV)

From this passage of Scripture alone we can conclude three things:

1. God knows even the smallest aspects of our future (i.e. “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.”)

2. God determines how long each of us will live (i.e. “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”)

3. These truths bring great delight to David.

You are right to assume that God knew when your friend was going to die. God knows exactly how many days each of us will live. In fact he ordained the number of days by “writing it in his book”.

Throughout the Bible we are given examples of how the Lord is, what theologians call, omniscient(He knows everything). Events in our lives, or in the world for that matter, do not surprise God. He has a plan and we are all a part of that plan. Things do not happen randomly, or simply because a wrong choice was made by a sinful human. It is easier to believe that God uses good choices or events to accomplish his purposes, but it is somewhat more difficult to believe that he uses bad choices or events to accomplish his purposes.

There are two great examples in scripture of seemingly terrible things happening as a result of sinful human decisions. The first is the story of Joseph found in Genesis 37-45. In this Biblical account we see a man who had everything go wrong in his life. Not only did his brothers sell him into slavery, but he was wrongly imprisoned! After all of this happened, the Lord brought Joseph into a position of power in Egypt and he was able to provide food for his family who otherwise would have starved. When he revealed himself to his brothers (the very ones who sold him into slavery) he says these amazing words:

“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. “ (Genesis 45:4; Genesis 45:5-8 ESV)

Later, in chapter fifty, he reflects on these events and says “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20 ESV) The point is that even though we make choices (in this case Joseph’s brothers made very sinful choices), God is ultimately in control of it all. Can you imagine what would have happened if God didn’t allow Joseph’s brothers to sin by selling their brother? If Joseph hadn’t been in those exact circumstances his whole family  would have died from the famine along with many other people. More importantly, the covenant God made with Abraham (to bless all the nations through his descendants) would not have come to fruition and Jesus, Joseph’s brother’s direct descendant would never have been born into the world. Of course this is an alternate reality that would never have happened because God is ultimately in control.

The second example we have in scripture of God controlling events through human choice is that of Jesus’ crucifixion. It was a series of sinful actions by sinful human beings that lead to the Son of God being nailed to a sinner’s cross. From the Jewish leaders to Pilate himself, all made choices that lead to our Savior’s death. Were those choices outside of God’s control? Jesus says absolutely not.

“So Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.’”  (John 19:10; John 19:11 ESV)

Consider this prophesy found in Isaiah 53:

“Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
(Isaiah 53:10-12 ESV)


Then there are these accounts from the apostles:

“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23 ESV)

“for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. “ (Acts 4:27-28 ESV)

Of course there are many other examples in the Bible of God orchestrating the events in our lives. For instance Romans 8:28 says this:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30 ESV)

From these texts and many more it is clear that God has ultimate control and ultimate knowledge of our lives. This does not, however diminish our ability to make decisions and our responsibility to live lives that please him. Though seemingly contradictory truths, the Bible claims that both are true. Here is an example of a seeming contradiction:

“choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15 ESV)

Here Joshua commands the people of Israel to “choose God”, but read these verses from Romans:

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”


“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-11; Romans 3:12-18 ESV)

These verses describing the utter depravity of man seem to indicate that we cannot (do not) choose God.

How do we reconcile these verses? Is God a god of contradiction? Does his word make sense? Ephesians 2 gives us a glimpse into the working of God within our very hearts:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV)

Here Paul explains that God gives us the ability to “choose” him by regenerating our dead souls. This is the beauty of grace. We were once “dead in our trespasses and sins” constantly choosing the “course of this world” (these were real choices that we were making) until God intervened and gave us new natures. Now we have true freedom to choose to obey God rather than sin.

Now that is a little deeper than I wanted to get into the issue of our choices and God’s sovereignty, but I thought it might be helpful to explain how both human choices and God’s control exist together.

In answering the second question I posed “Did God want your friend to die?”, you have to consider two things. First, that God determined the number of your friends days, but also, you must consider that when God created humans he created them for life. Adam and Eve were created to live forever with God in the garden of Eden. It was only after sin entered the world that death entered the human race. Christ came to free us from the curse of death:

“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 ESV)

Sin and death are opposite of the very character of God. 1 John tells us that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” We are also told that Christ will be victorious over death in the coming age:

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 ESV)

What we can glean from these truths is that God hates death in general. It is not his desire for any of us to die (we are his creation), but instead death is a direct result of our choice to sin (going all the way back to the garden of Eden).

So, although God appointed a particular time for your friend to die, it was not his desire for your friend to die. He was created for life just as every other human being was. As a result of sin, his flesh just like ours, was marred and destined for death.

It is through Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on the cross that we are able to once again experience eternal life with God in Heaven (the new Eden).

I hope that this was helpful to you. I tried to be thorough without creating many more question along the way. These truths are so beautiful. Knowing that God has a plan for our lives and a purpose for them gives us so much hope and peace (especially during trials). Your friend’s death has a purpose and that is an encouraging thought during a very sad time such as this.