Did Death Exist before Adam's Fall?
Will There Be Death in the Eternal Age to Come?
By Reed Benson
Death is a reality that cannot be permanently ignored. For those who are interested in making sense of the created universe and placing the origin of death in its proper context, this theological examination should be of interest. At the outset are several premises that we accept as axiomatic; this will narrow the range of our discussion and reduce the potential complexity of the debate. First, the Bible is taken as the rule of truth. While logic and reason are critically important tools, no argument allows one passage of Scripture to contradict another. Second, it is assumed that the world God created in the beginning before the Fall of Adam and Eve was very like the world that God will recreate when all of Bible prophecy is fulfilled and the Eternal Age begins. Although it is evident there will be some minor distinctions, these two worlds will treat death the same. Third, despite the fact that the implications on other areas of theology are significant, this is not an area of study upon which one's salvation directly hinges; thus, a charitable spirit seems appropriate.
There are two major positions regarding this topic. Let us consider them in turn and review the arguments in favor of each.
Death Did Not Exist
No creatures large or small died before the fall of Adam, including lions, lambs, other races, or even insects. Death was entirely unknown. As the representative head of all creation, Adam's fall caused death to come to all creatures. Arguments in favor of this position are as follows:
1. Animals were originally vegetarian, so the predator/prey relationship did not exist. "And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so" (Genesis 1:30.) All creatures will once again be vegetarian in the kingdom to come and will not consume prey. "And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11:7). See also Isaiah 65:25. A world without predators implies that there was no death in the animal kingdom before the fall.
2. Paul teaches that Adam's fall caused death to pass to all the natural world. Thus, before that moment, there was no death. "For since by man came death, by man also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). When Adam and Eve fell, the consequences extended far beyond themselves to everything that was under their jurisdiction. As the crown and apex of God's order, all was under their authority. Every living creature was affected in a grave and negative way. Instead of a world of tranquility and endless healthful bliss, the earth became a place of turmoil, destruction, and grisly death.
3. God easily could have sustained life before the fall of Adam in such a way that nothing ages or wears out. He occasionally did so after the fall, an example being when the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness forty years. "And I have led you forty years in the wilderness: your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy foot" (Deuteronomy 29:5). This was considered a miracle in the days of Moses and Joshua, but there is no reason why the suspension of deterioration and decay could not have been absolutely normal before the fall.
4. A world filled with death, carnivores chasing game, and terrified prey running for their lives is contrary to a good God. Disease, pain, decay, and the ugliness of death in all its forms are utterly at odds with the goodness and justice of any divine being that is not capricious and cruel. How could a morally good God purposely design a world filled with fear and death? How could such a world be called "very good?" Consider Genesis 1:31: "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good."
5. The first animal death occurred when God provided skins for Adam and Eve. "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21). This is the first mention of anything indicative of death. Such an unfortunate but necessary event revealed to Adam and Eve the broad extent of their failure. Although it is not stated in the biblical narrative, this was likely the institution of substitutionary bloody sacrifice, which laid the foundation for the Old Testament practice and foreshadowed Jesus' death on the cross.
6. Paul teaches that the entire natural world now labors under a curse. "For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now" (Romans 8:22). This passage means that the entire natural world is suffering the loss of its former condition of no fear, pain, deterioration, or death before the fall of Adam and Eve.
Death Did Exist
Death did predate Adam's fall because God designed the natural world to live and die in a cyclical manner, with the exception of Adam and Eve, who alone were created in the image of God and had access to the Tree of Life. The arguments in favor of this position are as follows:
1. When God created the natural world, darkness was retained. "And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day" (Genesis 1:5). Darkness is both a symbol and source of fear and danger. This is a prelude to a world that will know death.
2. God's creation is described as "very good" but not perfect (Genesis 1:31). In Hebrew, the word good is towb, which has a broad range of uses, but most likely means bountiful, well, complete, or goodly. This same Hebrew word is used in Numbers 14:7, "exceedingly good," to describe the land of Canaan on the cusp of the Israelites entering that region. As is well known, Canaan was agriculturally bountiful and filled with natural resources, yet was also inhabited by fierce giants and other nasty people. So while it was ideally suited as an Israelite homeland, it was not perfect. Thus, regarding the original natural creation, "very good" should be thought of as being precisely suited to God's purpose, not as being without aging, degeneration, and death.
3. The fact that all creatures were vegetarian does not preclude death through aging and degenerative disease. While the original natural creation may have been free from carnivores and predation, as Scripture indeed indicates, this does not mean that death from aging and degeneration could not have been a fundamental part of the created order.
4. Adam and Eve are commanded to "subdue" creation in Genesis 1:28: "And God blessed them, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of he air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." Subdue in Hebrew is kabash meaning tread down, conquer, subjugate. This strongly implies a world with imperfections. Indeed, man was commanded to use force to accomplish his divinely commissioned purpose. This implies a real possibility of death. Furthermore, Adam is commanded to "keep" the garden of Eden in Genesis 2:15: "And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it." Keep in Hebrew is shamar, meaning guard or protect. This implies outside risks exist that might threaten the tranquility of the Garden of Eden.
5. Only the Garden of Eden had a source of eternal life: the tree of life. Outside the garden was a much harsher environment of which death was a part. That is why the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden was so significant. "Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life" (Genesis 3:23-24). The fact that the source of eternal life was only in the garden and the environment outside was much more severe helps explain why angels were needed to "keep" (i.e. guard) the entrance to prevent Adam and Eve from re-entering.
6. Paul does not teach that Adam's fall caused death to come to all creatures; rather, just to all men. This important distinction is made clear in Romans 5:12, which offers more specificity than 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Romans 5:12). With this thought in mind, we can see that 1 Corinthians 15:22 infers the same: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." It is axiomatic that only mankind will have the opportunity to "be made alive" in Christ, that is, resurrected; therefore only mankind suffered death in Adam's fall. Consistency demands, and Scripture supports, the premise that the coming of death applied only to Adam's posterity. All others creatures, including other races, were already aging and dying as part of God's original design in the natural world.
7. When Paul states that "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth" (Romans 8:22), this is in a larger context of redeemed children of Adam eagerly anticipating their future resurrected bodies. Consider the very next verse: "And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body" (Roman 8:23). In essence, Paul was explaining that redeemed children of Adam are suffering in the present world of pain and death just like the rest of the natural world has always suffered, but as true believers we can confidently hope to regain that which was lost.
If there were no death for any creatures before Adam's fall, then there will be no death for any creatures in the Eternal Age. All animals and non-Adamic races would possess eternal life. As has been pointed out, just because lions will not eat lambs in the future does not mean specific individual members of either species will not perish. If we insist that all creatures will live forever in the Eternal Age and death will be utterly unknown once again, we undermine the biblical doctrines of election, judgment, and salvation. Such a line of reasoning fosters a theological drift that may well lead to universalism and ultimate reconciliation.
10. A life and death cycle was the reality for all but Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and will be the final condition of all life outside the New Jerusalem, where imperfect conditions will remain. "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and murderers, and idolators, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie" (Revelation 22:14-15). Reading the last two chapters of Revelation makes it clear that this tree of life is inside the New Jerusalem, which is the city referenced in this passage. It is intuitively obvious that where homosexuals (dogs), sorcerers, murderers, idolators, and chronic liars congregate, suffering and death are likely. While this world does not fit the conventional image we may think of as perfect, it is, without a doubt, what God has decided will be the final condition of earth in the Eternal Age. As such, it is precisely suited to God's purposes. Some may point to Revelation 21:4 and argue that this applies to all creatures everywhere at that time: " . . . no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain . . ." However, please look closer at the context, for that is only the reality inside " . . . the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain . . .” (Revelation 21:2-4). It is thus quite clear that conditions inside the city will be dramatically different from those outside. Death will not be present for the redeemed of Adam's posterity who have the right to enter into the New Jerusalem and have access to the Tree of Life; but beyond the city gates, conditions are harsh, imperfect, and even deadly.
Did Death Exist before Adam's Fall?
A preponderance of evidence points toward the affirmative. While this is not an issue upon which our salvation hinges, it is nonetheless an important area of theological concern. I contend that death did exist before the fall. The greater weight of Scripture and objective argument indicates that death was a fundamental element of God's natural world in the beginning and will also be at the dawning of the Eternal Age.