Who Is in Control of Death?

By Wayne Jackson

"When a Christian loved one dies, folks often say, “God called him home.” Yet scripture seems to say that the devil has the “power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). Who does cause death?"

Let us first consider several general Bible truths.

God is both the author and sustainer of life (Acts 17:25,28; 1 Timothy 6:13). Since Jehovah is all-powerful, he obviously has the ability to terminate human life, as he did in the case of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:7).

Too, he has the power to lengthen life. He extended Hezekiah’s time by 15 years (2 Kings 20:6), either providentially, more likely miraculously, or perhaps a combination of both.

He can even restore life, as he did by raising Jesus from the dead (Romans 1:4).

While it is clear that in ancient times God occasionally operated directly, in manipulating the cessation or restoration of human life, these events were supernatural (miraculous), with very specific designs in view. Such are not to be considered as divine procedure for today (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).

For example, during the days of Moses, a man named Korah (who was Moses’ cousin) initiated a rebellion against the prophet of God and his brother, Aaron (Numbers 16:3). As a result, they stood in opposition to Jehovah himself, because Moses and Aaron represented the Lord (see v. 30).

Accordingly, God determined to punish these rebels by taking their lives. A sign was to be given to document the fact that the judgment was divinely imposed. Moses said: “If these men die the common death of all men. . . Jehovah has not sent me” (v. 29).

Of special interest is the term “common.” It signifies the ordinary end of human life in which God is not directly involved.

Ordinarily, when people die, it is not because the Lord intervenes and takes the spirit from the body (James 2:26) — regardless of whether the person was “good” or “evil.” It simply is a natural process, ultimately resulting from man’s rejection of divine law at the beginning of human history (Genesis 2:17; 3:22; Romans 5:12).

The Lord, therefore, allows death to take us as a process. But we are not empowered to say, in any specific case, God “took” him or her, unless divine revelation indicates it (cf. Genesis 5:24).

Having said that, what does the text mean which declares that the devil “has the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14)?

First, it must be stated emphatically that Satan does not possess the power to directly take human life. If such were the case, all Christian people would be dead, for he is our “enemy” (Matthew 13:28).

The book of Job demonstrates this truth as well. Satan could only afflict the patriarch as Jehovah allowed, and the Lord refused to grant permission for Job’s life to be terminated (Job 2:6). God is greater than his adversary (cf. 1 John 4:4).

The reference to Satan’s “power of death” is doubtless an allusion to the Tempter’s role in the fall of humanity at the beginning of time. Death reigns as a result of sin (Romans 5:12). Since the devil introduced sin, he is characterized as the “murderer” of the human family (John 8:44).

Death, therefore, is an appointment for us all (Hebrews 9:27 — with the exception of those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return — 1 Corinthians 15:51).

Inasmuch as Satan ultimately shares a heavy responsible for the sin-death equation, in a manner of speaking, he thus is said to have “the power of death.” Not in a direct sense, but only in an historical, associated sense.

The happy ending to this tragedy, however, is seen in the fact that Jesus, by his own resurrection from the dead, and the inspired promise that he is the “firstfruits” of those who are to follow, has, through the gospel, “brought life and immortality to light” (2 Timothy 1:10). And that blessed “hope” (cf. Acts 24:15) has delivered his people from the slavish “fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15).

In our finer moments, therefore, we are able to say, “I desire to depart and be with the Lord, for it is very far better” (cf. Philippians 1:23). Again, we “are willing rather to be absent from the body,” so that we may be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).

Our sweet refrain can be, therefore: “Happy are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth, yes, says the Spirit, they may rest from their labors, for their works follow with them” (Revelation 14:13).

Let us, therefore, attempt to put these matters of this “life” and “death” into a sharper focus, and prepare for our own demise.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.