Humans appear very late in the history of life. The fossil record clearly shows that many creatures died before humans appeared. This appears to conflict with Bible passages which describe death as a punishment for human sinfulness. However, the curse of Genesis 3 was that Adam and Eve, not the animals, should die for their disobedience. Therefore, animal death before the Fall is compatible with Christian doctrine. For humans, Genesis 3 and other Bible passages may be speaking primarily of spiritual death, not physical death.
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.
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 “wolf 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 good 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
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.
Could physical death be part of God’s original plan?
The Garden of Eden has a reputation as a perfect place, with no death, pain, or even danger for humans or animals. Yet Genesis only teaches that the original creation is “good”, not “perfect.” Some verses in Genesis 1-2 suggest that God’s creation was not safe or pain-free. D. C. Spanner points out that God charged humanity to “subdue” (Genesis 1:28), a word that implies danger.7 Also, Genesis 2 places Adam and Eve in a garden; in the ancient near east, this was a walled enclosure, protecting the inhabitants from the wilderness and dangerous animals beyond. The Bible is clear that the culmination of God’s plan in the new creation is a place without tears, pain, or death (Revelation 21:4), but is less clear whether the first creation shared these traits.
The death of plants and animals is actually an essential feature in a healthy ecosystem. Plants provide food for animals, and animals return nutrients to the soil upon their deaths. Without predators, populations of some species would explode and crowd out others, maybe even pushing those species to extinction. Predators tend to pick the most populous species to eat, limiting its growth so that other species can compete successfully.8
It is more difficult to see human death in a positive light. For those who have lost a loved one, death can feel like the ultimate evil.9 Jesus mourned the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11), after all. Paul writes of death as the paycheck for sin (Romans 6:23) and as the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). The New Testament seems to emphasize death as an evil because it is incompatible with the kind of life promised in the fulfilled kingdom of God. Jesus’ earthly ministry signified the arrival of that future kingdom of God into the present age, but we still live in a world in which the kingdom has not been fully realized. Thus the continuing reality of physical death clashes with the promise of the redeemed future. Only when believers are clothed with their new resurrection bodies will death be finally conquered.
Yet death also appears in the Bible as the utmost expression of love—part of God’s plan for ushering in that new kingdom. Jesus said that the greatest love one can show is to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13). He then proceeded to lay down his own life for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:6-8). Christianity holds up the cross as the supreme demonstration of sacrificial love. Jesus said, “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” (John 12:23-25). Jesus thus pointed to the role of death in a healthy ecosystem as a parable for the importance of His own death. Just as the death of an organism allows for the rebirth and flourishing of life, so the death of Jesus leads to a rebirth and new life for Jesus’ followers. Perhaps the biological death in the evolutionary epic was not a purposeless waste, but a hint at the way God redeems the negativity of death for the sake of new life.