I identify myself as an Old Earth Creationist (OEC), holding to the day-age view. This means that I believe the earth and the universe are old in the extreme and that the days of creation listed in Genesis 1 are best understood as long periods of time, or epochs, in which the Lord exercised his creative acts. This stands in contrast to Young Earth Creationists (YEC), who believe the earth and universe are geologically young, between 6,000 and 10,000 years and the days of Genesis 1 are literal 24 hour days.
It is not my intention, in this article, to write an apologetic for OEC. Rather, I would like to address one issue within OEC that YECs say helps disprove the case for OEC, and is a persistent problem for OEC advocacy. Is there a case for death prior to the fall into sin? To state my belief up front, I believe that human death was possible prior to the fall. However, as a religious view (not a scientific view), this is religious speculation. What is possible is not always actual. Nevertheless, I believe human death was possible before the fall because such an idea, to me, seems to be a reasonable explanation for certain difficulties in the biblical text about primeval history. Most people who are involved in this issue tend to focus on two types of death: physical death and spiritual death. However, as we shall see, I believe a better understanding can be had with a more detailed view. I believe we must differentiate seven categories of death (some of which overlap): Plant Death, Animal Death, Human Death, Physical Death, Spiritual Death, and two categories that I propose we label as Death For Sin and Functional Death. It is these last two descriptions where I will spend most of my efforts.
Though I am convinced that the OEC view describes primeval reality better than a YEC view, it should be stated up front that not all OEC defenses are entirely persuasive. I will point out two of these, relative to my subject, near the end of this article.
Bible study is like archeology. Sometimes what we need is right at the surface. But many times we must dig through multiple layers to get to the real treasure we seek. Like anyone concerned with biblical truth I come to the text with certain assumptions at the surface. In my case, I approach the text with two key assumptions:
The earth and its natural processes are the same today as when it was created prior to the fall of man, and
The earth is ancient and not recent
First, let's provide definitions for the seven categories of death as I understand them. Most of these are self-explanatory.
Plant Death. Plant death is a form of physical death whereby plant life in part or in whole transitions from a state of living to non-existence as a plant. To the best of our knowledge plants do not have spirits or a spiritual life, thus when they die they eventually cease to exist as plants.
Animal Death. According to our best understanding, animals die and cease to exist. They do not persist forever. However, there will come a time in the future kingdom where animals during that age will not experience physical death (Isaiah 11:6-9).
Human Death. In an atheistic culture like much of the western world, death is seen as the transition of life to non-existence. However, the biblical view of human death is very different. In the biblical view human beings have spirits which persist forever either in a state of eternal, conscious bliss (II Corinthians 5:8) or eternal, conscious torment (Mark 9:43). Earthly death is therefore a form of exile from earthly life to heavenly or hellish life.
Physical Death. For plants and animals this is the transition from earthly life to non-existence. For humans, physical death is the putting off of the material body to continue existence for a short time as spirit only. However, during the resurrection we will be reunited with our physical bodies in a glorified form (Revelation 20:5-6).
Spiritual Death. Separation from God either temporary or permanent. All people are born separated from God because of the sin nature (Ephesians 4:18). Embracing salvation in Jesus Christ transitions a person out of spiritual exile into his kingdom (Colossians 1:13). Rejection of Christ leaves a person spiritually dead and during his resurrection he will experience eternal separation from God in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:15). This is referred to in scripture as the Second Death.
Death For Sin. This is my title for death that is the result of sin. All beings die physically but human death was inaugurated into the world through sin (Romans 5:12). Death for Sin is only applicable to human beings. Animals do not die for sin as humans do because animals cannot sin. Animals cannot sin because they were not created in the image of God. Sin, ultimately, is a violation of God's image in us.
Functional Death is the cessation of earthly life not associated with sin. All life experiences Functional Death. There are different types of Functional Death. Plants die when they are eaten. Their death is functional in nature. Animals die when consumed by other animals or people. Human beings can experience Functional Death, that is death that serves a function apart from sin. One such death might be death to prevent overpopulation. Someone might die to protect the safety of someone else. This is a form of Functional Death.
Death As God's Idea: Is It Good?
YECs ask how the creation before the fall can be good if animal death was normal. It should be noted that even though we think of death as being bad, death is not immoral. If death is not immoral then God can use death as he sees fit in his created order. In reality, death was God's idea. It was God's idea to levy a punishment of death for sin. Thus, for death to occur, it had to be built into the system that God originally created. Death was possible prior to sin.
This issue of goodness and the existence of death is actually more difficult for a YEC proponent than might first be thought. Here is one reason why. Is Hell good?
This might seem to be a strange question. Almost none of us would describe Hell in this way. However, Hell was God's idea. It was created by God for a purpose. Hell is not bad in a moral sense. Hell functions according to the design God had for it. If this is true in a functional way we can say the Hell is good just as the rest of creation is good in that it functions according to the design God intended. Hell is not preferred, or pleasant, or desirable. But that doesn't mean it doesn't serve a good function. If this is the case with Hell, then why is the same not true with death before the fall, which also served a good function? Goodness in creation is not defined by humanity's desire, it's defined by God's intentions. Thus, both Hell and death before the fall can serve a purpose and none of the goodness of creation is lost.
Immortality & Death
Adam was not created immortal in the sense that he could go on living forever in his earthly body without any outside aid. Only God is self existent requiring nothing outside of himself in order to maintain his existence. Man is not self-existent; he is dependent. By saying this we should not confuse the existence of the spirit and the body. Once created, the spirit lives forever either in a body or separated from a body. Spirits do not cease to exist (as an annihilationist might claim). The biblical idea of eternal life is for a person's spirit to be united with their resurrection body and in that state to persist
Make no mistake, all of mankind possesses a form of immortality. We have spirits whose existence is persistent whether in our earthly bodies or our resurrection bodies. However, eternal life as a gift is the forever rejoining of the spirit with a remade body. Adam did have access to another kind of immortality which we no longer have access to: immortality in an earthly body. But this was only true if he ate from the Tree Of Life (Genesis 3:22-24). This interpretation is contingent upon the idea of the Tree Of Life being a literal tree in the Garden Of Eden which was endowed with properties to maintain an earthly body so that that body would not die. This either happened through one eating or a maintenance eating. We have no way of knowing which was the case, though the latter seems to me to be a reasonable conclusion.
Adam was created mortal. We may deduce this from the existence of the Tree Of Life. If the purpose of the Tree Of Life was to prolong earthly life without limit, then Adam must have needed it for his survival. If he needed it, then he was created mortal. We can also apply this argument to regular food. The purpose of food is to maintain life. If Adam were created immortal, then why would he need regular food? Regular food did not impart immortality, but did give Adam the nourishment he needed to maintain his bodily systems so that he could function in the environment God created for him.
This implies that Adam could experience earthly death without sin. Traditionally, death is seen by some as only being the result of sin. I'd like to suggest the following: there is a difference between Death For Sin and what I call, Functional Death.
Prior to sin, human death was possible but not actual. This is a very important distinction to be made. Because death was built into the system, death was possible. But until there arose a cause for death, death was possible, but not actual.
Human death did not come into the world until sin came into the world. "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" (Romans 5:12). This does not mean that death could only be caused by sin. There could be other causes (falling off a cliff, eating poisonous food, accidentally impaling oneself, etc.), but it was sin that happened to be the first cause of death.
Notice the order of events in Genesis 3. "The man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God" (Genesis 3:8). The first experience of human death was separation from God because of sin. The second experience was in the killing of the animal to cover their sin instead of God killing Adam and Eve. "The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21).
Some death already preceded Adam and Eve. Whatever Adam ate, died. If an animal plunged off a cliff it would die. It is possible that in Eden there was no animal death because Eden was a sacred space where God and man lived together. But even if that is true, then animal death outside of Eden was possible. If the Tree of Life was required to keep Adam alive forever, then what about the animals? Would they live forever without needing the Tree Of Life? If so, then why require Adam to have it, beyond its symbolic meaning of obedience to God? Surely, animals and fish and insects were not created immortal without needing the Tree Of Life. If Adam needed the Tree Of Life, why would the animals not need it to live forever?
If animals do not sin, then no animal dies for sin. Thus, animal death is functional, not Death For Sin. This means animal death could have preceded sin and be considered good in terms of the function it served to advance life on earth. This is a very important consideration. There is a difference between what is Functionally Good and what is Morally Good. The creation statements in Genesis 1 after each creative act declared that God saw what he created and declared that "It was good" (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,25,31). This is not a moral declaration, rather it was a functional declaration. It is not a moral declaration because sin only occurs in relationships. No moral relationships are in view until we get to the sixth day of creation, thus, the statements of good are functional in nature. This is the equivalent of God saying, "I made this and it works according to the way I designed it to work." It is like saying a new car functions according to factory specifications. It is a functional declaration not a moral declaration.
Living In An Environment Dependent Upon Death
In Genesis 2:8, 15 Adam is placed in the garden to take care of it. This implies that if the Garden wasn't taken care of then it would become wild. Thus, we see in the pre-sin condition that chaos was possible. The garden would become wild, or perhaps not suitable for human habitation. Things could degenerate. "The plants, flowers and trees of Eden stood in need of cultivation from the hand of man, and would speedily have degenerated without his attention" (Old Testament Survey Series: The Pentateuch, James E. Smith). Notice that this was true BEFORE the fall into sin. God built a system where things could go naturally from order to chaos.
Functional Death, in terms of a cycle of earthly life, must have been part of the pre-sin system that God created. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. But if no one died and men multiplied, along with animals, then earth would quickly have been overrun and become unlivable. We cannot say that God would have prevented Adam and Eve from multiplying because it was God's command to the first couple that they should "be fruitful and multiply." If they were not to exercise this function then they would have fallen short of living as God's image.
Death In Heaven?
This next point is contingent upon an interpretation of Isaiah 6:1-7 taking place in the heavenly temple, rather than the temple in Jerusalem. Bible teachers differ on this passage. I take this passage as Isaiah seeing what is happening in a heavenly vision.
In Isaiah 6:6 an angel takes a hot coal from the altar in the heavenly temple and touches it to Isaiah's lips. What is most often missed about this passage is that it was a hot coal, likely, a wood coal. Think about what this implies. Where does one get a wood coal? From wood, from a tree. Where does one find trees? In a forest. How does one get wood from a tree for a burning altar? By chopping the tree down. Do you see where I am going? The implication is that there are trees in heaven that are chopped down to burn in fire. This is an act of functional death and destruction. If we can find such acts of functional death in heaven, then why do we suppose this was impossible on the primeval earth, prior to the advent of sin?
Death & Punishment
When God told Adam he would die ON THE DAY he ate of the Tree Of Knowledge Of Good And Evil, he wasn't just talking about spiritual death. God choose to exercise his judgment on an innocent animal, thus clothing Adam. This was the first sacrifice for sin. In this way, God kept his promise. Something died for Adam's sin on that day. Thus was introduced the idea of Death For Sin along with substitutionary atonement.
The concept of Death For Sin is explained in Romans 5:12-21. Death For Sin is tied to condemnation and judgment. Romans 6:23 talks about the wages of sin. Wages are something that a person earns. I.e., we earn death through our sin. There are two kinds of death being described: physical death and spiritual death. Adam experienced spiritual death right away. His relationship with God was broken. But an animal took his physical death in his place when God killed the animal to provide clothing for Adam. This leads us back to the idea of Functional Death and the idea that not all death is bad.
A Good Death & A Sacred Space
In Philippians 1:21 Paul speaks of death as a gain. In this context, death is not seen as his enemy, but as a conduit to draw closer to Christ. In this context, Paul is not dying for sin because Jesus died for our sin. Thus, if this is not death for sin then this must be another kind of death, a death to usher us into a greater life.
II Timothy 1:10 discussed Jesus abolishing death and bringing immortality through the gospel. What does abolish death mean? (1) Death for sin, (2) Physical death, (3) Spiritual death. We no longer die for our sin. Jesus did that for us. We do experience physical death. But we are no longer separated from God in our life or our death.
In Genesis 3:17 the ground was cursed, but there is nothing to indicate that anything in Eden was cursed. Rather, Eden was only restricted from Adam. It is important to note that the Garden of Eden was sacred space. It was not like other places on earth. It was unique in that it was set aside as the place where God would manifest himself to man prior to the advent of sin. Eden was the first place where a sacrifice for sin was made. While the Garden of Eden was a literal place, it also served an important symbolic meaning. Eden was sacred space as the land of Israel was sacred space where God would be specially manifested in the blessings of his people. Eden was sacred space as the Temple was sacred space where God would meet with man to accept sacrifices for sin. Eden was sacred space as the human heart is sacred space where the Holy Spirit takes up residence and we are encouraged to be, "Living sacrifices" (Romans 12:1). Eden was sacred space as the New Jerusalem will be sacred space where God will be manifest to the saints forever and we will see the risen lamb who was sacrificed for us.
Caution: We Don't Know It All
What we are told about the state of creation, Eden, sin, death, etcetera, is not comprehensive. We do not know everything there is to know about that time. We primarily know what we need to know redemptively. Some things we know are at the surface where they are easy to see and study. Other things are more deeply hidden in the text or are near the surface but take a little thought to dig out. For instance, In Genesis 3:21 God clothes Adam and Eve with skins. We are not directly told that he killed an animal to do so, but that is the common sense conclusion. What lays deeper is the realization that this was a foreshadowing of ritual sacrifice for sin and even the death of Jesus. Now, we are not told this directly in Genesis 3, but when we compare what God said he would do to Adam and Eve, and what he actually did, and match that up with later Mosaic texts on sin, sacrifice, and atonement we come to the conclusion that God didn't simply make clothes for Adam and Eve, he vented his wrath for sin upon the animal and the animal became a substitutionary atonement for the first couple. That is why Adam and Eve did not physically die on the day they ate the fruit. Now, we are not told this directly in the narrative, we have to figure it out. Just like we are not directly told in the Bible about the Trinity, but we have to figure it out. So too, we are not told directly about what I refer to as Functional Death. We have to figure it out.
Things God Didn't Say: Don't Eat & You'll Live Forever
When God told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the fruit they would die, we traditionally interpret that to mean that if they didn't eat of it they would not die, but live forever. But the scripture doesn't say that. It says that if they ate, they would die THAT DAY. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't die anyway of other causes, at another time. God didn't say, don't eat and you will live forever. He just said, don't eat or else I'll kill you. In other words, they would die sooner rather than later through other means. This is what Adam was afraid of. He remembered God's words and perceived them as a threat, to paraphrase, "If you eat this I will kill you THAT DAY." That's why Adam hid. He was afraid that God was coming to kill him. But none of that means that Adam would live forever anyway. So, death was possible, even a death that did not result from sin. This is what I have termed as Functional Death. Speculatively, I am applying this possible death as a death that functions for reasons other than sin.
So, if Adam never sinned, but if he also never ate of the Tree Of Life, then we have reason to conclude that death of another type was possible. The scripture says that death came through sin, and that is correct. It came through sin before it could come another way, a functional way. If it had not come through sin, it would have come another way, functionally.
Death As An Enemy
I Corinthians 15:26 tells us that, "The last enemy to be abolished is death." If all death is an enemy then the idea of Functional Death might not be true. However, the context of the passage is Death For Sin. If the last enemy to be abolished is death, then physical death must be in view here since we no longer have separation from God and do not die for our sins. Our resurrection defeats death once and for all and thus, death is abolished. However, not all death is abolished. Those who reject Christ will experience what is called a "Second Death," which is never-ending torment in the Lake of Fire. So, when scripture says that death will be abolished it does not mean, in a hyper-literal way, all forms of death. It only refers to death for the believer. Death for the non-believer is not in view. Plant death is also not in view as even in the New Jerusalem we will eat plants (Revelation 22:2).
Not All OEC Arguments Are Air Tight
Some OEC arguments leave something to be desired, such as the argument for pre-sin death using animal names. The argument states that Adam carefully examined the animals he named, noting their physical characteristics and named them accordingly. Some of the names used later in the biblical text, names used long after the fall took place, were descriptions like bird of prey, tear, etc., names which are applicable to flesh eaters. We do not know if Adam chose such names for the variety of animals he examined. If Adam used these names to describe the animals then this indicates that Adam knew them as carnivores and thus animal death was the status quo before the fall. But we really don't know this.
Though I am convinced of the general truthfulness of the OEC claim of death before the fall, I am not persuaded by this language-specific argument. The Old Testament was primarily written in Hebrew. But Adam likely did not speak Hebrew. At best his language might have been a proto-Sumerian dating before 3500 BC. But if OECs are correct and Adam lived 40,000 to 150,000 years prior, it is extremely doubtful his original language survived, or that he even had a written language, we have no such evidence. In addition, just because the Hebrew names have violent descriptive meaning does not mean the original language contained that same meaning. Languages are fluid and translations do not always carry a one-to-one correspondence. I know a little something about this. I am a missionary of 21 years with a background in broadcast communications for over 30 years. I provided a school curriculum for broadcasting translated into Turkish and Russian. I oversaw translation of 35 Bible studies from English to Mongolian, seminary level theological training materials from Third Millennium Ministries into Mongolian, and the translation of Mongolia's first children's comic Bible. What often carries deep meaning in one language does not always carry that same deep meaning in its new language. There is just no way to know how Adam chose the names of the animals 40,000 to 150,000 years ago. While we can reasonably assume his chosen names were descriptive, we don't know how descriptive they were. Anything else is simply a guess.
Another argument for death before the fall comes in the idea that when God told Adam he would die if eating the fruit, that Adam didn't need an explanation of what death was, which lends credibility to the idea that Adam had seen animals that eat other animals. I think this is a weak argument. The fact is, we don't have enough detail about Adam's life to know how he acquired language. Was he created with a full knowledge of language and its meaning already "installed" (to use a software term)? Or was he given rudimentary language skill like that of a child and then he learned as he grew? It seems to me that if Adam was given language, he was also given meaning and if death was built into the system God created then the meaning of death was something God gave to Adam as part of his language skill set. I think this is more plausible than saying Adam didn't need an explanation of death because he had seen it. Such a claim is as close to a guess as one can come. But my explanation is equally a guess. Bottom line: We don't know how Adam acquired the meaning of what death was, therefore, as an OEC argument it is not entirely persuasive.
It is my personal opinion that non-human death prior to the fall into sin was possible and actual. It is my opinion that human death prior to the fall was possible, but never made actual. Though we often view death in a negative light, the fact remains that for the believer in Jesus Christ, death is our passageway to a more direct communion with God. Thus, death performs for the believer a necessary and good function, delivering us into the presence of the our Savior. Had Adam not sinned, he eventually would have died of a cause not related to sin (if he had never eaten of the Tree Of Life). In such case, death would have also been his passageway to an increased life with God. But as mentioned earlier, this is speculation.