Was there physical death in God’s creation before the fall of humanity?

Q. I’ve heard people claim on the basis of Paul’s statement in Romans–“sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin“–that physical death only entered the created world after the fall.  But others counter that Paul is merely referring to spiritual death, and that certainly plants and microscopic organisms had to have died before the fall. Would you say that Paul’s statement should be taken to refer to physical death?

This is another question (like this one) that is taken up at the end of the book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.  (The passage I will quote from the book here is somewhat lengthy and it begins with a discussion of Genesis, so if you want to read just the part about Paul’s statements in Romans, you can start here.)  This is what we have to say.

Note: The format of this blog is not to use artificial chapter and verse divisions, but to reference the Scriptures instead by content and context, and by hyperlinks to the text on Bible Gateway (as above).  However, Paradigms on Pilgrimage has already been in print for ten years with chapter and verse references, so I have not changed this format below.

We may next take up the question of how death could have been active within the evolutionary process for billions of years before there were any people, if the Bible teaches that death first entered the world through the disobedience of humans. Our first response to this question must be to establish whether the Bible indeed teaches this.   When we study the Genesis account, we discover that it actually does not teach that no creature could have died, or that no creature actually did die, before the fall of humanity. It rather suggests just the opposite.

For example, at the very end of the story of creation and the fall we read, “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ – therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:22-23). If God’s concern was that the man might eat of the tree of life after the fall and live forever, and took steps to prevent this, the clear implication is that if he did not eat of the tree of life, he would not live forever. But this would have been true whether or not he had fallen. In other words, not dying is shown here to be something that does not follow directly from having been created. It requires something further: eating of the tree of life. According to this account, therefore, it appears that if the humans had not eaten of this tree, they would have died, even in an unfallen state.

The fact that the food that humans and animals were to eat is specified in Genesis 1:29-30 also implies that they were not created immortal. Why would creatures have to eat, if they could not die? The clear implication is that this food was to sustain them and keep them alive, and that they would die of starvation if they did not eat. (For that matter, do we suppose that if Adam, when innocent, had fallen forty feet out of tree and broken his neck, he would not have died?) While we have Genesis 1:29-30 in view we should also specify that the fact that humans were not permitted to eat animals does not mean that the only way an animal could have died was if a human had killed it in order to eat it.

A further consideration is that the plants that humans and animals ate died when they were uprooted and consumed. If we are going to argue that there was no death before the fall, then it cannot have been the case that any living thing ceased to live before the fall. But the Bible itself describes the opposite. It suggests that innumerable plants not only died but were “killed” by people and animals for food in the Garden of Eden. It is sometimes argued that since vegetation is “insentient,” its “death” before the fall is not really significant. But this is to introduce a definition of death as “the cessation of consciousness,” and this would actually allow a great deal of the evolutionary process to have taken place without “death.” There will be varying understandings of where on the scale of complexity we should locate the least complex “sentient” beings, but it is doubtful that all animal life should be considered sentient. Thus creationists themselves would have to allow for the death before the fall of worms and spiders and perhaps even dinosaurs if they wish to discount the death of plants before the fall.

A final consideration from the Genesis account is this: the warning that God gave to the first pair of humans about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” – would have been incomprehensible and therefore useless if death were an entirely unknown thing in the pre-fall world. Here the biblical account itself therefore suggests that death was part of the human experiential knowledge base even before the fall. In other words, humans were able to understand what God meant by “death” because they had already seen other creatures die.

• • • • •

In light of all of these considerations, we must recognize that the objection we are discussing here comes much more from the book of Romans than from the book of Genesis. It is there that we find such statements, frequently quoted by creationists, as, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all” (Rom. 5:12). This would seem to imply that before the fall of man there was no death in the world. But we must pay careful attention to the kind of “death” that is actually in view in chapters 5 and 6 of Romans.

It is probably most accurate to say that it is a spiritual death (separation from relationship with God) that leads, among other things, to physical death. This, we should note, is precisely the definition of death that literalist interpreters use to explain how it was that Adam did not die physically “in the day” that he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He died spiritually that day, they insist, and physically as an eventual result. (Otherwise, we would need to appeal to a “day-age” theory to explain Genesis 2:17!)

Recognizing that Romans 5 and 6 is speaking of a spiritual death with eventual physical consequences enables us to make the best sense of its teaching. For example, Romans 5:14 says, “Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” What is in view here is clearly the reign of spiritual death over those who sin, that is, over morally responsible beings – humans. This is not a discussion of the progress of physical death throughout the created world.

That spiritual death, not physical death, is in view here becomes even clearer when we recognize that in the course of this argument, Paul restates what he says in Rom. 5:12 two different ways. This first statement is, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned . . .” (Rom. 5:12). But this is later restated, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). And then Paul expresses his meaning another way: “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5: 19). We see from these parallels that coming under the reign of death is equivalent to being condemned and to being made a sinner. The death in view, in other words, is the spiritual death of separation from God.

We find final confirmation of this understanding in the exhortation Paul gives as the argument of these chapters reaches its culmination: “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:13). We see here that the “death” Paul has been talking about is a state we can be in even as we are physically alive, and which we can leave without being resurrected from physical death. It is thus, once again, the spiritual death of being under the power of sin, alienated from God.

We should therefore make no more appeal to the book of Romans than to the book of Genesis to argue that physical death only entered the world after the fall of humanity. Both books describe a spiritual death from which physical death necessarily resulted, but neither thereby excludes there having been physical death beforehand, from other causes.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. 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 Scriptures 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 has an A.B. 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.

1 thought on “Was there physical death in God’s creation before the fall of humanity?”

  1. Well, you shook me out of the Magnolia tree today — I actually learned something that I never thought through! Thank you for you thoughts on this!

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