Death before the Fall

Depending on one’s view of Genesis, one might be committed to a position about death before the Fall. Typically, young earth creationists (YECs) hold that there was no animal death before the Fall and there was no human death either. Most old earth creationists (OECs) hold that there was animal death before the Fall. When it comes to human death before the Fall, OECs can go either way. Those OECs who think that (1) there was human death before the Fall and (2) Genesis 2-3 is best understood as historical narrative, typically understand God’s warning to Adam in Gen 2:16 to involve spiritual death as opposed to physical death[1]. I personally think this view is defensible, but I don’t plan on defending it here. Rather I want to propose a model which allows us to affirm (1) physical death as a consequence of the Fall, (2) the possibility of human death before the Fall and (3) the historicity of Gen 2-3. We’ll call it the potential death (PD) model.

On PD Adam and Eve were never any different from the rest of humanity[2]: in the absence of any overriding factors, they would die. They could die if they fell off a cliff, they could die of starvation, they could kill each other with sticks, and so on. However, in the garden of Eden, there was an overriding factor: the tree of life. So long as they had access to the tree, they could live indefinitely[3]. In other words, if they got expelled from the garden of Eden (for sinning, perhaps), then they would be cut off from the tree, and the death by mortality that was once merely a potential, would become a reality. Thus, if they were to disobey God, they would die. In this way, physical death was a real consequence of the Fall. This is different from the typical YEC understanding, however, since on PD this physical death is not a direct consequence, but a side-affect from being expelled from the garden.

You might think that this suggestion is somewhat ad hoc, but I actually thought of it because of Genesis 3:22, which says, “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’” Funny that.

Naturally, if PD is to stand as a plausible model it must fit in with the rest of Scripture, and it doesn’t seem to be in conflict with any passages that I’m aware of. Often Rom 5:12-21 and Rom 8:18-25 are cited as evidence that humans didn’t die before the Fall. Consider Rom 5:12-21 first. In verse 12 Paul states that, “sin came through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned…” But, (1) it’s not clear that Paul is talking about physical death here. It seems possible that he’s using death to refer to condemnation (or something along those lines), given that he uses the two terms interchangeably throughout the passage and in verse 21 this “death” is contrasted with eternal life. And (2), even if Paul were talking about physical death here, there is no problem, since on PD we affirm physical death as a consequence of Adam’s sin anyway.

What about Rom 8:18-25, then? Well, this isn’t even obviously talking about death. Perhaps we might be tempted to think it does because of the mention of “decay” (NIV) in verses 20-21, which say, “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 freedom and glory of the children of God.” But it’s far from obvious that this must refer to death as a consequence of the Fall. It is much more natural, given the reference to pains of childbirth in verse 22, to take this as referring to the curses that were pronounced upon mankind in Gen 3. But again, even if Paul were referring to physical death, this wouldn’t be a problem for PD.

Since PD concerns itself only with human death before the Fall, I suppose those are the only two passages of particular relevance.


  1. Usually, “spiritual death” is understood to be a disruption in one’s relationship with God, and “physical death” is the usual biological death we are accustomed to experiencing.
  2. I’m talking in terms of death here. Of course there’s the difference of being sinless at at least one point in their life, which is different from us, who are born sinful.
  3. PD is not committed to any explanation of how this works. But since God could keep a person living indefinitely, there seems to be no problem with him creating a tree to do the job too.

What objective moral duties aren’t

In talking about the existence of objective moral duties with people I’ve found that there is some confusion as to what is meant by the term. I thought I’d use a small blog post to clear up some common misunderstandings of the term. To start, we have the following definition:

Moral duties are objective if they are binding independent of anyone’s opinions[1]

So there are certain actions that are right and wrong, and their rightness and wrongness are independent of what anyone thinks. People can be correct and incorrect about their moral evaluations of actions. This position could be called moral objectivism or moral realism (I prefer the latter). Now let’s consider two common misunderstandings of this position, and one possible misunderstanding I wish to pre-empt.

Realism is not Absolutism

I take the view of moral absolutism to say that there are certain acts that are right or wrong independent of the situation at hand. Notice how this is not what moral realism holds to. There’s nothing in the moral realist’s position that prevents him from agreeing that the rightness or wrongness of an action is totally dependent on the situation. What realism holds, rather, is that if some action is wrong in a given situation, then it is right or wrong independent on what anyone thinks; it is actually right or wrong. In short, realism involves independence of opinions, not situations.

Realism is not Universal Agreement

By “universal agreement” I mean that everyone agrees that an act in certain situation is right or wrong. It should seem obvious that the realist is not committed to this, since his very position denies the dependence on opinions that universal agreement requires. Nevertheless, many people tend to confuse the two claims. So, to be clear, the realist does not say that people will agree on what is right and wrong. Instead, they say that there is a correct answer to the question of an acts rightness or wrongness in a given situation. So, if you and I disagree over whether the murder of some person is justified or not, one of us is correct and the other is incorrect[2]. That we disagree means nothing for the realist, since he is not committed either way, nor does he require that we agree. In short, realism involves binding of duties, not agreement of them.

Realism is not a categorical denial of moral neutrality

By this I mean that the realist is not committed to saying that every act is either right or wrong. Only those acts for which we have duties can be right or wrong. This seems quite obvious, I admit, but I felt it should be said. The next logical question is how we figure out which actions aren’t morally neutral. The realist isn’t committed to a specific answer, for realism is a meta-ethical question, but the question of the content of our duties is a normative ethical question. In short, realism is about the nature of moral duties, not the content.


  1. This is in line with how we usually define “objective”. Think of things like “objective truth”, “objective world around us”, etc.
  2. Of course, in this case I’m assuming that murder is not objectively morally neutral. The choice of act, however, is irrelevant to the point at hand. All I need is an act that would not be morally neutral.