The creation controversy is very important to people who hold different perspectives for different reasons. As an old earth creationist, I believe that it is important to an effective witness. Young earth creationists believe that it is important because they think that they are the bastion of scriptural authority. Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of this debate is the issue of death before the Fall of man. Typically, old earth creationists hold that God created the earth over 4 billion years ago. Before the creation of man, there was dinosaurs, a flourishing ecosystem, and millennia upon millennia of death. Young earth creationists believe that this strongly compromises the biblical narrative. In this article, I will make the case for animal death before the Fall of man.
I should also point out that this is one area that many young earth creationists take very seriously. Death before the fall is not akin to the interpretation of the days of creation. Some will go so far as to say that the view that animals died before the Fall of man is actual heresy. Others will suggest that it portrays God as being evil. This issue of whether there was or could be death before the Fall is probably one of the most inflamed debates within the creation controversy. So, what are the arguments and counterarguments worth considering?
Was God’s Creation Perfect Or Very Good?
After the creation week, God declared that this creation was very good (Genesis 1:31). Young earth creationists will typically interpret that to mean that the creation was perfect. By implication, there was no animal death. If God overlooked a world containing predation, suffering, disease, thorns and thistles, and said that it was very good, he would be, in the words of Ken Ham, an ogre. Christians who have had discussions with atheists will probably have encountered a form of this objection. Atheists will tell us that there is so much evil and suffering in the world that for God to allow it, he would have to be malicious in his intentions.
In responding to the young earth creationists, the first thing that we might point out is that the same theodicy that we apply in debates with atheists can also be applied here. Perhaps one of the most powerful theodicies is the lack of a logical disconnect between the existence of suffering and death and the existence of a good God. It is possible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil and suffering. Similarly, it is possible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for creating a world infused with animal death. To say that this makes God into an ogre would logically lead you to concede this theodicy to the force of atheism. Of course, that is unthinkable, because that is precisely the theodicy that God used in the book of Job (chapters 38-41).
But, the response may come, nonetheless, the text says that the creation was perfect. Well, I do not think that there are any good reasons to think that “very good” means that it is “perfect.” I think that it is possible that God established an ecosystem in which life would flourish and be abundant. Predation is central to a flourishing ecosystem. Some breeds of animals cannot even survive if there are no predators in the environment. Overpopulation and disease become prevalent. In some cases, it is necessary to introduce predators into an environment for the sake of the species that they are hunting. So, when God said that the creation was “very good” that could just be a reference to the flourishing ecosystem.
One could take this argument a step further and point out that there are elements of the creation that indicate that it is imperfect, but still very good. First, the serpent in the Garden of Eden was certainly not perfect. The tree of good and evil was something over which God would say, “This is perfect.” Most profoundly, the capacity to sin was not a manifestation of perfection. There are several exegetical reasons to think that the original creation in Genesis 1 was not a perfect creation. This seems to undercut the implication that there could be no animal death before the Fall.
Will Animals Be Redeemed?
Death was introduced into the world as a consequence of sin. Of death, Romans 5:12 tells us, “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 3:23 tells us that the wage of sin is death. The reason that people die is because they sin. Since everybody sins, everybody dies. But the death of man is the not the only punishment for sin. After Adam sinned in Genesis 3:17, God said, “The ground is cursed because of you.” Everything around us reminds us that we are fallen creatures in a fallen world. But if that is the case, does that entail that animal death came as a result of sin?
First, I want to indicate that this concept is foreign to the writings of Paul. In both Romans 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, the context is clearly referring to the death of men, not to animals. Of course, that does not prove that animals did not die as a result of the Fall. But exegetically, we can only infer the death of human beings as a result of sin.
Second, some have taken this a step further. Zachary Lawson has argued that if you think that animals died before the Fall (particularly on the basis of this passage), then it would follow that animals are receptive to redemption in Christ. The parallel that this passage presents is that all die in Adam and are made alive in Christ. If the former applies to animals, then the latter would have to apply to animals as well. Animals would have to be receptive to regeneration. Animals would have to be redeemed by the blood of Christ. This reductio ad absurdum seems to suggest that animals did not die as a result of the Fall. (Of course, one may point out that there will be animals in the New Heaven and New Earth, but that is different from saying that they are made alive in Christ in the sense that Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 are referring to.)
Perhaps God Created A World That Knew We Were Coming
In the drama of human experience, we have to react to situations and base our decisions on what we think the best course of action will be. In a more ideal scenario, we will be prepared for situations that arise. Unfortunately, that is often not the case and we just have to react. God is in the pleasant situation of knowing what will happen in the future. As Christians, we affirm that God has knowledge of all true propositions. Before Adam sinned, God knew that the proposition “Adam sins” would eventually be true. However, unlike us, God does not need to react to the situations that arise and make some sort of probabilistic decision. Everything that comes to pass is built into his decree. For example, when he created Adam and Eve, he did not say, “Oh, they need sustenance. I had better create some plants.” Rather, the food was already available. It was waiting for them. God knew that they were coming.
Similarly, when the great patriarchs of Israel sinned, they recognized God as their Redeemer. God had mercy on them despite that they were not worthy of mercy. This is because he knew that the cross was imminent, that Jesus would die for the sins of his people (Romans 3:21-25). The cross was retroactively effective, paying for the sin even of those who died long before Christ. I think that you are probably beginning to understand this theme. God knew that he was going to send forth his Son, so he did not just obliterate people when they sinned. He knew that Adam would be hungry, so he created food. (I apologize that this is not technical, reformed, deterministic parlance. I know that.) How does this relate to the issue of the fallen creation?
Well, it may be that God knew that sinners were coming into the world, so he created a world that was already fallen. He created a fallen world that was custom-made for fallen creatures. He would not have to wait until they had actually fallen to reactively curse the ground. Of course, then the question arises: why put creatures who are not fallen (Adam and Eve) into a fallen world? The answer is that God isolated them from the fallen world. He put them in the Garden of Eden. Then when they sinned, they were banned, hence being exposed to the real world. I do not see anything at all implausible about this interpretation.
Were They Vegetarians?
Some young earth creationists argue that if man and animals were both vegetarians, then it would follow that there was no death at all in God’s original creation. From there, they will appeal to texts such as Genesis 1:29-30, in which God gave to Adam and Eve every plant for their consumption. Later, in Genesis 3:17-19, the vegetarian diet is reinforced, until after the great deluge. At that point, Noah and his family were permitted to consume animals. But before that point, all human beings were commanded to be vegetarians, and before the Fall, all animals were vegetarians.
What are the problems with this argument? First, consider the first premise. If man and animals were both vegetarians, then there is no death at all. Well, that would only be the case if predation was the only possible way for animals to die. So, possibly, one could have a model of vegetarian animals who died. Admittedly, though, this is not a model that any old earth creationist would accept. Premise two is far more controversial. Were humans and animals truly vegetarians?
It is undeniable that God gave them plants to eat. But that is not to say that they were not permitted to eat animals. This seems to be little more than an argument from silence. If it is not recorded in the text, then God did not say it. It would only serve as an argument if we had some command that said something like, “I give you plants for your consumption, but anything that moves, you shall not touch.” This is just an argument from silence. Similarly, in Genesis 9:3, God says, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.” That is not to say that they were not permitted to eat animals prior to Genesis 9:3. Similarly, in the next verse, God commands that they not consume anything that is still alive. That is not to say that it was acceptable prior to Genesis 9:4. In Genesis 9:5-6, God commands that they not commit murder. But that is not to say that murder was acceptable prior to this utterance. The argument from vegetation is really an argument from silence.
The Parallel Between The New Earth And Eden
When Jesus returns, he will make all things new. The narrative of the Bible is not exclusively about individual salvation, (“How can I be saved?”) but about how God loves the world so much that he redeemed his creation (John 3:16). We are certainly objects of God’s affection, and that is because we are part of his world. Young earth creationists will sometimes argue that when God makes all things new, he will restore everything back to its’ original state. We lost paradise and Christ brought us back. Since there will be no animal death in the New Earth, it follows that there was no animal death in the original creation.
I think there are several reasons to think that while this may be a legitimate parallel, that does not mean that it is a precise, line-by-line parallel. There are several aspects of the New Earth that will differ from the original creation. First, we will not have the capacity to sin. In such close proximity with God, we will be so overwhelmed by his presence and his righteousness, that sin will seem unthinkable. Just as abstaining from all sin may seem unthinkable to us today, committing a single sin will seem unthinkable to us then. Consider that while Jesus was the Second Adam, he was also very different from Adam after he rose from the dead. Yet his resurrection is the first fruit of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:23). We will all rise and be glorified in the same way that Christ was, and we will inhabit the New Earth. This is one radical difference from the original creation. With this in mind, I do not know that we can make the argument that because the New Earth has a particular attribute, that therefore the original creation had that attribute.
The Case For Animal Death Before The Fall of Man
There are a few things that I want to point out as I draw this article to a close. First, I am not advocating for theistic evolution. I do not think that there were humanoids before the Fall who were biologically identical to homosapiens. I am just pointing out that one of the central arguments that young earth creationists will appeal to does not seem to be as robust as they think. Remember, it applies an atheistic objection to God’s moral duties toward us (suggesting that God would be an ogre). It reads animal death into the text of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, when, as we saw, that interpretation leads to absurdity, and it mounts a host of arguments that I do not think can withstand scrutiny.
Nonetheless, I understand that many people are passionate about this issue. It is something that we should approach with charity and kind-heartedness. If you care to offer a critique, I ask only that you do so by examining what I said and responding to it rather than making accusations of compromise. I could just as easily accuse you of compromising for the sake of traditional values. But I will not do that because that shuts down communication.
If you would like to read more, please see my series The Age of The Earth.