Animal Death before Human Sin

Adam and Eve, The Fall, and God's Wonderful Plan
(for changing sin and death into salvation and life)
that works whether the earth is young or old.

Does the Bible really teach that there was
no animal death before human sin?

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.
 

 

      Here is a 5-Minute Summary, with a young-earth claim by two prominent advocates and a Bible-based response by me:

      John Morris says, "Here is the problem.  If death existed before Adam, then death is not the penalty for sin.  How, then, did Christ's death pay the penalty for our sin?  If death is not tied to Adam’s sin, then life is not tied to Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Christian faith is all in vain."  {from Death before Sin? with emphasis added by me}
     Ken Ham says, "As soon as people allow for millions of years, they allow for the fossil record to be millions of years old... [with] the death of billions of creatures. ... The Bible is adamant though, that death, disease, and suffering came into the world as a result of sin.  God instituted death and bloodshed because of sin so man could be redeemed.  As soon as Christians allow for death, suffering, and disease before sin, then the whole foundations of the message of the Cross and the Atonement have been destroyed. ... If there were death, disease, and suffering before Adam rebelled — then what did sin do to the world? ... The whole message of the gospel falls apart if one allows millions of years for the creation of the world."  {from The necessity for believing in six literal days with emphasis added by me}

      John and Ken ask, "If death is not tied to Adam’s sin, ... then what did sin do to the world?" and the answer is clearly stated in Genesis 3:22 when God says "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.  He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever";  and the chapter ends with "a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life."   In five pages about sin-and-death by Morris and Ham, Genesis 3:22 is never cited, even though it is the most important verse in the Bible for understanding the origin of sin-and-death and its conversion, by the grace of God through Jesus, into salvation-and-life.
      They claim that "if death existed before Adam, then death is not the penalty for sin" and "death, disease, and suffering came into the world as a result of sin," thus implying that ALL death began in Genesis 3.   But in doing this they ignore God's clearly stated reason for removing the tree of life:  because Adam has sinned, "he must not be allowed to... live forever."  In Genesis 3:22 the new death penalty due to sin was for sinful humans (who had the potential to live forever through the power of God that was symbolized in a "tree of life") but it was not for animals (since they never had this potential).

      Let's look at our problem (sin and death) and God's solution (for converting sin and death into salvation and life) that will work whether the earth is young or old, despite claims that "if [animal] death existed before Adam... the Christian faith is all in vain" and "the whole foundations of the message of the Cross and the Atonement have been destroyed."
      In Genesis 3 the fall into sin, with Adam breaking his part of a conditional if-then covenant with God, produced three results:  inherent decrease in relationship with God to produce spiritual death, judicial penalty causing decrease in quality of life, and judicial penalty causing physical death due to the loss of supernaturally sustained everlasting life.  Through God's grace and power, the initial gift of full life (with relationship, quality, and immortality) was offered to Adam, but was lost by his sinful disobedience.
     Later, this gift of full life (with relationship, quality, and immortality) was won back for us by our savior.  Jesus Christ accepted the penalty of death that each of us earns by our sinful disobedience, and (by living in sinless obedience to the Father) Jesus earned the right to make His own everlasting life available, as a gift of grace, to all humans who will accept.
      The "tree of [everlasting] life" was (and will be) a supernatural gift from God, who gave the tree of life to humans (in Gen 2:9), temporarily removed it (Gen 3:22) due to the disobedient sin of humans, and will give it back to humans (Rev 2:7, 22:1-2,14) through the salvation that Jesus earned for humans and offers to us (John 3:16, Romans 6:23).  At that time, after our physical resurrection in heaven, God's goal of "no sin and no death" will be permanently actualized.
 


Advocates of young-earth views should be admired for their sincere desire to believe what they think the Bible teaches.  But they should seriously consider the possibility that their interpretation is unjustifiably rigid, and is wrong.   { If you think the Bible requires a young earth, I encourage you to read the rest of this page and Bible-based Theology for young-earth Christians. }

 
      Efficiency and Humility
      In addition to the theological questions summarized above, part of the appeal of a young earth is a human preference for elegance and efficiency, when we ask "Isn't a long process of creation a waste of time? Why use billions of years, instead of 144 hours?"  This question is based only on human aesthetic preference, and it has no theological significance.  But the virtue of humility, with respect to God, is important.
      God has plenty of resources, including time, and the evidence of nature strongly indicates that God — like a gardener lovingly caring for a garden, or a master potter carefully molding clay — really did take a long time to shape the creation, to gradually form its inhabitants along with the earth's geology and ecology.  And perhaps the process was pleasing: "Maybe God enjoys watching his universe operate.  Maybe he delights in seeing processes he has designed unfold.  Maybe a few billion years watching an incredibly intricate, complex, beautiful creation in exquisite operation does not strike him as a waste of time.  And maybe we should be a bit cautious about humanly decreeing that it would be. (Del Ratzsch, in The Battle of Beginnings)"  Instead of challenging God's wisdom by asking "Why did you waste billions of years?", it seems wise for us to adopt an appropriately humble attitude, "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:3, in the context of 36:22 to 42:6)"

 
      Animal Death before Human Sin
      Could animal death precede human sin?  In a process of old-earth creation, many animals would live and die.  Young-earth critics of old-earth theology claim that a loving God would not use this cruel process, and that "death before sin" is incompatible with the central Biblical doctrine (firmly established in Genesis 3, Romans 5,...) that death is the result of sin.
      Initially this argument seems impressive.  But when we look more closely, we see very little in the Bible about sin and animal death.  Instead, the focus is on people, with sin and death being enemies of humans, to be overcome by the sinless life and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   Animal death before human sin is not a theological problem if God's gift of eternal life through the supernatural "tree of life" (in Genesis 2-3) was available for humans in Eden, but not for animals before Eden.  Although a claim that "death is the result of sin" is correct, a claim that "human death is the result of human sin" (which is an old-earth view and also a young-earth view) is more justifiable than "all death is the result of human sin" (which is only a young-earth view). 
      A theology of "human death being allowed by God due to human sin" is consistent with the history of salvation:  a supernaturally enabled life without death (symbolized by the tree of life) was offered by God to humans (Genesis 2:9), was lost by Adam (Genesis 3:22), was regained for us by Jesus (I Corinthians 15:12-57), and will be actualized in the future (Revelation 2:7 & 22:2,14).   { This brief outline is examined in more detail below. }

      Supernatural Protective Power
      Ken Ham & Jonathan Sarfati, young-earth creationists who ask "Why is there death and suffering?" (*), help us understand why life is what it is now, after God decided to "give us what we asked for: a taste of life without God" because of our sinful disobedience.  They describe life with God's full protective power: "In the Old Testament, we get a glimpse of what the world is like when God upholds things one-hundred percent.  In Deuteronomy 29:5 and Nehemiah 9:21, we are told that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, and yet their clothes didn't wear out, their shoes didn't wear out and their feet didn't swell.  Obviously God miraculously upheld their clothing, shoes and feet so that they would not wear out or fall apart as the rest of the creation is doing.  One can only imagine what the world would be like if God upheld every detail of it like this.  /  The book of Daniel, chapter 3, gives us another glimpse, when we read about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walking into an intensely blazing furnace yet coming out without even the smell of smoke on their clothes.  When the Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of the universe, upheld their bodies and clothing in the midst of fire (v. 25), nothing could be hurt or destroyed."   {* This was on the web for free, but now it's only for sale.}
      The supernatural protective power provided by God can be either miraculous-appearing (as in the furnace, or viewing the Israelites for 40 years) or normal-appearing (as in viewing the Israelites for a short time), it can vary from partial protection to full protection, and during a stage of history it can be universal (applied to all of creation at all times) or selective (applied to only some parts of creation at some times), and it can be physical and/or spiritual.
      Although it might appear that "the laws of nature" were different in Eden — since the good aspects of natural process (allowing life and pleasure) were not being balanced by its bad aspects (allowing death and suffering) — this would not be necessary because nature is not governed by the "natural laws" that were designed by God and are being sustained by God.  Instead, God is governing nature by sovereignly determining the protective powers that He does and doesn't use during each stage of history and in each situation during a stage.  The sin of Adam broke his part of an if-then conditional covenantal relationship with God, and God decided to temporarily decrease the extent of His protective powers for humans.

      Protective Power in Two Views
      In the young-earth view of Ham & Sarfati, God provided full protective power for all of creation, from the beginning and into Eden.  After the disobedient sins of Eve and Adam, God decided to make the protective power only partial and selective, until the new creation when full protective power (and more) will be restored, as described in Revelation 21-22.  Ham's young-earth view of protective power during history is: full, partial, FULL.  { The "full protection" in Eden was physical but, since God allowed the fall into sin, was not spiritual;  by contrast, in heaven the "FULL protection" will be both physical and spiritual, with no possibility of falling into sin. }
      In my old-earth view, God provided full protective power in Eden for humans. (*)  After the disobedient sins of Eve and Adam, God decided to make His protective power only partial and selective, until the new creation when full protective power (and more) will be restored.  In all of this, Ham and I agree.  But unlike Ham, I think that before Eden the protective power was partial and selective (*) but was less than it is now because there were no humans to protect.  My old-earth view of protective power during history is: partial, full, partial, FULL.
      {* nephesh-animals inside Eden may have been fully protected, but maybe were not because the Bible says only that "the tree of life" was offered to humans}
      {* In pre-human formative history, did God provide any protective power?  Christians with old-earth views answer in a variety of ways (ranging from NO through MAYBE and PROBABLY to YES) but this is not an important theological question, so the table for three histories of death has "partial protection?" (with "?") as the answer. }

      from Current Bondage to Future Freedom
      A common young-earth claim is that the character of the entire creation changed, due to Adam's sin, from a state with no death to a state with death.  A passage often cited is Romans 8:18-25, "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:20-22, NIV)"
      But in this passage the present state of the creation, without full protective power, is being compared to a future state with "the glorious freedom of the children of God" as described in Revelation 21:4, when God "will wipe every tear from their eyes;  there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (NIV); ...the former things are passed away (KJV); ...the first things have passed away (NAS)"  Instead of saying "creation will be restored to its first state," John says "the first things have passed away," which does not support a young-earth claim that "clearly, this future state reflects the paradise that was once lost, not some imaginary land that never existed."  No, this claim is not clearly taught in the Bible.  Probably the paradise of Heaven will be similar to Eden in some ways, but not others.  And the Bible clearly teaches that God has enough imagination and power to create a wonderful paradise (with all of the characteristics He wants) "that never existed" but will exist in the future.

      Created Very Good for a Purpose
      To support a young-earth view, a commonly cited verse is Genesis 1:31, "And God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (NIV)"  When this is combined with a young-earth interpretation (which is not in the Biblical text) that "very good" means "no death," it seems to support a young-earth view.
      But it seems more probable that "very good" means "very good for achieving God's goals for the creation, especially for humans."  When Paul says that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" in Romans 8:28, "good" does not mean "no death, mourning, crying, or pain" because these do occur for those who love God.  Instead, "good" means "good for achieving God's goals for us, in this life and the next life."

      Three Results of Human Sin
      In Genesis 2:17, God says "you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."  In Genesis 3:6, tempted by a creature who already had fallen into sin and rebellion, Eve and Adam ate from this tree of knowledge, choosing to make moral decisions for themselves, independent from God, instead of trusting and obeying God.
      Their sinful disobedience had three results:  The immediate intrinsic result of disobedience was a loss of their innocence and their intimate relationship with God, so in Genesis 3:7-13 we see spiritual death.  Then two judicial results were decreed by God, in Gen 3:14-24.  The judicial penalty for sin begins with a decrease in quality of life (Gen 3:14-19,23) for humans.  And the ultimate penalty (Gen 3:22,24) allows physical death for humans after God removes the life-protecting tree of life:  God says, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.  He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."  The second sentence clearly explains the purpose of the action:  to prevent disobedient sinners from living forever, God removed "the tree of life."
      I think this tree symbolizes the supernatural full protective power that continually was being provided by God.  When the supernatural full protection was removed by God due to their sin, Adam and Eve began to perish, with natural processes gradually (during the "yom" of Genesis 2:17 that usually is translated as "day" but, as in Genesis 1, can also indicate a longer period of time) leading to their eventual death.  But even though Genesis 3:22 is a key to understanding God's plan of salvation, it is often ignored by Christians who think the earth is young, and also by some who think the earth is old.

      A Brief History of Sin and Salvation
      Let's look at our problem (sin and death) and God's solution (for converting sin and death into salvation and life).
      SIN and DEATH:  The fall into sin (in Genesis 3) produced three results, one intrinsic and two judicial:  a decrease in relationship with God, a decrease in quality of life, and a loss of everlasting life.  Through God's grace and power, the initial gift of life (with relationship, quality, and immortality) was offered to Adam, but was lost by his sinful disobedience.
      SALVATION and LIFE:  Later, this gift of life (with relationship, quality, and immortality) was won back for us by our savior.  Jesus Christ accepted the penalty of death that each of us earns by our sinful disobedience, and (by living in sinless obedience to the Father) Jesus earned the right to make His own Eternal Life available, as a gift of grace, to all humans who will accept: "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23)  The everlasting life taken from us temporarily in Genesis is given back to us permanently in Revelation: "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. ... Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city." (Revelation 2:7, 22:14)  At that time, after our resurrection in heaven, God's goal of "no sin and no death" will be permanently actualized.
      The "tree of [everlasting] life" was (and will be) a supernatural gift from God.  God gave the tree of life to humans (in Gen 2:9), temporarily removed it (Gen 3:22) due to the disobedient sin of humans, and will give it back to humans (Rev 2:7, 22:1-2,14) through the salvation that Jesus earned for humans and offers to us (John 3:16, Romans 6:23).

      Three Histories of Death
      In a page about Two Histories of Death, Ken Ham says "the battle between Creation and evolution, between young-Earth and old-Earth views, is a battle between two totally different histories of death," which are summarized in his two diagrams:

      His diagrams show only the histories proposed by young-earth Christianity (#1) and old-earth atheism (#2).  Even though old-earth Christianity agrees with #1 that "man's sin brought [human] death" and "death is a temporary part of history" and "death will be done away with" in a "future" with "no death", Ham claims that all old-earth views, including those of old-earth Christians, are described by #2.  Is this claim accurate?
      No, it isn't accurate, because there are three basic histories of death, not two.  The sections above — Animal Death before Human Sin, Miraculous Protective Power, from Bondage to Freedom, Created Very Good for a Purpose, Three Results of Human Sin, A Brief History of Sin and Salvation — explain why the essential beliefs of Christianity are the same whether the earth is young or old.  You can see this in the three histories, which are shown below in terms of the divine protection during four stages of history (in the billions of years before Eden, and in Eden, current history, and Heaven):

THREE WORLDVIEWS:
billions of years
in Eden
 in current history 
in Heaven 
 young-earth Christian 
(did not happen)
full protection
partial protection
FULL protection
old-earth Christian
 partial protection? 
 full protection 
 partial protection 
 FULL protection 
old-earth atheist
no divine protection (because God doesn't exist)
 (will not happen

      Notice that the two Christian views are almost identical;  they differ only in the first stage of history, the billions of years before Eden that "did not happen" in a young-earth view.  By contrast, notice the major differences in the two old-earth views, Christian and atheist;  they agree only that animal deaths occurred during the billions of years before Eden.

      Questionable Criticisms
      I agree with much of what Ken Ham & Jonathan Sarfati say when they answer an important question — Why is there death and suffering? — but I disagree when they criticize old-earth Christianity by claiming it is theologically inconsistent:
      "As soon as Christians allow for death, suffering and disease before Adam's sin (which they automatically must if they believe in millions of years), then they've raised a serious question about their Gospel message.  [1] What, then, has sin done to the world?  According to Christian teaching, death is the penalty for sin (Romans 6:23) — and this fact is the foundation of the Gospel!  [2] Moreover, how can all things be 'restored' to a state with no death, pain or tears in the future (Revelation 21:4) if there never was a time free of death and suffering?  [3] The whole message of the Gospel falls apart if you have this view of history.  [4] It also would mean that God is to blame for death."  { I've added the claim-markers, [1] [2] [3] [4]. }
      Here are four comments about these claims:
      1. Yes, I agree that "death is the penalty for sin" because in a Christian worldview (either young-earth or old-earth) our current experiencing of human death is due to God's decision (Genesis 3:22) to remove some of His protective power because a human "must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."  This death penalty is explained in the introductory 5-minute summary.
      2. As explained earlier, "God has enough imagination and power to create a wonderful paradise... 'that never existed' but will exist in the future."  And as an old-earth Christian, I believe in God's "full protective power" that prevented human death and suffering in Eden, and "FULL protective power" that in heaven will prevent human death and suffering and will also (by contrast with Eden) prevent our fall into sin.
      3. For all Christians, whether we think the earth is young or old, the essential Gospel is the same:  We acknowledge the realities of personal sin and human death, and thus our need for a savior;  we believe that Jesus (through His sinless life, substitutionary atonement on the cross, and victory over death in resurrection) is our Savior;  and we accept the gift of grace (John 3:16 and Romans 6:20-23) offered by God.  The "whole message of the Gospel" does not "fall apart" with "this view of history" because the full gospel of Jesus — including His deity, virgin birth, teachings and miracles, sinless obedience to the Father in life, substitutionary atonement in death, victorious resurrection, ascension into heaven, and second coming — is fully compatible with a young earth or old earth.
      4. In either Christian view, young earth or old earth, the current cause of human death — which occurs because, in a judicial response to human sin, God decided to temporarily remove some of His protective power (Genesis 3:22) and allow human death — is the same.  And in both views, eventually God will restore His full protective power in Heaven, and there will be no sin, suffering, or death.
 


APPENDIX

      Death in Nature
 
    The death of animals seems to be a necessary part of natural ecology on earth.  If every animal lived forever, eventually either there could be no more reproduction, or the number of animals would increase so much that there would be a depletion of natural resources.  A healthy ecological system depends on a continuing cycle of new life followed eventually by death, and more new life.
      The ecological function of death raises important questions.  Young-earth responses are satisfactory in principle, because although death is necessary in nature as we see it now, this nature is not the only world that is possible.  For example, the new creation (Revelation 21-22) will operate with no death, so the original nature could have been designed, as young-earth creationists suggest, so it had a different ecology and could operate without death.  But the fossil record, which clearly shows animal death for millions of years before human sin, indicates that even though an "ecology without death" could occur in principle, it did not occur in reality, in the actual history of the earth.
      And in response to other questions about vegetarianism and natural lifespans, one young-earth proposal (which seems reasonable) is that plants, bacteria, and lower animals (insects,...) have a much lower level of mental ability and consciousness, so even if some of these died (to be used for food, or due to a short lifespan) after being created but before Adam's sin, this would not cause any difficulties for a young-earth claim that there was no death of higher animals (of soulish nephesh-creatures) before human sin.

      Were all animals vegetarians?
 
    A young-earth theology of "no death before sin" claims support from Genesis 1:29-30, "Then God said, 'I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it.  They will be yours for food.  And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground — everything that has the breath of life in it — I give every green plant for food.'  And it was so."  But this claim requires an unjustifiable assumption that "I give every green plant for food" (in the Bible) really means "I give only green plants for food" (not in the Bible).  This passage allows a vegetarian diet for animals and humans, but does not require it. *  Perhaps the main function of this passage is to serve as part of a logical "topical history" framework (to produce a parallel, in Genesis 1, between Days 3 and 6, when plants-and-trees were created and were used) and maybe to also set a context for the importance of the two trees in Genesis 2-3.
      * Genesis 9:3 seems to indicate that, until after Noah's flood, God wanted humans to be vegetarians, but most of this time span (from Gen 3:6 to Gen 9:3) is after the fall into sin, thus weakening any theory about a causal connection between sin and the change of divinely endorsed diet.
      But if all animals were intended to eat only plants, why were some animals designed with carniverous features (sharp teeth,...) that are useful for killing other animals and eating meat?  This is a difficult question, but perhaps young-earth answers are satisfactory, at least in principle.  One possible answer, proposed by John Morris and Ham/Sarfati/Wieland, is that after Adam's sin, God changed some animals using a "creation by genetic modification" that is similar to the divine action proposed in my theory of old-earth creation by miraculous-appearing genetic modification.  But again, as with "Death in Nature" above, the fossil record provides abundant evidence against this young-earth theory, so "in principle" and "in reality" are different.

      Apparent Age (as a byproduct of time-efficient creation)
      This is a theological reason to think the creation occurred billions of years ago.
      IF everything was created recently in a 144-hour period, then some appearance of age would be necessary to produce immediate functionality.  But the universe includes many historical details that would not be necessary for immediate functioning, and that (according to a popular version of "apparent age" theory) never really occurred.  Therefore, we should think about another claim involving if-then logic:  IF God wants to avoid misleading us with false history in which there is detailed evidence for events that never occurred, then He will create a universe that is old, so it can actually be the age it appears to be.   {more about Apparent Age}




 
This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
 a NON-ITALICIZED LINK opens another page.  Both keep everything inside this window, 
so your browser's BACK-button will always take you back to where you were.

Here are other related pages:

This page is
http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/death-cr.htm

Copyright © 2003 by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved

SEARCH THE WEBSITE