Life, Death, and the Cycle of Decay
Within a six-month time frame, my husband and I each had a parent undergo a major health crisis. We’d barely stabilized emotionally from the first when the next knocked our feet out from under us again. A double mastectomy and three stents later, our heads and hearts were reeling. We each had to confront the same fundamental truth.
This truth is something we all know, but somehow don’t always grasp—that is, until those moments when we’re forced to reckon with it. Maybe that happens when you first notice fine lines or a persistent backache. It might be a close call on the road or a shocking, high profile death. Or maybe, like us, it’s thrust upon you when it encroaches on the life of a loved one.
Whether it’s obvious, depressing, or morbid, the inevitability of death somehow never fails to be shocking. The sobering truth is that, “Like water spilled out on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die” (2 Sam. 14:14a).
The Cycle Initiated
The BBC Documentary, After Life: The Strange Science of Decay points out that before each one of us is “the fate that awaits all living things: to be broken down, to be recycled,” to become the building blocks for new life. Death may end a life, but it’s still an obligatory part of the life cycle. The cycle of decay reflects a necessary and hideous relationship—life resists and yet “relies on death. Living things, us included, can only be made from the remains of dead things” (After Life: The Strange Science of Decay).
We are all in bondage to it; we will all succumb to it (Romans 8:20-21).
It’s hard to imagine creation in the absence of this cycle, but it was originally created without it. It exists because of sin. The curse God spoke to Adam after the fall reveals a distinct relationship between sin and decay:
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3: 17b,19b)
Likewise, the consequence of sin for Eve was a perpetual cycle of birth and death which, like Adam’s curse, includes us all, as we all have sinned (Romans 5:12). Their sin impacted not just them, and not just humanity, but all of creation, which has since been groaning, waiting expectantly for liberation from this bondage (Romans 8:19-21). And decay is not limited to biology alone.
The Cycle Perpetuated
We’ve heard the terms “urban decay” or “rural decay,” which describe how the cycle applies to civilization itself. History records rises and falls of neighborhoods, cities, nations, and whole civilizations. When I was teaching the book of Judges to our children’s Sunday School class at church, the curriculum we used highlighted an important cycle within the book.
Over and over, at the high point, the Israelites thrive while serving the Lord…but only temporarily. They soon fall into sin, forgetting the Lord and embracing idolatry. They’re oppressed and put into bondage by another nation. At rock bottom, the people realize their need for the Lord and cry out in repentance. He hears them and raises up a judge (that is, a leader in war and politics) to deliver them. Israel then enjoys a period of relative peace, but only for the time the judge lives. When that judge dies, the people lose their focus on their God and the cycle starts all over again. The downward spiral of moral and civil degeneration here mirrors the cycle of organic decay.
The entire book of Judges points to the Israelites’—and humanities—subjugation to this cycle, and the need for liberation from it. But how can this ever happen when each of the judges themselves were only humans and would also “go the way of all flesh?” In bondage to the cycle themselves, the judges provide only temporary, partial deliverance from it. What hope is there for the Israelites?
What hope is there for any of us?
The Cycle Defeated
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
These are the words Jesus used while predicting his coming death. He knew the suffering that awaited him, and his “heart [was] troubled” by it. Yet, he willingly submitted in order to glorify God’s name and to provide the life that would result from it (John 12:27-28). His words sound a lot like the cycle we’ve become so familiar with.
But this time, there’s a huge difference.
In Acts 2, after Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, Peter explains this difference in an impassioned sermon on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 13 where Paul does so as well):
Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs.... This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him…. he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. (Acts 2:22, 23-24, 31)
The huge difference is that Jesus ended the cycle; death could not hold him. We’ve already seen the connection between sin and death. If the wages of sin is death, then these wages have no hold on him who was without sin (Romans 6:23).
What’s more, Jesus’s death ended the cycle for others, too. Because he paid the wages of sin on our behalf, you and I get the gift of his eternal life (2 Cor. 5:21). Unlike Israel’s previous judges, Jesus is the perfect judge, offering salvation, “not only from the consequences of…sin, but [from] sin itself.” (The Gospel Project for Kids, The Promised Land.)
A New Way
Presently, new life depends on and succumbs to death in an inescapable cycle. But Christ’s work has done away with the old order of things and established an extraordinary new order, where our eternal lives are secured by his temporary death (Rev. 21:4). By trusting in this work, when we die, our spirits go to be with the Lord. And when Jesus returns, he will raise our bodies from the dead to live with him forever.
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (1 Corinthians 15:21-23)
So there stands before humankind two paths: for those who believe in Jesus, after dying we are given a new life that won’t ever cycle back into death (Romans 8:10-11, Rev 2:11, Rev 20:6).
But for those who reject this provision, after physical death there awaits a second death that will never again cycle back into life (Phil 3:18-19, Rev. 20:14-15).
Recognizing the signs of decay—in yourself, your loved ones, or perhaps even in your city or nation—can be troubling, dismaying, even terrifying. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus himself wept, witnessing the ravages of sin; his heart grieved at death even as he approached with the power to overcome it by resurrecting Lazarus (John 11:33-35). Believers don’t need to shy away from the suffering of this fallen world. It’s a profound tragedy. I can tell you from our family just how dreadful this is.
But in a counter-intuitive way, I’ve become so grateful for the perspective it gives. Confronting death humbles us terribly, but also glorifies our God, revealing the victory of his Son, Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). It can also light a fire in us to share the message of this new life in the short while we have time to do so.
Meanwhile, we look with eagerness to the return of Jesus, when, through his death and resurrection, our bondage to this cycle will end, and we will be raised with him, as “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).