1. Insofar as human persons are bodily, death is a natural, physically necessary process. Of all organisms, however, only human beings foresee their own death. Although death’s inevitability is universally recognized, refusal to accept death as appropriate also is universal. Most people yearn for and project some kind of survival beyond death.
2. This yearning for survival is not without reason. People are not exclusively bodily realities, as is clear from the fact that free choices cannot be accounted for as organic functions. People realize, more or less clearly, that they are more than bodies and that, since they are more, bodily death, though naturally inevitable, is an affront to personal dignity.
The relationship between sin and death has always been felt to pose a difficulty for the doctrine of original sin. If death truly is a result of sin, it seems to follow that there would have been no death had Man not sinned. Yet human organisms are not very different from other organisms in respect to organic life and death, and it is hard to imagine a natural world without death. Therefore, it seems that human death is natural and inevitable. In that case, there would have been death regardless of sin, and so death hardly can be a punishment for sin.
Yet people universally yearn for and project some sort of survival; even some secular humanists speculate about the possibility of eventually finding a “cure” for death—something which would prevent the degenerative processes associated with aging. Death is not accepted. As Vatican II teaches:
It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person.
The Council then proceeds to spell out the Christian hope, which answers human anxiety about death and even now maintains a communion between us and our dead loved ones.
Man rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter. All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety. For a prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for a higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast.
Although the mystery of death utterly beggars the imagination, the Church has been taught by divine revelation, and herself firmly teaches, that man has been created by God for a blissful destiny beyond the reach of earthly misery. In addition, that bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned [note l4: cf. Wis 1.13; 2.23-24; Rom 5.21; 6.23; Jas 1.15] will be vanquished, according to the Christian faith, when man who was ruined by his own doing is restored to wholeness by an almighty and merciful Savior. (GS 18; translation amended)
3. Considered according to a purely naturalistic world view, the fact that death is a physical necessity makes the Christian teaching that it is a consequence of sin seem absurd. But according to such a world view, the hope of resurrection also seems absurd. If, then, we can hope for resurrection, there is no reason to deny that, except for sin, we would have been immune from death.
4. Although the purely naturalistic world view is presented as scientific, it generalizes beyond empirical evidence. Science, in its proper domain, tells only about how the world works as it is. No empirical data can show that humankind would have been subject to death even if Man had not sinned. Death is naturally inevitable in the world as it is, and faith does not question this. It teaches instead that the world could have been different than it now is, just as it also teaches that the world will be different when God completes the re-creation which he has begun with the resurrection of Jesus.
5. Considered in the perspective of faith, it seems fitting that bodily persons should have been created with a power to avoid death. Their appeal to God’s creative imagination presumably concerned ways in which they can manifest his goodness—for example, in being parents and children—which are not open to angels. Bodiliness itself, however, carries with it the possibility of corruption, which hardly seems to manifest God’s perfect life. Hence, it was fitting that in creating bodily persons, God also somehow provide them with a power of avoiding death. Human beings, children of God by being members of the family of Man, would have enjoyed the immunity from death suitable to those who share in divine life (see S.t., 1–2, q. 85, aa. 5–6; 2–2, q. 164, a. 1, ad 1).
In this way, human persons would have been preserved from the implications—now physically necessary—of their organic nature. The affront we sense to our personal dignity, which is doubly an affront to the dignity of children of God, would have been avoided. As St. Athanasius teaches: “God not only made us out of nothing, but he also gave us freely, by the grace of the Word, a life divinely oriented. But men rejected the things of eternity and, on the prompting of the devil, turned to the things of corruption. They became the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, they were by nature corruptible, but were destined, by the grace of the communion of the Word, to have escaped the consequences of nature, had they remained good. Because of the Word and his dwelling among them, even the corruption natural to them would not have affected them” (FEF 750). Similarly, St. Theophilus of Antioch argues that God made human persons neither mortal nor immortal, but open to either destiny, according to the use they would make of their freedom. God is not the cause of death; rather, death follows from sin as immortality would have followed from human self-determination to obey God (see FEF 184).
6. This explanation helps clarify the sense in which death is a punishment for sin. It need not be supposed that God chose death and imposed it on humankind, answering evil with evil. Rather, the evil of death is a punishment only in the sense that it is a deserved consequence of sin. This consequence follows naturally when Man’s sin alienates humankind from God and so causes the loss of divine life as something which would have accompanied human nature itself. In other words, we need suppose that God punishes sin with death only in the sense that, Man having sinned, God does not prevent nature from taking the course on which sin set it.
Some theologians suggest that perhaps sin might have changed only the human attitude toward death, not the fact of death.27 Neither Scripture nor tradition offers grounds for this view.28 On the contrary, the logic of faith is that, since resurrection is entailed in the share in divine life won for us by the redemptive death of Jesus, immortality must have been entailed in the share in divine life lost for us by the sin of Man.
Moreover, the notion that only our attitude is different as a result of sin implies that attitudes float free of profound realities like death, in some sort of metaphysical stratosphere. Man in innocence would have been no more sanguine about death than Jesus was. He faced death obediently and confidently—but with utter horror.
If human persons would in any case have been subject to death, on what ground are we to suppose that God did not create us in exactly that mortality in which we find ourselves and will not also leave us in it? The truth of faith hangs together: If the share in divine life won for us by the redemptive death of Jesus entails bodily resurrection and eternal life, then the share in divine life lost for us by the sin of Man would have entailed a like immortality.
27. For example, Schoonenberg, Man and Sin, 183; also John B. Endres, O.P., “The Council of Trent and Original Sin,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 22 (1967), 51–91, raises doubts about this point (82–83), although he admits that the Council of Carthage’s strong affirmation of corporeal death as a result of sin (see DS 222/101) has been “generally taught” (75). Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), 42–43, sometimes is cited in support of the view that sin only changes the way death affects or is experienced by people, for they would in any case have suffered biological destruction. But Rahner, at least in the passage cited, does not seem to be saying this. Rather, he seems to be making a point with which I would agree: that even had Man not sinned, still his life in this world would have ended “without suffering any violent dissolution of his actual bodily constitution through a power from without” (42). I would say: One can imagine that if Adam had not sinned, what in our situation is the last moment of mortal life and the first moment of resurrection life would have been in immediate succession. (Other aspects of Rahner’s conception of death which follow from his idea of the human person as spirit in the world raise further questions.) Bruce J. Malina, “Some Observations on the Origin of Sin in Judaism and St. Paul,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 31 (1969), 33, says quite confidently that St. Paul (in Rom 5.12) is uninterested in the “speculative question of physical death,” but Wedderburn, op. cit., 340–48, provides reasons for thinking the opposite. It seems to me decisive that Trent was following Carthage, and not only assumed but asserted that bodily death is an hereditary consequence of original sin.
28. It is a mistake to suppose that “death” in relevant texts of Scripture, the Fathers, and the liturgy must refer either to physical death alone or to the loss of salvation alone. It embraces both: Lukken, op. cit., 99–156. For a good summary of the data of Scripture: Pierre Grelot, “Death,” Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 2d ed., 114–19.