Was there Death Before the Fall?

Death and Decay as a Part of the Good Creation

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 [1991] 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 [187]).

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.



Great Googly Moogly! said...

Very interesting. Until recently I've always thought that it was a "given" that physical death was introduced into the cosmos through the Fall. As a "framework" adherent, the ideas of a "young earth" vs. "old earth" really didn't matter much to me. And although I still don't think the question of a literal six 24hr-day creation vs. a creation that has been around millions of years is all that important (I don't think this is the issue with the "Creation Narrative" in Genesis at all), the issue of pre-Fall death would seem contrary to a "young earth" belief...or would it?

I haven't had much opportunity yet to deal with this issue so I'm wondering: What do you believe are some major implications of believing that physical death existed before the Fall? From just the quotes by Wright and Moo, it doesn't seem like it is a big deal whether we believe one way or another (like the creation account). What would be the theological implications (if any) with death being a pre-Fall reality?

Just wondering....


Bob Robinson said...

Yes, I think that this issue is pertinent to the "young-earth" vs. "old-earth" creationist debate.

For instance, at the Institute for Creation Research, an article about this subject basically says that Howard Van Till and Hugh Ross are both not being biblical when they say that death was a part of the created order.

"Those who accept the Bible believe that death is a punishment for sin; death must have come into existence after Adam fell."

Their evidence for such a statement is that they assume that since the creation was "very good" then that necessitates that there would be no death among humans and the "higher animals" (though they believe that plants "are not alive" and thus cannot die - they only "wither and fade," Isaiah 40:6-8).

People like those at the ICR have great intentions. They want to defend the efficacy of the cross. What they mistakenly assume is that if we believe death and decay are a part of the good created order, then that necessarily negates Christ's atoning death on the cross. "If we believe that death has always existed, then we make a mockery of the death of Christ... If death is not the penalty for sin, then Christianity is meaningless. The death of Christ was made necessary because of man's sin. Man's sin brought death, which in turn brought God's Son to pay the penalty in our place."

But when we think of Christ's death, we need to look beyond the physical agony of Jesus on the cross. The movie, THE PASSION OF CHRIST, gave an intense depiction of the physical agony of the man Jesus. But this must be said: As awfully painful as Jesus' death was, people have died even worse physical deaths before and after him. There is more to his death than just physical death. There is the issue of SEPARATION.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!"

Death is exile from the presence of God. Death is being thrown out of the garden. Spiritual death is much worse than physical death. Spiritual death adds a new dimension to death that was not part of the original intention of the good creation. This is the deeper meaning of death brought into the world at the Fall.

Marg said...

You haven't convinced me! The Bible indicates humans and animals were not carnivorous "in the beginning." Genesis 1:29-31 indicates God gave humans and animals plants to eat. "Incredible killing machines" were not part of God's "good" design for God cares for animals too -- even little birds, Jesus said. Sin changed everything.

Marc Vandersluys said...

Animals may not have been carnivorous, but what of the plants they ate? Were they not alive? What of the fruits and vegetables which Adam, Eve and the animals (if not carnivorous) ate--were they not alive before being picked and eaten?

This post has started me thinking about the apparent fact that death is ultimately an essential part of life: the seed dies in order to then become a plant (or so I understand); for every sperm that successfully reaches its destination, millions die; and so on. I'll have to think about this some more.

Having said that, I'm currently reading Wright's "Evil and the Justice of God", in which he sets up death and decay as fundamentally opposed to God's good creation. I think the notion of "spiritual death" makes a great deal of sense, but Wright does not appear to make that distinction in Evil & The Justice of God--is this a contradiction in his thinking? Or is it perhaps a development in his thought (though the two books aren't that far apart in terms of publication year)?

Bob Robinson said...

NT Wright has long taught that death and decay were a part of the original creation, and that the Fall added a new spiritual dimension to death. On page 52 of Evil and the Justice of God, he writes,

"God has made a beautiful world; evil, insofar as we can define it at this stage, is a defacing of that world, a way of getting the world upside down and inside out.

Humans, instead of worshiping God as the source of their life, give allegiance to the nonhuman creation. The earth, instead of being ruled wisely by God-fearing, image-bearing stewards, shares the curse for the sake of idolatrous humankind. Death, which we may rightly see as a natural and harmless feature of the original landscape, now assumes the unwelcome guise of the executioner, coming grimly to prevent the poison spreading too far. God's anxiety that Adam might now take fruit from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever in his fallen state (Genesis 3:22) leads to God's equal anxiety that arrogant humankind would be able to plot ever greater and greater folly (Genesis 11:6). Judgment in the present time is a matter of stopping evil in its tracks before it gets too far. The threatened 'death' takes various forms: exile for Adam and Eve, the flood for Noah's generation, confusion and dispersal for Babel."

Marc Vandersluys said...

Well, there you go. A lesson in reading a text closely and then actually retaining what you've read. Something I'm not very good at, I suppose!

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys , I realise that this is a bit late but your conversatio really interested me. I am struggling with some teaching on healing right now and listening to Bill Johnson. His contention is that sickness is not from God but is the work of the devil. Therefore the scriptures, "by his stripes we are healed" and psalm 103 "he heals all your diseases" work with Christs coming to make healing available to Jesus followers. Bethel is certainly seeing some fruit in this area.

My question is that if physical death was part of the creation order then why does God heal our diseases? How long is long enough to live? Do we attribute cancer and strokes to Satan as the destroyer or God as the one who built us to decay? Having recently watched my Dad have a long painful and protracted death through cancer its hard to view that as a prrfect creation.

sorry the thoughts are rambling but your input would be helpful. God bless