I recently read a book about the possibility of animal death occurring before the fall of Adam and Eve. The book is titled, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering. In the text, the author, Ronald E. Osborn argues that animals died before the fall and that their death was somehow still good. He makes note of archeological finds regarding animal teeth among other things.
The book is a very interesting read, Osborn is a Seventh Day Adventist and sort of a rogue in that he does not hold to a young earth (which is the majority view in that denomination).
The book successfully raised a number of questions in my mind and I thought they would be worth studying in a post.
The first question is this: Did death occur before the fall?
To answer this we must first define what we mean by death? Do we mean that a soul ceases to exist or that the life of a person or animal is no more in this realm? Do we mean the death of plants? Do we mean spiritual death?
It seems to me that plants could likely die as they were eaten. And it also seems likely that they would produce new plants from seeds (which of course must first die). Adam was a gardener and he worked in the Garden of Eden, so it seems unlikely that plant death is what we mean when we speak of death before the fall.
However, the next part of this is more tricky. For many years it has been argued by some that animals do not have eternal souls. Thus, when an animal dies, there is no spiritual death, only physical death. This is all well and good until we begin trying to explain what identifies a soul. If it is rationality or the capacity for any higher level of thinking, we are in trouble realizing that a number of animals have great capacity for thought. In the ocean one need only look at killer whales and dolphins to see that there is great intelligence. On land we can look at pigs, bears, honey badgers, and others. In lakes we find the salt water crocodile who can develop memories of migratory patterns of animals. Needless to say, I am not inclined to believe that animals are without souls. So the question now becomes whether or not animals have eternal souls. And I do not know the answer to this question, but if the nature of the soul is eternal, then it is at least plausible to believe that animals could potentially have eternal souls.
We now revise our initial question into two related questions: Did physical death occur before the fall for animals or humans? Did spiritual death occur before the fall for animals or humans?
By animals here I mean any creature that is not a plant.
For the answer to this we look to see what Genesis has to say.
In Genesis 1:20-23 we find God creating the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air. He commands them to multiply. So we know that new births occur before the fall, yet we see nothing of death in this part of the text.
In Genesis 1:24-31 we find God creating the creatures of the land. We then find him creating humanity. The humans are told that they are given the plants for nourishment (v. 29). Then God states that he has also given plants for food/nourishment to every creature in the sea, on the land, and in the air (v. 30). Some translations state that the plants are for meat, but this seems to be incorrect as the term for meat is a different Hebrew word. Genesis uses the term (l-akle) meaning “food” while the term for “meat” is (basar) and is not used in this passage. So from Genesis 1 it is likely that plants were meant to be the source of food for people and animals. This passage suggests that animals were not eating each other right away.
The next question is this: Why did Adam need to live in the garden? What was outside the garden?
Was there something outside the garden they needed to be protected from? Was the garden meant to be more like a base camp for the first humans? We do not really know. Scripture gives us no information about life outside the garden. What we do know is that after Adam and Eve left the garden, the earth was not a safe place.
The final question is this: If Adam and Eve were told they would die if they ate of the fruit, where did their understanding of death come from?
Osborn argues that they must have understood death on some level in order to appreciate the consequences from eating the fruit. So how did they know what death was like if there was no death before the fall?
Osborn argues that God designed predators to be predators and as such, the fossil record indicates that they were predatory from the beginning and that this is somehow part of God’s good plan. My struggle with this concept is that spiritual death was introduced to humanity by the devil. Physical death seems to have followed spiritual death (at least for humans). Thus, death was introduced to the world by the demonic and as such it is the last enemy that God will defeat. If death is an enemy of God, how can it be part of God’s good plan for creation.
I am not sure if certain predatory animals were ever intended to eat plants. I am not sure that the teeth on the lion changed shape after Adam and Eve left the garden, but I am sure that the curse introduced by the fall has extended to everything. I am certain that because of the curse, humans and animals are now at odds with one another. Humans are at odds with other humans, and humans have a difficult job preparing soil and working the land.
What are your deeper thoughts on life surrounding the Garden of Eden?