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.

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