That said, the question of when death on the Earth began can have implications that affect our understanding of various questions in Creation science. It is clear, biblically, that humans would not have died had they not sinned (Genesis 3:22), but what of the rest of the Creation? If animal death could occur before the Fall (i.e., before Adam and Eve’s first sin), for example, then we would have to assume that death was a design feature of the planet from the beginning, rather than being a part of the Curse placed upon the Earth as a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:17-19). This concept could affect creationists’ attempts to understand cases of so called “natural evil,” where, for example, various living things seem to have been designed to kill (e.g., parasitoids, pathogens, and phages). If all death was solely a result of the Fall, then we would assume that such cases of “natural evil” were not part of God’s original design, but were part of the Curse. If death could, in fact, occur prior to the Fall, then a different response to some forms of “natural evil” might be more relevant (e.g., microevolution and/or diversification, displacement from intended habitat, or degeneration), although some forms of “natural evil” still might have been directly due to the Curse.
Also, if death could occur before the Fall, there might be implications of that fact when we examine the fossil record. Creationists generally interpret the bulk of the fossils that are found at the base of the fossil record to be a result of the Flood, since it is thought to be the first major catastrophic event in Earth history. It is thought that only local catastrophes happened in the 16 centuries up to the Flood. If death could occur prior to the Fall, however, then there may be another catastrophic event of global proportions that could be relevant when studying the fossil record as well: day three.
According to Genesis chapter one, prior to day three of the Creation week, the Earth was covered with water. On day three, God created the dry land and then created grass, seed-bearing herbs, fruit trees—the plants. Swimming and flying creatures were created on day five, and finally, land life on day six. It is easy for us to read through this simplified narrative of what God did on those four days without stopping to consider the possible geologic implications of His activity. On day three, God said, “‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear’; and it was so” (Genesis 1:9). This passage may be saying that God, in essence, scraped the surface of the ocean floor, piling up a massive amount of Earth to cause some of it to be exposed from the water, forming land.2 If so, it seems likely that mudslides would have occurred over the next several hours and possibly days, due to the wet material from the ocean floor being raised in elevation and water rapidly running off the continental surface. This activity could have begun the fossilization process of some of the plants and aquatic creatures created on days three and five, respectively. There are other options that would not have caused such mudslides,3 but the point is that the Creation scientist must at least consider the possibility that the earliest fossils in the record were a result of day-three activity.
So could there have been death prior to the Fall? And if so, are there theological implications? First, we know that plants were certainly able to die before the Fall, because they were to serve as food for humans and animals throughout the Earth (Genesis 1:30). Nobody seems to dispute that truth. It is argued, however, that plants are not thought to be “alive” in the same sense as animals. Unlike animals and humans, plants are never described as being “living creatures” (nephesh chayyah).4 God seemed to be making a distinction between kinds of life in Genesis 1:30 when He said, “Also, to every beast of the Earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the Earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food” (emp. added). While that is true, it is also true that plants can die in some sense (Job 14:7-12; John 12:24),5 which tells us that not all death must necessarily be regarded in a negative light.
It is true that Adam, Eve, the flying creatures, and the land animals were told by God originally to be herbivores (Genesis 1:29-30).6 So it is clear that it was not part of God’s original design plan for there to be bloodshed by the hand of another, at least among humans, birds, creeping things, and the “beast of the Earth” (apparently the land animals created on day six, Genesis 1:24-25,29-30). But that does not mean that catastrophic activity, natural disasters, or natural death could not have still killed animals. Some argue that God’s creation could not have been “very good” (Genesis 1:31) if animals could suffer and die, since the creation was perfect.7 But this assumes (1) that animals, which are soul-less beings,8 can truly suffer in the same way humans can; and (2) that the creation could not still be “very good” and there be death. We have already seen that due to the occurrence of pre-Fall plant death, the creation could still be deemed as “very good” by God, even with death occurring simultaneously. So the question then becomes, what did God mean by calling the creation “very good,” and what kind of death, if any, would not have been considered “very good” to God? It seems logical to infer that a “very good” creation simply meant that the created order was exactly as God intended for it to be, whatever that might be—death or no death. As one Creation scientist acknowledged concerning the pre-Fall world, “Although the pre-Fall world was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31), it was not ‘perfect’ (i.e., it did not exhibit every meaning of ‘perfect’).”9 What kind of death was a part of that “very good” creation must be gleaned, if possible, from the text.
It is argued that “Death is ‘the last enemy’ (1 Corinthians 15:26) which Jesus Christ came and died to defeat. And this would include animal death.”10 In the context of 1 Corinthians 15, however, Paul is not including animals in referencing the defeat of death, but rather, humans—those capable of sin (vs. 17).
Isaiah 11:6 is sometimes quoted as evidence that there was no animal death prior to the Fall.11 “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” The claim is that in the end, God will restore on Earth the conditions that were in effect in the Garden, where animals were not violent towards one another. Once again, however, in context we see that Isaiah 11 is a Messianic prophecy (cf. vss. 1-5), discussing the coming of Jesus and His kingdom in the first century using highly figurative, not literal, terminology. Isaiah may have simply been referring to the peace and harmony that would exist in the coming Church. In Christianity, for instance, those once viewed as predators—ferocious wolves, leopards, and young lions—are often found dwelling peaceably with those who would have once been their prey. If we understand Isaiah 11 to refer to the coming of Christ and the Christian dispensation, therefore, we could reasonably conclude that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled when the Kingdom (i.e., the Church12) was established in Acts 2.13
It is also argued that God’s Curse after the Fall included the animals according to Genesis 3, and by implication, humanity’s death curse would have applied to the animals at that point as well.14 But that assertion is an assumption—the text does not say that was the case. Second, the serpent was, indeed, “cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field” (Genesis 3:14), implying that the animals were all cursed, though not as much as the serpent. But it is also true that the plants were included in the Curse as well (vss. 17-18), and we have already seen that they were capable of death prior to the Fall.
Arguments have been made from various passages that tell us death was a result of sin (Romans 5:12-21), that shedding blood is necessary for the remission of sin, but would not have been necessary, by implication, without sin (Hebrews 9:22), and that Christ’s physical death and resurrection made it possible for physical death, initiated by Adam and Eve, to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:21,22,26).15 Such passages, however, contextually, are talking about mankind, not animals, which are not imputed with sin. It is argued that Romans 8:19-22 indicates that the “whole creation”—which is thought to include the animals—suffers, groans, labors, and is under a bondage of corruption (vss. 21-22) due to man’s sin, and therefore, that the whole creation would not have so suffered prior to man’s sin—i.e., animals would not have suffered death.16 In the end, however, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (vs. 21, ESV), apparently returning to a pre-Fall state. Understand that there is considerable argument over the meaning of the word “creation” in Romans 8—whether or not it is referring to all of the created order, or merely humans. To base an entire argument on such a disputed passage would be unwise, to say the least. It could be argued from the context, that “creation” is referring to humans—the only ones who can “eagerly wait for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). More specifically, the “whole creation” (vs. 22) could be referring to mankind in general (which “labors with birth pangs,” referring back to the punishment which female humans would have due to Eve’s sin), while “creation” (vss. 19,20,21) could be referring to Christians—i.e., the “sons of God” whom Paul has been discussing in the preceding verses. After all, “whole creation” is used in precisely that way—to mean mankind in general—elsewhere in Scripture. In Mark 16:15 (ESV), for example, Jesus tells the apostles to go preach the gospel to the “whole creation,” which is another way of saying to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and does not include animals. Regardless, Romans 8 cannot be used as conclusive evidence that animals did not die prior to the Fall.
The hallmark passage that seems to be used to try to sustain the idea that death did not occur prior to Adam and Eve is Romans 5:12-19:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—(For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses…). Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous (emp. added).
Notice that, contextually, while this passage does discuss death as being a result of sin, it is clearly referring to humans and the effect of sin with regard to mankind, not animals. It was humans, not animals, that were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), giving them the capacity to sin.
A passage that provides weight to the viewpoint that animals could die prior to the Fall is Genesis 3:22-24. After Adam and Eve sinned and God confronted them, pronouncing their punishments and making modest clothes for them, the text says:
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden…and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the Tree of Life (emp. added).
Notice from this text that man’s ability to live forever was not a direct miraculous act by God, or something inherent in the physical body of mankind (i.e., part of God’s original design of the human body), but rather, was coupled with his eating from the Tree of Life, which apparently possessed miraculous healing qualities (cf. Revelation 22:2). The implication is that Adam and Eve could have still lived forever, even after sinning, if they were able to access the Tree of Life and eat from it. That is the very reason why God used cherubim and a flaming sword to guard Eden and the tree. A further implication is that physical death was always possible from the beginning for anyone (and apparently, anything) that did not eat of the Tree of Life —i.e., entropy or the Second Law of Thermodynamics was in place from the beginning, governing the Earth. Adam and Eve were able to eat from the anti-entropy tree and not be subject to the effects of the Second Law; but without it, the effects of God’s natural laws would have taken their course.
With that understanding in mind, what are the implications for the rest of the living beings on the planet? A straightforward reading of the text in Genesis 2:9 and 3:22,24 leads us to believe that God made and placed in the Garden a single fruit tree that, unlike the other fruit trees throughout the Garden that humans and living creatures could eat from, had physical life-giving qualities tied to it. Any living being that did not eat from that Tree would apparently eventually suffer physical death—hence, the name given to it: “the Tree of Life.” If so, could the animals which were created throughout the Earth, which could not reach the Tree of Life to eat it, live forever? Could the swimming creatures that God had created on day five eat from the tree? If not, then how could they live forever? What about all of the animals that God created, surely spread out over the Earth, playing the crucial roles for the Earth for which God designed them? Were they able to access the Tree of Life and live forever? Surely not. If we suppose that perhaps animals could live forever apart from the Tree of Life prior to the Fall, we would be going beyond the clear message of the text regarding the nature of the Tree. God seemed to want to emphasize in Scripture the fact that He tied eternal life to the Tree of Life.17 One would need more biblical evidence before arguing that the animals received eternal life apart from the Tree. If humans needed the Tree to live forever and were denied access to it after the Fall, it seems logical to conclude that the animals were affected in the same way.
With this understanding about life and death in place, it becomes important to consider the possibility that some of the fossils in the record could have been from day-three activity. We can also see that some cases of “natural evil” among the animals may have been in place from the beginning. Calling such cases “natural evil” is, therefore, not appropriate. It cannot be said to be “evil” at all, if it was part of God’s design for those creatures all along.
The world was designed to serve as a “vale of soul-making”18 for humans. It was intended to prepare them for the afterlife, giving them an opportunity to make their choice about where they will spend eternity. A fundamental component of that design for the Universe is life and death. As part of our studies on Earth, while preparing for the afterlife, God seems to want us to understand life and death and their ramifications. We simply cannot escape death. Everywhere we look, whether by the naked eye or when studying bacteria under a microscope, we are reminded of mortality. It is clearly important to God for humans to acknowledge the reality of death. It appears that even before their first sin, Adam and Eve were capable of observing the evidence around them that death was a real thing—that God knew what He was talking about. They could know, by His mercy, they were not being subjected to death. They could understand the concept about which God was warning them: “in the day that you eat of it, you [also—JM] shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). When they sat on an ant, it could die. When a sauropod dinosaur stepped on a snake, the snake was not protected from death by a force field. Rather, the dinosaur’s weight would most certainly crush it, in harmony with God’s natural laws.
A wise man certainly “regards the life of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10), but he also understands that humans are different from animals. According to Jesus, we are “of more value” than them (Matthew 6:26; 10:31; 12:12; Luke 12:24). Those who submit to the will of God in faith will be able to live forever, spiritually (John 3:16); but not the animals. They were never intended to live forever. They serve as a reminder that we should seek life (John 10:10).