Was there really no death before the Fall?
Carson S from the US wrote:
I have a question I’m sure not many, if any, have ever asked. I have been studying Genesis (the book) and have come to a question that has literally no real answer on the web. And it’s about death prior to the fall. I asked myself, "How could there be no death prior to Adam’s fall? Do you mean to tell me that humans never had a chance of stepping on a insect (such as a grasshopper or ant)?" I just find it hard to believe or even possible that, prior to the fall, there was no such thing as manslaughter, or any other accidental deaths like: drowning, catching on fire, falling off a cliff, etc. Your website also just had a picture of bees on the front page. You mean to tell me that bees have stingers for no reason? And if they ever used them, they wouldn’t die?
A provocative question, I hope you have the answer I need. Thank you for reading.
Lita Sanders, CMI-US, responds:
Thanks for writing in. One of the great things about being part of a millennia-old faith is that the odds of asking a new question are very low, because people have been thinking about these things for thousands of years. And there are a few aspects to the pre-Fall world that may help in thinking through these questions. You said this has no real answer on the web, but our website and publications address this issue extensively; I’ll be linking you to some articles (which I hope you read), and I will also be publishing this response on our site for the benefit of others.
First, we know that there are varying levels of sentience among various creatures. Plants seem to have no sentience at all; they are programmed wonderfully to react in response to sunlight, and even to bugs eating their leaves. But there is no capacity for communication or self-knowledge. They are basically biological ‘machines’ for converting energy into food. And in fact that is the stated purpose for plants in Genesis—to be food for humans and animals. So when we eat a salad, there is biological death involved in that, but not the cessation of a consciousness or death in a biblical sense.
Insects are another category of creatures that most creationists say could have died before the Fall with no theological problems resulting. Insects are wonderfully complex and show intricate design, but they are driven almost exclusively by instinct, and they don’t seem to have any self-awareness or capacity to feel pain, again not death in the biblical meaning. One biologist calls insects ‘God’s robots’.
Moving up the chain, we encounter vertebrates, which have a higher degree of awareness, and certainly have the capacity to feel pain and suffering. They have a measure of intelligence and ability to communicate (though only humans use language). Most people would have a problem with vertebrate death before the fall, because these animals, like humans, are classified as nephesh chayyah, which is the Hebrew term that can be translated ‘living soul’. Christians like William Wilberforce, recognizing the capacity for suffering in these animals, were the first to be concerned that they not be treated cruelly.
And then we come to human beings. You say, “I just find it hard to believe or even possible that, prior to the fall, there was no such thing as manslaughter”. Well, prior to the Fall there were only two humans, Adam and Eve, so one of them would have had to kill the other for there to be manslaughter before the Fall. Also, we believe the Fall happened really soon after Creation Week, so there wasn’t a lot of time for any accidents or death to happen. More importantly if God is capable of creating all these animals, He’s certainly capable of providentially controlling things so that animals didn’t die before the Fall.
But often people ask what would have happened if Adam and Eve didn’t fall. Wouldn’t the world be overwhelmed with overpopulation if nothing died? The answer is fairly simple: God intended reproduction to fill the earth with the right number of animals and people. Once that population level was reached, reproduction would have served its purpose and there wouldn’t be any more. We know that on the New Heavens and Earth, humans won’t be married to each other (the Church as a whole will be married to Christ), and no one will be having babies; the population of the New Heavens and Earth will be exactly what God intended, and since there will be no more death, there will be no need to replace the population.
But if God intended there to be no death and suffering, why are there things (you mentioned bee stingers) that seemed designed to inflict death and suffering? Well, some things have other purposes. For instance, I recently wrote an article (soon to be published in Creation magazine) about how wasps actually have a critical created function in the ecosystem. As far as stings, wasp stingers are recognized as modified ovipositors (an organ used to deposit eggs on or in something); this is the same for bees (supporting this, only female bees have stingers). So we have something designed for one purpose that has degraded and is now used for something else in this fallen world.
I covered a lot of concepts in this response in a fairly ‘rapid-fire’ fashion, but I hope this, and the referenced articles, helps you begin to think through this. See Chapter 6 in our Creation Answers Book for more information.