Why people are still dying
The Bible is full of hope and promise. Jesus came into the world being heralded by angels, who extolled: "Fear not... I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people." (Luke 2:10)
Jesus said, "If I be lifted up, I will draw all people unto me." (John 12:32) and "my flesh I give for the life of the WORLD. (John 6:51) " Pretty grand promises. God's word gives us some pretty high expectations concerning the impact of Jesus and the Cross.
But Jesus' death and resurrection were almost 2000 years ago, and people are still dying. Why? If Jesus is God's way of saving the world -- the only way -- why is the world unsaved? Why is evil continuing to be the dominant force in the world -- at least, measured by any objective evidence that our physical senses can see? Wars still ravage. Cancer rages on. Death remains the bitter pill for all people including the very Christians for whom Jesus promised, "I am come so that you may have life, and have it more abundantly." Even most claims by some Christian groups of "miracles", "healings", etc. are very suspect upon close examination.
The writer of Hebrews examined one of the texts that made glorious claims of God's as-yet unfulfilled plans. He quoted Psalm 8:5,6 -- "For You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You have crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet..."
This text refers to the time at the creation when God made man, and "crowned him with glory and honor". God gave man dominion of earth, and put all things on the earth under man's dominion.
Obviously, something is out of whack. Because the facts of history tell us that planet Earth is totally out of control, and man cannot control or master it. We cannot manage our environment. Wild animals are not subject to us. We have made huge ecological problems for ourselves by introducing the wrong plants and animals into the wrong places. People die from all sorts of preventable diseases such as tuberculosis, beri beri, typhoid, salmonella, AIDS and syphilis -- caused or spread by our poverty and negligence and uncleanliness. And large portions of the world population live in the shadow of natural disasters caused by an earth that is decidedly NOT under human dominion.
So the writer of Hebrews, after quoting Psalm 8:5,6 observed, "For in that [God] subjected all things to [man], he left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we don't see all things subjected to him, yet." (Hebrews 2:8) In other words, the Bible is giving us permission to be realistic here. God promised that man would be glorious and honorable, and the ruler of earth, but he is not.
But what do we see? Has anything happened that could be viewed as a step in that direction? Yes, the writer of Hebrews comments, "we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man" (Hebrews 2:9)
The progress one could see in the first century AD was small, but full of significance: One Man had arrived, who demonstrated what a human being "crowned with glory and honor" looks like. Further, he had died as a substitute, an atonement for the human race -- tasted death for every man. So while the end result still is obviously not here yet, a major step has been taken toward that promised result. Jesus has begun the redemptive work necessary to bring man to the place that God envisions, and has promised.
What steps have occurred
since Jesus came?
It's easy, 2000 years later, to look back and scoff at the course of human history since Christ came. It appears on the surface like "all things continue as they were since the beginning of creation." But the Promise is still there -- not only that Christ will come, but that when he comes he will complete the work of redemption and "restore all things." (See 2 Peter 3:3, Acts 3:19-21) Human history, and especially Church history, does indeed seem confusing and destructive. As Alexander Pope put it though, "it is a mighty maze, but not without a Plan".
What God has been doing is slowly developing, person by person, the "living stones" of his Temple. True Christians are developed across a lifetime, through the process of correction, grace, tribulation, and experience. Peter urged each of us who are walking with God to not think it strange that we will go through fiery trials. The "abundant life" does not mean a cushy life on this earth ... it means a spiritual perspective that yields a harvest of joy and deferred hopes, along with inner peace, from a life that appears to involve the "perishing" of the outward man.
As in the days when the exiles had returned to build the 2nd temple, and had little to show for their efforts, God encouraged them through the prophet to "not despise the day of small things." The glory of this Temple, he said, would surpass that of the one built by Solomon. Architecturally, that was certainly never true. But as a picture of the spiritual temple, constructed under threats of violence and amidst great persecution, much that is valuable in terms of faith and obedience has been accomplished. In most cases down through the history of the church, the true Christians have lost, outwardly speaking. They are the ones who were burned at the stake, lost their offices, had their lands seized, experienced the rejection of the masses. But they have quietly triumphed, grew crystalline in their love and gentleness and nobility.
And as with Solomon's temple, when the time comes (very soon now) for all those "living stones" who have since died, to be be resurrected in the "first resurrection", the Temple of God will be assembled without the sound of a hammer. All those stones, polished and prepared for exactly the right place in the completed edifice, (again, spiritually speaking), will take their places in God's government with shouts of praise and thanks.
What else has been accomplished?
Okay, so the true Church [ekklesia, or calling-out] of Christ has been a-building for all these years. Is there anything else to indicate that people will one day stop dying, and start living again? Any hint that Jesus was correct when he said that "all in their graves will hear the voice of the son of man, and come forth"? (John 5:28)
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, there is quite a bit of evidence, quite a few things have been accomplished since Jesus came to start the redemptive process through his sacrifice on the cross.
First, let's notice one thing that has NOT been accomplished -- Christians have not "won the world for Christ". They have tried, often nobly and valiantly, (and sometimes rudely and insensitively) but they have failed, and are losing the battle. Today, it is said that 55,000 people are born in India alone every day, and it is claimed that 5,000 people in India are converting to Christianity each day (we doubt that it is that high). But even if that optimistic view reported by a Christian mission group is true, 10 non-Christians are born in India each day for every new Christian that is converted.
Worldwide, there is a net increase in population of 264,000 per day. How many of them are Christian? According to the World Almanac, Christianity over the last century has remained about the same as a percentage -- roughly 25%, with some erosion of Protestant numbers and some increases in Roman Catholic numbers. The early 20th Century saw an increase in atheism, while the later part of the century saw a major explosion in the growth of Islam. George Barna and others estimate that at present trends, Islam would overtake Christianity as the largest single world religion sometime in the present century.
So if world conversion by the Christian churches was God's plan, it is failing. Thankfully, we know from the Bible that world conversion (as well as world peace and world prosperity and world health and world happiness) IS part of God's future plan (see Jeremiah 31:34) but that other things must happen first.
Here's a partial list that should provide a little hope that God's plan is on time and on target.
- It was necessary for Israel to experience an equal period of disfavor, while Christianity would enjoy God's favor. This is now complete, and God's favor has returned to Israel while his favor to the Christian world system has been withdrawn. (see Revelation 17:4) Paul laid great stress on the return of favor to Israel, saying "What will the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?" (Romans 11:15) Ezekiel, speaking of the regathering of the exiles of Israel in their ancient homeland, describes it as a resurrection. First, the bones are assembled into a skeleton, then flesh is created on the bones, then skin covers it -- and then the Spirit of God breathes upon the body and it lives again. (Ezekiel 37) Note that it is from the "four winds" that the actuating breath enters the body. This seems to be a hint that the "four winds" of trouble that end the current age in a great time of trouble will be the spark that causes the nation of Israel to be transformed into a fully living entity, spiritually speaking. (See Revelation 16)
- It was necessary for the word of God to be oppressed and obscured for 1260 years, under the domination of an apostate system. (Revelation 11:3) Shortly after that, Bible societies emerged and a great explosion in Bible printing and study began. So the greatesy of Bible prophecies, repeated 7 times throughout the Bible, has been fulfilled.
- More than that, it was necessary that "a falling away" among Christians would occur, and that a system known as the "antichrist" should be revealed. This happened, fulfilling the prophecies which spoke of the rise of Babylon. The reformers saw the identity of that system, and announced it to the world. In the Epistle Dedicatory of the King James Bible, for example, the Protestants wrote of the spread of the Bible, ["which hath given such a blow unto that Man of Sin as will not be healed" -- a clear reference to Revelation 13:3.]
- It was necessary for world population to increase, so that God's command to Adam to multiply and fill the earth, would be completed. Though the world is not full yet, we now have a picture of what te limits are, and God will need to bring major population growth to an end within a few more generations. The earth can easily accommodate all the people who have ever lived (reasonable estimates are about 50 billion) if land usage is equitably shared, and recent gains in farming knowledge are applied.
- It was necessary for the underdeveloped regions of the world to begin to ask for their share of the world's economic pie. This has been going on since the middle of the last century, and Jesus seems to have referred to the nationalistic longings of Israel ("the fig tree") and of many other nations ("all the trees") as a harbinger of his coming rule. (Luke 21:29)
- It was necessary for a period of time in which humans could attempt a wide variety of self-rule options. The last of these has been democracy, which is prophesied in scripture as a melting of mountains and an exaltation of valleys. The sea overtakes islands that once were high and strong, and engulfs them. The sea is a Biblical metaphor for the restless masses of mankind, and the times of trouble that precede Messiah's rule are spoken of as times of great agitation of the sea. (See Psalm 65:7)
- It was necessary for women to gain freedom from male domination. I know this will sound like heresy to most of my Christian friends, but the fact is that God placed Eve under a curse in Genesis 3, and all the curses have to be removed. (Revelation 22:3) The curse of pain in childbirth was a curse that began to be lifted over a hundred years ago. We can all be glad of that, can't we? The curse that all men will have to labor hard (by sweat of face) in order to earn their bread began likewise began to be removed in the late 19th century. Aren't we glad of that? So it was also necessary for women to begin to have a life of their own, and think like individuals instead of subordinates. Worldwide, the impact of both the benefits and abuses that have thus been unleashed are an important part of the preparation of the hearts of mankind for the rule of Messiah.
- It was necessary for God to "gather the nations". (Zephaniah 3:8,9) This process began with the industrial revolution but accelerated in the late 19th century through today, with the world becoming intertwined through knowledge, communication, and mutual interdependence. Why is God doing this? Because he is preparing the world of mankind to learn the lesson that Cain was struggling with when he asked almost 6000 years ago, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The answer is "YES!" -- and all nations and individuals will have some major object-lessons on this soon ... the last human troubles before Messiah steps in to save them from mutual destruction, and teach them his ways.
People are still dying. But the much of what God has promised has been fulfilled. Soon, people will stop dying, and the final phase of worldwide redemption through Messiah will begin.