Death before the Fall

Three times in the last week, I’ve encountered YEC objections to old-earth thinking in general, and Genealogical Adam and Eve in particular, that stress the theological importance of the direct relationship between sin and death. One of these was in one of the few negative comments on Josh Swamidass’s YouTube interview (a good watch), one was from a scholar into whose correspondence I was copied, and one was from another Christian academic in a video on another topic.

In my last book God’s Good Earth I expended some effort on dealing with death before the Fall from several angles. The whole central section of the book assembles passages from many of the Church’s theologians from the Fathers onwards, showing that they saw death as implicit in our perishable material creation, its theological significance being restricted to mankind.

I also showed some of the Scriptural evidence for this, especially the lack of any good biblical support for a natural creation that changed radically after the Fall. And I also showed how, scientifically speaking, it is simply impossible to conceive of our kind of world operating without the natural cycle of death and rebirth. Quite apart from anything else, insects are so prolific that they would bury the world within a year or two without predation. And that simply by obeying God’s creation ordinance to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. That, in my view, is why the apparent universal abolition of perishability in the age to come demands an entirely new, spiritual, creation, for which the sole manifestation so far is the resurrection body of the Lord.

But given the broad scope of the book I didn’t specifically address the exegetical reasons why the no-death-before-the-Fall position is in error, whilst its recognition of the theological importance of death in relation to sin is correct, and needs to be fully recognised if creationists are to make peace with science. So I am here going to address the meaning of Scripture, which is the basis for the most serious YEC objection to GAE.

I’m not interested in addressing the “Yuk factor” supportive arguments for their teaching, such as how horrible it is to think of Adam walking on the dead bodies of millions of extinct species when the world was said to be good. For “death-as-an-unmitigated-evil” depends on the theological connection between sin and death. Actually, death overall can be said to have many benefits, from a good fillet steak to the direct link in some species (for example spirochaete worms and mayflies) between death and abundant rebirth.

So to business. The key passage on which to link death and the Fall is Romans 5:12:

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.

Corroboration for this comes later, in 6:23:

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It seems reasonable to suppose from this last sentence that, since death is the wage of sin, without the “work” of sin, there could be no such wage.

Now, in 5:12 Paul either means “death” in an absolute, or in a restricted sense. If absolute, then he means that until sin, death simply did not exist in God’s creation. If restricted, then we need to investigate the scope of this particular use of “death.”

In fact, the Romans 5 passage itself immediately provides some controlling context. For in the same sentence the result of Adam’s sin bringing death into the world is that “in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” This verse on its own, then, is interested only in human death as the result of human sin. It is completely unwarranted to insist that the word “world” universalises this introduction of death throughout the whole created order. Indeed, up to this point in Romans, every instance of the word “world” (cosmos) bar one (1:20) has referred to the world of man (1:8; 3:6; 3:19; 4:13).

But the same human-orientated meaning is clearly implicit in 6:23 too. I as a son of Adam die because of my sin, as surely as day-labour earns a wage. But just as none of my wages as a labourer goes to you, neither do you deserve death because I have earned it through my sin. “Death came to all men, because all men sinned.” It is true (in my view) that the whole of humanity participates in Adam’s original sin, but that is irrelevant to the “wage” analogy: as Deut 24:16 says:

The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children for the fathers, but every one shall die for his own sin.

If my wages of sin are not imputed to other people, it is very hard to see on what grounds they might be imputed to the animal kingdom, which is not capable of sin, unless you are going to tell me that sheep sin by eating grass, and sloths from nibbling leaves (and doing very little else at all).

But there is more evidence that Paul’s use of “death” in Rom 5:12 is not intended to be universal. Jesus said:

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. (John 12:24)

The ancient belief that the means by which a seed germinates involves its death was real, not metaphorical, and pretty well universal even until recent times. One of the most popular traditional folk songs, because it celebrates the production of beer and ale, is “John Barleycorn,” which begins:

There was three men come out o’ the west their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die,
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throwed clods upon his head,
Til these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead.

Now, one may object that Jesus, as the all-creating Word of God, was fully aware of the continuing cellular life in a seed that we now recognise from biology, and was merely accommodating his parable to the understanding of his audience. But that is the whole point: his audience of faithful Jews believed that seeds only worked by their death. Since God created the seed-bearing plants in Genesis 1 and gave them to mankind as food (Gen 1:29), and since Adam was placed in the garden to cultivate it, they also believed that plants could die, and that they did so before the Fall not only by being eaten, but (specifically) in their germination.

Now, Paul wrote Romans only three decades later for people with the same general beliefs about nature, and so he was well aware that his readers understood (a) that plants died before the Fall, and (b) that they are therefore not included in what he means in Rom 5:12.

To which the only reply I can think of from the YEC critic is that of course Paul does not mean plant death, but only animal death. But on what warrant, having been forced to give ground on the universal meaning of “death” in Romans 5-6, does the YEC arbitrarily exclude plants but include animals within Paul’s restricted meaning, when (as I have shown) the context is clearly about the linkage between human sin and human death?

Romans 5-6, therefore, can by no means ground a theology of an imperishable creation before the Fall, though the introduction by Adam of both sin and death to his progeny – the whole world of men, as Paul has already argued – is clearly taught here. And this conclusion is fully compatible with the Genealogical Adam paradigm.

In Generations of Heaven and Earth I put some theological flesh on the distinction between the “sin/death” of Romans 5 and the natural death that has always been part of the goodness of the Genesis 1 creation, as was recognised by all the great theologians of the first 1500 years of Christianity. I do so through the medium of a thorough biblical theology, which recognises that the significance of Adam, in Genesis 2, lies in his intended role not as the first man in the old creation, but as the forerunner of a new creation, in which the eternal life of God (illustrated by the tree of life) is part of the transformation by which, in a new way, “the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”

Only in the sacred space of Eden could a being of mere dust escape the perishability of the material creation and participate in the eternal life of God. And only through the command-covenant relationship established in Eden did the archetypal Man become capable of sin that would forfeit his share of eternal life (by his exile back to the earth outside the garden, from which he had been formed).

And so it was that death came into a world that had been altered for ever by the thwarted irruption of the new creation in Eden, through one man. That world is our world – the world of Adam, which is the only world with which the Bible is concerned, for it is the world from which we need to be delivered by Christ, so that we can regain our place in the new, and imperishable, world to come.

So I argue that not only is the “no death before the Fall” position, though held for legitimate theological reasons by its most serious proponents, incompatible with science (and so loses Christianity’s essential connection with real history, as I argued in my previous post). It also relies on inadequate, or even arbitrary, exegesis of the key Scriptural texts which, more exhaustively understood, are actually completely in accord with the Genealogical Adam hypothesis.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Genealogical Adam, Science, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Death before the Fall

  1. GBrooks9 says:

    This is a particularly well written posting (shall we say, essay?).

    I am surprised I missed reading this when it came out in January 2020!

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