Does God determine the exact time of our death?

Q.  I have a question that is difficult for me to understand and I hope you can shed some light on it.  I trust in God’s incredible power and sovereignty, but wrestle with how our free will interacts with that.  Specifically, I recently heard someone say that God is sovereign and controls our time of death.  But I wonder about cases where a person takes their own life.  I struggle with how much God would be responsible for that. Additionally, how much can we control about our health to extend our life time?  It is well known that if I smoke and am overweight, my life will likely will be shortened.  So it seems  that we can make bad choices or good choices that will increase or decrease the odds for our longevity. So has God determined, in advance, the number of days we have on earth?

As I have explained in posts such as this one, I believe that the sovereignty of God means not that God directly determines every individual event of our lives, but rather that God works effectively with the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish His own purposes.

One illustration of this that I find in Scripture is when Joseph says to his brothers, referring to how they sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”  In other words, God turned His good intentions towards what would otherwise be a human act of cruelty and betrayal and worked in that situation to bring about a good outcome that also advanced His larger purposes.

Accordingly, we may think of events as falling along a spectrum, with events that are largely determined by human free moral choices at one end, and events that are largely determined by God working with such choices at the other end.  Most events will be somewhere in between, so that it is difficult to discern to what extent they are determined by human choice and to what extent by divine sovereign working.  This is why we speak of the interaction between the two as a mystery of our faith.

When it comes to the time of a person’s death, I think we would say that when someone takes their own life, this is an event essentially determined by human choice.  I believe that God would want something different and better for that person and their loved ones.  (Ironically, however, the person may actually think they are making a good choice, because depression and other conditions can make a person believe, sincerely but tragically, that their family and friends would be better off without them.  So we need to have great sympathy and understanding in these situations.)

Let’s consider another kind of case.  In one of the churches I served as pastor, there was a woman who had fought a long and courageous battle with cancer.  It had gone into remission several times, but now it was back again and there was nothing more the doctors could do.  This woman was looking at many months of painful suffering before she could, as she put it, “move to my new home.”  But one night she died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  I have always seen this as an act of divine sovereignty and indeed divine mercy, God bringing her home much sooner than would have been humanly expected.

But as I said before, most events fall somewhere in between.  If we don’t take good care of our health, we may die sooner than we otherwise might have, and as a result we may accomplish less for God in this world than we otherwise might have, although many other factors, including God’s sovereign working, would be at play to determine exactly how long we did live.  So I think we need to do everything that depends on us, as free moral agents, to make ourselves available to God for His purposes, for as long as we might live, through the choices we make.  Everything beyond that depends on God’s sovereignty, in ways we won’t always understand.

But I would certainly not consider God responsible for a person’s choice to take their own life, as if “their time had come” in God’s eyes and this was the means God used. Many of us have lost a loved one to suicide and it is always a tragedy over which God grieves very tenderly with us, never something that God plans or causes to happen.


Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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