Death before the fall — an old-Earth Biblical perspective
The topic of death before Adam’s fall into sin is a common area of debate between Christians who accept an old Earth and those who insist that the Bible requires a young Earth. Old-Earth creationists (whether or not they are theistic evolutionists) have to accept animal death before the fall. After all, the fossil record records hundreds of millions of years of animal fossils, all of which are certainly quite dead. Young-Earth creationists (YECs) say that there was no death before the fall, and this is part of their theological proof that Earth must be young.
So what does the Bible say? Here is my Biblical defense of animal death before the fall:
- Neither Genesis 3, Romans 5, Romans 8, nor 1 Corinthians 15 (the passages most commonly used by YECs) say anything at all about animal death. These passages refer specifically to human death being the result of Adam’s sin. Reading animal death into these passages is an unnecessary extrapolation.
- YECs point to the curse in Genesis 3 as the origin of animal death. But just like in the other passages, Genesis 3 does not say that animal death is a result of the fall. Again, this is something that YECs read into the passage, rather than something that they draw out of the passage. The curse had some sort of effect on the human relationship with creation (the futility and difficulty of work), but it was not necessarily a radical re-ordering of the creation as YECs insist. A related passage is Romans 8:20-22, which states that the whole creation groans. Just like in Genesis 3, the passage does not state the nature of that groaning, and it doesn’t necessarily include death.
- YECs often seem to assume that the entire Earth was the Garden of Eden, or that it was Heaven. On the other hand, the opening chapters of Genesis depict Eden as a limited geographic place somewhere in Mesopotamia, set apart from the wild lands outside of the garden. The lands outside of the garden could certainly have been a place where death (and predation) occurred as a warning to Adam and Eve of what would happen if they disobeyed. Without this visible illustration of what it meant to die, God’s statement that they would certainly die if they disobeyed could have been meaningless to Adam and Eve.
- We assume that in the pre-Fall world, God was only glorified by cute, gentle things like bunnies and daisies. But in the Scriptures, predation is portrayed as something that glorifies God (Job and Psalms (e.g. Ps 104:21)). There is no indication in these passages that something is wrong with the creation.
- Another indication from the Garden of Eden that animal death could have occurred before the fall is the nature of the Tree of Life. In Genesis, the Tree of Life is provided so that humans could eat of it (one time? on an ongoing basis?) and live forever. There is no indication that the Tree of Life was provided also for animals. So, if we listen to the YEC line of reasoning, humans needed the Tree of Life to live forever, but animals did not.
- Even after the curse of Genesis 3, God never revoked the “goodness” of creation (1 Tim 4:4). We live in a world with animal death, and yet God calls it “good.”
- What would carnivorous animals have eaten if they were forbidden to eat other animals? Many carnivores are very specialized for eating and digesting only other animals and would die on a plant-only diet. Consider animals such as the leach, anteater, or T-rex (no, I don’t buy the YEC ideas that T-rex teeth were designed to crush thick-rinded melons). As I said earlier, predation in the Psalms and Job is something that brings glory to God. Additionally, there is no Scriptural indication that there was a massive re-creation of animals either after the fall or after the flood to make them into predators.
I haven’t even touched on the scientific problems of there being no animal death before the fall, even within the YEC scenario.
These arguments may not convince hard-core YECs, but I hope I have at least shown that “no death before the fall” doesn’t necessarily flow out of the pages of Scripture, and that other Biblical understandings of animal death are possible.
Grace and Peace