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The Questions Update: Did death occur before the Fall?

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August 8, 2012 Tags: Problem of Evil
The Questions Update: Did death occur before the Fall?

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: The BioLogos Foundation began in 2009 with The Questions, a resource for making sense of frequently-asked questions in the science-and-faith dialogue. Since then, the BioLogos website has grown into a key point of entry into the wider conversation on science and faith. The Questions landing page now draws readers all over the world; between December 2011 and May 2012, it received more than 21,000 views. Since spring 2012 we've been updating this important resource in project led by Senior Web Consultant and Writer Deb Haarsma. We've improved navigation throughout this section of the website to help readers find the topics they want, and we've added a "nutshell" answer to every question to give readers a brief overview. Finally, we’ve been revisiting the texts of the original answers, one by one. Each answer is being updated to reflect the latest and best thinking in both science and theology, with links to new BioLogos blogs and videos that have appeared in the last three years. You'll see an "Updated" date near the top of each question that has undergone a major revision.

Today’s post features a preview of the updated Question, "Did death occur before the Fall?", revised by Senior Web Consultant and Writer Deborah Haarsma. This question provides an overview of the issue and points readers to more resources within and beyond the BioLogos website.


When scientists investigate God’s creation, they find that humans appear very late in the history of life. The fossil record shows that many creatures died long before humans appeared. In fact, many entire species went extinct millions of years ago (the dinosaurs are the most famous example), long before humans lived or sinned.

Yet God’s revelation in scripture paints a different picture. Several key scripture passages teach that death is a consequence of sin, including Genesis 2:16-17, Genesis 3:19,22, Romans 5:12-21, and 1 Corinthians 15. How should we think about these passages in light of the scientific evidence? Could animals have died before human sin? Does “death” in these passages refer to physical death, or spiritual death, or sometimes one and sometimes the other? To ponder these questions, we need to consider God’s revelation in scripture and God’s revelation in nature. The scientific evidence is discussed in other Questions, as are the topics of the fall and sin (see sidebars). Here we consider what scripture says about death and how the two revelations might be reconciled.

Animal Death

The Bible passages that teach about sin and death are clearly referring to the death of humans. Do these passages also refer to animals? Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) didn’t think so. He believed that God’s original creation included animals that killed each other, writing that “the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin.”1 Pastor Daniel Harrell makes a logical argument for animal death, writing that “there had to be death in the Garden, otherwise Adam would have been overrun by bugs and bacteria long before he took that forbidden bite of fruit.”2 Animal death is also necessary to maintain population levels in a balanced ecosystem (see below for more). Some Bible passages portray predatory animals as part of God’s original plan for creation (Job 38:39-41, 39:29-30, Psalm 104:21,29). Other passages speak of the “lion laying down with the lamb” instead of killing the lamb (Isaiah 11:6-7, Isaiah 65:25), but these verses refer to the future kingdom of God, not the original creation. While animal death and suffering raises other theological questions (see Sidebar), it does not contradict Biblical teaching about death as a consequence of sin.

Human death: physical or spiritual?

One traditional interpretation of Genesis 2-3 is that sin results in physical death. Humans would have been immortal without sin. In Genesis 2:17, God warns Adam and Eve, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat you shall die.” In Genesis 3:19, God carries out this punishment, cursing Adam with labor and death, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul contrasts and compares Christ and Adam, highlighting Adam’s fall as the cause of physical death for the whole human race.

John Calvin, however, suggested that Adam’s sin caused the abrupt painful death that we experience today, a wrenching apart of the physical and spiritual aspects of humans. Calvin seems to have thought that if Adam had not sinned, a more gentle kind of physical death or “passing” from life into life would have occurred: “Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright; but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change.”3 In this view, humans were created mortal, but intended for long healthy lives and graceful deaths, such as described in Isaiah 65:20-25. The Old Testament speaks of death at the end of a long life in purely positive terms, such as 1 Chronicles 29:28 where King David “died at a god old age, having enjoyed long life, wealth, and honor.”

Another interpretation of these passages is that the consequence of sin is spiritual death, not physical death. If Adam had not sinned, humans would still have died like we do today, but without “the sense of loss, uncertainty about an afterlife, … and regret for unfinished work” that comes with spiritual death.4 Agemir de Carvalho Dias, Presbyterian pastor and teacher of the Evangelical College of Parana, Brazil, writes that “the death that entered the world with Adam is understood as something that takes man apart from God, a spiritual death, in the sense that the access to God is now closed and can be restored only through faith.”5 Of course some sins still bring about physical death, such as Abel’s death at Cain’s hand, and the death of King David’s infant son after the king’s adultery (2 Samuel 12:13-14).

The text of Genesis 2-3 can support an interpretation of the curse as spiritual death. In the curse of Genesis 3:19, God tells Adam “for dust you are and to dust you will return,” implying that Adam was created mortal from the dust. God warned Adam and Eve that they would die in the day they ate from the tree, and yet Adam lived to the age of 930 (Genesis 5:5). What did happen on the day they ate from the tree? Adam and Eve felt shame and were expelled from the Garden, breaking their fellowship with God – spiritual death.

Weren’t Adam and Eve immortal, created as perfect ideal human beings? This is a popular idea, but not clear in the Biblical text. The first humans are described as “very good” and pleasing to God (Genesis 1:30-31), but not as perfect or with superhuman abilities. Also, consider the Tree of Life. God planted this tree in the garden before the fall (Genesis 2:9) and it gives immortality to the one who eats it (Genesis 3:22). If God created humans as immortal, what was the purpose of the Tree of Life? It would only be needed if humans were mortal to begin with.6

Pastor Stephen Rodeheaver reflects on the two trees of Genesis 2-3 and the implications for us today (blog series)

In the New Testament, Paul writes much on the relationship between sin and death. Sometimes Paul was clearly referring to spiritual death (Romans 6:1-14, 7:11), and other times clearly to physical death (1 Corinthians 15:35-42). Yet even in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes of the eternal life in Christ as something much more than the mere earthly life we experience now, implying that “death” also refers to much more than mere physical death. This is more explicit in Romans 5:12-21 where death is contrasted with the gifts of grace, justification, and righteousness, i.e. the new spiritual life provided by Jesus’ victory.

See “Were Adam and Eve Historical Figures?” which discusses the issue of death and the identity of Adam and Eve

For more, be sure to read the full FAQ "Did death occur before the Fall?" in our Questions section!


  1. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 93, Article 1 (web article)
  2. Daniel Harrell. “Death’s Resurrection”, BioLogos Forum, December 18, 2009 (blog)
  3. John Calvin. Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, called Genesis, trans. by John King. ch3 v19 (p. 97).
  4. George Murphy “Human Evolution in Theological Context” BioLogos scholarly essay which includes a discussion of human and animal death (PDF), p. 6
  5. Quoted by Marcio Antonio Campos in “Did peace and love reign in the world before the original sin?” BioLogos Forum, March 7, 2011 (blog)
  6. See Deborah and Loren Haarsma, “Three interpretations of the Tree of Life”, supplemental material to Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources) 2011 (PDF)

View the archived discussion of this post

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George Bernard Murphy - #71788

August 8th 2012

Well the forbidden tree was the tree of knowledge.

When people becme dependent of ever-better technology they started a process where in the end failure is inevitable.

Robert Hagedorn - #71796

August 8th 2012

The tree?  Google First Scandal.  When you get there, go to the top of the page and click on “Can you explain…”  Note:  this website you reach will be deleted on November 1, 2012.

George Bernard Murphy - #71800

August 8th 2012

I went to this website but I can’t make heads or tails out of it.

 What are they talking about?

wesseldawn - #71820

August 9th 2012

It is a hard site to follow.

wesseldawn - #71822

August 9th 2012

The tree was the ‘apple’ tree as I’ve said on another thread here. This was the traditional Christian teaching up until the early 19th century (I believe) when it was forgotten:

As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. (Song of Solomon 2:3, 5, 8:5)


Russell Purvis - #71789

August 8th 2012

The problem here is understanding ANE origin stories correctly. 

  • Spiritual death was not disconnected from physical death.
  • These stories are more worried theology and liturgy rather than acccounting an event literally, hence there are two creation accounts in the Bible.
  • “by the sweat of the brow” here means fearful anticipation of your work being fruitless.
  • ideal beings would have only meant that they were made for progress forward, not as ideal, perfect prototypes.
  • The trees are representing something bigger (The tree of life is found at the end of Revelation)
  • Paul was not bouncing between spiritual and physical death as separate realities. He was using them to point to each other.

Just some notes from a Master’s of Biblical Studies Graduate. 

wesseldawn - #71821

August 9th 2012

Spiritual death caused physical death!

There is only one creation story.

True they were not ideal prototypes being subject to mortality.

Different trees are mentioned, apple tree (Tree of Life/KNowledge) and the fig tree (Lucifer). Also other trees in the Song of Solomon.

Jesus said that spiritual renewal (born again) preceeds  - but the physical body will still die.

Russell Purvis - #71889

August 14th 2012

I will just start with the creation accounts part and say that that is unfaithful to the original languages. First one is Chapter 1- 2:3. The second follows that.

I’m not sure why the apple and fig trees are being mentioned. What is your source on that?

Song of Solomon in my opinion is highly sexualized book. need to be careful in how we interpret that.

Your “spiritual death caused physical death comment” is actually viable in my opinion. I agree with you there. 

wesseldawn - #71974

August 16th 2012

Sorry to take so long to get back to you, sometimes I don’t get notifications.

Although the idea seems to have been forgotten, for the longest time Christian tradition taught that it was an ‘apple’ that Eve and Adam ate (no doubt this is understood from the Song of Solomon):

As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. usly from an apple tree)!. (Song of Solomon 2:3, 8:5)

After they ate, Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with ‘fig’ leaves (obviously those had to come from a fig tree):

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. (Gen. 3:7)

wesseldawn - #71975

August 16th 2012


Further to your comment:

Song of Solomon in my opinion is highly sexualized book. need to be careful in how we interpret that.

Knowing our weakness in that area, God would not tempt us; the Song of Solomon only appears sexual in content. It’s really a figuative book about Paradise, just as ”my Beloved” in the quotes I mentioned is the Apple Tree/Tree of Life. 

HornSpiel - #71803

August 8th 2012

Sorry but what has changed here except that the final section of the current article is missing? The final section: Could physical death be part of God’s original plan? is very good, by the way. I hope you are not going to get rid of it.

wesseldawn - #71823

August 9th 2012

Physical death was never a part of God’s plan. That’s the reason why God put man/Adam in the garden. The garden(Paradise) is an immortal place and God wanted Adam and Eve to stay there forever…but as we know, that did not happen.

For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living.

14 For he created all things, that they might have their being: and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of death upon the earth:

15 (For righteousness is immortal:)

16 But ungodly men with their works and words called it to them: for when they thought to have it their friend, they consumed to nought, and made a covenant with it, because they are worthy to take part with it.

Book of Wisdom  - chapter One:13-16



For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity.

24 Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it.

Wisdom Chapter 3 – 23 - 24

HornSpiel - #71827

August 9th 2012


The article is supposed to help us reflect on whether  “Death could never be part of God’s intended plan” is really the only position a Christian can take. Although it does not come out and say it directly, I think the article makes clear that God’s Word does not contradict God’s works if we take into account its linguistic, literary, and cultural context.

Your quotes are admittedly not from the Apocrypha and not universally acknowledged as Scripture. You seem to be saying nay without really engaging the arguments of the article.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71831

August 10th 2012


If God did not create death, and death did not exist before the Fall, then how could God have told the original couple that they would die if they ate the fruit of the tree okog&e? 

wesseldawn - #71851

August 11th 2012


Don’t forget that they were in the immortal garden (Paradise), God’s realm, where man got God’s image. God is a spirit ((John 4:24) so then man/animal became “a spirit”.

In order to be in the eternal garden (where God is), man would need “that same image” (immortality).

A physical (mortal) body cannot live in an immortal environment - therefore, Adam and Eve were immortal (spirit) at that stage.

The only part (of them) then that could possibly have died at that time was their immortal (spirit/God’s image) - as they found themselves once more on mortal earth (clothed with skin), their spirits in a dead state [and the reason why we must be born-again (John 3:3,7, 1 Peter 1:23)].

The spiritual self can only be born-again (over) as we gain wisdom.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71854

August 11th 2012


The Garden of Eden was on earth as described in the Bible and not the Apocrypha.  It is not Heaven, it is not eternal. 

Humans specifically were not immortal because they had not eaten of the Tree of Life. 

God’s image is found in the body, mind, and spirit of human beings.  People have minds, Wesseldawn, not just bodies and spirits.  “The wages of sin is death,” which includes the death of body, mind, and spirit, “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”     

Eternal life is a GIFT of God the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, not something that is earned or learned like wisdom.

Russell Purvis - #71868

August 13th 2012

That would make God a mere observer of events and not one who is declaring what will be.

wesseldawn - #71872

August 13th 2012


I’m not certain to whom your comment is directed…if myself, my answer would be that God set things in motion but Satan through deception corrupted the first creation…only for a time however, when Christ will reappear and “make all things new (restore the original)”.

If Jesus needs to return to make all things new, that means that something went wrong.

God does not “declare” mass starvation, wars, natural disasters and chaos!

If this were God’s creation then Jesus would never have had to die in order that we might be saved.

Until then God is an observer. Of course it all belongs to God but He will not barge in and that’s why we’re supposed to pray so that God’s will is accomplished on earth. If this was God’s world we wouldn’t have to pray for His will to be done as that would be a natural outcome of God’s perfection.

Russell Purvis - #71890

August 14th 2012

My apologies, that was to the comment:

If God did not create death, and death did not exist before the Fall, then how could God have told the original couple that they would die if they ate the fruit of the tree”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71984

August 17th 2012


How can one communicate something to another that is totally foreign to that person’s experience?  That is my point.

If God told them that they would die and death nhad no place in their world, then how could there be a word for death and how would that word have any meaning to the original couple? 

Now it seems to me that sin and spiritual death would have no meaning, because they had no experience of it, until they rebelled against God.  This could well be the reason that God did not or could not tell them about sin and its consequences except in this physical manner. 

wesseldawn - #71850

August 11th 2012


Apocrypha or not, the quote makes perfect sense from a Biblical perspective.

We need spiritual definites, not reflection!!

And I have personallly noticed that articles on BioLogos tend to contain a number of different points that diverge from the title topic…that said, I think this is one of the few that is not wordy and stays mostly on topic.

To understand the question: “Did Death Occur Before the Fall”, we need to understand that three different time scenarios are mentioned in the Bible:

1) man before the garden (Gen. 2:7) = brute animal/soul

2) man/Adam in the garden (Gen. 2:8) = animal that got God’s image

*evolutionary processes continued on the earth (man leaves garden for a time and the female is produced and Neanderthals appear on the earth).

When scientists investigate God’s creation, they find that humans appear very late in the history of life. The fossil record shows that many creatures died long before humans appeared. In fact, many entire species went extinct millions of years ago (the dinosaurs are the most famous example), long before humans lived or sinned

3) man/Adam after the garden - the late appearance of Homo-sapien



wesseldawn - #71852

August 11th 2012


I still didn’t answer your question completely.

During the time that Adam was in the garden, eovlutionary processes continued on the earth. As the creatures of earth are mortal, then of course there was death.

However, when man (and later Adam and Eve) were in the immortal garden, they didn’t experience death because they too were immortal (until the deception and they found themselves once more on mortal earth).

God however, did not create mortality. If death was a part of God’s plan then God wouldn’t have bothered to take man from mortal earth and put it into the immortal garden in the first place!

Therefore, mortality (death) was not God’s plan, but Satan’s [“god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4)], as stated in the quote from the Book of Wisdom (which in no way contradicts the Bible account):

Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it.

The idea behind the Bible story is that we find our way back to Paradise and immortality:

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Cor. 15:55) 

HornSpiel - #71853

August 11th 2012


I find your interpretation quite a stretch. IMO you are making lots of interpretive leaps. If I understand you correctly you are suggesting  that:

“During the time that Adam was in ... the immortal garden, they didn’t experience death because they too were immortal.” Meanwhile “evolutionary processes continued on the earth.”

Where did you get that from? I’ve never heard that before. Do you have any sources for that, or is it your own interpretation?

The main issue here though is Biblical literalism and concordism.  I seems you are trying to reconcile a literal Garden of Eden story with evolutionary natural history. In my opinion it can’t be done.

Moreover I disagree with your assertion that “We need spiritual definites, not reflection!” It would be nice but God does not give us many definites. Apparently he does not think we need them as much as we need reflection.

“He who has ears to hear let him hear.”

wesseldawn - #71859

August 12th 2012


I got it from the Bible but first I had to learn the vast difference between soul and spirit:

Gen. 2:7  - man (translation=ruddy=soul/the animal sentiment principle only)

             soul = mortal (flesh and bone)

Gen. 2:8 - man enters the garden (of Eden/Paradise/Heaven) and gets God’s image.

            God’s image = spirit = immortal

After the garden Adam and Eve’s spirit’s were in a dead state (and the reason why Jesus said that we must be boor-again/of water and the spirit) - (“do not eat from the tree lest you die”) - they ate from the tree and their immortal spirit died and they found themselves once more on mortal earth.

I have said this before numerous times that human beings are dual natured but it’s not my idea:

and the dust returns to the ground it came from,  and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Eccl. 12:7)

dust = soul (physical body/flesh & blood)spirit = God’s imageI can’t quite figure out why people are having a problem with this, and I’m especially surprised that I find such opposition to it on BioLogos! “God gives no definites!!”
 “and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).
the truth = definites
Roger A. Sawtelle - #71864

August 13th 2012


The Truth is Jesus Christ.  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.”

His words and actions contradict your speculative Gnostic theory.

You need to heed the words of Jesus spoken many times in the NT, “Follow Me.”

Russell Purvis - #71869

August 13th 2012

Not sure the character assasination was appropriate. Please refrain.

Russell Purvis - #71870

August 13th 2012

Ecc. 12:7 is not two separate observation, but a form of repetitive form used in poetry to emphasis a point.

Soul is complex, and simply separating it from spirit is not in keeping with the Hebrew scriptures since it was all connected and inseparable.

wesseldawn - #71873

August 13th 2012


dust = return to the ground/the earth (go downward)

spirit = return “to God” (upwards, Heaven)

Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? (Eccl. 3:21)

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. (Eccl. 3:18)

wesseldawn - #71874

August 13th 2012


I might further add that the soul (beast) is the human personality (seat of emotions) as  the other animals (beasts) demonstrate emotion and personality.

What does the spirit (God’s image) accomplish then? It’s the connectivity to the supernatural realm, without it we could not communicate with God nor He with us - without it we would be beast (without morality) as the other animals and nothing more.

wesseldawn - #71882

August 13th 2012


Might I further add:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit... (Heb. 4:12)

If people don’t know to divide the two (soul and spirit) they will try to make the mortal soul do something that only the immortal spirit is capable of, or visa versa. 

Russell Purvis - #71887

August 14th 2012

Are you coming from a Church History standpoint or from a Biblical Studies standpoint? Just curious.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71892

August 14th 2012


If you haven’t noticed by now, Wesseldawn is coming from his own Gnostic standpoint.


wesseldawn - #71961

August 16th 2012

From a Biblical standpoint.

Russell Purvis - #71888

August 14th 2012

Also, Hebrews 4:12 does not exactly have to do with death, but with exposing people for who they really are as obedient or disobedient to the call of God towards His people.

Russell Purvis - #71891

August 14th 2012

I never learned soul to mean seat of emotion. I saw it as part of that, but not the full meaning. I went to Asbury Seminary and learned it there. It’s more Wesleyan-Arminian in theology with some extra elements added. This conversation would take hours and too much text for this setting, so I’m gonna propose an agree to disagree resolution.

wesseldawn - #71965

August 16th 2012


Heb. 4:12 directly correlates with the verses from Eccl. that I quoted earlier (which clearly shows two distinct natures associated with human beings):

Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. (Job 7:11)

Without the “dividing asunder”, the soul can never be saved (Heb. 10:39).


spirit = ruwach (Strongs#7307) = breath (of heaven)

soul - nephesh (Strong’s #5315) = = breath (of earth) = a breathing creature


soul = psyche (Strong’s #5590) = vital force (living soul) = of earth

spirit = pneuma = (Strongs #4151) = wind/breath (of God)

That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:6)

I would not have seen this but for the interpreting principle mentioned in the Bible itself.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71883

August 13th 2012

12  For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.


You are impossible.  You quote the Bible out of context to try to make it say something that it does not say.  This verse is about the word of God being able to know and judge persons, not about separating the soul from the spirit.

Now the Greek word used for soul here is psyche, which not the animal soul, but the Mind that you do not want to acknowledge.  The psyche is usually considered the immortal soul, not the spirit, however Christians believe that the whole person, body, mind, and spirit, receives eternal life, which seems to be true because eternal life of the saved person does not begin after death but at the time of salvation.   

You need to wise up and do your homework before you start spouting off about what you do not understand.  

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