Animal Death and the Atonement

Animal Death and the Atonement

Every Easter we give thanks for God’s remedy for sin: Jesus’ atoning work on the cross and glorious resurrection from the dead. His death in our place bridged the gap between humans and our Creator, a gap that formed in the Garden of Eden.

At the heart of a controversy among Christians stands the issue of animal death and its relationship to the Atonement doctrine. After pronouncing the curse, God clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of animals (Genesis 3:21). According to some creationists, God’s provision of these animal skins is the first occurrence of physical death. They see this event as Adam’s introduction to bloodshed and, consequently, to the high penalty for sin. They go on to argue that if animal death had already occurred in the world for millions or billions of years (as an old earth implies), then the Jesus’ atoning work on the cross is compromised.

Such a charge can be troubling and may persuade some believers to reject an old-earth view of creation on that basis alone. However, a closer study of the data reveals that the charge is anchored outside, rather than inside, the biblical text. It fails to consider that the atonement applies to humans, the one and only sinful species. And, it arises from pre-commitment to an overarching assumption: God would not have allowed animal death before Adam’s sin. This a priori belief is then imposed upon the text itself as an interpretive lens.

Although it is certainly true that the new creation will not include physical death (1 Corinthians 15:53–55; Revelation 21:4), the Bible does not state that plant or animal death was introduced the moment Adam sinned (Romans 5:12; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21). Nor does the text say that the creatures killed to make Adam and Eve’s clothing were the first animals to die. It doesn’t even say God killed the animals involved. Once again, assumptions are read into the text based on a previous foundational belief, namely that there was no death of any kind before Adam sinned.

Christians are right to want to preserve the integrity of the Atonement. But to say the old-earth belief of pre-Fall animal death undermines Jesus’ work on the cross is to make a serious charge based on insufficient biblical evidence.