Prelapsarian Mortality: Death Before the Fall?

The most commonly held and succinct objection against evolution’s compatibility with the creation account in Genesis concerns the existence of death before the fall. In order for evolutionary processes to attain progress, primal and less complex life forms must die-out; but Genesis apparently claims that death entered the world at the Fall. Therefore, since Adam was formed before the Fall, and since death came at the Fall, Adam could not be formed as a result of evolutionary processes. While I adamantly uphold the supernatural creation of man and the special divine activity of God in forming Adam, the above argument is inconsistent with the account in Genesis.

John Walton elucidates the basic error in this thinking:

Despite the popular and traditional belief otherwise; it can be easily demonstrated that death was in the system prior to the Fall. I ask the question, Did Adam have skin? His statement in 2:23 shows that he did. We know well today what the epidermis is – a layer of dead skin cells. Since Adam had dead cells, we know that death existed at the cellular level. If plants served as food, then certainly we can conclude that plants likewise died. There is no reason to draw a line between animal life and lower forms of life; thus, we have no theological reason to claim that death of animals did not exist before the Fall. Through sin came the inevitability of death for people. Because of sin people lost access to the tree of life and became fully susceptible to death. The tree of life, therefore represents a pre-Fall indication of God’s grace” (Genesis, 184).

The tree of life intimates that there was a prelapsarian (pre-Fall) conditional immortality. The human body was originally designed with an inclination to deteriorate, but the tree could preserve their life. Therefore, once Adam and Eve sinned, their banishment from the garden and exclusion from the tree of life led to their inevitable deterioration and death – they were now denied access to what could supplement their designed mortality. When God warned of the consequences for Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the syntax (an absolute infinitive coupled with a finite verb of the same root) reveals that the true emphasis is in the inevitability of death – i.e. ‘you will be doomed to death’ (Walton, Genesis, 204).

What are some implications?

  1. If one is combating theistic evolutionists with an argument that notes the inconsistency or prelapsarian death, they should reanalyze that argument from scriptural claims.
  2. One should reexamine scripture’s teaching on the material origins of the cosmos. For just a brief comment, it seems plain that the creation account in Genesis speaks more to God’s organization of a functional cosmos rather than the origins of its substance and materials. In Genesis 1:1, the Hebrew word bara “concerns bringing heaven and earth into existence and focuses on operation through organization and assignment of roles and functions” (Walton, Genesis, 71). The creation account is not concerned with the origins of physical matter, but is more focused on the function and operation of the cosmos. In Genesis 1:2, for example, ‘formless and empty’ intimates preexistent materials; as Walton commented, “If the text were going to talk about the manufacture of matter, it would begin when no matter existed” (Walton, Genesis, 72). Although creation ex nihilo is a necessary deduction from the Christian idea of an ontological Trinity and transcendent God, such an event is not the event being narrated in Genesis 1-2.
  3. Hold firm to those teachings that scripture intends to teach and gracefully examine the possibilities that fill in the gaps. For example, scripture strongly teaches the activity of God in creation, therefore naturalistic presuppositions should be rejected. Scripture strongly affirms the uniqueness of man made in the imago dei, therefore any devaluation of human life should be rejected.

Several more implications could be noted, but the important matter is this: let the text speak for itself, and give grace in regards to what the text does not teach. Did death exist before the Fall? The text does not explicitly speak to it, but it does lean in the direction that it did in some physical sense.

Disclaimer: I am not a scientist. I have no conviction in regards to the truthfulness of evolution and have honestly never taken a science class higher than the undergraduate level. The age of the earth, for example, is not an explicit scriptural claim that I am compelled to take a stance on. Nonetheless, I do believe that the origins of the universe and humanity are the direct consequence of God’s activity. The material details of that activity, however, are not the focus of the Genesis narrative and thus I remain committed to the clear theological claims of the text – e.g. God’s existence, God’s sovereignty, the image of God in man, etc. At most, I am open to be convinced of my logical inconsistency, but I see nothing indicating that I am overstepping the bounds of orthodoxy or ‘mere Christianity.’

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