Was there death before the Fall?
Assuming the biblical record of creation in my thinking, the answer – at least as it relates to human beings – has to be no. If Adam and Eve – the pinacle of God’s creation and made in His image – are in fact the first people (and i think they are) then clearly, no one dies before the Fall.
But that, of course, is not really the question i want to explore. The question is: Could they have died before the Fall? Or, even more to the point: Did God create human beings immortal (unable to die) and then they became mortal (able to die) after rebelling against God and bringing sin into the world?
I want to look at a few notable passages of Scripture and then draw a few conclusions. The answer is by no means settled in my mind, however, hence the title of this post.
When it comes to answering in the negative, viz. that human beings could not have died before the Fall, two of the big-daddy Scriptures that seem to close the case are Gen. 2:16-17 and Rom. 5:12. Here we see clearly that God promises death to Adam if/when he should eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then later, in Romans 5, the apostle Paul – referring to the event when Adam and Eve did in fact sin in this way as a literal, historical event – says that because of Adam’s sin death entered into the world and it spread to all mankind.
Clearly, Scripture is revealing to us that physical death is a consequence of the Fall which, by necessity, implies that before the Fall, death did not – nay, could not - occur.
Or is it ….?
I want to quickly look at three interesting Scriptures that – for me anyways – at least make me want to look further and longer.
1. But they don’t die! Ok, maybe this one should be obvious, but after clearly warning Adam (and then Eve through Adam) that if they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they will “surely die”, most of my life hearing this story i have been constantly bothered by the fact that when Adam and Eve eat of that fruit and disobey that one, simple command … they don’t die! I always expected the fruit to be like poison in their mouths and they just drop dead then and there, and God is like, “SEE!!!! I told you you would die of you ate the fruit! Ugh!!” I don’t think we need to belabour the point, but it stands to reason that, right away, we should at least consider other possible definitions if God says they will surely die if they eat the fruit and then they eat it and don’t die. We know God isn’t lying to them or tricking them, and so it could be possible that He meant something other than physical death. Of course, it could be argued that then they do later die and so what God really meant was that they would then experience the decay of sin and eventual physical death as we do now. But for the moment, let’s just put a post-it note by “it could be an option that God did not mean physical death” and that humans always could die before the Fall.
2. Paul’s shifting definition of death in Romans 5. What’s interesting about Romans 5 is that after hammering the whole “Adam’s sin = death” thing for verses 12-15,17 (and even then he never says physical death), he then goes on with the same description/comparison about the first and second Adams, but he starts substituting the terms “death” and “died” with “condemnation” and “made sinners” (ESV) [this starts to sound very much like Romans 8 now]. So he switches from a death-life comparison to a condemnation/made sinners-imputed righteousness of Christ/justification comparison. To me, that adds yet another question mark to the cut and dry case of physical death being a consequence of the Fall. Beyond this even, we know that even those who have received the free gift of grace from Christ still physically die. Of course, we have life eternal, but that leans more towards the conclusion i am considering presently, viz. that the “death” God promises to punish Adam with (and all mankind after him) is spiritual and not physical. This would also line up with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in 2:1-6 which describes us as “dead in our sins” even though, physically, we are still very much alive.
3. The tree of life in Gen. 3:22-24 and Rev. 2:7, 22:2. This is the other piece that, as long as i have heard this history of Adam and Eve, has brought up questions. And yet it is so easy to pass over! In Gen.3:22 after cursing the serpent, Eve and Adam for their sin, in an act of grace and mercy to His now sin-stained creation God says,
” ‘Behold the man has become like one if us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever –‘ therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”
Now, this is the same tree of life that is mentioned in Gen. 2:9b that God had made, and the implication of Gen. 3:22-24 is that God does not want mankind to live in this eternal state of sinfulness forever. And so, to keep them from living forever He keeps them from eating of the tree of life in the garden ever again. The obvious implication is that it is in eating of the tree of life that this (living forever) would be possible.
Even more intriguing is the fact that we are told in the book of the Revelation, that this same tree of life is now in Heaven (Rev. 2:7, 22:2). The implication then being that we will truly have eternal physical life (in our glorified bodies) because we will always be able to eat from the tree of life forever as well as drink from its water which flows from the tree throughout Heaven. This should also gives us a new slant by which to view Christ’s command to abide in Him like a branch connected to a Vine in John 15.
So where does that leave us? A good case could be argued from these passages above that physical death was the result of sin for all mankind because we were bared from the garden of Eden where the tree of life was located at that time. Fine. Granted. But it still leaves the question of the mortality of mankind apart from eating of the tree of life before the Fall open in my mind. For it seems that God’s gracious kindness to mankind is to bar them from the tree of life so that they can die, thereby freeing them from eternal captivity to the consequences of their sin. But that the source of that eternal life was eating from the tree of life, not that they were made immortal before the Fall.
For me, the Revelation 2:7, 22:2 piece along with the John 15 (cf. Eph. 2:1-6) piece make an all the more compelling case for the idea that spiritual death, not physical death, was the primary consequence implied by God’s command in Gen. 2:16,17. The separation of mankind from God because of sin is the cause of spiritual death and ultimate, eternal death – though we are currently physically alive – apart from the saving work of Christ, in Whom we again partake of spiritual Food/Life, Cf. John 6:53-56, 15:4-7, Rev. 2:7.