Was There Death Before The Fall?

The Fall of Man by Jacob Jordaens
painted in the 17th century

The notion that physical death did not exist in the universe before the fall of man, may not have originated with Protestantism, but today it is promoted primarily by Evangelical Protestantism. This presents some very big problems for theology, Biblical interpretation, science, and reason. That Catholic Church, for the most part, has rejected this way of interpreting the Fall of Man.

When I was an Evangelical, I was taught that prior to the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, there was no physical death in the world. The law of entropy did not exist, and everything was in a perfect static state. The common Evangelical teaching today is that death entered the universe through mankind's rejection of God's command, and this in turn set the whole universe into a rapidly decaying state of entropy. The only problem with that idea is that it is unbiblical, illogical, and denies all scientific evidence.

Thomas Aquinas stated it clearly centuries before Charles Darwin ever wrote his 'Origin of Species', physical death existed before the fall...
In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man's sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede's gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. They would not, however, on this account have been excepted from the mastership of man: as neither at present are they for that reason excepted from the mastership of God, Whose Providence has ordained all this. Of this Providence man would have been the executor, as appears even now in regard to domestic animals, since fowls are given by men as food to the trained falcon.
-- Thomas Aquinas Article I, Objection 2, Summa Theologica
In other words, way back in the 13th century, some 600 years before Charles Darwin, the greatest Christian philosopher of all time stated that death existed in the world even before the fall of man. We see hints of this in the Bible...
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
-- Genesis 2:15-17
Now let's do a close examination of this Biblical passage. First, the Lord God tells the man (Adam) that he may 'eat of every tree.' STOP! What did he just say? He said 'eat of every tree.' What does eating involve? It involves chewing, swallowing and digesting, but more than anything else, it involves the cellular death of that thing which is being eaten. For example; if a man is to eat an apple, the apple must first be plucked from the tree. That cuts off the sap circulation to the apple, which means that it is now beginning to die. Now suppose the man changes his mind, drops the apple and walks away. That apple will slowly decay, as the cells within the apple are deprived of sap for nutrients. The cellular structure of the apple will die, and the apple itself will rot. So simply plucking the apple from the tree insures its death. However, the Scripture goes on. It specifically says the man may eat the apple, which accelerates the death process of the apple. Now the cells that make up the apple no longer need to wait for decay to set in. Rather, they will immediately be broken down, first by the gnashing of the man's teeth, and next by the acid within his stomach. By the time the nutrients of the apple are absorbed by the man's gut, the cellular structure of that apple is totally dead. Not a single cell remains alive. So here we are at the beginning of the Bible. The fall of man has not happened yet. Indeed, the woman hasn't even been created yet. Yet what we have here in the command to eat is a clear reference to death. Yes, death did exist! It was in the world before the fall of man, and man relied upon it in order to eat and gain nutrition. Now let's look at the rest of the passage. In the next breath, God tells the man not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, because if he does, he will die! STOP! What did God just say? He told the man he would die if he did something. So tell me, how can the word 'die' have any meaning if man was introduced into a world where death did not exist? Surely, if God warned the man that he would 'die' then the man must have known what that meant. That would mean he had seen death. He was acquainted with it. So right from the earliest passages of the Bible, it becomes apparent that death did indeed exist before the fall of man, and probably before the creation of man entirely. If death existed for cells, then it existed for complex organisms too (such as animals), as those of us in the medical field know, real biological death does not actually occur for complex organisms, until the cellular structure of those organisms dies. For example; a man does not really die until about five to ten minutes after his heart stops beating. This is how long it takes for the cells in the brain to suffocate once deprived of oxygen enriched blood from the heart and lungs. Death, in reality, is a cellular thing. Complex organisms (such as mammals for example) just announce that it happened by ceasing to move and assuming room temperature.

Plants and animals die. It is natural and proper for them to do so. They are natural organisms that serve a specific and limited function in this world. They have not the gift of reason, nor do they have immortal souls. Their lives are extinguished upon death, and their souls recycled in some way, which is natural to this world. Their entire existence is subject to the cycles of this universe, and all of their historical existence parishes with the death of planet earth, and finally the consummation of this universe.

Contrary to the Evangelical claim that death did not exist until the fall of man, it would appear that physical death has always existed in this universe, and is indeed part of God's creation. We see hints of this in the Book of Genesis. Man, however, is a different story...
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
Here we see that man (mankind) was the one affected by the fall in the garden, not the animals, nor plants, nor earth, nor the stars, nor the universe, just man and man alone. Death spread to 'all men'. It doesn't say 'all things' as if to include animals, plants and all of creation. You see, man was not meant to be subject to death, but rather to be 'assumed' like Mary, Enoch, and Elijah upon reaching a terminal age, when the physical body had run the course of its natural life. The figure of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden symbolises this. Thus the penalty for eating from the Tree of Knowledge was to be barred from the Tree of Life...
Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
-- Genesis 3:22-24
Original sin in the fall robbed us of the immortal destiny for our bodies, thus subjecting man's body to the same kind of death the plants and animals suffer. It is natural for them, but not natural for us. Their souls and bodies are recycled. Our bodies can be recycled, but our souls cannot be, nor would we want them to be, because they are immortal. The key to understanding the mystery of physical death is simply to understand the nature of this universe. It is temporary. The whole thing -- all of it -- the stars, galaxies, everything, it is meant to be temporary. We (our souls), however, are not meant to be temporary, but our bodies have become just that -- temporary. Man is a hybrid creature. We have physical bodes like animals, so we can interact with this universe in a physical way. Yet we have spiritual souls that are immortal, like the angels. We are not angels. We are different creatures all together because we a hybrid beings -- both physical and spiritual. So we must have both a soul and a body to be complete. Yet now, thanks to the fall and original sin, the death which was common only to plants and animals has now spread to us. Our souls cannot go through eternity without a body. This is unnatural for us and leaves us incomplete. The horror of death is that the soul goes on, without a body, and that is a completely unnatural state for a human being. Angels are spiritual creatures, not humans. Unlike angels, we need our bodies to be complete. Animals have mortal bodies with mortal souls. Men (and by that I mean mankind) have bodies that have become mortal and yet we retain immortal souls. It was never meant to be this way. This is a dichotomy that puts us in a paradox which only the resurrection solves. That however, is a subject for a different essay. This one deals with the subject of death before the fall -- before original sin.

It's an extremely important thing for Christians to understand. It's an important piece of our theology that is often neglected, and because of this we have some Evangelicals who go about telling the world that death did not exist before the fall, and then we have certain atheists who make a hobby tearing down the futility of that argument, triumphantly conquering an aspect of Christian theology that never really existed outside of the Evangelical world. Proper understanding the origins of death in Christian teaching also helps us deal with scientific matters, such as evolution and dinosaurs. Once those are tackled, we can begin to apply it to our understanding of the universe and the remote possibility of plant and animal life on other planets. It all comes down to a proper reading of the first chapters of Genesis. For the Catechism teaches us...
The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.
-- Catechism of the Catholic Church 390
The Catechism teaches us that the Bible uses figurative language in these chapters, to explain primordial events that are true in essence, but have through the centuries lost their historical narrative. Adam and Eve were real people, to be sure. They were our first parents, and what they did was a real rebellion against God. The garden, trees and serpent may be figurative. They convey the nature of how the rebellion happened, but it is unlikely that these were literal events. Serpents in ancient history were representative of Pagan religions, so there may be some kind of connection there. Most directly however, the serpent represents the devil (Satan). The serpent's temptation of Eve is particularly symbolic of Pagan religions. The serpent lied and told Eve she would not die if she ate the forbidden fruit, but that she would become like a god, 'knowing good from evil' (Genesis 3:4-5). In other words, the devil tempted the woman (and the man together with her) to act like gods, and decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, meaning they would create their own morality. The Hebrew word for 'god' is synonymous with 'judge'. To judge for yourself what is right and wrong, without consulting the Creator, is to play god. This gives us tremendous insight into what the real cause of original sin might have been. The trees of Life and Knowledge may also have some kind of symbolism in Semitic folklore as well. The events of Genesis 3 need not be literal. We know what happened. Satan, the fallen angel, tempted the woman (Eve) to sin against God, and the man (Adam) failed as a leader and went along with it. The result was rebellion against God. The penalty was physical death for the body, and even worse, separation of the soul from God. One thing is certain though, physical death (for plants and animals) already existed before all of this. There is nothing in Scripture that says it didn't, and in fact, quite the opposite is true. The Scriptures seem to suggest death had been present in the world all along, because this world is temporary, and it was always intended to be.



Shane Schaetzel is a published author and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'

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Pair O' Dimes said…
I have a question:

If the serpent isn't literal, then why did God punish the serpent for tempting Eve? If the serpent were Satan only, then hasn't God already punished Satan for his rebellion? And while it doesn't seem to make sense to punish a non-person, Jesus cursed a fig tree, and I'm guessing that was literal, so why then not curse a literal serpent in a similar way (unless it's because this curse is generational where the fig tree wasn't)? And the serpent isn't the only talking animal in Scripture.

But if the serpent represents a person, it can only either represent an angel (presumably a fallen angel, Satan or one of his minions) or a human being. And surely the serpent isn't another human being, because there were only Adam and Eve, and they are the parents of all human beings, passing down original sin to us--if the serpent were another human being, that would fly in the face of that.

I can see some figurative language, but I'm trying to make sense of it. For example, I do see the proto-Evangelion in God's words to the serpent, and saying the serpent will eat dust the rest of its days makes me think of "You are dust, and to dust you will return"--meaning that Satan will prey upon human mortality, as if for food, and so be determined to make us sin and die and go to hell. But at the same time, that doesn't sound like a punishment for the serpent, other than that he will be unable to be free of that desire, and that not all people will thus succumb so he won't get all the "food" he craves.

What do you think?
Shane Schaetzel said…
I think the serpent represents Satan in the most direct sense. Indirectly, it might also represent Pagan religions, but I believe it was Saint Paul who told us that those who worship idols are really worshipping demons. So I do think there is a connection there in the image of the serpent. But most directly, I think the serpent represents Satan. His punishment to eat the dust of the earth means he is to be cast our of heaven and spend the remainder of his limited time roaming the earth.
Strongheart said…
Rev Edward Leen in "Why the Cross?" chapter VIII, starting with ROM V. 12,wrote on page 143 that "the creation broke up into a warring elements. Sin works as a force of disintegration"... then on page 145, "Nature itself revolts against man. By the prevarication of him who was appointed by God the lord of creation, creatures were violently wrested from the course traced for them by God's providence"... "the earth reflects the reflection of its master". And on page 146, citing St. Thomas II, II Q. 164, a.i., "In breaking with God, man forfeited, with integrity, the preternatural gift of immortality. The barriers to the tendency to dissolution, inherent in the body, were removed. The loss of perfect control exercised by the spiritual part of man over the corporeal is the origin of death and of all the pains, disease and infirmity which precede and prepare the way for it." My understanding is that with man before Fall had supernatural integrity and immortality.

I have been acquainted in the previous week with a new interest in understanding cancer in the body. Cancer is similar to sin. Healthy cells thrive on oxygen. Malignant cells thrives on glucose. There are on earth plenty of good food to maintain health to a maximum, but men are easily blinded and brought to feed himself which what cause him cancer.