Was There Animal Death Before the Fall?

Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows two things about me. First, I am a young-earth creationist. Second, I am skeptical of most young-earth creationist theology. For example, as I have written before, while I believe that the days in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days, I do not think they must be interpreted that way. Indeed, a good number of early church fathers didn’t interpret them that way. They didn’t think the days in Genesis 1 had anything to do with time. Instead, they thought the days were simply a means by which Creation could be ordered. Since many in the early church were willing to think that the days in Genesis 1 were not 24-hour days, why do many modern young-earth creationists insist that they must be 24-hour days? Is there something that today’s young-earth creationists know that Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Augustine, and Hilary of Poitiers didn’t know?

Unfortunately, the shoddy theology of most young-earth creationists doesn’t stop with the insistence that the days in Genesis must be 24-hour days. Another unfortunate claim most make is that there was no animal death before the Fall. Like the insistence that the days in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days, this claim is based on an incredibly inept view of Scripture.

To give you an idea of what many young-earth creationists think on this issue, consider the words of Paul Taylor, a young-earth creationist speaker and writer. After discussing two types of old-earth creationists as well as theistic evolutionists, he writes:

The theological problem that all these views have is that they put the fossil record before Adam’s sin. Yet the Bible makes clear that death came into the world as a result of sin. “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come” (Rom. 5:14). Moreover, in Genesis 1:29-30, we read that humans and animals were designed to be vegetarian. Therefore, there would have been no animal death before the fall of Adam, and therefore no fossils. 1

This is a common view among young-earth creationists. God could not have created by evolution, nor could there have been millions of years of fossils before Adam, because the Bible says there was no animal death before the Fall.

Taylor says that Romans 5:14 indicates there was no death before the fall. However, he then turns around and admits that there was death before the fall, because people and animals were vegetarians. Thus, he has to then qualify his statement and say there was no animal death before the Fall. This is root of the shoddy theology behind this belief. The meaning of the word “death” has to be qualified, and unfortunately, most young-earth creationists don’t qualify it nearly enough.

Let’s start with why “death” must be qualified. As Taylor and other young-earth creationists point out, people and animals were probably exclusively vegetarian before the fall. Genesis 1:29-30 doesn’t actually say that, but it comes close:

Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so.

So rather than actually proclaiming that people and animals were vegetarians before the Fall, these verses simply tell us that all animals ate plant products before the Fall. Thus, the only thing we know for sure is that there were no pure carnivores before the Fall. The Bible doesn’t say anywhere that all animals ate only plants. Nevertheless, I am inclined to believe that people and animals were exclusively vegetarian before the Fall. It goes along with the idea of Isaiah 11:6, where the leopard lies down with the young goat. Since that is an image of creation restored, it makes sense that before the Fall, animals did not eat other animals. (As an aside, people often misquote this passage to say “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” However, the Bible NEVER says the lion will lie down with the lamb. That’s actually from a song, not from the Bible.)

Regardless of whether or not people and animals were strict vegetarians before the Fall, it is clear that there WAS death before the Fall – plants died. Thus, Taylor and other young-earth creationists must qualify what they say. They say that there was no animal death before the Fall. How do they get that from Romans 5:14? Basically, they get it by being sloppy with the original languages in which the Scriptures were written.

They say that plants don’t have the same kind of “life” that animals have. In Hebrew, the word nephesh is used when referring to the life of people and many animals. This word, which is best understood as “living creature,” is not applied to plants in the Old Testament. Thus, according to the Old Testament, plants aren’t “living creatures” and therefore cannot die. Instead, plants “wither” (Hebrew – yabesh).

While it is very true that in Old Testament Hebrew plants are not living creatures (nephesh), it is utterly irrelevant to this discussion, since the verse that is being used is in Romans 5, which was not written in Hebrew. It was written in Greek. To learn what Romans 5 says, then, we must learn what Greek word is used for death and see what it means.

Throughout Romans 5, the Greek word used for death is thanatos. First, you have to understand where this word comes from. It is the name of a minor Greek god – a god that personified death2. The word can be used to mean general biological death, or it can be the personification of death. When the word is used as death personified, it generally means the “the miserable state of the wicked dead in hell” or “all the miseries arising from sin.” 3 In other words, when used as a personification, this word refers to spiritual death – complete separation from God.

Which is it here? Well, read what Romans 5:14 says. It says death reigned from Adam to Moses. Thus, it seems pretty clear that the way it is used here, it is personifying death. Indeed, most scholars agree that this is the usage. Consider what van der Toorn, Becking, and van der Horst say:

Although in the large majority of cases the use of the word thanantos in the NT does not show any tendency towards personification, there are some clear (and some less clear) examples of this phenomenon. In Romans 5:14 and 17 Paul writes that thanatos ruled as king from Adam [to] Moses because of the trespasses of one man…4

So…if this is death personified, then it is clear that the death referred to here does not refer to all creatures. Instead, since death is personified, it is talking about “the miserable state of the wicked dead in hell” or “all the miseries arising from sin.” This passage, then, is talking about spiritual death – eternal separation from God.

In ignoring the Greek usage of the passage, then, most young-earth creationists commit a grave error. They take the word “death” that clearly means “separation from God” and attempt to apply it to the whole biological world. In doing so, however, they can’t include plants, so they claim that somehow, this Greek word carries the Hebrew concept that death can apply only to people and animals. That is clearly nonsensical, as the Greek language does not carry Hebrew concepts.

Now is it really reasonable to assume that death in Romans 5 really just applies to spiritual death? Yes. Consider the verse in context. Here is Romans 5:12-14:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned–for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (NASB)

Notice that verse 12 says that “death spread to all men.” Clearly, then, this passage is talking about the death of men (spiritual death), not of animals.

If that’s not enough, consider the Greek word translated “world” in this passage. It is the word kosmos, and like most Greek words, it can have many meanings. It can mean the earth, the universe, or it can also mean “men” or “the human family.” 5 Those who believe there was no animal death before the Fall think that when used in the first part of the passage (“sin entered the world, and death through sin”), it means the entire world, including the animals. However, notice that the middle of the passage says “for until the Law sin was in the world.” In both parts of the passage, the same Greek word (kosmos) is used.

So…if you want to believe that this passage tells us that death entered the ENTIRE world, including the world of the animals, you must believe that animals can sin. After all, the passage says that “sin was in the world,” and it’s the same world that death entered. Obviously, the idea that animals can sin is nonsense. Thus, this entire passage is talking about the death of people and the world of people. It has no application to the biological world in general.

There is still further reason to believe that the death referred to in this passage is spiritual death. Remember, this passage says that death entered the world due to sin. What did God say about that sin? He said:

but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die. (Genesis 2:17, NASB)

This is significant. God Himself is telling Adam that the very day he eats of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he will surely die. Eating the fruit is the very sin discussed in Romans 5, so this verse seems to be the prophecy of death entering the world due to sin. Well…did Adam physically die when he ate the fruit? No. Since I don’t think God lied to Adam, this clearly indicates that the death which was ushered into the world as a result of sin was not physical death. It was separation from God.

Now please understand that this is standard, orthodox theology that has been the predominant view in Christendom for the vast majority of its history. That’s why the majority of orthodox theologians like Normal Geisler, Gleason Archer, and Walter Kaiser all accept the idea that there could have been animal death before the Fall. In fact, even non-Christian works seem to understand this. After discussing how some young-earth creationists think that allowing animal death before the Fall would somehow harm the doctrine of atonement, Martina Kolb-Ebert writes:

“Most orthodox Christians such as Sumner, Chalmers, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce did not consider that animal death before the fall affected the atonement.”6

Often, young-earth creationists set themselves up as the spokespeople for orthodox Christianity, because they take the Genesis account as literal history. However, that is far from the case. Whether we are talking about 24-hour-days in Genesis 1 or animal death before the Fall, many young-earth creationists actually ignore orthodox Christian theology in order to stake out their positions. As a young-earth creationist, that saddens me greatly. 7


1. Paul Taylor, The Six Days of Genesis, Master Books, 2007, p. 32
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2. See, for example, the Wikipedia entry for Thanatos
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3. See, for example, The New Testament Greek Lexicon
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4. K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd edition, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999, p. 855
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5. See, for example, The New Testament Greek Lexicon
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6. Martina Kolb-Ebert, Geology and Religion: a history of harmony and hostility, Geological Society Of London, 2009 p. 162
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7. Please note that I am not saying there was animal death before the Fall. I honestly don’t know, because the Scriptures don’t tell us. They tell us that spiritual death occurred after the Fall. Thus, people didn’t die before the Fall. The Scriptures tell us plants died before the Fall because they were used as food. Since I think the most likely conclusion from Scripture is that animals were not used as food before the Fall (but you can’t even be sure about that), it is probable that animals didn’t die before the Fall. However, there is simply no way to be sure, as the Scriptures do not tell us. We don’t know how long Adam and Eve were in the Garden. We only know that it was less than 130 years, since Seth was born outside the Garden, and that happened when Adam was 130. Given the fact that many animals have a lifespan of less than a year, it is certainly possible that some animals died of old age, even in Eden’s idyllic conditions.
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  1. The Black Sheep September 10, 2009 2:07 pm

    I admire you for having, what I consider, the tenacity to write this. I say that because I find the subject incredibly boring. Why do people care if animals died before the fall or not? How does that change their relationship with God? I understand that it’s really nice to be able to back up faith with science, but for me it’s simply not a requirement. I believe the God’s power is far beyond what science now, and probably ever will be able to understand and “prove.” Therefore, it seems to me pondering when animals started dying, is a waste of time. (Seems about that same as arguing whether Eve actually ate an apple, or it was some other fruit… who cares?) I’d rather read my Bible and ponder the LIFE that God created.

  2. jlwile September 10, 2009 4:10 pm

    You are certainly right that issues like this don’t change a person’s relationship with God. However, issues like this are used to separate the body of Christ. People who believe this nonsense tell people who don’t believe it that they either aren’t Christians or aren’t very good Christians.

    For example, anyone who believes in God-guided evolution or even an ancient earth must believe that there was death before the Fall. There are those who claim such people don’t really believe the Bible, because the Bible supposedly teaches there was no death before the Fall. In other words, theistic evolutionists and old-earth creationists aren’t “really” Bible-believers, at least not in the minds of those who think the Bible teaches there was no animal death before the Fall.

    It gets even worse, because in the U.S. there are all sorts of programs out there that claim they teach people to have a “Biblical world view.” The problem is that most such courses teach nonsense like the Bible says there was no animal death before the Fall. As a result, these materials promote the libelous idea that intellectual LUMINARIES of modern Christendom like C.S. Lewis, Gleason Archer, John Ankerberg, William Jennings Bryan, William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, J. P. Moreland, and Lee Strobel are all people who DON’T have a Biblical world view.

    Now I don’t think C.S. Lewis is much of a philosopher, and I certainly disagree with parts of what all of the above-listed people teach. However, the fact that they have a Biblical world view is BEYOND QUESTION. Thus, when I encounter people who believe nonsense like the Bible teaches there was no animal death before the Fall, I must try to show them the error of their ways – if nothing else, just to stand up for people like C.S. Lewis.


  3. The Black Sheep September 11, 2009 11:50 am

    I like C.S. Lewis. He writes books about Lions and Witches and Wardrobes… oh my!