When one moves away from a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11, there are a number of theological questions that have to be answered. How long is a “day” of creation? Were Adam and Eve actual, historical persons? Were they the very first man and woman? Did God create them de novo, or did He adopt a couple of hominids whose bodies were the result of evolution?
These last three questions have been the subject of much debate in recent days. But there is another question that should be addressed: Was there death before the Fall? To be honest, this is not a question that had occurred to me until recently. For most young-earth creationists, the easy answer is “no.” However, for many Christians who believe in an old earth and long ages, it’s a valid question.
If there were long ages of time, millions and millions of years (at least), there must have been death of some kind. If animals and humans are the result of evolution and natural selection (even God directed), then death is a necessary part of that. How do you reconcile what Scripture teaches about the origin of death with the necessity of death as part of the process of creation? Here are a selection of quotes from several scholars on how they answer the question of death before the Fall:
God’s estimation that it is “good” does not mean that it is consummately perfect; both surd and moral evil are already in existence. One can infer that prior to the Fall, decay existed in the flora because humans and animals were to eat it (Gen. 1:29-30), and wild animals (carnivores) that kill prey were also present among the species of fauna (1:30; 2:19). the biblical text represents the human, not the animal, realm as punished with death through Adam’s fall (Gen. 3:19; Rom. 5;12-19). The analogy between Adam and Christ also pertains to the human, not the animal, realm: as Adam brought death to all humanity, Christ brings life to all believers, not to animals. Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 184
If we think that animal death would be a blot on the goodness of creation, we’re out of step with Psalm 104. But we have no reason to believe that the Bible teaches that no animal died before the fall. Remember, as we saw in the last chapter that Genesis 2:17 (“for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”) was spoken directly to Adam: its “you” is singular. Then when Eve shows that she considers herself under the same threat (3:3), the “you” is plural – but it refers still to the human couple, not to anyone else. When we further remember just what this “death” is – spiritual death, alienation from God – we see as well that this penalty is for man (though it may have effects on the beasts, as we’ll see later.) Jack Collins, Science and Faith, 156
[W]e have no biblical warrant for arguing that animal death was the result of man’s fall, or that no animal ate another before then. This means that there is no theological objection to the possibility that fossils are the remains of animals that died before Adam was even created.
Along these lines, we can say that animal death is not part of the problem of evil. Not even when some kind of animal goes extinct is it really an evil – so long as it came from nature doing its own thing and not from humans’ sinful exploitation of the world. That means that when people try to argue for a young earth by saying that an old earth involves evil (especially animals dying), or when others argue against believing in God at all in view of “nature red in tooth and claw,” they are making a theological mistake. Jack Collins, Science and Faith, 162
But there is another question that looms over the others. In this model, how could there have
been suffering and death before the fall? Some answer may be in the second verse of the Bible, where we are told that ‘the earth was without form’ and was filled with darkness and chaos. Most traditional interpreters believe that God initially made the world in this ‘formless’ state and then proceeded to subdue the disorder through the creative process of separation, elaboration, and development depicted in Genesis 1.
However, even this traditional interpretation means that there was not perfect order and peace in creation from the first moment. Also, Satan seems to have been present in the world before the Fall. What makes us think that Satan and demons were not in the world before the moment the serpent appears? One of the biggest unanswered (and unanswerable) theological
questions is—what was Satan doing there? By definition, if Satan was somewhere in the world, it was not all a perfect place.
Traditional theology has never believed that humanity and the world in Genesis 2-3 was in a
glorified, perfect state. Augustine taught that Adam and Eve were posse non peccare (able not to sin) but they fell into the state of non posse non peccare (not able not to sin). In our final state of full salvation, however, we will be non posse peccare (not capable of sinning.) Eden was not the
consummated world of the future. Some have pointed out that in the Garden of Eden that there would have had to be some kind of death and decay or fruit would not have been edible. Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” 11-12
In the standard picture of biological evolution embraced by BioLogos there exists insurmountable evidence of death before the Fall. Humans appear very late in the history of life, so the fossil record clearly shows that many creatures died before humans appeared. In fact, compelling evidence exists that many entire species had already become extinct. Dinosaurs are the most famous example, but there are thousands of others. However, the curse of Genesis 3 was that Adam and Eve, and not animals, should die. Therefore, the animal death that BioLogos acknowledges is entirely compatible with Christian doctrine. It can even be argued that Adam must have been familiar with the reality of animal death, or he would not have understood God’s warning. Granting that animal death before the Fall is consistent with Christian doctrine, we consider the question of human death before the Fall.
One interpretation contends Adam and Eve experienced spiritual death as a result of their disobedience. The physical death of humans is thus not a result of the Fall and could therefore have occurred beforehand. …
In this way we might distinguish between Homo sapiens and the image-bearing creatures that we might call Homo divinus. While Homo sapiens might have a similar body structure or physical capabilities of Homo divinus, the latter exists in God’s image.
With this critically important distinction, BioLogos is thus compatible with the belief that part of Adam’s curse was the onset of physical death for the human race, because the human race in the full Imago Dei really began with Adam. Although many human-like creatures lived and died before the Fall, these Homo sapiens did not yet bear the image of God. After the bestowal of God’s image, there was no death of Homo divinus until after the Fall. As soon as image-bearing humanity fully emerged through God’s creative process of evolution, no member of that species experienced death until after the Fall. Peter Enns, BioLogos Foundation
Some might object that if the material phase had been carried out for long ages prior to the seven days of Genesis, there would be a problem about death. Romans 5:12 states unequivocally, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” Interpreters have inferred from this verse that there was no death at any level prior to the Fall, the entrance of sin. But we should notice that the verse does not say that. Paul is talking about how death came to people – why all of humanity is subject to death. Just because death came to us because of sin, does not mean that death did not exist at any level prior to the Fall. John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 99
Modern science has amply demonstrated that phenomena such as predation, death, and the extinction of the species have been intrinsic and even necessary aspects of life on earth for billions of years, long before the arrival of Homo sapiens. …
Recent research in molecular biology, primatology, sociobiology, and phylogenetics indicates that the species Homo sapiens cannot be traced back to a single pair of individuals, and that the earliest human beings did not come on the scene in anything like paradisal physical or moral conditions. It is therefore difficult to read Genesis 1-3 as a factual account of human origins. …
We must trust that God created the kind of world that he did because an evolutionary process involving selfishness, suffering, and death was the only way to bring about such creaturely values as novelty, complexity, and freedom. Daniel Harlow, “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, volume 62, number 3 (Sept. 2010), 179-193
For it seems, on this science, that not just natural evils, such as animal suffering and violent episodes in nature, but also the disposition for human moral evils, are practically part of God’s original design. …
One part of this conflict between evolutionary science and the Christian doctrine of a historical Fall is old hat by now, and the new genomic science merely intensifies the problem at a microgenetic level. It is that Genesis and premodern Christian tradition attribute quite a list of unpleasant and peculiar things in nature to the occurrence of a historical Fall of human beings. The trouble is that paleoscience overwhelmingly proves that labor pains, the locomotion of snakes, predation, deadly diseases, mass extinction, thorn plants and weeds, and violent natural events existed for millennia before the existence of the first humans. Thus, they cannot be the consequence of a “curse” that God placed on the creation as punishment for human sin. John Schneider, “Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An ‘Aesthetic Supralapsarianism'”