Question: "Is God sovereign over death?"
Answer: We know that God knows the number of our days (Psalm 39:4), and, being sovereign, He is in control of the day of our death. A question that arises is “what about murder?” A murderer seemingly cuts short the number of a person’s days. Has the murderer successfully seized control from God and determined for himself the time and manner of one’s death? If so—if the person overpowered the will of God—then God was not sovereign over that person’s death. But, if He remained sovereign, then must we say that God caused the murder? At first, there appears to be theological tension between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man.
One way to resolve this tension is to carefully consider both how God causes things and how God knows things. If God’s causing things is not incompatible with the actions of human agents (including evil actions) and His causing things is not incompatible with His perfect knowledge, then we can better understand how God can know the exact days of our lives and yet not be the reason for our death in a causally problematic way.
God’s sovereignty means He is in absolute control over all things (Colossians 1:16–17; Psalm 90:2; 1 Chronicles 29:11–12). Nothing can, in principle, affect or hinder God. In the most basic sense, God causes all things to be (Hebrews 1:3). It is by His eternal decree that anything else exists at any moment that it does. There is a radically contingent nature to all things outside of God. Even the subatomic particles comprising individual physical objects (and the circumstances to which they pertain) must be made to exist, since even atoms are contingent objects.
Yet this does not mean God deterministically causes all things. An engineer who designs a machine can allow it to function with foreknown variations, or he can interfere to “force” a certain result. In either case, the engineer is in total control. In only one case is the engineer the deterministic cause of the event.
The other key to this puzzle is a nuance in the concept of sovereignty. The fact that God is sovereign means He is entirely beyond the power of any other influence—He cannot be “stopped” or overcome in any way, shape, or form. That does not mean that God “must do” certain things. This is why we describe God’s sovereignty as a separate attribute from His omnipotence. Omnipotence is the power to do anything that power can accomplish. Sovereignty is the absolute, unfettered right to decide when and how—and if—to use that power.
In other words, God’s sovereignty allows Him to not act—to allow—just as much as it allows Him to act. The choice is part of His sovereign nature. So, God can “allow” certain things to occur and not be a deterministic cause of those events. According to His sovereign choice, God has willed that events come to pass in accordance with the nature/essence of moral agents. Some of those events God simply “allows,” knowing as He does that everything will ultimately lead to His intended conclusion. Thus, God can will events to come to pass—either directly or indirectly—that are brought about by the non-coerced, freely willed acts of moral agents.
The importance of God “allowing” actions as part of His sovereignty cannot be overstated. God’s causing the basis for an act to occur does not mean He is a responsible moral agent for the act. The moral responsibility for intentionally evil acts falls on those who commit the acts themselves. Evil is disorder and privation in being. God, by virtue of His perfection, cannot cause privation. We can think of evil as rust in metal or rot in a tree. In an analogous way, we can say God “causes” the tree and, therefore, “enables” the rot to occur. But God does not make the rot, and He does not cause evil per se. For His own purposes, God might know the tree will rot, “allow” the tree to rot, and not stop it from rotting, perhaps knowing the rot will prevent even more disease later on.
God knows things by virtue of His own nature. In a simple eternal act, God perfectly knows Himself. By knowing Himself, God knows all that He causes. Because the nature of God is immutable (Malachi 3:6), the concepts of “before” and “after” do not apply to Him. God’s knowledge is not temporal, sequential, or time-bound. This is much like the act of human beings reading sheet music. The song recorded on the page is bound to the two dimensions of the symbols and paper. But the person writing the music is bound neither by two dimensions nor the “tempo” of the song. The composer can see and understand all of it at once, without restriction. He can change what he wants in the music, or not change it, as he desires. In somewhat the same way, that which is past and future to us is eternally present to God. God does not literally “foreknow” things as we might say of a supposed psychic or prophet; from the divine perspective, God simply knows.
We can see, then, that God causes things to be, insofar as they exist in a nature designed by God for a specific operation. Man, as a moral and rational agent, acts without extrinsic moral coercion. And it is God who causes man to act in such a way, by willing the existential act. He can know all man’s choices in advance and either “allow” them or interfere with them as He sees fit, according to His intended purposes.
All of this, finally, establishes a conclusion: God wills that man make non-deterministic moral choices. Since God’s knowledge is not time-bound, God knows what existential acts He causes. Given this, God knows when a person will die and how that person will die. We can say that God wills such events in an existentially basic, causal way, but not in a morally causal way. It is entirely possible for God to “allow” acts that He would not directly “cause,” or even prefer (Matthew 23:37). The human agent acting with malice is fully culpable from a moral standpoint; God cannot be the substantial or accidental cause of evil.
In this way, properly separating the difference between God “knowing,” God “allowing,” and God “causing,” that we can understand the normative predication of both human action and divine action.