Thinking About the Mystery of Death

by John Mays

This week I am performing the final proofread for our forthcoming text, Life Science. This is exciting work because it is the last task before sending the book to the printer. Reading in Chapter 2 this morning, I came across this interesting passage introducing plant cells:

"When it is time to break down and recycle wastes, an organelle called a lysosome releases digestive chemicals into the vacuole. While the cell is healthy, digestive chemicals are placed into vacuoles only when needed. When the cell dies, the lysosome’s membrane disintegrates, and digestive chemicals are released to break down the cell’s contents."

This colorful figure accompanies the passage:

I suppose I have read this passage a hundred times while working on this book over the past few years, but today the wonderful broke through the mundane—just as we want it to do every single day in our science classes.

Like just about everyone else in human history, I have spent a lot of time thinking about death over the years. We know that death is our enemy, in fact, the last enemy to be destroyed (I Cor. 15:26). We also know that the Lord Jesus Christ has already conquered death, taking away both its victory and its sting (1 Cor. 15:55). These are fundamental and glorious truths of the gospel for which we rightly give thanks and praise to our great Savior!

But the science teacher in me pauses here at a great mystery. While death is our enemy, it is also a fundamental and mysterious part of creation. Everything we know about the life sciences and the way recycling processes function on the earth and in all living things indicates that death is a fundamental part of the way living things function. Read again the passage above from Life Science and notice that the process of disposal of the waste cellular products upon the death of the cell is built right into the very design of cells! This is no accident! The whole functioning of the cell is thoroughly designed from top to bottom so that everything is taken into consideration, including disposal of the cell's materials when the cell's life is up. (And by the way, most of the cells in your body are replaced on average about every 7–10 years.)

I pause here to address a question I know is on the mind of many readers at this point. I know many Christians believe that 100% of death is a result of the Fall. I was raised in that tradition too, but encountering the fossil record and facing up to what this part of the Book of God's Works is revealing to us, I realized long ago that death has been part of creation for a very, very long time—all the way back to the beginning of life itself. My intention in this article is not to get into controversial theological issues. But for those who doubt that death has been part of creation since life first began, I commend to you Ronald E. Osborn's excellent and sensitive treatment, Death Before the Fall (2014).

Back to thinking about death's functioning in nature: Just as the cleanup operation for dead cells is designed into fundamental cell processes (which means it is coded into the DNA and expressed in the proteins that carry out these functions), we see the creation making use of death, cleaning up after death, and recycling the matter from dead organisms everywhere we look, from the tiniest microorganisms to the largest whales and trees. Dead organisms in the soil contribute to soil fertility. Trees recycle their leaves every year, providing organic matter that decays and becomes mulch in the soil. The incredible fecundity of life in the sea provides food for all the millions of different sea creatures, all of them "eating each other with furious exuberance," as Steinbeck wrote. Even maggots, which we are foolishly taught to think of as gross, are part of a stunning system of planetary custodial care. A dead animal is typically completely gone in no more than a few days. This is amazing. Most creatures live no more than a few decades, but when they die, they are efficiently cleared away.

I still remember years ago when I realized that vultures are not the grotesque monsters people tend to think; they are part of a global cleaning system that works highly efficiently to recycle the matter from dead creatures so that a) the nutrients continue serving living creatures in the biosphere and b) dead animals don't accumulate without end. My attitude about vultures changed forever when I realized this. Oh, and I can't help mentioning that vultures are one of those birds, like pelicans, that ride on the rising thermal air currents in the sky for the sheer joy of it. Just go watch them circling round and round, so high in the sky—they are rejoicing in the joy of flight and giving glory to the creator by dancing in flight, hour after hour! I love vultures! They are so beautiful! Vultures need love too!

Some day, when we see our Lord face to face, death will no longer be a mystery to us; "we will know even as we are fully known." Until then, we grieve at the loss of our loved ones, but we also marvel at the splendor of a creation that functions year after year, perfectly balanced and designed, so that even death, our enemy, is part of the ongoing circle of life.