Until we figure this out, God will appear cruel and mean. Unless we believe Jesus when He says that He goes to prepare a place for us, we will have only this life to "look forward to" and thus cling to it with desperation and, if we are disappointed in this life, we are tempted to become bitter toward God.
If we're going to wrestle with this idea, we have to go back to Genesis 3 and the introduction of death. Years ago I wrote a short story about the Fall (you can read it here) - how could Adam and Eve be so tempted? How could Adam and Eve, experiencing direct contact with the Creator, end up doubting Him and listening to the deceiver?
You realize how easy it is for us to read Genesis 3 in punitive terms: and God said, "If you disobey me, I'll kill you!" and it's completely over-the-top, an out-of-proportion overreaction.
But that's not what God said:
Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)Adam heard this directly from YHWH; Eve had not yet been created. So Eve heard it second-hand from Adam and he inflated the restriction: "The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’" (Genesis 3:2-3). Why? Who knows! Maybe Eve was very curious and Adam just wanted to keep her away from the tree of the-knowledge-of-good-and-evil and this seemed like the easiest way to do it. But for now we're going to avoid that rabbit-trail.
Unlike God, we don't know the end from the beginning but, unlike Adam, we've lived through a lot more of human experience on this planet and know a good deal about God's interaction with humanity and the pinnacle is the fact that God Himself took on human flesh and walked among us in the Person of Jesus, so thoroughly identifying with us and our problem that He "became sin" for us and suffered the wrath of God in our place. So we know that God loves His creation, and specifically humanity, to an almost incomprehensible degree.
Would that God, loving us that way, say to Adam, "If you disobey me, I'll kill you!"?
No, of course not. So what was that about? I think it's spiritual physics, simply the way Creation works — it is orderly and follows physical laws and, I believe, spiritual laws: we will reap what we sow; it is mored blessed to give than to receive; the soul that sins must die, etcetera.
Suppose you live in New York city, in a high rise apartment building, and you have children. One of the things you must do is protect them from accidentally falling to their death on the sidewalk, 23 stories below. When they are very young you provide physical barriers but, as they grow older, you also have to teach them that heights are dangerous and falling can kill you, because they're going to go out into a world which doesn't always have physical barriers to protect them from the risk of falling to their death. At a certain point, your child becomes responsible for his or her own life. You are not saying to your child, "if you fall out the window, I will kill you!" You are saying to your child, "the natural consequence of falling out the window from this height is the death of your body." You are not being punitive; you are being factual.
Was it the fruit itself or the rebellion which set sin-and-death in motion? I don't know— we certainly weren't ready for the knowledge of good and evil. In an unfallen world, would God have one day said, "Alright, now you are ready - come and eat"? I don't know that, either.
But I do know that it was God's mercy which drove Adam and Eve out of the garden, lest they should stretch out their hands, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever in that fallen condition. Because Jesus came and died for us in order that we might live forever, but forever in a different condition, a redeemed condition.
Most of us already know that sometimes living can be worse than death: we've seen a very old and sick family member, suffering, in pain, waiting to die. Some of us have thought, "Lord, take him already! Why are You letting him suffer this way?" and that sentiment is evidence that we know the man's death will bring release from a used-up or too-damaged body. Why doesn't God always answer that prayer quickly? I suspect there is soul-work which the Spirit of God is doing with the spirit of that man (or woman). I remember grieving Princess Diana's death in 1997; I felt like she hadn't yet figured out some critical spiritual truths, that she needed more time on this earth to come into agreement with God. My father, the physicist, said to me, "Lynn, Jesus had all the time He needed; we have no idea how much 'time' He spent with her in those few minutes between the car accident and her death." Yes. True.
But if that's the case, why does anyone ever experience a long, drawn-out death, in pain? Why doesn't God simply deal with them on the elastic edges of the time domain? Perhaps they're not yet willing or receptive. Maybe "suffering" serves a purpose in breaking down our stubbornness and dissolving our hard hearts. I wouldn't ever want to make a judgment though, when I see someone suffering in a hospital bed and I'm tempted to wonder why haven't died yet, because maybe it's not for their sake they suffer— maybe it's for the benefit of a friend or family member or even, God help me, for me. This has taught me to pray that God will do everything which He purposes in the life of that person and their family, that God will use and redeem their suffering.
The hardest kind of death, however, is death "before its time" - the death of a child, a teenager, a parent in their prime with young children. Death by accident or sudden illness. How often do we hear of someone dying after the age of 100 and we say, "well, they had a good long run"—? There is indeed an inherent sense of "wrongness" with those early deaths and I wonder if God didn't feel something like that for Adam and Eve, after the fall. There is no easy comfort for such deaths; they feel "wrong" and yet, in this fallen world, they are permitted.
On this Memorial Day observed, it's good to remember this is part of the power of the death of a soldier, especially in a military filled by volunteers, not conscripts. "Greater love has no man (or woman) than this: that he should lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) May they rest in peace and rise in glory.