Was there Death Before the Fall?
If there was no death before the fall, though, we still have lots of questions. How do we understand the age of the earth? Or fossils of creatures that look to have been around a long time before humanity? Or that Alpha course favourite, dinosaurs? Are we saying they lived alongside people? Were they on the ark? Or what about hominids: are we denying their existence? Do we end up believing, or even stating, that sheep and puffins were created immortal, and only died because of Adam’s sin? Or that lions and dinosaurs were originally herbivores, but their mouths and digestive systems dramatically changed somewhere in the fifth millennium BC?
All in all, it’s a great example of the conversation between reason and Scripture that we posted on a few months back. And right at the outset, I have discovered how important it is to ask one question, to which many assume the answer is obvious, but in fact is anything but, and which has to be disentangled before progress can be made. The question is this: what is ‘death’, in this context?
It sounds silly, but it’s vitally important. Taking together conversations I’ve had, English dictionaries, and some knowledge of biblical languages, I’ve discovered it’s possible to give one of at least five different answers to that question:
1. ‘Death’ as the cessation of life of any living organism: plants, animals, bacteria, etc.
2. ‘Death’ as the cessation of life of any animal, whether measured by the heart stopping, brain death, or equivalent.
3. ‘Death’ as the termination of life by violence, involving the letting of blood. “For the life of every creature is its blood; its blood is its life” (Lev 17:14).
4. ‘Death’ as the cessation of life of a human being, whether measured by the heart stopping, brain death, or equivalent, and involving the separation of the body and the soul/spirit. “And as her soul was departing, for she was dying, she named him Ben-Oni” (Gen 35:18).
5. ‘Death’ as the spiritual separation of human beings from God, as a consequence of sin. “When the commandment came, sin came alive, and I died” (Rom 7:9).
Even this list, to be honest, is over-simple, because it misses out uses of the word that are figurative, whether for renouncing something completely (‘dying to self/sin/flesh’), eternal destruction (‘the second death’), or whatever. Within the context of Genesis 1-3, however, it is probably safe to say that one of these five meanings is always believed to be in view. But which?
If the answer is #1, then we can safely say: yes, there was death before the fall. In Genesis 1:29-30, animals and humans were given seeds, fruits, and every green plant for food – and that means at least some things were created to die before the fall. (I once got into a lengthy discussion with a Leadership Training class about whether plants actually ‘die’ when you eat them; whether or not you think grass ‘dies’ when it’s eaten, we can presumably get together on the fact that turnips do. And seeds. And apples.) So at one level, the answer is obvious. There was, Genesis tells us, death before the fall.
If we go to the other extreme and consider #5, we can say with equal confidence: no, there was no death before the fall. Human beings were created in the image of God with the possibility of eating from the tree of life – but we chose the knowledge of good and evil instead, and consequently we died. When God warned man about the tree, he said, “on the day that you eat of it, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17), and it’s obvious that God is talking about #5 here rather than #4, for the simple reason that Adam physically lived another 900 years after this. So understood spiritually and relationally, there was no death before the fall.
With #4, it seems almost certain that the answer is no, because the first physical death, that of Abel, does not take place until after the fall. The only reason I say ‘almost certainly’ rather than ‘certainly’ is that it is possible that God created other human beings apart from Adam and Eve, and it is possible that when Paul says things like ‘death entered the world through sin’ he is talking about spiritual death (#5) rather than physical death (#4), so it is possible that in between the creation of humans and the fall, another human being whom we are not told about physically died. But this would seem an extremely remote possibility, on the basis that the connection between physical and spiritual death is so strong in the scriptures (the writer of Genesis hammers home the impact of the curse in chapter 5, with his metronomically depressing ‘and he died … and he died … and he died.’) It seems all-but-certain that human beings, bearing the image of God, with the breath of life in their nostrils, and formed into living souls, did not physically die until after the fall.
For #2 and #3, many would argue that there was no death before the fall (with some arguing that animals died in sense #2, but not in sense #3). The chief arguments for this position are (a) Paul’s argument about death entering the world through sin (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22); (b) the statement that the world God created was ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31), which is said to be incompatible with animals dying and, in many cases, being killed by other animals; (c) the notable absence of a commission to animals to eat meat in Genesis 1; and (d) the shape of the biblical story, in which the new creation involves the restoration of the world as it was, and the liberation of all creation from corruption and slavery, not just human beings (Isa 65:17-25; Rom 8:18-25; etc). From my perspective, however, these arguments are inadequate. Briefly:
a. I cannot see any exegetical reason to support the idea that Paul was talking about the death of animals in Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 15. His point was that separation from God (#5), and the physical death of human beings (#4), entered the world through sin.
b. Why should the death of animals be incompatible with creation being ‘very good’? Why should it be more incompatible with ‘very good’ than the death of plants? On what basis do we think it is acceptable for figs to die, but not lizards? Why turnips, but not termites, or terns, or Tyrannosaurs? God pronounces creation ‘very good’, but he doesn’t say it is ‘perfect’, or ‘complete’, or ‘without death of any kind’. If Jesus ate fish in his resurrection body (Luke 24:42-43), and if there’s going to be rich food full of marrow in the new creation (Is 25:8), why should we think eating meat can’t be ‘very good’? (Isaiah wasn’t talking about vegetable marrows, by the way).
c. This is probably the best argument of the four: no mention is made of a commission to eat meat in Genesis 1. God speaks to humans and allows them to eat all plants, and then says that the animals have also been given this gift by their creator (Gen 1:29-30). The problem is, God nowhere in Scripture specifically commissions animals to eat meat: yet there they all are, chasing the rabbits and harassing the wildebeest. God doesn’t give them that permission in Genesis 3, when the thorns and thistles are cursed, nor in Genesis 9, when he allows humans to eat meat. The fact is, we just don’t know when animals started eating each other – so I don’t think we can use it as an argument that animals never died before the fall.
d. I can’t wait for creation to be liberated from captivity to bondage and futility, as Paul says. I’ve written about it, I preach about it, and I anticipate it more and more as I go on. But I don’t think that involves a return to the world as it used to be. I think the trajectory of Scripture is onwards and upwards – the story of God’s presence starting in a garden, then gradually going out to fill the earth through people who bear his image and bring beauty and life wherever they go, first through Israel in the tabernacle and temple, then pivotally in Jesus, then through the church, and culminating in the redemption of the whole universe – rather than down and then back up again to where we started. In my view, and I got this idea (although not this phrase) from Greg Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission, the story of Scripture is shaped like a staircase, not a hammock.
So I’m not persuaded (yet!) that there’s a good biblical reason to say that animals didn’t die before the fall. From Genesis and the other texts which touch on the issue, plants did; humans didn’t; animals may have. And that means that, if I’m reading God’s world alongside God’s word and I discover an animal that looks like it lived a long time before humans ever sinned, I won’t freak out, or argue that the premises of geology are completely flawed. I’ll usually just pause, marvel at the God who created it, and look forward to the day when I’ll find out how he did it.
Andrew’s next book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, will be released in April, published by IVP.