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Animal Death Before the Fall: What Does the Bible Say?

by Rev. Lee Irons | Web Site:

Did animals experience death before the Fall, that is, before Adam and Eve transgressed the creation covenant by eating the forbidden fruit? As one whose training lies in the area of biblical interpretation and theology, I am not qualified to speak on the scientific aspects of this question—although I will state at the outset that I find the empirical evidence for an old Earth and universe to be compelling, if not incontrovertible. And I believe that this evidence is consistent with a firm commitment to the authoritative, inspired, and inerrant Word of God.

I do not believe that macroevolution, in particular an evolutionary understanding of the origin of man, is as strongly supported by science, and I do not find it to be consistent with the teaching of Scripture. However, I see no compelling biblical reason to deny the reality of microevolution, as long as it is understood within the context of God’s providential control. Supernatural creation of the various kinds [1] must be posited throughout the creation era, a fact that is attested both in the Genesis account and in the book of nature (i.e., the repeated appearance of new kinds in the fossil record). Once the kinds have been created by divine fiat, however, there is room for evolutionary processes, including the production of many distinct new species within the kinds. Thus I would be comfortable with the label “old-earth, progressive creationist,” although I hold to the framework interpretation of the days of Genesis rather than the more widely known day-age view. [2]

If the above sketch is anywhere near to the actual historical truth, it implies that plants and animals died before the Fall. According to the fossil record nature was “red in tooth and claw.” In view of the vast ages between the first evidence of life and the appearance of man, this description would necessarily be true prior to the Fall. But this conception of the pre-Fall state presents a jarring contrast with the typical Sunday School picture of Adam and Eve in the garden, dwelling peacefully in an idyllic state, where all the animals were herbivores and the wolf was dwelling with the lamb.

Appealing to the biblical doctrine of the Fall and the subsequent curse, many young-earth creationists have argued that the Fall of man was the event that introduced biological death into creation. Prior to Adam’s sin, they argue, there was no death in the human or animal realms, and no predatory behavior among the animals. Four biblical texts are commonly quoted in support of this view. We will examine each in turn, followed by a brief look at two passages that support the thesis that animals did die before the Fall.

(1) Romans 5:12–14

12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.

Those who appeal to this passage to deny pre-Fall animal death must assume two things. They must assume that “death” (Greek: thanatos) means the cessation of biological life, and that “the world” (Greek: kosmos) denotes the entire created order. Both of these assumptions are based on reading certain preselected meanings into these key terms.

Let’s take the word thanatos or death. In Romans 5:12–21, and in the Bible generally, death does not have an exclusively biological meaning. In verses 12–14, thanatos is defined as a divine judgment upon all mankind for Adam’s transgression as the covenant head of humanity. In verse 21, death is contrasted with eternal life – which, everyone will agree, is not really a biological concept at all. Paul undoubtedly developed his theological understanding of death as divine judgment upon human sin from the Genesis creation account, where God warned Adam and Eve that “in the day that you eat of the tree you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16). Yet they did not die biologically “in the day” that they ate of the tree. Nevertheless, the divine judgment of death was executed against man, as shown symbolically in the removal of Adam and Eve from the garden, that they might not eat of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22–24). Certainly, this divine judgment included the physical cessation of biological life (Genesis 3:19), but it cannot be limited to that.

The paired concepts of life and death in both Genesis 2–3 and Romans 5 must be understood in covenantal terms as the dual divine sanctions of the covenant of works. If Adam had obeyed, he would have inherited “life,” not simply continuance of biological functioning, but eternal life, as symbolically promised in the tree of life. Adam’s disobedience under the covenant, on the other hand, led to the execution of the covenant sanction of death in the sense of divine judgment upon sin, which includes both the spiritual separation from God as well as biological death.

In addition to misinterpreting thanatos, those who appeal to Romans 5:12 to deny pre-Fall animal death, must also assume a certain preselected definition of kosmos or world. The world into which sin and death entered is assumed to be the creation as a whole, including the non-human realm. But this is not the meaning that Paul seems to have in view in the context. For example, in verse 13, Paul says, “Before the Law, sin was in the kosmos.” But sin cannot be “in the non-human realm.” It is more likely that the term kosmos here refers to the world of humanity­—a common usage of the term with which we are already familiar in John 3:16: “For God so loved the kosmos, that he gave his only begotten Son.” In fact, Paul uses the phrase “all men” in the second clause of Romans 5:12 as a synonym for “world” (and again in verse 18).

I would also point out that the simplistic appeal to Romans 5:12 on the part of young-earth creationists actually damages their own position. For if “world” means the entire creation (both human and non-human), then Romans 5:12 would logically imply that death entered the plant kingdom as a result of Adam’s sin. But no one denies plant death prior to the entrance of sin.

Paul’s statement that death entered the world through Adam’s sin, when properly interpreted, does not teach that death entered the non-human creation for the very first time after the Fall. It teaches that the covenantal sanction of death as the wages of human sin entered the world of humanity through the Fall of Adam.

(2) Romans 8:18–21

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Another common argument against pre-Fall animal death is the statement of Paul that the creation was subjected to “futility” as a result of the curse pronounced upon creation after the Fall (Gen. 3:16-19). The current experience of animals preying on one another and experiencing pain, suffering, and death, it is argued, is part of the curse. Some have even gone so far as to argue that the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) was set in motion via the curse upon creation. All of this is read into Paul’s reference to creation’s “futility” and “corruption” in this passage.

Unlike Romans 5:12, it is clear that Paul is referring to the non-human realm of creation. One thing that supports this reading is that instead of the more general term kosmos, he uses the specific term ktisis (“creation”). Furthermore, the passage distinguishes between the corruption to which the creation has been subjected from the corruption that the children of God experience as they deal with suffering in the present age. Both will be set free from corruption at the end of the age, or more precisely, when the children of God receive the redemption of their bodies at glorification (verses 23, 30).

Meredith G. Kline has argued that the corruption to which the creation is enslaved, and from which it is “eagerly longing” to be delivered, is the earth’s present service as the mass “graveyard” of dead human beings. [3] Kline suggests that Paul has in mind an important passage in Isaiah 24–26 which presents this picture of the earth as a graveyard, as the context for an apocalyptic vision of the future resurrection of the dead. Here are the main selections:

Isaiah 24:4 The earth mourns and withers, the world fades and withers, the exalted of the people of the earth fade away. 5 The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant. 6 Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it are held guilty. Therefore, the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left … 26:19 Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. … 21 For behold, the LORD is about to come out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; and the earth will reveal her bloodshed and will no longer cover her slain.

Paul’s vivid metaphor of the creation’s groaning as it waits expectantly for the resurrection of the righteous seems to have been drawn from this passage. Isaiah says that “the earth mourns,” because it has been made to “cover her slain.” This then sets the stage for Isaiah’s prophecy of the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, it is precisely the resurrection of the dead that will be the deliverance of creation from its conscripted service as the graveyard of humanity. The creation will then become the renewed dwelling place of the glorified saints.

(3) Genesis 1:29–30; 9:1–4

1:29 Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; 30 and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food.

9:1 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. 3 Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. 4 Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”

Before the Fall, God gave the vegetation to Adam and the beasts of the Earth for food. After the flood, it would seem that God lifted the restriction on meat, and gave “every moving thing” for food, just as he had given the green plant. Young-earth creationists therefore argue that prior to the Fall, man and beast alike were herbivores.

But Genesis 1:29–30 does not explicitly say that meat was forbidden. It only says the positive: God gave man and beast “every green plant for food.” Kline suggests that this passage has a special literary purpose. [4] It was not given to define man’s diet comprehensively, but to set the stage for the prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the following chapter (Genesis 2:16–17).

Furthermore, it is clear that God entrusted man with lordship over all the realms of creation, not just the plant kingdom. Man is to rule over the fish, birds, cattle, and every thing creeps on the earth (Genesis 1:26, 28). This rulership over the sub-human realms of creation is defined in the most general terms (“rule over … subdue”), suggesting not merely the use of certain domesticated animals for labor, but the also the use of milk, eggs, wool, animal skins, and so on. “You make him to rule over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field” (Psalm 8:6–7).

The post-flood account in Genesis 9:1-4 is best explained as a re-issuing of the same general lordship over creation that was given to Adam prior to the Fall. Notice that the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is identical with that given to Adam (Gen. 1:26). The fact that the mandate given to Noah, who is here pictured as a second inaugurator of the human race, includes the giving of all creatures for food, not just plants, suggests that the same mandate was given to Adam before the Fall.

It is doubtful that the permission to eat meat recorded in Genesis 9:3 must be interpreted as the first time that God authorized such a diet, since it would appear that animals had been killed at least for sacrificial purposes as early as Genesis 3:21 (the divine provision of animal skins for Adam and Eve) and 4:4 (the sacrifice of Abel). Kline argues that “what Genesis 9:3 actually authorized was the eating of all kinds of meats, thus removing the prohibition against the eating of unclean animals that had been instituted for Noah’s family within the special symbolic situation in the ark-kingdom.” [5]

(4) Isaiah 11:6–9; 65:25

11:6 And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. 7 Also the cow and the bear will graze, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

65:25 The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain.

In Isaiah’s prophetic description of the eschatological state, carnivores are going to be supernaturally transformed into herbivores. Young-earth creationists argue that, therefore, pre-Fall state was equally idyllic and free from carnivorous activity.

However, it is incorrect theologically to assume that the eschatological state will be merely a return to the pre-Fall conditions of paradise. The pre-Fall covenant of works that God made with Adam included an offer of eschatological advancement to a state of higher glory than he had as originally created. One of the distinctive theological contributions of Reformed theology, according to Geerhardus Vos, is that “what we inherit in the second Adam is not restricted to what we lost in the first Adam: it is much rather the full realization of what the first Adam would have achieved for us had he remained unfallen and been confirmed in his state.” [6]

This can be seen in the Reformed doctrine of the fourfold state of man:

  1. the state of innocence, which could be forfeited
  2. the state of sin and condemnation in Adam
  3. the state of grace
  4. the state of glory

The third state cannot be forfeited, since it secured by Christ as the second Adam, whose obedience unto death fulfilled the meritorious condition of the eternal covenant of works with the Father. If the third state (of grace) is an advance upon the first, how much more is the fourth state an eschatological advancement far beyond the first! Man’s very body will be glorified in the fourth state, something that Adam could have achieved had he kept the covenant of works, but not something that he possessed as he was created in the state of innocence.

It is theologically incorrect, therefore, to argue from the fourth to the first state. We should not be surprised if we find that the creatures that inhabit the new heavens and the new Earth enjoy a different mode of existence than they did as they were created, for the same is true of the highest creature of all—man himself.

Having examined the passages frequently used by young-earth creationists to deny pre-Fall animal death, there are two passages which positively teach that carnivorous activity is not a result of sin, but part of God’s good provision of his creation from the beginning.

(5) Psalm 104:19-28

19 He made the moon for the seasons; the sun knows the place of its setting. 20 You appoint darkness and it becomes night, in which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. 21 The young lions roar after their prey and seek their food from God. 22 When the sun rises they withdraw and lie down in their dens. 23 Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until evening. 24 O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your possessions … 27 They all wait for You to give them their food in due season. 28 You give to them, they gather it up; You open Your hand, they are satisfied with good.

Psalm 104 is one of a handful of creation texts scattered throughout the Old Testament that supplement and reflect poetically upon the Genesis 1–2 account. In the context of describing the divine work of creation, we are given an insight into the nature of God’s goodness and care of his creation. Commenting on the fourth day of creation, Psalm 104:19 describes the divine establishment of the sun and the moon to govern the seasons. This poetic meditation then goes beyond the Genesis account and explains that God appointed the day-night cycle so that the beasts of the forest might prowl about at night and hunt for their prey. After a successful night of hunting, when the sun rises the next morning, the lions withdraw and lie down in their dens. This timing is perfect, for when the carnivorous hunting beasts are asleep during the daytime, man can go about his daytime labors in safety until evening.

Notice that the lions “seek their food from God,” and that God gives them “their food in due season,” opening his hand to “satisfy them with good.” In an earlier treatment of this subject I wrote: “Such provision is a testament to the goodness of the Creator in caring for His creation … There is no suggestion in this text that we are to view the provision of prey for carnivorous beasts as anything but a blessing from the hand of a good Creator. It is certainly not pictured as an abnormality resulting from the entrance of sin into the world.” [7]

(6) 1 Timothy 4:1–5

1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.

In this passage, Paul is warning Timothy against the Jewish legalists who wanted to impose the dietary restrictions of the Mosaic Law upon the Gentiles, in addition to a number of man-made rules like celibacy. Such ascetic principles, which Paul refers to as “bodily discipline” (verse 8), may have had the appearance of godliness, but in reality they were the “doctrines of demons.” Why? Because such prohibitions involve an attitude of rejecting something that the Creator himself made for our enjoyment. Just as Paul appeals to the creation order to justify the goodness of marriage, so he appeals to creation to justify the eating of all foods, “for every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude.” If marriage was a pre-Fall ordinance given to man in his innocence and, on that ground, is not to be rejected, there must also have been a divine permission before the Fall to partake of “every creature of God.”


1. The Hebrew word “kind” (min) is broader than the scientific concept of “species.” This can be seen by comparing the usage in Genesis 1 with the usage in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.

2. For more on old earth or progressive creationism see the essay by Robert C. Newman in Three Views on Creation and Evolution, ed. J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999). For the framework interpretation, see my contribution in consultation with Meredith G. Kline in The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation, ed. by David Hagopian (Mission Viejo, CA: Crux Press, 2001). I personally enjoyed and profited from the exchange with Hugh Ross and Gleason L. Archer, who defended the day-age view.

3. Kline, “Death, Leviathan, and the Martyrs: Isaiah 24:1-27:1,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, ed. Ronald F. Youngblood (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986).

4. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Overland Park, KS: Two Age Press, 2000), pp. 54-56.

5. Ibid., p. 55. Kline interprets the bringing of seven pairs of each clean animal into the ark as a typological anticipation of the theocratic kingdom of Israel, where the holiness of God demanded that the clean-unclean distinction be observed (Genesis 7:2-3; 8:20; cp. Leviticus 11:44-47; 20:25-26).

6. Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), p. 243.

[7] Irons with Kline, in The Genesis Debate (see note 2 above), pp. 286-7.

Other related resources that may be of interest:

“Animal Death Prevents Ecological Meltdown” by Fazale Rana

Biblical Defense of Death Before the Fall free audio download featuring Hugh Ross, Fazale Rana, Kenneth R. Samples and Krista Bontrager

A Matter of Days by Hugh Ross