Monday, June 20, 2016

Before your time is through

This week, 27 year old actor Anton Yelchin died in a freak accident. His parked car rolled into him and he suffered fatal injuries.

The reflexive emotion we typically feel is something like, “He died before his time.” What we mean is that his lifespan was much shorter than is generally typical – as far as lifespans go.

Many Christians have a sort of fatalistic perspective of a person’s lifespan. I have heard it discussed by people in waiting rooms... the kind of waiting rooms where people hang out while a loved one is having very dangerous surgery. I heard people say things like, “When your number is up your number is up. You can’t cheat it.” One lady said, “God has appointed the day of everyone’s death and there is nothing we can do to resist it. We might as well embrace it.”

I will not moralize about whether or not such talk is healthy. It is just not true. The day of a person’s death is not fixed at some point in the future.

Theologians who want to support the view that everyone’s death is fixed at some place in the future will typically go to Psalm 139:16.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (NRSV)
First, we should be very cautious of lifting theological facts from the Psalms. They are expressions of emotion and they usually express the way life feels to the psalmists rather than the way life really is. For example, in this psalm, the poet treats a person’s formation in the womb as the same thing as a seed growing in the earth (139:15). In ancient times, the womb was frequently pictured as a special garden where the man's "seed" grows into a baby.

In the case of Psalm 139:16, even if we read it as expressing a mathematical rule about life, it does not say what fatalists think it says. The psalmist speaks of something that was written (days?) that do not yet exist. So, something is given to the forming embryo that has yet to exist. The Hebrew at this verse (I am told) does not identify what was written in the book. If we take it to be “days” then what is happening to the embryo in the psalm is that it is growing with a certain kind of strength to have a long or a short life. We would identify it as genetics. Some people have really good genes and just naturally tend to be strong well into late life. Others have genetic weaknesses and have health problems when they are young. With good diet and exercise, we can increase our chances. With dangerous and careless living, we can decrease our chances.

For a clearer perspective on what the Psalms mean by a person’s “days,” consider:
But you, O God, will cast them down
into the lowest pit;
the bloodthirsty and treacherous
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you. (Psalm 55:23)
Notice that the people in this psalm who are bloodthirsty and treacherous have some days they are not going to get to live. Thus, just because God gave you days does not mean you get to live them. See also Psalm 102:23-24; 90:9-10; Job 21:21.

Sickness, accidents, murder and whatever else there is that may shorten a person’s life are simply a part of the human condition. We do not need to embrace them. We can work to resist them. We can develop medicines to treat and/or prevent disease. We can wear our safety belts and do our work with safety in mind. We can lock up criminals. These actions promote longer life. There is nothing wrong with that.


  1. I so much appreciate your insight on these things. I look forward to reading more. And yes, if we have free will, we can certainly make a fatal mistake.

  2. Do you think perhaps the maker of the universe could manipulate the genes in a forming embryo? I agree that God has assigned a general lifespan for mankind. Some live longer and some die younger. ~Mom