It is often claimed that since death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23), there was no death in the created world until Adam sinned (cf. Rom. 5:12). It is also contended that since he was the divinely appointed lord of creation, all creation was affected by his action and as a consequence it now languishes under a universal curse. While it is freely acknowledged that animals lacking rational understanding do not sin, they die nonetheless on account of the curse stemming from Adam. So the question we are forced to ask is whether or not the evidence supports this traditional scenario? I would argue that it does not.
The Beginning of Creation
To start with, the very first verse of the Bible tells us that creation had a beginning. The implication of this is that it will also have an end (Ps. 102: 25-27; Mt. 24:35; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). By contrast the Creator himself, being eternal, has neither beginning nor end (cf. Heb. 7:3) but inhabits eternity (Isa. 57:15; 66:1) and lives forever and ever (Rev. 5:13). In light of this we may conclude on the one hand that man who emanates physically from the ground (Gen. 2:7) is both mortal and corruptible (cf. Ps. 103:14), and on the other, that since he is made in the image of God, he has hope of eternal life, in fact of an eternal weight of glory in the age to come (2 Cor. 4:17). To cut the story short, in the words of Paul Christ our Saviour is the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
Made By Hand
Second, creation is manufactured or “made by hand” (Ps. 102:25; Isa. 45:12). This pejorative expression which has an old covenant connotation is often erroneously taken to mean “made by human hands” or man-made (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1; Heb. 9:11,24 NIV), but the fact that creation, which is the work of God, is nonetheless “made by hand” (Isa. 45:12; 48:13; Heb. 1:10, etc.) rules this out of court. In the NT what is “not made by hand” (acheiropoietos) is eternal or perfect like God himself (Mark 14:58; 2 Cor. 5:1; Col. 2:11, etc.). (1* See further my Manufactured Or Not So.) What this implies is that all created or visible material things are perishable by divine design (1 Cor. 15:50; Rom. 8:24f.; 2 Cor. 4:18; 1 Pet. 1:18b) and will, once their purpose has been achieved, eventually pass away (Ps. 102:26), a point that is stressed in the NT (e.g. Mt. 24:35; Heb. 12:27; 1 John 2:17). In other words, the material creation which is the footstool of God will ultimately be destroyed like Joshua’s enemies (Jos. 10:16-27), disappear (2 Pet. 3:7,10-12; Rev. 6:14; 16:20; 20:11, cf. Heb. 8:13) and give way to the new (for us), unshakable world or the eternal heaven which is the throne of God (Rev. 21:1).
It needs to be added here that Adam was clearly “made by hand” (Gen. 2:7, cf. Job 10:8f.; Ps. 119:73; Rom. 1:23). As noted above, this old covenant expression, which contrasts with the new covenant “not made by hand”, is always pejorative in Scripture. Since this is so, the Augustinian idea that Adam was created immortal, perfect, etc., and yet “fell” into sin is manifestly false, absurd and implicitly blasphemous since it calls God himself into question. Paul supports this inference when he tells us that it was Jesus the second Adam in contrast with the first who first brought life and incorruption to light (2 Tim. 1:10). This fails to make sense unless we conclude that prior to his victory, death and corruption were part of the natural order from the beginning. In other words, Adam was created both mortal and corruptible like the animal world in general (Rom. 1:23) but unlike Jesus, the second Adam, failed to gain eternal life by not sinning (Gen. 2:16f.; Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5, etc.).
Third, Genesis 1 clearly teaches that God intended the earth’s vegetation to be used for food (vv. 29f.; Ps. 104:14; 147:8f.). In light of this it is hardly surprising that grass is a symbol of transience and death throughout Scripture (James 1:10f.; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). So when Isaiah says that men are grass, he is plainly portraying them as naturally mortal (Isa. 40:6-8). Again, when the Psalmist complains that men exchange the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass (Ps. 106:20), he is not only pointing up a contradiction but also highlighting intrinsic blasphemy. As Paul insinuates in Romans 1:23, the contrast between the incorruptible (Gk) Creator and the corruptible creature, both man and animal, is fundamental.
Fourth, the Bible makes it unequivocally clear that whatever lives on perishable food is itself perishable (contrast Ps. 50:12f.). Though, according to the Psalmist, God himself feeds the animals (Ps. 104:14), they nonetheless die (Ps. 49:12,20; Eccles. 3:18-20, etc.). Carnivorous lions in the very act of eating kill other animals which are also created by God (Ps. 104:21). So while it may be conceded that in the early stages of life even lions suckle their young (cf. 1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12-14), the fundamentalist contention that the death of flesh (nephesh) as opposed to green vegetation is not on the agenda is not at all convincing (2* See e.g. Ham, ed., pp.53,99,264,326-328). While it is true that explicit permission to eat flesh was not given until Genesis 9:3, it must be maintained that it has nothing to do with sin (cf. Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:13-15.) The reason given for death in Genesis 6:3 is precisely that we are flesh which derives like grass from the corruptible creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12), and this is supported by Psalms 78:39, 103:14 and Isaiah 40:6-8. The NT clearly endorses this view (Luke 12:33; 16:9; Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8; James 1:10f.; 1 Pet. 1:24, etc.). We need to recognize that the pattern of life was laid down from the start and that man as both individual and community follows this pattern. In other words, just as man the individual (including the second Adam) is created in the womb today (cf. Job. 31:15; Mal. 2:10), so he was at the start (cf. Ps. 139:13-16). The Garden of Eden, like the earth itself, is the symbolic womb of the race where the seed (cf. Gen. 2:8,15) is nurtured and man has access to a source of total supply. Once he has issued from the garden womb whether as a sinner (Adam) or not (babies and second Adam) he becomes increasingly dependent on his own sweat (Gen. 3:19) as he gathers the harvest of a creation whose natural recalcitrance (Gen. 2:15, cf. Rom. 8:18-25) is exacerbated by his own sinfulness. (3* See further my Cosmic Curse?. It may help the reader at this point to recognize that Adam though physically adult was nonetheless spiritually like a baby, cf. Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:3,31; Isa. 7:15f., etc. As Paul says, 1 Cor. 15:46, the flesh comes first. And its repetition or reproduction reflects its futility like sacrifice in Hebrews.)
Material and Spiritual Food
But there is another basic point to make. Jesus himself strongly stresses the fact that whoever is solely dependent on perishable food, even that supplied miraculously by God himself, nonetheless dies (John 6:31,49). In view of this Jesus insists that man in general needs two kinds of food: the one is earthly and perishable, the other is heavenly and spiritual (John 6:52-63, cf. Mt. 4:4). While all created food and drink are dead, God supplies living bread (John 6:51) and living water (John 4:10) for man made in the image of the living God both to initiate (John 6:33; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23) and sustain his spiritual life (John 6:50f., cf. 11:25). The only reasonable conclusion we can draw from this is that all animal flesh, including man, is in contrast with the Creator corruptible or subject to decay (Rom. 1:23, cf. 8:13; Gal. 6:8) like the earth from which it is taken. It clearly cannot enter the eternal heaven (John 3:3,5; 1 Cor. 15:50). For man, even Jesus, to do so, he must of necessity undergo a spiritual, not a physical, regeneration (John 3:3) and be corporeally (somatically) changed (1 Cor. 15:51ff.), that is, given a spiritual (replacement) body (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 2 Cor. 5:1, cf. Rom. 8:23). The flesh, which by its very nature as part of the corruptible creation is intended to be the slave of the spirit (cf. Gen. 1:26-28; 2:16f.), cannot enter heaven (Gal. 4:29f., cf. John 8:35. See further myThe Flesh A Slave.)
No reader of the OT can fail to become aware of the prominent part played by animal sacrifice. Apart from noting the fact that only perfect or unblemished animals could be used implying that some were naturally imperfect (e.g. Lev. 22:22, cf. Lev. 21:17ff.) like the blind man in John 9, Moses who had a speech defect (Ex. 4:11), Sarah who was barren and the eunuch who was a dry tree (Isa. 56:3), we must ask how animals which according to tradition are themselves tainted by the curse can serve in atonement for sin? Surely the inference we must draw is that they are in fact innocent, unaffected by sin and naturally mortal (cf. 2 Pet. 2:12). If this is so, then their use as sacrifice makes sense.
Death and Reproduction
Yet another point must be made. According to Genesis 1 both plants and animals are created to reproduce (vv. 11f.,28f.). From this it might be inferred merely that God intended the world as a whole to be inhabited (cf. Isa. 45:18). It is far more likely that the basic reason was replacement as the result of death (cf. Gen. 6:19f.; 7:3; 38:8f.; Dt. 25:5f.). If this is so, then one could say almost ironically that the election of grace was thereby expanded exponentially to include many succeeding generations (cf. Rev. 7:9). (4* It might usefully be added here that man as community or race can only achieve the maturity of Christ over successive generations, cf. Eph. 2:15f.; 4:13; Gal. 3:28. It is the church as a whole that becomes the bride of Christ. The only individual whose life spanned the covenants enabling him to recapitulate the history of the race and become the pattern of human perfection/maturity was Jesus, the second Adam, Heb. 2:10; 5:8f.; 7:28; 12:2, cf. Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:1-7.) This view is supported by reference to the fact that only two things in Scripture are said to be “the way of all the earth”: procreation (Gen. 19:31) and death (Jos. 23:14; 1 K. 2:2). Furthermore, both fail to feature in the world to come (Luke 20:34-36). Again, as the author of Hebrews says, the Levitical priests were many in number because they were prevented by death from continuing in office (Heb. 7:23). Of course, it may be replied to this that sin was the cause of death. True, but this is to ignore the fact that from the beginning man (Adam) was created mortal and was promised (eternal) life on condition of obeying the commandment (Gen. 2:17), a point expanded on at a later date (e.g. Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Mt. 19:17; Rom. 10:5, etc.). Indeed, while it is clear that the sinless Jesus himself betrayed his physical corruptibility or proneness to decay by growing older (John 8:56, cf. Mt. 6:19f.; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Heb. 1:11, cf. 8:13; Col. 2:22), he nonetheless met the condition of eternal life by keeping the law (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5), being born again (cf. Mt. 3:13-17, etc.) and eventually by ascending transformed into heaven and the presence of his Father. And it is only to state the obvious that the first Adam and all his progeny including Paul, for example (Rom. 7:9f.), who sinned like him (Rom. 5:12) failed in this. (Tradition ignores the fact that the second Adam had two fathers: his fleshly and hence mortal father through his mother was the first Adam, Luke 3:38, while his spiritual Father was God himself.)
In case my point has been missed, let us ignore for a moment the vicarious death of the Saviour in atonement for sin. When we do this, we can see at once that Jesus, like a sinless Adam, would eventually have suffered corruption or decay by old age (cf. Mt. 6:19f.; Luke 12:33; 2 Cor. 4:16; Col. 2:22; Heb. 8:13) if he had remained permanently on this earth which was divinely subjected to corruption (Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12). As he himself implied (John 3:6) and Paul insisted (1 Cor. 15:50), once he had achieved the righteousness that led to life by keeping the law, he had of necessity to ascend to heaven (John 20:17) and be transformed (1 Cor. 15:51f., cf. Phil. 3:21) in order to live out his indestructible life (Heb. 7:16) and inherit the eternal blessings of David (Isa. 55:3; Luke 1:32f.; Acts 13:34). As the One who was incarnate only for a little while (Heb. 2:7,9) but was made perfect forever (Heb. 2:10; 5:9f.; 7:28), he became the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature (cf. John 17:5,24). He thus sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb. 1:3, 13, etc.) occupying as man the eternal throne of God (Rev. 3:21, cf. Mt. 28:18). For this to occur it was impossible for him to remain in fleshly bondage to the corruption of creation (Rom. 8:20f.). (5* On this see my Romans 8:18-25, When Was Jesus Transformed?, Concerning Futility.) In fact, it was he who uniquely brought life and incorruption (Gk) to light (2 Tim. 1:10). And it is through this gospel that believers will live too and thereby be delivered from their body of death (Rom. 7:24, cf. 8:21).
The idea that sin is the universal cause of death and corruption (decay) is belied by yet another consideration easily overlooked. First, Jesus makes is quite clear that the blindness of the man he heals in John 9 is not related to sin (see v.3). Second, he implies the same with regard to Lazarus’ death (11:4). Indeed, this must be so or otherwise God is unjustly requiring Lazarus to die not once but twice since, though raised by Jesus the first time, he certainly died a second time on account of sin (Rom. 8:10; Heb. 9:27). The implication of this is that death and corruption (including illness, aging, decay, etc.) are basically natural (cf. Lev. 22:22). The truth is that the ‘good’, ‘hand-made’ world (Gen. 1; Isa. 48:13), like the ‘good’ (Rom. 7:12) ‘hand-written’ law (Col. 2:14; Heb. 7:18f.; 8:7), is inherently defective (Mt. 6:19f.; Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12; 1 Pet. 1:18b), and in direct contrast with the eternal heaven or what is ‘not made by hand’ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1; Heb. 9:11, etc.)
Death Not Wages Apart From Law
Finally, it is vitally important to underline the fact that death is only wages when it is earned by breaking the law (Rom. 6:23). (See further the additional note below.) It is only with the onset of law that it gains both a sting and moral significance (1 Cor. 15:56). If where there is no law, there is no sin (Rom. 4:15, etc.), babies and animals are not included. The inevitable implication of this is that natural death, both animal and vegetable, occurred before Genesis 3 and that Adam arguably had fleshly precursors who failed like stillborn or undeveloped babies to attain to the image and likeness of God, to knowledge of the commandment which promised life (cf. Job 3; Jer. 20:14ff.; 1 Cor. 15:46). (6* The importance of recapitulation is paramount at this point. See further my I Believe in Recapitulation. “Christian” opposition to evolution as opposed to naturalistic evolutionism is misguided.)
The idea that there was no physical death before Genesis 3 not only puts Christians at odds with archeology and modern science but primarily with the Bible itself. It is the worldview inherited from Augustine of Hippo that leads believers to imagine that man was created holy, righteous and even immortal instead of merely innocent, mortal and corruptible (cf. babies, Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f., etc.). The corresponding idea that the ‘good’, that is, useful, creation was ‘perfect’ from the start and became subject to a universal curse when Adam sinned is not only absurd but also plainly contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. Death has been inherent in the temporal creation from the start for the simple reason that it had a beginning and that God always had something better in mind for man made in his image than fleshly life on this still ‘good’ but imperfect (inadequate) earth (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3f., etc.). (7* See my The Plan of Salvation – in outline (1).) The difference between the transient present age (earth, the footstool of God) and the eternal age to come (heaven, the throne of God) is part of the essence of Scripture (Luke 20:34-36; Rom. 8:18). The dualism that exists between these two ages is intrinsic. (8* See further my Biblical Dualism.)
The idea that death is always the wages of sin is the traditional Augustinian assumption elevated to a universal principle. In fact (a) wages can only be earned by breaking the law (Gen. 2:17; Gal. 5:19-21, etc.). Since animals and babies (cf. Rom. 7:9a) do not know the law, they cannot break it and thereby earn wages. But they die nonetheless. (b) According to Scripture where there is no law there is no sin (Rom. 4:15, etc.), but there is unquestionably ample evidence of death apart from it. So (c) death occurs apart from both wages and sin. In other words, the argument that there was no death before Genesis 3 when there was neither law nor sin does not hold water. It is disproved not merely by science but by the intrinsic corruptibility of creation which is constantly aging (Ps. 102:26; Isa. 34:4; 51:6; Mt. 24:25; Heb. 1:11). Like the incarnate but sinless Jesus himself while he as on earth it is growing old (Luke 2:40ff.; John 8:57) and about to disappear (2 Cor. 4:16; Heb. 8:13).
Additional Note (2)
The tendency of many to read sin into passages like John 3:1-7; Romans 18:18-25 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-54 (though note vv.55ff.) is quite gratuitous and involves adding to Scripture a la Augustine. This practice is strongly condemned and forbidden (e.g. Rev. 22:18). See further my Adding to Scripture in Romans and Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?
Ken Ham, ed., The New Answers Book, Green Forest, 2006.
Letter to Evangelicals Now 6 July 2009 (slightly amended)
Dear Dr Benton.
Professor McIntosh’s critical review of “Rescuing Darwein” (EN, July 09) was timely and thought-provoking. However, his own stance is more than questionable.
The idea that there was no death before Genesis 3 is unsustainable. I would make the following points:
- Fleshly animals (like creation as a whole, cf. Heb. 1:10-12; Rom. 8:18-25) in direct contrast with their Creator (Rom. 1:23) had a beginning and therefore an end (cf. Heb. 7:3). In other words while they were temporal, God was eternal.
- As flesh the animals, like Adam, were visible and therefore temporary (2 Cor. 4:18).
- Creation, animal vegetable and mineral (Gal. 6:8; James 5:3; James 1:10f.; 1 Pet. 1:4, 7,18,23-25; Mt. 6:19f., etc.), is naturally mortal and/or destructible and is in direct contrast with the incorruptible God who lives forever. Since Adam was naturally corruptible, he had to sustain his own existence by keeping the commandment to stay alive (cf. Rom. 7:9-11). He didn’t, so he died. Contrast Jesus.
- Since the animals were not made in the image of God, they couldn’t receive the commandment which promised life if kept. So they died naturally apart from sin (cf. Gal. 6:9).
- By divine design they fed on the perishable food God provided but nonetheless died (Gen. 1:29f.; Ps. 104:21,27f.). So did the Israelites (John 6:27ff, cf. 4:13f.). To live eternally we need to feed on the word of God (Mt. 4:4) – something mere animal flesh can’t do.
- Grass (or green plants, Gen. 1:29f.) is a symbol of death throughout Scripture. Therefore since according to Isaiah 40:6-8 all flesh is grass, it is mortal and corruptible by nature. There was no greater insult to the incorruptible God than worship of a grass-eating ox (Ps. 106:20; Rom 1:23).
- All species are mortal and need to reproduce themselves to maintain their existence (Gen. 1, cf. Rom. 8:18-25). According to 1 K. 2:2 and Gen. 19:31 death and procreation are the way of all the earth. The latter counteracts the former (cf. Heb. 7:23).
- Creation as a whole is ‘made by hand’ and hence impermanent (Isa. 48:13; Job 10:8; Ps. 119:73, etc.). Death characterises all creation, so escape is necessary, that is, by ascension transformation (1 Cor. 15:50ff.).
- Creation grows old naturally (Heb. 1:11). The sinless Jesus was incarnate only for a little while (Heb. 2:7,9). He grew older (John 8:57, etc.) and had to be changed at his ascension (Luke 24:39; John 20:17) in order to inherit incorruptible glory (1 Cor. 15:50ff.; John 3:1-8; Gal. 6:8; Phil. 3:21, cf. John 17:5,24, etc.).