Question

Why do God’s people sometimes suffer such miserable deaths?

Answer

This is an interesting and important question. My mother was a good Christian. She passed away at 90 years of age on Christmas Day 2020 during COVID. I saw her live out the Christian faith in what I consider an exemplary manner. Perhaps it’s an emotional son speaking, but IMO the Twelve had nothing on her.

She was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer three weeks before her death. She wept as she told me of her pain over the phone. You could hear it, feel it, in her tearful words. But also in the conversation, she conveyed the hope she had in her Savior, Jesus Christ. Due to COVID she wasn’t allowed any visitors. She was insensitively told that she would have no viewing, no graveside service, or any type of funeral at all. My mother died without her family at her bedside.

I could easily ask, “Why did this happen to my faithful mother in this fashion?” In fact, I did explore this line of thought over the weeks following my mother’s death. Let me share some of the things I came to understand.

First of all, my mother had been generally healthy throughout her life, and what she suffered during the last three weeks of her life was more than at any other time in her life. But there was someone who, at his death, suffered more than any other time in his life as well: Jesus, a real human being, suffered and died on the cross of Calvary. He suffered far more than my mother did. He suffered physically and emotionally more than any of us ever could!

The Christian should be like their Lord who armed himself with great and holy resolve, which is to suffer patiently according to the will of God (cf. 1 Pet. 2:20; 4:19). 1 Peter 4:1 states, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

Peter also writes that Christians should arm themselves with the same attitude toward suffering that our Lord did. What was the Lord’s insight? What was his resolve? He understood that suffering and even death were built into his purpose here upon earth. He knew he was born to die. (Psa. 22; Isa. 53; Heb. 9:27). So, he expected it. As a result, he was not surprised when suffering and death came his way. Christians should be armed with the same knowledge and resolve. If not, when misery and death knock at their door, they may feel betrayed, sad, and even fear death. They may be tempted to run away from God’s loving purpose for us.

Walking the path that God has intended for us prevents us from walking the opposite path. That would be sinful. While not perfect, Christians with the mind of Christ have their affections set upon him and what pleases him. They fight the good fight of faith until the very end. My mother did. She bravely and willingly set the course of her life away from the temporary comforts of sinful escape, choosing rather to suffer with Christ. She was ready to die and she died well.

Second, God is in control of all that happens, even death itself. This is called God’s providence. Providence can be divided into three general areas:

(1) God continuously sustains the created natural order. Psalm 104 praises God for his wondrous work within nature. In it, the Psalmist proclaims that water (Psa. 104:6, 10-13), the growth of grass (Psa. 104:14), trees for the birds (Psa. 104:17), mountains for the goats (Psa. 104.18), food for the lions (Psa. 104:21) and even the breath of animals (Psa. 105:29), etc., are all acts of God’s provision. If God removed his sustaining hand, all of nature would have vanished long ago (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!” (Psa. 150:6).

(2) God controls the nations of the entire world (Prov. 21:1; Isa. 10:5-19). The rise and fall of kings are in God’s hand (Dan. 2:21; 4:25). Therefore we are to pray for our leaders because God has the authority and power to answer those petitions concerning them (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

(3) We were measured for our coffins before we were ever born. God not only sovereignly controls nature and the nations, but he oversees the lives of each and every individual on earth as well (Prov. 20:24). This includes both life and death. Death isn’t an accidental event. We're told there is “a time to be born, and a time to die …” (Eccl. 3:2). Job said, “Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). The writer of Hebrews says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

There is a reason why we live and die when we do. For instance, Hezekiah providentially prayed for and was granted a temporary reprieve from death. He was given an additional fifteen years (2 Kings 20:5-6). Why did God do this? It was in God’s plan from the very beginning. Hezekiah fathered a son named Manasseh during this 15-year period (2 Kings 20:21-21:1). This is significant because Manasseh was in the lineage of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:10). In other words, if Manasseh hadn’t ever been born, neither would have Jesus, the Savior of God’s elect. Our God reigns!

So, my mom’s death had a special purpose. The day and time of it were set in eternity past. And God wants me to be uniquely reminded of his providence: On the very same day every year that I celebrate my Lord’s birth, I can now celebrate my mother’s death. What a wonderful divine reminder that God controls both life and death.

Lastly, all of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God (cf. Rom. 3:23). As a former homicide detective, I observed many unsightly, repulsive, gruesome deaths. I’ve seen bodies maimed beyond what I’m allowed to describe on our webpage. However, I’ve never seen a death that is as horrific as it should be. Christian or not, all of us deserve to die in the worst ways.

Why do I say this? Before you begin calling our switchboard, we—that is all of us—have so offended God with what we have done, said, and not done, and not said, that we literally deserve eternal death. You see, physical death lets us off too easily. As bad as it is, physical suffering and death are only momentary and we deserve infinitely more! We have so outraged God’s holiness that we deserve to suffer in ways beyond our wildest imaginations. Physical death is nothing compared to what an eternal hell has to offer—and yes, it is forever and ever. And every second in hell is not only deserved but it will never fully satisfy our crimes against God and others. Otherwise, it would one day have to cease. But hell is eternal, without any end, and what each of us absolutely deserves.

BUT, the Christian need not be concerned. Jesus already suffered the pains of eternal death. He paid it all. He providentially served out every second of an eternal death sentence for each of us—fully and completely. What kind of love is this? “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

My mother knew this. She knew what she deserved. She knew what she had been delivered from. She knew that greater love of Christ. She also knew even her final hours of awful suffering were temporary.

All of us have the similar journeys in at least one respect; The journey of the death of life to the life after death. What will your life after death be like; one with God or one without God?

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).