Simon Turpin – Did Death of any Kind Exist Before the Fall?

Introduction

Death and disease are a heartbreaking reality of the world we live in and daily we hear news stories of people dying as a result of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, disease, and crime. People often ask why death exists in the world if there is a loving God, and many simply assume that death is a natural part of life. However, this has not been the belief of the church for much of its history. The orthodox Christian understanding of the origin of death has been commonly understood in terms of the “Fall” of mankind found in Genesis 3. Death was brought about as a result of Adam’s disobedience to the command of God in Genesis 2:17. As Vos states:

On the basis of these words the belief of all ages has been that death is the penalty of sin, that the race became first subject to death through the commission of the primordial sin (Vos 1975, p. 36).

Nevertheless, many scholars in recent years have taken issue with the orthodox view of Genesis 1–3 and the origin of death. Pannenberg notes that “From the 18th century onward . . . the opinion gained ground in Protestant theology that . . . death is part of the finitude of our nature” (Pannenberg 1994, p. 267). Lyn Bechtel argues that the orthodox Christian understanding of the origin of death and the Fall found in Genesis 3 is not seen as being original to the text, but as a development over the last few centuries of the first millennium BCE (Bechtel 1995, p. 4). Meanwhile, James Barr, in The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, writes:

My argument is that, taken in itself and for itself, this narrative is not, as it has commonly been understood in our tradition, basically a story of the origins of sin and evil . . . (Barr 1992, p. 4)

There can be no doubt that the eighteenth century’s emphasis on rationalism combined with the nineteenth century’s belief in the great age of the earth and the later acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory in The Origin of Species has impacted the interpretation of Genesis 1–3 more than anything else. Darwin’s evolutionary understanding of the world has had a devastating effect on how many people interpret Genesis 1–3. In his book he wrote what was essentially a history of death and suffering. He described the modern world as having arisen from “the war of nature, from famine and death” understanding death to have always been a permanent part of the world (Darwin 1859, p. 459). The late evolutionary astrophysicist Carl Sagan said,

The secrets of evolution are time and death: time for the slow accumulations of favourable mutations, and death to make room for new species (Sagan 1980).

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