Death Before the Fall: Was God Surprised by Adam’s Sin?

(system) #1
Is God’s goodness denied if animals died before the first sin?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Dr. Ted Davis) #2

I know this is a hot topic, so don’t be bashful about expressing opinions (respectfully of course).

IMO, death before the fall is the driving theological issue behind the “young” in the YEC view. Otherwise, I can’t explain why it’s often given as an objection to the Big Bang theory–which has no scientific connection whatsoever with animal death. After all, there needn’t be any life of any kind, in a universe birthed by a “bang,” a fact that gave rise to speculations falling under the general heading, Anthropic Principle. If you accept the Big Bang, the reasoning goes, then you accept “billions of years,” and if you accept that, then you accept death before the fall, and that’s a fatal objection…

(Phil) #3

We tend to project our feelings on the subject as to animal death being “bad” when in many respects it can be considered “good” but again from our prospective. It sort of seems bizarre to see animal death as morally bad, when God delineates animal sacrifice, and from early on seems to attach importance to it, as Cain found out. ( In today’s world, that story is a little confusing when you consider the organic Whole Foods farmer brutally murders the meek mild meat producer…)
In any case, to say death in the animal world is bad is not something I read in the text, and reinforces the interpretation that what is being discussed is spiritual death of those beings bearing God’s image.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #4

If death is evil, then our world is evil and so is the God Who made it.

However our world is good, and so is the God Who made it.

(George Brooks) #5

I find it very odd that the Young Earther’s put everything on the line with this “no death before the Fall” scenario … when the only reason there was no death appears to be the presence of the Tree of Life.

@TedDavis, How have the Young Earther’s got away with this unfathomable interpretation all these years?

(John Durant) #6

This latest in a very useful series of articles about New England geologist Edward Hitchcock points to an intriguing vignette in the history of Christian efforts to explain the existence of suffering and death in a world created by the God of love. This vignette is the view (here attributed to Hitchcock as an original contribution) that God imposed suffering and death on sentient beings at the outset because he anticipated Adam and Even’s subsequent sin at the Fall. This neat predestinarian move nicely resolves a particular problem for those who wish to blame the Fall for the existence of all suffering and death.

As a form of theodicy, however, Hitchcock’s (and Dembski’s) ingenious argument is almost painfully inadequate. First, it greatly heightens the problem inherent in this understanding of the significance of the Fall, namely the problem of proportion. To be regarded as just or even morally meaningful, punishment must in some sense match crime: less serious crimes merit smaller punishments; more serious crimes merit larger ones. (Hence our obvious moral horror at the notion that people should be executed for breaking speed limits!) In the case of the Fall and the existence of all sentient suffering and death, there is obvious and almost grotesque disproportion between the crime (eating a tempting fruit, in violation of God’s command) and the punishment (suffering and death for ALL sentient beings, for ever afterward). Any parent who responded to a child’s disobedience by imposing pain and death on the child ever after would be considered a moral monster; and here the punishment is vastly greater, being imposed on multitudes of other beings in no way involved in the original sin. Hitchcock’s predestinarian twist on this already difficult view just makes matters worse; for now, the crime of disobedience at the Fall results in suffering and death for all sentient beings both BEFORE and AFTER the wicked act. I doubt many Christians who reflect seriously on this view will find much moral or theological comfort in it.

Second, Hitchcock’s view creates a bundle of moral and philosophical problems concerning the concepts of moral responsibility and human agency in the world. Not all of these problems are new (some have been discussed in centuries of debate about the implications of strict determinism); but the dilemmas created by the idea of meting out punishment in anticipation of crimes yet to be committed are nicely pointed up in the the movie Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002), which describes a future in which criminals are apprehended before they actually commit their crimes, on the advice of “precogs”. The notion of God as “precog” creates metaphysical and moral dilemmas of a kind that to my knowledge neither Spielberg nor even the horror movie industry has yet addressed.

I conclude that Hitchcock’s and Dembski’s vignette is a kind of “blind alley” in serious debates about theories of origins and the existence of evil in the world. It has a certain logical coherence; but in all other respects, it fails to help us resolve the real theological issues.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #7


I entirely agree with the entirety of your comment, not just the paragraph I copied here. I don’t think Hitchcock’s theodicy works any better than the traditional theodicy he was trying to nuance. I don’t think that traditional theodicy works either. Speaking only for myself, I’m troubled when so many Christians base their theodicy on Genesis instead of on Job, or on the words of Jesus. In Job, we learn that we just do not know why God allows suffering–that this is something unknowable for us, at least in this life, but that God accepts responsibility for it. This clashes strongly with the view that Adam & Eve are to blame. Indeed, Job is said to be a “righteous” person, such that not even his own sinfulness is the source of his suffering.

Likewise, in John chapter 9, when Jesus heals the man born blind, the disciples ask, “who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” And, of course, Jesus says, “neither.” Surely, the spirit of Jesus’ response rules out the traditional theodicy: this man’s sin is not the cause, nor the sin of his parents, nor (I suggest) the sin of his more distant parents in the garden of Eden.

In the first column I wrote after joining the BL team ( ), I referred readers to a podcast in which I was interviewed by Michael Dowd; see the penultimate paragraph in that column for the embedded link. Near the end of that interview, when Mr Dowd was pushing me to say where I would want to revise my theology in light of evolution, I answered that we needed a new theodicy. What I meant was that the traditional theodicy (including Hitchcock’s clever form of it) doesn’t work.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #8


On a separate note, thank you for joining the conversation here at BL. If you are the John Durant I am thinking of, then it flatters me (and us) that you have taken time to share your thoughts with us. In case I’m wrong, I won’t take this further, but if I’m right, I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you’ve paid attention to this series. And, I hope you’ll continue to drop in from time to time.

(Michael Roberts) #9

I would say Buckland is preferable as he took animal suffering head-on and accepted it as a necessary condition for life both in the present and in the aeons before humans. He looked at it theologically in his 1838 sermon on death;

To Buckland and many contemporary Evangelicals predation did not contradict the beneficence of God, as is shown by Chap XIII of his Bridgewater Treatise; ‘Aggregate of Animal Enjoyment increased, and that of Pain diminished, by the existence of Carnivorous Races’. Neither did they accept that passages such as Genesis 3 or Romans 8 raised problems for the concept of predation. Buckland echoed Paley’s view of suffering in Natural Theology where he said that without predation we would ‘see the world filled with drooping, superannuated, half-starved, helpless and unhelped animals’.
Or put satirically by the Oxford professor of chemistry, Charles Daubeny;
It is true Paradise was delicious and nice,
Yet, if those born on earth had ne’er died,
‘Twould have been such a cram, like the berries in jam,
Pic-a-back men and women must ride

Despite Daubeny’s humor, the subject needed a more careful treatment and thus a sermon given in the Cathedral at Christchurch would reach many, and particularly those considered as opinion formers at Oxford.
His sermon An inquiry whether the sentence of death pronounced at the fall of man included the whole animal creation or was restricted to the human race given in Oxford in 1839 is in part a response to the noisy minority of nay-sayers of anti-geologists, who included Frank Nolan, the Bampton Lecturer of 1833. Here we do not see Buckland the geologist wielding his geological hammer or tracing out routes of former glaciers, but being a theologian and carefully studying biblical texts.
He took as his text Romans 5.12; “As by one man sin came into the world, and death by sin” , which he discussed briefly along with 1 Cor 15 vs21. The heart of his sermon is an interpretation of Romans 8 vs 19-23, followed by a comment on Paradise Lost. In both the Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 passages Buckland stresses that no mention is made of any “other part of creation” and that “death is mentioned only in immediate apposition to, and connexion with the remedy provided for it by the sacrifice of Christ”.
When Buckland came to Romans 8 vs 19ff, he emphasized that ktisis (creation) can mean both the “whole creation” or the “whole human race”, and chose to cite Gill, an 18th century Baptist commentator of “ultra-conservative “ views that “’Tis best of all by the creature to understand the Gentile world” i.e. not creation as such. He then referred to Colossians 1 vs 23 and Mark 16 vs 15 where pase te ktisis (the whole creation) clearly means humanity. After all, apart from St Francis, few preach to animals!
Without going into detail, Buckland’s interpretation is the minority one, but is not without support both now and in previous centuries. Arndt and Gingrich are very apt in their Greek-English Lexicon on ktisis and state;
The mng of kt is in dispute in Ro8: 19-22, though the pass. Is usu. taken to mean the waiting of the whole creation below the human level…
Yet few follow up Arndt and Gingrich on this point, though the interpretation has implications both on theodicy and environmental responsibility.
Having raised questions about Romans 8, Buckland then pointed out that such “erroneous” ideas are “so deeply imprinted on most men’s minds, that maturer judgment rarely stops to enquire precisely as to the source…” He alluded to painters and poets, especially Milton, almost anticipating both Hitchcock and Colenso. He took theological support from Shuttleworth and Bishop Bull to buttress his orthodoxy.
Buckland gave a short study on Genesis 3 and pointed out that, “Throughout these momentous passages, although the ground and some of its vegetable productions are included in the consequences of Adam’s sin, no mention whatsoever is made of any beast, except the serpent…” Here he uses a “literal” interpretation to undermine a “literal” view of the Curse and then went on to consider the nature of the “sentence” on Adam “you shall surely die” in Gen 2.17, which was used by Milton in P.L viii, 330;
Trangress’d, inevitably thou shalt die
From that day mortal
Buckland then went to argue that had not Adam fallen, humans would have been mortal but without the pain of death would have passed on to another existence. Here he drew on the Discourse on the State of Man before the Fall by Bishop George Bull 1634-1710, who was very much in the Anglican tradition of Richard Hooker. Buckland seems to have done this to show that Milton’s view was not universal and that he had not diverged from traditional understandings of Genesis 3.
To conclude, Buckland’s sermon has a dated feel about it as it predates both evolution and most critical biblical scholarship, but he does wrestle with the issues raised and takes on those who wish to claim there was a Curse which afflicted the planet and all life on it. By 1839 most educated Christians had accepted the vast age of the earth and, by implication, that the Curse had no real effect on the earth and life, but did not consider the full implications and so for well over a century such questions were either not considered or avoided.

This come from an unpublished paper going from Milton in Paradise to the present day.

(Michael Roberts) #10

It’s an extract from this which is on my blog

I am sorting out an exegetical treatment of Romans 8 vs 19-22 following from Buckland whom I conclude to be correct but I seem to be in a minority of ONE

(George Brooks) #11

A John Durant wrote the following:

“Philosophers are no closer to consensus on the merits of scientific naturalism now than they were in mid-Victorian times; biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists continue to disagree around theories of the evolution, not only of the human species, but of consciousness, language, culture, and even religion. . . .”

“John Durant is the MIT Museum Director and Adjunct Professor in the Science, Technology & Society Program.”

(George Brooks) #12


Michael, This excerpt from your page may be the best explanation for where this somewhat odd idea ever got legs!!!

"Milton presented death coming in with the Fall in Paradise Lost in what is known as The Curse."

" For centuries this has informed the way many read Genesis. The implication of a young earth created problems with the rise of geology. The issues raised by animal death being a result of the Fall was challenged by many in the 19th century, notably Christian geologists – Buckland, Hitchcock –and various Bishops. Here the roots and influence of Paradise Lost are considered from Calvin through to Buckland’s 1839 sermon on death, and Colenso’s treatment of Genesis in 1863. A brief account is given of later developments and the contemporary creationist insistence on a Curse."

It makes sense that a POET would conjure up the idea that has so - - dare I say? - - IRRATIONALLY colored the thoughts of Evangelical theorizing?

(John Durant) #13

A couple of people have asked which John Durant I am. I’m this one (!), and I’m pleased to be part of the Biologos community of interest. I liked Michael Roberts’ contribution about William Buckland, above. Beyond the particulars of Buckland’s position (which was - like him - somewhat idiosyncratic; among other things, he was strangely obsessed with carnivory…), it’s surely helpful to see how long and serious is the tradition of Christians active in historical science who have done significant work on the relationship between the ‘two books’ of divine revelation. Biologos stands in a long line of serious-minded and scholarly effort in this area!

(Michael Roberts) #14

John are you British , as I beleive we met in a Science and religion conference at Durham back in 1982

(John Durant) #15

Yes, yes; I remember now!

(Norman Voss) #16

Genisis literature is a mythic extrapolation that help set the stage for the exiled people of God/Israel. The piece has theological application and should no more be used in a discussion of science than the Book of Jonah. We are smarter than this; I would hope. As Jesus said; “Let the dead bury the dead”. Or to translate: let’s move on to better things. :frowning:

(Dr. Ted Davis) #17

The contributions from Michael Roberts (an Anglican minister and geologist who has published many historical articles and books) and John Durant (an expert on the history of evolution and theology) are much appreciated. I hope you both post such helpful comments again, on other threads. I’ve known Michael for many years. Though I don’t think I’ve actually met John, I read some of his papers in graduate school and subsequently. It’s great to have you both involved with BL!

(Larry Bunce) #18

Something in this thread made me think about Leibniz’s idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds, Obviously, anyone could imagine a world free of the evil and suffering we experience, but Leibniz stressed that such worlds would not be “possible.” God created our world with the least evil that would be possible to exist.

That idea assumes that God operates in a world not of His own creation, where He had to choose the least bad of a group of bad options. The idea in Job of “who are we to question God?” makes some sense, but is not very satisfying. God gave us the ability to come to terms with our grief, become better persons by living through adversity, and the possibility of an afterlife of unending happiness.

If we take the Fall as representing the leap of human intelligence that put us above the other animals, the Fall made us more aware of our suffering, caused us to begin tormenting one another far beyond anything Nature inflicts on us, but gave us he ability to correct the evils we see around us. All in all, we have to say that God is good.

(Nick) #19

I just read George Macdonalds commentary on Job I his Unspoken Sermons and among other things I think he emphasizes the what is it to you Job aspect of the poem. Sort of the idea of I’m God period really. I’m God, you are not Job. That is a position abhorrent to the new atheists and at least distasteful to many Christians.

I just a think we Christians need to try to internalize the idea that this is a temporary vessel that we inhabit that will become insignificant in eternity, but that our spirit which is eternal grows significantly in our time here this rock.

Macdonald also emphasizes very satisfactorily to me that we grow from our doubting and questioning too, and that in fact growth is impossible without doubt.

(Jon Garvey) #20

Ted - Thanks for the acknowledgement in your article. The blog of mine you cite (for those who might chase the link)) leads to a series of several pieces about the unfallenness of creation, but as you say the original work on historical theology remains unpublished, and I may have to put it up as a link from my blog in the end. For some reason people are convinced that the many sources I cite can’t be representative, because “everybody knows” that the Bible plainly teaches the modern view.

But it doesn’t.

As ever, the discussion here has centred around YEC problems with death before the Fall, but it remains an issue amongst TEs too, many of whom still can’t accept that death is an intentional part of God’s first creation, and being unable to explain it by the Fall, resort to naturalistic autonomy explanations to distance God from it. It’s almost universal to see non-human death as a problem to be explained, rather than a simple aspect of the Creation, as the Bible views it.

Many Tes, since as long ago as the nineteenth century, have gone on to reject the Fall itself, reversing the causation so that the presence of suffering and death (as evils) account for the fact of sin. This simply replaces a literalistic YEC misreading of Scripture with a flat contradiction of it (backed up with phrases like “cultural blinkers”, “old science” etc.) Both are completely blind to the original Christian (and Jewish) teaching on the matter.

The problem in all cases comes from starting from the aesthetic approach to theodicy so common in apologetics for evolution from atheists, as well as believers - “The kind of God I imagine wouldn’t do things that way.” I contend that, starting from Scripture as the pre-Reformation theologians did, animal death was seen to be axiomatic, and to be axiomatically consistent with the hiddenness and wisdom of God as Creator - as is presaged in the Bible in Job, amongst other passages.

The natural world is operating as God created it - that’s a radical proposition to get ones head around. The Scripture says there is a greater to come, but it never at any point rescinded Genesis 1.31 - unless anyone can find some passages I’ve missed over the last half century.