"Death through sin" is not equivalent to physical death
by Dr. Hugh Ross, M.Sc., Ph.D. (from his book "Creation And Time")
1. "Death through sin" is not equivalent to physical death. Romans 5:12 says, "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned." Some have interpreted this verse as implying no death of any kind for any creature existed before Adam's sin and, therefore, only a brief time could have transpired between the creation of the first life-forms and Adam's sin.
The proponents of such a view fail to realize that the absence of physical death would pose just as great a problem for three twenty-four-hour days as it would for three billion years. Many species of life cannot survive for even three hours without food, and the mere ingestion of food by animals requires death of at least plants or plant parts.
A rebuttal to this problem suggests that the verse is referring to "soulish" rather than physical death. In the Genesis creation account, soulish creatures (birds and mammals endowed by God with mind, will, and emotions so that they can form relationships with human beings), and spirit creatures (human beings who in addition to the soulish features of birds and mammals are also endowed by God with spirit so that they can form a relationship with God Himself) are distinguished from other animals (invertebrates and lower vertebrates). The difficulty with this adjusted interpretation remains: Are birds and mammals condemned to "death through sin"?
Of all life on the earth, only humans have earned the title "sinner." Only humans can experience "death through sin." Note that the death Adam experienced is carefully qualified in the text as being visited on "all men" - not on plants and animals, just on human beings (Romans 5:12,18-19).
The book of Romans discusses four kinds of death: death to the law, death to sin, physical death, and spiritual death. Romans 5:12 addresses neither physical nor soulish death. It addresses spiritual death. When Adam sinned, he instantly "died," just as God said he would ("In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die" - Genesis 2:17, NKJV). Yet, he remained alive physically and soulishly (i.e., mentally, volitionally, and emotionally). He died spiritually. He broke his harmonious fellowship with God and introduced the inclination to place one's own way above God's.
In the same manner, it has been established that 1 Corinthians 15:21 ("since death came through a man") also must refer to spiritual death rather than to physical death. As the following two verses in 1 Corinthians explain, "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him" (verses 22-23). Christ grants eternal life through His crucifixion and resurrection, and will give believers indestructible bodies at His return. Christ's crucifixion and resurrection conquered sin and removed the barrier Adam erected between humanity and God. Any person choosing spiritual life in Christ will receive it. Eventually, at Christ's second coming, the eternal spiritual life that the believer in Christ already possesses results in eternal physical life.
My point is that only human beings, spiritual beings, are "made alive in Christ." First Corinthians 15 refers only to those creatures who experience sin and desire to be delivered from sin. This excludes all species of life on the earth except humans. Therefore, just as in Romans 5, no reason is found to deny physical death for nonhuman life previous to Adam's sin.
Genesis 3 records that after Adam and Eve died (spiritually) through sin, God sent an angel to block their access to the tree of life. Apparently Adam and Eve had the potential for eternal physical life before and after sinning against God. Knowing that eternal physical life in their newly acquired sinful condition ultimately would be disastrous for them and their descendants, God barred their access to it. God would not allow His plan to be thwarted. Physical death for humans became a blessing designed to restrain the spread of evil and make way for the redemption of willing men and women.1
One point of concern remains. Some people think that the death of plants and animals before Adam's sin ascribes evil to the Creator. I have met men and women who deny that a God of love could be responsible for carnivorous behavior. They believe that carnivorous activity must be the result of sin and not of God's design.
Biologists, physicists, and engineers with whom I have discussed this concern offer this perspective: An organism's place in the food chain determines its capacity for efficient work. The differences in daily activity between creatures that consume low-calorie leaves and those that consume high-calorie seeds, and between those that consume seeds and those that consume animals are dramatic. Elephants, for example, are vegetarians and, even though they are large (thus experiencing less loss of heat), must spend more than half their waking hours harvesting and eating, and they cannot do any hopping or jumping. The destruction they wreak on their environment in attempting to devour sufficient calories results in the death of many plants and smaller animals, arguably more death than is caused by large carnivores.
Considering how creatures convert chemical energy into kinetic energy, we can say that carnivorous activity results from the laws of thermodynamics, not from sin. Large, active, agile land animals either must spend virtually all their waking hours grazing, drinking, or digesting or they must consume meat. And I don't think we should hastily label the thermodynamic laws as evil. Without them, life in this universe would be impossible.
There's an obvious emotional side to this matter of killing and eating animals. We tend to anthropomorphize and thus distort the suffering of animals. But even plants suffer when they are eaten. They experience bleeding, bruising, scarring, and death. Why is the suffering of plants acceptable and not that of animals? Consider, too, how little concern we feel over the death of insects. Why?
Obviously, the difference between the physical death of a spirit creature and the death of any other creature is in some ways profound. Because of the soulish characteristics of certain animals, especially those we domesticate and make pets of, we tend to see them as more like persons. Let us remind ourselves that they are not and that we cannot realistically compare the suffering and death of animals to the suffering and death of humans.
Again, I am not disputing that God could have done things differently. But our job as thinking people, whether scientists or theologians, is not to question God's motives or His ways but rather to determine what, in fact, He has done and is doing. God has so designed His creation that willing humans can be led forward into the new creation (Revelation 21). A relatively brief and limited amount of suffering by us and the entire universe brings about a reward so great that none of us can even imagine how wonderful it will be (1 Corinthians 2:9).
2. Bloodshed before Adam's sin does not alter the doctrine of atonement. Hebrews 9:22 says, "In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." Ken Ham of the Institute for Creation Research interprets that verse this way, "The basis of the Gospel message is that God brought in death and bloodshed because of sin."2 As he explains, "If death and bloodshed of animals (or men) existed before Adam sinned, then the whole basis of atonement - the basis of redemption - is destroyed.3
While it is true that there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood, Christ's blood, it does not necessarily follow that all shed blood is for the remission of sin. (To say there could have been no bloodshed before sin is to make the same exegetical error as made by those who claim there were no rainstorms or rainbows before the Genesis flood.)
Hebrews 10:1-4 explains that the blood of animal sacrifices will not take away sin. The sacrificial killing of animals was a physical picture of the spiritual death caused by sin, which necessitated the death of a substitute to make atonement, as well as a foreshadowing of the ultimate, efficacious sacrifice that God Himself would one day provide. Since the penalty for sin is spiritual death, no animal sacrifice could ever atone for sin. The crime is spiritual. Thus the atonement had to be made by a spiritual Being.
The spilling of blood before Adam's sin in no way effects or detracts from the doctrine of atonement. Upholding that central doctrine in no way demands a creation scenario in which none of God's creatures received a scratch of other blood-letting wound before Adam and Eve sinned. Incidentally, experiencing no bloodshed is just as big a problem for animal life existing for forty-eight hours as it would be for animal life existing for millions of years. Even in an ideal natural environment animals would be constantly scratch, pricked, bruised, and even killed by accidental events and each other.
3. The creation has been subject to "its bondage of decay" since its beginning. Romans 8:20-22 describes this bondage:
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been roaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
These words have been interpreted by some to imply that Adam's sin ushered into the creation all manner of natural decay, including pain and death. They assume that the law of entropy, which describes the decreasing order in the universe, did not take effect until Adam and Eve sinned. Based on this assumption, the time between the universe's creation and Adam and Eve's fall must be brief to explain why the physical evidence shows no period when decay and death were not in operation.
This appeal fails on several counts. While it is obvious that freedom from decay, suffering, and pain could not possibly extend through billions of years, it is less obvious, but equally certain, that it could last for even one twenty-four-hour day. Without decay, work (at least in the universe God designed) would be impossible (see first box). Without work, physical life would be impossible, for work is essential to breathing, circulating blood, contracting muscles, digesting food - virtually all life-sustaining processes. And life did exist, according to Genesis 1, at least from the third creation day. And Adam was working, tending the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), before he sinned. Thus Romans 8:20-22 could not imply that Adam's sin inaugurated the decay process.
Actually, Romans 8 explicitly indicates only when the bondage to decay will end. It says little about when it first began. I say little because the repeated references to "the creation" and "the whole creation" (verse 22) seem to imply the entire creation. The equations of general relativity indicate that the entire creation includes not only all the matter and energy in the universe but also the space-time dimensions (length, width, height, and time) of the universe.5 This, in turn, would imply that the process of decay has been in effect since the universe was created.
The text, might refer, as well, to another kind of decay: the disorder in people's life and environment that has resulted from rebellion against God. In Genesis 1:28, God commanded us to tend the environment. But, because we sinned, the environment has been ruined. The human effect on the environment is roughly analogous to the results of sending a two-year -old child to tidy up a closet. Left alone, the closet will become less tidy due to the natural tendency toward decay and disorder. Typically, though, that two-year -old will greatly speed up the decay and disorder process. Isaiah 24:5 describes the devastation of the planet that results from the insubordination of human beings to God.
Just as one must wait for the two-year-old child to grow up a little before expecting him to help tidy up a closet, so, too, the creation waits for the human race to experience the results of God's conquering the sin problem.
Those who interpret Romans 8 as I do are said to place science above the Bible and to stretch the text beyond reasonable limits to accommodate science.6-8 But can such a charge apply to third-century church leader Origen (AD 185-254)? The title he gave to chapter V, book III of On First Principles is this: "That the world is originated and subject to decay, since it took its beginning in time." Origen in that chapter explains his interpretation of Romans 8:20-22. He says it implies that decay has been in effect in the natural world since the creation of the universe.9 Because he preceded by hundreds of years the scientific discovery of the laws of thermodynamics and entropy (which include the principle of decay), it seems unreasonable to accuse him of submitting to the pressure of the scientific community.
If we turn back to the passage recounting God's response to Adam and Eve's sin, we see evidence that physical pain - closely connected with decay - must have existed before the Fall. In Genesis 3:16, God says to Eve, "I will greatly increase [or multiply] your pains in childbearing." He does not say "introduce." He says "increase" or "multiply," implying there would have been pain in any case. Perhaps it is not incidental that the Romans 8 passage uses the analogy of birth pangs.
Though we all dislike pain, we have good reasons to be grateful for it. Pain is essential for our safety and survival. Thanks to our nervous system and its quick pain response, we are protected from many dangers of our environment.
An engineer friend was once so absorbed in an electronics project that he inadvertently rested his hand on the heating element of nearby soldering iron. Not until he smelled smoke did he realize that his hand was burning. At that point he wished his pain sensors had been more effective! It appears that God has given us enough pain to protect us from harm but no so much as to make life continually unbearable for all of us.
In the context of the Garden of Eden, one consequence of the introduction of sin was to increase the risk of harm for Adam and Eve, and hence their need for an increase in sensitivity to pain. I believe Adam and Eve had intact nervous systems before they sinned. Their sense of touch would have been a source of pleasure, discovery, and protection in the garden. Can we really imagine life in this universe without the sense of touch?
While the sin we human beings commit causes us all naturally to react negatively to decay, work, physical death, pain, and suffering, and while ultimately all this is somehow tied into God's plan to conquer sin permanently, there is nothing in Scripture that compels us to conclude that none of these entities existed before Adam's first act of rebellion against God. On the other hand, God's revelation through nature provides overwhelming evidence that all these aspects indeed did exist for a long time period previous to God's creating Adam.
To order this book "Creation And Time" go to: Reasons to Believe Catalog
Ross Hugh, Ph. D., "Creation And Time" Navpress, (1994) Reasons to Believe, p.60-69
Dr. Hugh Ross's References :
-1. Ross, Hugh, "Death: An Extreme Mercy" (Pasadena, CA: Reasons To Believe, 1991); an audiotape with accompanying paper called "God's Mercy in Death". A two-hour video documentary on the subject will be released in 1994.
-2. Ham, Ken, "Billions, Millions, or Thousands - Does It Matter?" Back to Genesis 29, (May 1991), page b.
-3. Ham, Ken, "Closing the Gap," Back to Genesis (February 1990), page c.
-4. Zemansky, Mark W., "Heat and Thermodynamics", fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957), pages 139-194.
-5. Ross, Hugh, "The Fingerprint of God", second edition, pages 44-50, 109-111.
-6. Ham, Ken, "Were You There," Back to Genesis (October 1989), pages a-c.
-7. Ham, Ken, "Be a Berean," Back to Genesis 43 (July 1992), page d.
-8. Ham, Ken, "Do the Days Really Matter?" Back to Genesis 21 (September 1990), pages a,c.
-9. Origen, "On First Principles, Book III, Chapter V, "Origen on First Principles, trans. G.W. Butterworth, introduction by Henri DeLubac (New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Row, 1966), pages 237-242.
-10. Ross, "The Fingerprint of God", pages 172-178.
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