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.

If the Bible isn’t scientifically accurate, how can it be theologically accurate?

Q. I am very comfortable with the notion that the Bible isn’t a science textbook and that it reflects an observational perspective in the incidental “scientific” comments of its authors. It seems most plausible to me that God would and did accommodate his message based on where humanity was at. My question is this: since it’s clear that the biblical authors had at least some false beliefs about the world in general, “scientifically” or otherwise, on what basis can we say that the theology they communicated was 100% accurate? The fact that a lot of theological truth is not stated overtly in the Bible and that it took quite a while to arrive at fully worked out doctrines of the Trinity and so on seems only to compound the difficulty.

This specific question of yours is actually taken up at the end of the book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.  Here’s what we have to say about it:

At its core the Bible is a story of relationships.  It is a story of relationships of faith and trust that people enter into with God and with one another (“covenants”).  And the world of relationships is one that we have access to freely, even if our knowledge of the natural world is limited to what we can discover through naïve observation.  The capacity for faith, through which we enter into relationship with God, is not one that human civilization has slowly cultivated and perfected over time.  Faith is something every human has always been capable of, just as every human, in every age, has had the potential to love.  We would not assert that the love described in the Bible was somehow defective compared with our own because it took place in a primitive culture, and we should not make the same assertion about the faith described in the Bible, either.

In other words:

While the human authors of the Bible would have had limitations when it came to their knowledge of the natural world, they would not necessarily have had similar limitations when it came to knowing God, relationally and experientially.

I hope this brief summary is helpful; as I said, it comes at the conclusion of the book (and specifically at the conclusion of the conclusion), so I encourage you to look at the whole book and see where these reflections fit in to the overall argument.

Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?

Q.  Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?  Some argue that the Israelites were influenced by surrounding cultures and so they told similar creation stories when forming their own national and religious identity.  One can take the similarities between Israelite creation stories and those of the nations around them to argue that they were simply a product of human culture. Alternatively, one can say that the differences between the Israelite stories and those of other nations show where they drew the line in defense of revealed transcendent truths (about God as sole creator and so forth). There are a myriad of other positions in between, of course.  What do you think?

To the extent that there may have been borrowing, I think this is actually another case of the phenomenon of appropriation that we find throughout the Bible.  The community of faith takes objects, practices, institutions, etc. that are being used in the worship of false gods and reclaims them for the praise and honor of the true God.

For example, Israel made regular use  of the bull in its sacrificial system, even though this animal was also a prominent symbol of Baal.  The tabernacle in Israel consisted of an outer court, main hall, and inner shrine, even though this threefold architectural division also typified Canaanite temples.   The Israelites offered some of the same kinds of sacrifices as their neighbors; they sometimes even called them by the same names.  For example, both Israelites and Canaanites had a fellowship offering or “peace offering” that they described by a shared Semitic root, sh-l-m.

This process of appropriation is also seen in the case of literary archetypes.  Many interpreters believe that Psalm 29, for example, which the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) calls a “hymn to the God of the storm,” has been appropriated from a song that was originally sung in worship of the storm-god Baal.  But it has been judiciously altered to make sure that the true God is honored as the master of such powerful natural phenomena.

And so, if a creation story was in circulation among ancient Israel’s neighbors that depicted the realms of sky and land being separated out from the watery chaos—for example, as in the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, in which Tiamat, goddess of the oceanic waters, is slain and the land and the sky are fashioned from the two halves of her divided body—then I think the similarities between such a story and the Genesis creation account are best understood as another case of appropriation.

Even so, the differences are significant.  As you say, the Genesis version maintains crucial theological distinctives such as the unique status of Yahweh as the only true God and the position of humans as divine image-bearers and vice regents over creation—not slaves of the gods, as in the Enuma Elish.  In fact, what strikes us most about the Genesis account, when we compare it with similar ancient creation stories, is its thoroughgoing monotheism.  Creation and humanity are not by-products of a battle between the gods for supremacy.  Rather, everything in Genesis proceeds with stately grandeur as a single all-ruling God speaks and is obeyed.

However, I’m not sure that we actually have to posit borrowing or appropriation to account for the similarities.  It seems to me that all of these accounts can be understood as a response to the same observed phenomenon—the three-fold division of creation into land, sea, and sky (even as we today observe matter existing in three states: solid, liquid, and gas).  This common object of observation is interpreted within the framework of an ancient world view, but in the Israelite case, the interpretation is informed by a relational understanding of the true God.  That may be all we need to say.

Below is a sketch of the Genesis cosmology from the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. The designer of the sketch notes, “This is remarkably similar to the cosmology of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures contemporary to the biblical authors.”

Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

Q. It would seem that strictly on the basis of the Genesis creation account, one could conclude that matter is eternal, because in the beginning there were the unformed (already existing) waters. That is, if one reads the first sentence as a sort of header, as you and others do.

I agree that if we take the first sentence (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) as a heading that summarizes the eventual action of the entire creation account, then we do find primeval waters already existing before God began to create anything else, and this would be eternally-existing matter.  But rather than allow such metaphysical considerations to influence the way we interpret the account, let’s look carefully at the text, draw our conclusions from there, and then think about the implications.

I see the first sentence as a summary introduction because while it announces that God created the shemayim and the ‘erets, the actual crafting of those two things is only described as the account progresses.  On the second day: “God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters’ . . . God called the vault shemayim.”  On the third day: “God said, ‘ . . . let the dry ground appear.’ . . . God called the dry ground ‘erets.”  So the creation of these two things is anticipated in the opening line, but they are actually created as the account progresses.

We often miss this because English versions typically translate these two Hebrew terms as “heavens” and “earth” in the first sentence, and “sky” and “land” later in the account.  (Accordingly, in Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, a book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, we suggest that the opening of the creation account be translated instead, “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”  That’s what the account is really talking about.)

Further confirmation that the first sentence of the creation account is a summary introduction comes from the way the account ends with a matching summary conclusion:  “Thus the shemayim and the ‘erets were completed, and all their hosts,” that is, their population—the sun, moon, and stars; birds, animals, and people; etc.  The process of creation, according to the Genesis account, was to make habitable realms and then populate them.  The shemayim and the ‘erets—the sky and the land—are the two prominent realms mentioned in summary statements at the beginning and end of the account.

This means, however, that the narration of the actual creation itself begins at a point where “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  Does this mean that matter, at least in the form of these primeval waters, actually does exist eternally, and that God did not create the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing)?

We need to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the watery ocean was the equivalent of “nothing.”  Because they were not a seafaring people, they considered the sea a place of unformed and unorganized chaos.  It was constantly shifting shape; nothing could be built on it; no crops could be grown there; and no one could survive for long on its waves.  “The great deep,” the ocean depths, was the equivalent for them of “the abyss” or the pit of nothingness.

So even though the concept is expressed from within a different cosmology, when the Genesis author says there was nothing but the waters of the deep, this is the exact equivalent of someone today saying that there was nothing, period.  We can’t get from here to there through a literal reading of Genesis; we need to do a bit of cultural and cosmological translation first.  But once we do, we realize that the Bible is not saying that matter coexisted eternally with God.  Instead, by depicting creation de aqua (as Peter writes in his second letter: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water”), Genesis is actually claiming that it was ex nihilo, as we would say today.

Some follow-up thoughts about religion and science

A couple of quotations that will help flesh out some of the ideas I’ve explored in my recent series of posts about religion and science (which begin here):

(1)  A reader of the series sent me this quote from G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, which he felt summed up pretty well what it means to be “in the middle of the lake”:

“The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.  . . . He has always cared more for the truth than for consistency.  If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man.”

(2) In the most recent issue of Boston College Magazine, in an article entitled “On Not Knowing: The Intellectual and the Mystic Can Agree,” Lawrence Cunningham writes the following (for our purposes, simply substitute “person of faith” and “person of science” for “mystic” and “intellectual”):

Image of Thomas Aquinas accompanying Cunningham’s article

“The harmony between mystics and intellectuals can be described like this: When intellectuals begin to grapple with ideas in order to gain understanding, they grow aware of the horizon of unknowing that extends ever before them—and aware, too, that their goal recedes even as they advance to meet it under the penumbra of hope. Mystics follow a somewhat analogous path, in that their yearnings are never complete in this life; their experience of the presence of God is always tentative, elusive, transitory, and full of promise. Like the Christian intellectual, the mystic lives in the ‘not yet.’ How might their paths converge? Aquinas gives an interesting hint in his Summa Theologica. He begins by defining contemplation as principally pertaining to meditation on God, and then he says that the contemplative can be predisposed to genuine contemplation by a reflection on any truth—Thomas’s way of saying that the intellectual task of seeking and stating truth is a prelude to the encounter with Truth.”

Some further food for thought on the topic of religion and science as non-overlapping ways of knowing.

Did early humans with and without souls once co-exist?

This is the final part of the three-part question about religion and science that I’ve been answering in this series of posts. (The phrase “middle of the lake” comes from my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation. It describes the attempt to address questions simultaneously from the non-overlapping perspectives of science and religion.)

Q. This is more of a question that is posed along the border of religion and science, “from the middle of the lake” (assuming there is a middle). If God did use evolution and at some point along the line injected a soul into prehistoric humans as the Catholic Church maintains, wouldn’t that mean that there would have potentially existed simultaneously on the earth a mixture of “soul-possessing” hominids and “soulless” hominids separated by some small evolutionary difference (or maybe just geography)?

It is indeed the Catholic position that God grants souls to humans whose bodies come from evolutionary development.  As Pope John Paul II said in his October 22, 1996 address “On Evolution” to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

“Man is called to enter into a loving relationship with God himself, a relationship which will find its full expression at the end of time, in eternity.  . . . It is by virtue of his eternal soul that the whole person, including his body, possesses such great dignity. . . .  If the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God.  . . . As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

In other words, the Catholic Church does believe and teach that the human soul is created directly by God, even if “the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously.”

But when do humans receive their souls? The Catholic teaching regarding the individual today is that God grants a soul at the time of conception. But what about the very first humans?

The conclusion seems inescapable, if we are going to ask questions along these lines, that once “living matter which existed previously” had developed to the point where individual beings could be recognized as fully human, God granted them souls.  (I’d personally like to think that God granted souls to an entire early human community at once, in a sort of prehistoric Pentecost.)  But then the further conclusion is equally inescapable that, as you say, “there would have potentially existed simultaneously on the earth a mixture of ‘soul-possessing’ hominids and ‘soulless’ hominids separated by some small evolutionary difference.”

Of course neither science nor religion is in a position to shed any further light on this question.  Science cannot detect or verify the presence of a soul.  The Bible, for its part, says in Genesis that “the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  This indeed sounds like an organic origin for the human body and a divine origin for the human soul or spirit.  But the Genesis account represents all of humanity through a single figure (as an NIV translation note explains, “The Hebrew for man (adam) . . . is also the name Adam), so it doesn’t provide any details about early hominid communities with and without souls.

And so I can’t really say much more in answer to your question.  Indeed, the attempt to answer it confirms for me what I describe in Paradigms on Pilgrimage as “the wisdom of not spending too much time in the middle of the lake before swimming back to one side or the other.”  This is why, in my Genesis study guide, when groups get to the story of Adam and Eve, I acknowledge that there has been “much debate about how the events recounted here relate to scientific descriptions of human origins” and I encourage participants “simply to state how they understand the story of Adam and Eve:  is it literal?  symbolic?  allegorical?  something else?”  “Each person can then be encouraged to hold their own views on this question confidently and humbly,” I continue, “and engage Genesis on a literary level in this study.  This should be a level on which people who hold different viewpoints can have a profitable discussion.”

Still, you have certainly been very thoughtful about the “middle of the lake” implications of the Catholic view (which many outside the Catholic tradition may hold as well), and I thank you for sharing your reflections on it.

Does doing science make a person less likely to believe in God?

Q. It would be difficult to expect scientists to employ anything other than “methodological naturalism” (a commitment to work only from empirical data) in their work. If they didn’t, for every attempt to explain natural phenomena, they would have to add the possibility of supernatural causation or involvement, which would definitely be unproductive. But do you think that methodical naturalism in any sense encourages “metaphysical naturalism” (the presupposition that there is no supernatural, and that natural causation can explain everything)?

This is the second part of a detailed question that I’ve posted in its full form here.  (The terms “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” come from a book by Brian Alters.)

In response to this part of the question, I’d have to say no, I don’t believe that the discipline of working only from observable, measurable data and seeking the most reasonable explanation for one’s observations necessarily encourages disbelief in the supernatural.  I can imagine a scientist who was also a person of faith saying, “Let’s see how much we can account for this way,” but still expecting that in the end there would be many things that could only be regarded with reverent wonder.

The lives of scientists throughout the centuries who have also been people of deep faith provide abundant anecdotal evidence that methodological naturalism does not inevitably lead to metaphysical naturalism.  Such scientists include Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton, Linnaeus, Faraday, Mendel, Pasteur, and, more recently, Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project.  Numerous further examples could be given.  Many of these scientists have written about the compatibility of faith with scientific endeavor.  (See, for example, Collins’ book The Language of God.)

Along those lines, in my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage, co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey (himself a widely published scientific researcher), I cite the example of King Solomon, who was noted for his natural-scientific investigations, and paraphrase one of his proverbs this way:  “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.”  I go on to say that “when we do, we bring him pleasure by fulfilling his purposes.  So all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm.”

In other words, we can adopt the discipline of “methodological naturalism” for the purposes of science without worrying that it will lead to “metaphysical naturalism.”

Sir Isaac Newton, scientist and believer (portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1689, courtesy Wikipedia)