The Bible makes clear that human death did not occur until after Adam and Eve sinned (Genesis 3). But did animals die before the fall?
The young-earth creationist (YEC) movement holds that no vertebrates died before the fall. According to this view, a world with vertebrate death could not merit the description "very good" (Genesis 1:31). This position is justified using Scripture passages such as Romans 5:12–21 and Romans 8:19–22.1 Although these texts make no reference to animal death, YEC proponents often claim their interpretation was the traditional view prior to the nineteenth century.
This article analyzes the issue of animal death before the fall from three perspectives: biblical, traditional, and practical.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible's first reference to death is Genesis 2:16–17, in which God tells Adam he "will surely die" if he eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This text applies to humans only; God doesn't mention animal life.
Likewise, Romans 5:12–13, the most popular text for promoting the YEC position, mentions human death only:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world [kosmos], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world [kosmos], but sin is not imputed when there is no law. (NASB)
YEC proponents infer that this statement extends to the animal kingdom because of the use of the word "world" (kosmos). But what does kosmos mean in Pauline writings? Our analysis of 39 uses (beyond Romans 5:12–13), reveal that it carries two meanings.
- Planet Earth: Romans 1:20; 4:13; 1 Corinthians 7:31; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Timothy 1:15; 6:7
- All of humanity, including such things as attitudes, customs and cultural mores, and salvation of the "world": Romans 1:8; 3:6, 19; 11:12, 15; 1 Corinthians 1:20–21, 27–28; 2:12; 3:19, 22; 4:9, 13; 5:10; 6:2; 7:33–34; 8:4; 11:32; 14:10; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 5:19; 7:10; Galatians 4:3; 6:14; Ephesians 2:2, 12; Philippians 2:15; Colossians 1:6; 2:8, 20; 1 Timothy 3:16
In no instance does Paul use "world" (kosmos) to include vertebrate animals. If one stretches a point, one might argue that kosmos occasionally refers to all plants and animals, but there is no justification to argue that it refers specifically to vertebrate animals.
The promise of death in Genesis 2 is made to humans alone. In Genesis 3 we see that the fulfillment of that promise is applied only to humanity; animals are never mentioned. Romans 5:12–13 is probably best understood the same way. Moreover, only humans are capable of sin; animals have no moral agency. Sin is not an entity that exists abstractly, independent from people; it is something that is concretely in humanity.
For these reasons, we believe that the YEC position does not have solid scriptural support.
What Is the Position of Church Tradition?
Can YEC proponents reasonably argue that the early church fathers agreed with their position on pre-fall vertebrate death? Basil the Great of Caesarea (fourth century) made a definitive statement on the issue in homily 9 of his Hexaemeron. He states that animal life at the time of creation was much the same as it is today.
But let us return to the spectacle of creation. The easiest animals to catch are the most productive. It is on account of this that hares and wild goats produce many little ones, and that wild sheep have twins, for fear lest these species should disappear, consumed by carnivorous animals. Beasts of prey, on the contrary, produce only a few....Thus in nature all has been foreseen, all is the object of continual care.2
Under God's plan, nature is balanced. Basil's example of differing fertility rates between prey and predators is but one way of maintaining stability. Since Basil writes that the animal kingdom was the same before and after the fall, it appears he did not share the YEC view of vertebrate death before the fall. Basil's Hexaemeron is a Christian classic, and his position on this issue was not called into question by other early church fathers, many of whom were quick to correct potential heresies.
It is difficult to argue that church tradition supports the YEC position on vertebrate death before the fall.
How Does Vertebrate Death Impact Ecosystems?
What would the world be like if there were no death among vertebrate animals? Would it, only then, deserve the commendation "very good," as YEC supporters argue?3 Not necessarily. As Basil observed—and many others since—the absence of the predator-prey relationship upsets the balance of nature.
Modern examples illustrate how negative unintended consequences usually occur when humans tamper with an ecosystem by upsetting the predator-prey balance. In the 1700s, European settlers brought jack rabbits to Australia. Without predators, the rabbit population exploded. To this day, they cause millions of dollars of damage to crops annually.
In the 1920s, grey wolves were eradicated from Yellowstone National Park "to protect livestock and ‘more desirable' wildlife species, such as deer and elk."4 The results were detrimental to the ecosystem and grey wolves have been reintroduced.
In the 1970s, "Asian carp" were introduced to aquatic farms in the US to control weed and parasite growth. However, without natural predators, these fish have spread throughout much of the Mississippi River watershed, threatening to crowd out native fish and devastate the area's fishing industry.
Such examples show that a world without vertebrate death is not "very good." It would be a world overrun by prolific small creatures, such as rabbits. Thus, the YEC scenario model faces daunting challenges.
The only viable option is to suppose that the fall in Genesis 3 took place almost immediately following the creation of Eve. For example, Archbishop James Ussher suggested that the fall occurred only four days after the creation of land animals and humans.5 He offered no justification for this timetable, and did not indicate he supported the YEC position on vertebrate death. Nevertheless, if YEC supporters believe such a short creation timetable because of the terrible impact of long-term unchecked herbivorous activity, they are, in essence, arguing that God created a world designed to fail. And such a world could hardly be described as "very good."
In summary, the idea of no vertebrate death before the fall seems implausible: biblically, traditionally, and practically.
Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.
Dr. Hugh Henry, PhD
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.