Death Before the Fall: The Theology

Copyright 1998 G.R. Morton. This may be freely distributed, freely posted on listservs so long as it is not altered and no charge is made and reference to my web page is retained. (

I have recently received a letter from a famous young-earth creationist. I have a respect for this gentleman because he does think out of the ordinary young-earth box. He informed me that he could not accept my harmonization because of the existence of death before the fall. He strongly believes that the Scripture rules this out. Because of the respect I feel for this individual and the widespread belief among young earth creationists that man was originally created immortal, I am going to address this head on.

The first issue that must be addressed is the issue of immortality. Who or what was offered immortality in the Scripture? Genesis 2:17 says

Genesis 2:17. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

What is interesting is that this verse actually does not say that they will live forever, it merely states the opposite. It says that in the day they eat, they will die. Does this actually imply that Adam and Eve would live forever? Traditionally this is the way that this verse has been interpreted, but in the day one eats a toadstool, they will die. Their liver will fail and they will die within 24 hours. Yet if someone tells them that the day they will eat a toadstool, they will die, it does not imply that they otherwise would live forever. To conclude that Genesis 2:17 implies immortality is a non sequitur. Do these verses teach that mankind was given eternal life? Maybe not.

The function of the Tree of Life was obviously to give eternal life. Of this tree God says:

Genesis 3:22 “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:”

What is clear from this verse is that the tree's fruit could give the eater immortality. If Adam and Eve already possessed immortality, why was the tree there? There are three possibilities. 1. The tree was there to provide eternal life for people after the fall. 2 The tree was there to provide a one time ‘reward’ of immortality after a period of life on earth. 3. The tree was there to provide continuing ‘treatments’ of immortality. The context clearly falsifies the first option, the idea that the tree served some purpose for life after the Fall.. God removed the Tree specifically to avoid the fallen creatures from partaking of the tree. So this would suggest that the only reason for the tree was to provide immortality for the UNFALLEN Adam and Eve, either as a single or continuing dose, options 1 and 2.. But both of these options imply strongly that they did not originally possess immortality. As noted above one can not give a trait like immortality if they already have immortality. Both of these two possibilities contradict the widespread view that Adam and Eve were created immortal (in spite of the fact that no statement to that effect actually occurs in the Scripture.)

What about the New Testament references to death entering the cosmos through sin? Romans 5:12 needs to be discussed in this regard. It says:

Romans 5:12 “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:”

The verse would be reconciled to the lack of original immortality by merely noting that death did spread to all men because the Tree of Life was removed. If immortality was to be given to men by either a single or continuing dose (options 1 and 2) then the tree's removal would have severe consequences for the history of humanity. Death would have entered the human order via the removal of the tree. Such a view is consistent with Revelations 22:2 which says,

Rev. 22:2 “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations”.

This verse hints that the tree is for continued healing, not a one time dose. This then allows one to understand that other verses can be interpreted as death entering the normal order for mankind by the removal of the Tree of Life rather than by the direct effect of eating the tree. Death entered the world through the consequences of Adam's actions. This is also consistent with the proclamation made by God that death would follow Adam's sin. It did. They were the walking dead after the tree was removed from their reach. They were doomed die the day they lost access to the Tree of Life.

Romans 5;17-18 says:

Romans 5:17 “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
Romans 5:18 “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” (NIV)

Because the Tree was removed, the consequence was the condemnation for all of humanity. One other interesting item about the above verses is that death was spread to MEN, not to animals. This is supported by the fact that the word 'men' is the Greek word, anthropos. This Greek word means men NOT animals. Adam's sin spread to men. This passage, cannot be used to support the concept that Adam's sin affected the animals.

What about the passage in Romans 8?

Romans 8:20 “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope”
21 “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
22 “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (NIV)

The creation can groan even if it was not originally offering immortality to the animals. Humans have an ability to destroy which surpasses anything else in the creation. We are driving animals to extinction; we are fouling the environment. Creation groans even without immortality.

One final item, it is illogical to believe that animals had immortality for several reasons.

First, if animals couldn't die, why did God create them with reproductive abilities? If no cow could die, then God need not have created two cows and told them to populate the earth; He could have created 10,567,890,002 cows and been done with it. None of them could die, and there would be no need for replacements. Sex and reproduction were needless. The fact that God told the animals to reproduce strongly implies that they were going to need replacements, implying death was part of their natural state.

Could it be that God planned for man to sin? If this were so, then traditional views of God's causation of evil would not be correct. God would have created a world in which man was doomed to sin regardless of man's own decision. This violates the theology of most of the young-earth creationists yet they don't notice this contradiction.

Secondly, if animals were not able to die, it would imply things like the following. If a twenty-ton meteor, moving at 20 kilometers per second were to smash onto the head of a fox in the field, then in a cartoon-like manner, the fox would get up and run away after this event. An ant, crawling on grass which was eaten by a cow, would have had to have been able to withstand the crushing of the cow's teeth, and a passage through the ruminant's four stomachs. It would be able to resume its life after elimination from the cow no matter how far from home the cow had taken it.

Thirdly, eating would not be necessary. If animals were unable to die, then, they would also be unable to die from starvation. So God giving the various animals food would have been pointless. They really didn't need to eat at all because they couldn't die.

Finally, there is a strange dichotomy between what YECs say about death and what they themselves actually admit as being the case. When an animal in the prefall world ate a plant, hundreds of thousands of plant cells would DIE. These cells, and the plant itself would be digested and incorporated into the structure of the animal. So, plant death was a reality no matter what the theology says. Death, plant death and cell death, existed prior to the fall. Those denying death before the fall are only interested in denying animal death.

Yet this raises an interesting question. Could animal cells die before the Fall? There is really little fundamental difference between plant and animal cells in relation to their fundamental structure. Both have DNA, both have cell membranes etc. Why is it that only cells with chloroplasts were believed to be subject to death prior to the fall? Were chloroplasts an Achilles heel for survival? It would be doubtful. Along these lines, skin is partly composed of a tough layer of dead skin cells which help protect humans. Adam had skin and thus presumably DEAD skin cells. This would mean that there was death before the fall.

Could it be that plants don't have the breath of life and this is why plant death is not important? Obviously the plant has no breath of life. Plant cells have no breath of life. But then neither again do animal cells, at least not in the sense that the term 'breath of life' is generally understood. So was it possible for an animal to eat the leg of another animal prior to the fall, as long as the animal itself is not killed? Such a possibility sounds preposterous, yet animal cells no more have the breath of life than do plant cells. If the differentiation between plant and animal death is solely based upon the criterion of the breath of life, that preposterous case can not be ruled out.

To conclude, it seems highly likely that there was death before the Fall. There was most certainly plant death and cellular death, and the existence of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden suggests that it was there to give Adam and Eve something that the did not originally possess — immortality. And if they were not immortal, then they were mortal. Adam and Eve were offered immortality originally through the Tree of Life in some fashion. And this involved giving them a quality they didn't originally possess--immortality.

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