R.C. Sproul Jr. blunders on plant death

another theologian who needs to do his homework


Published: 11 February 2015 (GMT+10)
R.C. Sproul Jr.

One of CMI’s main thrusts is teaching in the churches. Our linking and feeding method has helped many to understand why creation is foundational for the Gospel. This includes a number of pastors, since their own seminary training often didn’t have much of a creation or apologetic component. This can be true of even sound seminaries, and many seminaries seriously compromise on Genesis and undermine the professed faith of attendees.

The cause is not helped when influential Christians don’t understand the basics. For example, we recently needed to refute misleading hatchet jobs on biblical (‘young earth’) creation by apologist William Lane Craig and by the soi-disant Gospel Coalition.

Unfortunately, such lack of understanding is even true of fellow biblical creationists. One such is R.C. Sproul, Jr., who teaches at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida, in a recent article ‘Ask R.C.: Could There Be Death Before the Fall?’1 Thus it’s important to respond to the relevant parts point by point.

Does the biblical truth that “death came through Adam” preclude the possibility of an old earth?

Yes! We have amply demonstrated this, as shown in the ‘Related articles’ below.

Before I address the question please allow me to lay down my bona fides. I believe in a young earth and in six literal days of creation. I believe Adam was fashioned out of the dust of the ground, and Eve from Adam’s rib. I have believed all of this for at least 25 years. And I’m not in danger of changing my mind on the issue any time soon.

That’s most commendable.

That I believe in a young earth, however, doesn’t mean that I find every argument ever used in defense of young earth to be helpful, much less compelling.

Neither do we! That’s why we have a page called Arguments we think creationists should NOT use, commended by none other than Clinton R. Dawkins, the Apostle of Atheopathy. But as will be seen, ‘R.C. Jr.’ doesn’t seem very familiar with many of the helpful arguments.

Why death before sin is a huge problem

This is one of those I find not especially helpful. The argument is made that since death did not come into the world until the fall, the world cannot be old because death would have had to have happened. Animals would have died over the course of a long time frame.

Indeed so. This should be clear from the ostensible reasons for adopting billions of years: denial of a global Flood, with the corollary that rock layers must have formed slowly and gradually over eons of time. But these rock layers contain fossils. So if they are as old as claimed, instead of being mainly caused by the Flood and its after-effects, we indeed have animal death before Adam and Eve ever appeared on the earth, and thus the sin they introduced.

Plant death?

wikipedia.org Martin-Luther
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
My objection to this objection is simple enough—before there was sin in the Garden of Eden God invited Adam and Eve to eat of the trees therein. Plucking a piece of fruit and eating it surely involves the death of the fruit. Therefore, death at least would have had to have been present in the Garden even without a fall.

Such an argument could be made only by someone ignorant of mainstream creationist literature for the last few decades. Whether this is willing ignorance or just sloppiness cannot be decided from the available data, but there is no third option.

We have long pointed out that biblical ‘death’ can only apply to those things that were alive in the first place! As far as the Bible is concerned, plants are not ‘alive’. In the Old Testament, vertebrate animals are described by the Hebrew phrase nephesh chayyāh (נפשׁ חיה), translated as “living creature”, or in the case of man, “living soul” (2:7). But it’s notable that plants are never described this way. And they don’t die but “wither” (Psalm37:2). Instead, plants are God’s self-replicating solar-powered food factories, which also act as solar energy concentrators. One article explaining this is 10 years old,2 so Sproul should have been aware of the general creationist response. It should have been obvious even from Genesis 1:29–30—the diet prescribed for both humans and animals was vegetarian, so digestion of plants was clearly part of a ‘very good’ creation, thus part of God’s original design.

Human death before the Fall: logical outcome of long-age compromise

What then of Romans 5:12–21 and I Corinthians 15:21, both of which say death came into the world through Adam? Well, that’s the point isn’t it? Is it not at least possible that the death spoken of here in Romans 5 and I Corinthians isn’t the death of any organism but specifically the death of all mankind?

Yes, we think so as well. But Sproul Jnr., in common with many old-earth compromisers including William Lane Craig, John Lennox, and Hugh Ross exhibit a curious blind spot in this area: human death alone is enough to refute his claims. That is, according to dating methods accepted by long-agers, there are undoubted human fossils in those same rock layers ‘older’ than any possible date for Adam.

For example, Homo sapiens fossils with evidence of intelligent cultural activity3,4 have been ‘dated’ at 160,000 years old.5 Also, two partial skulls of Homo sapiens unearthed in 1967 near the Omo River in south-western Ethiopia have been radiometrically re-dated to about 195,000 years old.6,7 This is a real problem for biblical chronology, because the text of the chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 doesn’t allow for gaps.

In fact, there are huge numbers of human fossils ‘dated’—by methods that old-earth compromisers must accept implicitly—long before any biblical date of Adam. And many of these humans are victims of sinful violence such as murder and cannibalism, and many others had diseases.8 Once again, they must have died after the Fall, which should undermine trust in any ‘dating’ system that places them before about 4,000 BC. So yes, those passages really are good evidence for what is now often called a young earth.

[Repetition of the “plants must have died” canard snipped] “Well, wait a minute,” my co-young earther friends say, “there is a huge gap between the death of plants and the death of animals.”

Indeed we do. But evidently Sproul Jr. wasn’t interested in the biblical reason for this: plants are not nephesh chayyāh.

And indeed there is. Just as there is a huge gap between the death of animals and the death of humans.

No one disputes that: God made humans in His image and likeness.

Why animals did not die before the Fall

What I can’t see is a compelling reason to suggest that the distinction between the distinctions, that is the difference between the difference between plants and animals and the difference between animals and humans is so much more significant.

Allow us to explain (again! And this is a biblical argument, not an opinion). Humans and (vertebrate) animals are nephesh chayyāh, so were not part of the original pre-Fall diet for either humans or animals. We should also consider two famous passages from the prophet Isaiah about lion/calf and wolf/lamb living in harmony (Isaiah 11:6–9, 65:25). Here, Isaiah is talking about some future state,9 which in some way is the restoration, at least in large part, of the idyllic state in Eden, where nature was not “red in tooth and claw”.10 Significantly, both passages end with indications that this reflects a more ideal world that the current world does not: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” These indicate that hurting, harming and destroying animal life would not have been part of a “very good” creation.

Irish biblical scholar Alec Motyer, former Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, expands on the Edenic connection of the first passage:

There is an ‘Edenic’ element in Isaiah’s thinking … the life of nature itself is transformed. Verses 6–8 offer three facets of the renewed creation and verse 9 is a concluding summary. First, in verse 6 there is the reconciliation of old hostilities, the allaying of old fears; predators (wolf, leopard, lion) and prey (lamb, goat, calf, yearling) are reconciled. So secure is this peace that a youngster can exercise the dominion originally given to humankind. Secondly, in verse 7 there is a change of nature within the beasts themselves: cow and bear eat the same food, as do lion and ox. There is also a change in the very order of things itself: the herbivoral nature of all the creatures points to Eden restored (Genesis 1:29–30). Thirdly, in verse 8 the curse is removed. The enmity between the woman’s seed and the serpent is gone (Genesis 3:15ab). Infant and ‘weaned child’ have nothing to fear from cobra and viper. Finally, in verse 9 the coming Eden is Mount Zion—a Zion which fills the whole earth. Peace (9a), holiness (9b), and “knowing the Lord” (9c) pervades all.11,12

In fact, this teaching goes back almost to the beginning of the Church Age. Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, a disciple of John the Evangelist, wrote in the second century about a restoration to an original state where all animals would eat plants again:

I am aware that some try to refer these texts metaphorically to savage men who out of various nations and various occupations come to believe, and when they have believed live in harmony with the just. But though this now takes place for men who come from various nations into the one doctrine of the faith, nevertheless it will take place for these animals at the resurrection of the just, as we have said; for God is rich in all things, and when the world is re-established in its primeval state [conditione revocata] all the animals must obey and be subject to man and return to the first food given by God, as before the disobedience they were subject to Adam [Genesis 1:28–30] and ate the fruit of the earth.13,14
Indeed I would argue that conjoining the moral import of the death of animals with the death of humans actually diminishes the horror of what happened when our first parents fell.

Ah yes, when logic fails, resort to emotion. But the trouble with emotional arguments is that anyone can use them. For instance, I could equally well reply:

Indeed I would argue that disconnecting the moral import of the death of animals with the death of humans actually diminishes the horror of what happened when our first parents fell. That is, not only humankind was subjected to death, but since God gave man dominion over the rest of creation (Genesis 1:26–28), the rest of creation was cursed under him, which includes animal death. Indeed, Romans 8:18–25 shows the cosmic scope of the Fall—the ‘whole creation’ is groaning in pain, because it was ‘subjected to futility’. It’s notable that expert commentators on Romans, regardless of their view of Genesis, agree that Paul was referring back to the account of the Fall in Genesis 3.15

How the Bible teaches ~6,000 years

In the end, or perhaps I should say in the beginning, old earth creationism does not, in my judgment overturn or deny the inerrant Word of God in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15, but merely challenges one possible interpretation of those texts.

And to simplify, once again. Old ages are derived by interpreting that it took millions of years to lay down the rock layers. Those rock layers contain fossils, so it puts death (and human death as shown earlier) before the Fall. So, disconnecting human and animal death from sin undermines the logic of the Gospel—how then could Jesus’ death atone for our sin? It’s such a bad interpretation that it violates the Gospel itself. Thus, this is really a deference to general revelation (in nature that is cursed) over the inerrant Words of the Creator (Special Revelation). Rather, Scripture should be used to interpret nature.

The great problem with old earth creationism is that it misinterprets Genesis 1 and 2.

I would agree, except that it’s not “the great problem” but “one of the great problems”. For example, Genesis 1 and 2 do indeed teach six day creation. But by themselves, they don’t tell us how long ago this creation occurred. For that, we need the explicit teaching of the gapless chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and other biblical data, and the corollary that follows from no physical death of humans or vertebrate animals.

The real issue is: what is our authority?

It is not a conscious denial of the truth of the Bible but a misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible. Believers don’t deny the truth of the Bible, but we all have misunderstandings of it.
creationconcept.wordpress.com Meredith-Kline
Meredith G. Kline

But then, why do old-earthers misunderstand the Bible? It is not foundationally an issue of interpretation, but one of authority. All other disagreements among believers presupposed that the Bible is our final authority. But all old-earth compromise is really placing uniformitarian science on an equal level to Scripture, and in practice above Scripture. That is, it uses a faulty magisterial approach to science instead of the correct ministerial approach.

For example, probably the leading proponent of the Framework Hypothesis, beloved of respectability-craving types in some Presbyterian and Reformed circles, was Meredith Kline (1922–2007) from Westminster Seminary California. In one of his seminal papers for this view, he admits that his primary rationale is to avoid a conflict with ‘science’. His abstract states:

To rebut the literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation week propounded by the young-earth theorists is a central concern of this article. At the same time, the exegetical evidence adduced also refutes the harmonistic day-age view. The conclusion is that as far as the timeframe is concerned, with respect to both the duration and sequence of events, the scientist is left free of biblical constraints in hypothesizing about cosmic origins.16

In this paper, Kline says:

In this article I have advocated an interpretation of biblical cosmogony according to which Scripture is open to the current scientific view of a very old universe and, in that respect, does not discountenance the theory of the evolutionary origin of man.

Another leading Framework advocate is the French evangelical scholar Henri Blocher, who taught systematic theology at Wheaton College, Illinois, a well-known hotbed of theistic evolution. Like Kline, Blocher admits:

This hypothesis overcomes a number of problems that plagued the commentators [including] the confrontation with the scientific vision of the most distant past.17

However, Hebrew scholar E.J. Young (1907–1968), a staunch critic of the Framework view, pointed out the flaws in such reasoning:

Whenever ‘science’ and the Bible are in conflict, it is always the Bible that, in one manner or another, must give way. We are not told that ‘science’ should correct its answers in light of Scripture. Always it is the other way around. Yet this is really surprising, for the answers which scientists have provided have frequently changed with the passing of time. The ‘authoritative’ answers of pre-Copernican scientists are no longer acceptable; nor, for that matter, are many of the views of twenty-five years ago.18

Dr Todd Beall, Professor of Old Testament, Capital Bible Seminary, Lanham, Maryland, provided the correct approach:

In fact, it is fascinating that the day-age advocates insist (correctly) that Gen 1 speaks of the days in sequential action, while the framework hypothesis advocates insist (correctly) that the days of Gen 1 are literal 24-hour days. Only the literal 24-hour day view holds that the days are both sequential and literal 24-hour periods. …

Why not take the words of Gen 1 at face value, as simple, straightforward sequential narrative of God’s miraculous creative activity? If that causes some intellectuals to label us as ‘narrow-minded clowns’, then so be it. The claims of Christ are narrow (John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man comes to the Father but by Me”); the Gospel is narrow; and the cross is regarded as foolishness by the wisdom of this world (1 Corinthians 1:18–31). But it is true nonetheless. Hebrews 11:3 says that “by faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” Do we really think that contemporary science is more authoritative than God’s revelation? Sometimes our intellectual pride may get in the way of our faith: if the inerrant Scripture in Gen 1 states that God created the world in six literal days, then why should we not simply accept it, rather than try to find all kinds of ways to explain it away? Sometimes the plain, simplest, most natural reading of the text is, indeed the best. Such is the case with Gen 1, despite all the attempts to explain it in some other, more complicated way.19

Douglas Wilson20 went to the heart of the issue:

The more we care about honoring God, the less we will care about receiving honors from men. The more we care about being approved as a faithful workman of God, the less we will care whether others condemn or oppose us on their own puny authority (2 Tim. 2:15). Modern Christians are constantly exhorted to care. This is legitimate; indeed it is inescapable. But the problem is that we are told regularly to care about all the wrong things.

It is said among us, “If we continue to maintain that God created the world in six days, we will not be granted academic respectability.” To which we must reply, well, who cares? Why should we care that the guardians of the academy believe we are not intellectually respectable? They believe that the moose, the sperm whale and the meadowlark are all blood relatives. Why do we want their seal of approval? It is like asking Fidel Castro to comment on the economic viability of Microsoft.21


We all therefore, ought to pray that His Word, and His Spirit would lead us to a more faithful understanding.

Indeed, and the Spirit will lead us into following what the Scriptures He inspired actually teach, according to the normal rules of language and historical context. As the Father of the Reformation, Martin Luther (1483–1546), stated:

When Moses writes that God created heaven and earth and whatever is in them in six days, then let this period continue to have been six days, and do not venture to devise any comment according to which six days were one day. But if you cannot understand how this could have been done in six days, then grant the Holy Spirit the honor of being more learned than you are. For you are to deal with Scripture in such a way that you bear in mind that God Himself says what is written. But since God is speaking, it is not fitting for you wantonly to turn His Word in the direction you wish to go.22

References and notes

  1. Sproul, R.C., Jr., Ask R.C.: Could There Be Death Before the Fall? rcsprouljr.com, 3 February 2015. Bold in original. Return to text.
  2. Sarfati, J., The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe, J. Creation 19(3):60–64, 2005; creation.com/plant_death. Return to text.
  3. Clark, J.D. et al., Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature 423(6941):747–752, 12 June 2003. Return to text.
  4. Wieland, C., and Sarfati, J., Ethiopian ‘earliest humans’ find: a severe blow to the beliefs of Hugh Ross and similar ‘progressive creationist’ compromise views, creationon.com/ethiopianskull, 12 June 2003. Return to text.
  5. White, T. et al., Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature 423(6941):742–747, 12 June 2003. Return to text.
  6. McDougall, I. et al., Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia, Nature 433(7027):733–736, 17 February 2005. Return to text.
  7. Wieland, C., Redating Leakey’s Ethiopian human finds: more problems for compromise, creation.com/redating, 18 February 2005. Return to text.
  8. Lubenow, M., Pre-Adamites, sin, death and the human fossils, J. Creation 12(2):222–232, 1998. Return to text.
  9. Premillennialists believe that this is a literal Millennium, lasting for 1,000 years, followed by a creation of the new heavens and new earth. But this commentary, in line with the ministry of CMI in general, will take no stand on such issues in eschatology. One major reason is that such debates on eschatology (‘last things’) presuppose the authority of the Bible, and merely disagree on what it means. But debates on protology (‘first things’) are debates about whether the Bible is the final authority in the first place, or whether uniformitarian ‘science’ trumps it. See Batten, D., End-times and early-times, Creation 27(4):43, 2005; Moritz, K.P., Why doesn’t CMI take a position on … ? The rationale behind CMI’s focus, 27 December 2011. Return to text.
  10. The memorable phrase from the very long 1850 poem, In Memoriam, A.H.H., by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). The fact that Tennyson’s poem predated Darwin’s Origin indicates that Darwin was greatly influenced by philosophical ideas of his day. Return to text.
  11. Motyer, J.A., The Prophecy of Isaiah, p. 124, 1993. Return to text.
  12. See also Gurney, R.J.M., The carnivorous nature and suffering of animals, J. Creation 18(3):70–75, 2004; creation.com/carniv. Return to text.
  13. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5(33), ad c. 180. Return to text.
  14. Zuiddam, B., Early Church Fathers on creation, death and eschatology, J. Creation 28(1):77–83, 2014; 2nd Century Church Fathers: God will make lions vegetarian again, Creation 36(3):46–47, 2014. Return to text.
  15. A fine detailed study is Smith, H.B., Cosmic and universal death from Adam’s Fall: an exegesis of Romans 8:19 23a, J. Creation 21(1):75–85, 2007; creation.com/romans8. Return to text.
  16. Kline, Ref. 47. Return to text.
  17. Blocher, H., In the Beginning, p. 50, 1984. Return to text.
  18. Young, E.J., Days of Genesis, WTJ 25(1):1–34, 1963; p. 11. Return to text.
  19. Beall, T., Christians in the public square: How far should Evangelicals go in the Creation–Evolution debate? Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting, 15 November 2006. Return to text.
  20. See interview by Weinberger, L., Answering the new atheists, Creation 30(2):18–20, 2007; creation.com/wilson-interview. Return to text.
  21. Wilson, D., Sanctified Apathy, Tabletalk, pp. 60–61, November 2002. Return to text.
  22. What Luther Says. A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, compiled by Ewald M. Plass, Concordia, 1959, p. 93 Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Comments are automatically closed 14 days after publication.