Young-Earth Creationism and “No Death Before the Fall”
Young-earth creationists teach that the doctrine of “no death before the fall” is an important argument for a young earth. That means, they say, that before Adam and Eve’s first sin of taking from the forbidden tree, there was no death of animals. Consequently they see the fossil record as presenting a problem for old-earth creationism: there couldn't have been millions of years of death before that first sin took place. Is this Biblically sound?
As was stated recently by Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis:
"If we accept millions of years of extinction and death before Adam and Eve were created, that becomes a huge theological problem," Mortenson said. "With all that death and suffering on the whole creation, the fall becomes completely inconsequential. That's a huge problem that most theologians have not even thought about. They have completely ignored the issue of death before the fall."
Old-earth creationists agree (as far as I’m aware) that Adam and Eve were real people, and the sin of eating from the forbidden tree was a real event with real consequences for humanity collectively. The penalty for the sin was death, as God said (Genesis 2:17 NET):
You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.
Creationists of the young and old flavours see this differently, though. Young-earth creationists interpret that to mean death of any living soul—humans as well as animals (but not including plants, since they have no nephesh or soul). By their reasoning, the creation started out “very good” as God originally decreed it, and that meant no death.
The reasoning makes sense to a degree—the idea of a “very good” creation certainly sounds more obvious if it means one without death. But that isn’t necessarily the right reading of the Bible’s meaning.
God’s salvation plan is not for animals, but for His special creation—human beings—who are different from the animal kingdom. Only human beings were created “in God’s image” (a distinction that surely transcends bodily features, since the apes are evidently excluded from this category), and only human beings are offered salvation through Jesus Christ. The essence of God’s plan is to deliver humanity from sin and its consequence: death. When God issued the warning, it was essentially the human beings who would suffer that death penalty, the point being not just the expiry of physical life, but the loss of any hope of partaking of “the divine nature” of God Himself, as 2 Peter 1:4 says.
The Bible is consistent in teaching that death is the consequence of sin (Romans 6:23; Romans 5:12-14; 1 Corinthians 15:56; James 1:15), but two points can be taken from the scriptures:
- God’s will for humanity is not just physical life free from death, but attaining of the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:35-57).
- Nowhere in the Bible does God offer salvation or the “divine nature” to the animals (Romans 8:21 notwithstanding).
Even if Adam and Eve had never sinned (a hypothetical scenario if there ever was one), God’s will wasn't that they or us would continue to live forever as physical human beings, because God always desired to share His divine nature with us. The scenario is hypothetical because our sin was inevitable. Therefore, this earth and its inhabitants were always created with the expectation that this life is temporary. So in one sense, animals’ death is due to human sin, in the sense that God created the physical earth and universe the way He did in the sure knowledge of our fall and the anticipation of our subsequent redemption (Titus 1:2; 1 Peter 1:20).
God created the earth and universe to be “very good”, yet from the very beginning they were physical, a mere shadow of the perfect creation to come (Romans 8:18-24). Because God knew about the inevitable problem of human sin from the very beginning, He could create this temporary universe—death of animals included—from the very beginning.