If you’re like me, you were taught that death was not a part of God’s good created order, but that death came into the world when Adam fell into sin through his rebellion against God. We immediately think of verses like Romans 5:12:
“Therefore...sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”
However, when we look at the created world as it is before us, we see that death and decay are essential elements of the created order.
Yesterday, I was raking leaves and placed them in our composting bin with the knowledge that as they decay along with the manure and pieces of fruit and vegetables we put in there, we will have a rich fertilizer for our garden in the Spring.
As I watch my favorite Nature shows on TV, I am struck by the incredible design of the hunter animals to be able to capture and eat their prey. I marvel at the delicate eco-system that requires a food-chain for it to function and to even exist. My son Trey and I love to watch "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel. These animals are amazing. One show called them "incredible killing machines." If death is not a part of the way God created the world, then a child might ask, "Were sharks created by Satan?" The answer is to the child is, "Of course not. Satan does not create." But we still wonder why animals have carnivorous teeth and digestive systems geared for such.
So, this brings us to the big question: Is death and decay a part of the created order?
N.T. Wright thinks so. Wright is one of the world’s foremost evangelical biblical scholars. He believes that the decay we see in the world is not necessarily evil, but a part of the created order.
“Evil then consists not in being created but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honor elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them. The result is that the cosmos is out of joint. Instead of humans being wise vice-regents over creation, they ignore the creator and try to worship something less demanding, something that will give them a short-term fix of power and pleasure. The result is that death, which was always a part of the natural transience of the good creation, gains a second dimension, which the Bible sometimes calls ‘spiritual death.’ In Genesis, and indeed for much of the Old Testament, the controlling image of death is exile. Adam and Eve are told that they would die on the day they ate of the fruit; what actually happened was that they were expelled from the garden. Turning away from the worship of the living God is turning toward that which has no life in itself. Worship that which is transient, and it can only give you death… Mysteriously, this out-of-jointness seems to become entangled with the transience and decay necessary within the good-but-incomplete creation.”
-Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church p. 95
Doug Moo also thinks so. Moo was one of my professors at Trinity, and is recognized as one of the top evangelical experts on the book of Romans. He writes concerning Romans 8 in an essay entitled “Nature in the New Creation: New Testament Eschatology and the Environment,” published in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49 (2006) 449-88:
The language of the text before us (Romans 8:19-22) suggests that human sin led to some kind of change in the nature of the cosmos itself. It has been subject, Paul says, to "frustration," or "vanity"; the Greek word suggests that creation has been unable to attain the purpose for which it was created. The "bondage to decay [φθορά]" is also difficult to interpret, but Paul is probably attributing to the created world the inevitable destruction that the Greeks attributed to all created things. And Paul's use of this same language in 1 Cor 15:42 and 50 to contrast the "perishable" body of this life and the "imperishable" body of the life to come points in the same direction. Decay" suggests the inevitable disintegration to which all things since the Fall are subject.
This does not necessarily mean, however, that physical death itself was first introduced into the created world at the Fall. On the contrary, the necessary continuity between the world that God created (Genesis 1-2) and the world that we now observe suggests that physical decay and death – an indispensable component of the created world as we know it – were likely present from the very beginning. To be sure, as Rom 5:12, for instance, makes clear, Adam introduced "death" into the world. But the "world" Paul has in view here is almost certainly the world of human beings (compare the roughly parallel vv. 18a and 19a), and the "death" to which Paul refers here is mainly (though not exclusively) spiritual death (compare again v. 12 with vv. 18 and 19, where "condemnation" occurs). What was Adam's relation to death before the Fall, then? Some think, as Gerald Bray puts it, that Adam was "a mortal being who was protected from death as long as he was obedient to the commands of God: disobedience removed the protection, and Adam was allowed to complete the life cycle which was normal to his physical being" (Gerald L. Bray, "The Significance of God's Image in Man." TynBul 42  216). But it is preferable to think of Adam as possessing conditional immortality, with physical death as "a possibility arising from his constitution" (Blocher, In the Beginning, 184-87 ).
The main thing I find intriguing is this: Death is a natural part of the good created order, but when sin entered the world, death took on a new dimension: that of being separated from God. Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden was the "death" that they experienced on that day, and then their physical death would come eventually due to the fact that they no longer had access to the tree of life. Death for Israel was exile from the land of promise and from the Temple of Yahweh. And, ultimately, Spiritual Death is eternal separation from God.