Responding to Carter and Sanford: Death Before the Fall

Excellent article by @jongarvey that gives a good explanation of God’s Good Earth.

Carter and Sanford write:

I understand that some will still object, insisting on universalizing the ‘no death’ doctrine across the earth. It is up to them, however, to demonstrate the grounding for such a grand theological innovation” (p. 182).

No, it is he who is introducing unique readings, thus attempting to shift the burden of proof, who is unprofessional.

@jongarvey does a great job explaining what Sanford and Carter missed here.


The claim that

is, I think, too strongly worded.

While I haven’t given the issue much thought, there are two pieces of evidence for no-pre-fall-death that come immediately to mind:

  1. Death is depicted as an evil and punishment for the disobedience of Adam and Eve.
  2. Paul says death entered the cosmos through one man (Adam).

Of course, we can show that these pieces of evidence are not logically airtight. For instance, in regards to 1, it can be pointed out that this does not entail that death, as evil and punishment, did not exist prior to Adam and Eve. But if conjoined with 2, that explanation looks less plausible.

One might confine this to (textual?) humans, but the problem with this is that when God punishes Adam and Eve he extends the punishment the creation generally (that which was under their dominion). And this fits with other passages of God’s judgment (e.g., Nineveh).

(I think one way to have fruitful discussions here would be to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses in our positions. And it seems to me that the idea that death existed prior to the fall is the weaker position exegetically. If we think the position which is stronger from an internal standpoint is outweighed by far stronger external considerations, fine.)

Expanding on a topic from last night’s Behe-Swamidass discussion, I would observe that just as intuition is loaded with pitfalls when applied to science topics, so also are its inherent risks when applied to theology topics.

Yes, anyone with a high view of God can easily be inclined to go overboard in making intuitive conclusions from God’s attributes. Thus, “God is holy and loving. He would not allow any sort of death and negative things in a ‘very good’ creation.”

Indeed many wrongly assume that Genesis describes a perfect creation. Yet, if we investigate the Hebrew word TOV, it shares various of the same broad semantic similarities with the English word most often associated with it: “good”. Does good mean the same thing as perfect? Not in English and not in Ancient Hebrew. Our intuition may lead us to assume that a “very good” creation would not have anything we might personally (and intuitively) consider “not good” in it, but that is taking undue liberties with the Biblical text.

Does the Bible say that there were no weeds and thorns in the original creation? No. It says that they weren’t part of the garden in Eden because God planted that garden—and as with most gardens, weeds weren’t part of that garden landscape! (That’s comes with being a planned and maintained garden and not a wilderness.) Does the Bible state that there was no death of any kind in God’s creation? No, it states that human death was not experienced in the garden. It even explains why! The fruit of the Tree of Life is described as providing ongoing life to Adam and Eve, such that when they sinned, they were banned from the garden so that they wouldn’t continue being exempted from death. Indeed, why have an antidote (the fruit of the Tree of Life) for something (human death) which did not yet exist? That wouldn’t make any sense.

Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, and many others love to cite passages in Romans in preaching that no death of any kind existed before the Fall of Adam and Eve. Yet, if they investigated those passage in their immediate context, the Apostle Paul is clearly talking about death of Imago Dei humans.

It is very easy to let our human intuitions dictate what God allegedly would and wouldn’t do in designing his creation. I once had a pastor adamantly tell me that before the fall, animal excrement did not stink—and that if Adam left a cup of cow’s whole milk in the sun, it wouldn’t turn sour, curdle, and smell bad. To him, such disgusting things were not “good” and therefore absolutely could not be part of God’s original creation before the fall. (By the way, that same pastor agreed with his favorite Creation Science teachers who claimed that before the fall there was no 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, because entropy itself is “obviously” not good! He said that disorder and decay were contrary to a holy God of order.) Intuition can seem an obvious and easy path but it is fraught with problems, in part because the Bible claims that humans don’t know the mind of God. Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV) says:

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Despite that cautionary warning, many Christ-followers depend upon personal intuition in assuming that they always know what God would consider “good” and “not good.”

Even Dr. Behe recognized a pitfall of personal intuition in his presentation last night. He said something equivalent to this: “Don’t regard a virus using a syringe-like structure to inject its DNA into a host cell as something mean.” He was saying that it sounds wrong and even horrific to us but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t part of the original creation. In fact, as I looked at his diagram of the virus’ “attack mechanism”, I thought of how we tend to regard viruses and their infection mechanisms as “evil.” Yet, most viruses are basically “neutral” toward humans and many are even beneficial, despite using many of the same “ominous” infection mechanisms as the nasty viruses. For example, the smallpox virus is dangerous, yet the very similar cowpox virus infects people through similar mechanisms and thereby gives them lifetime immunity to the potentially devastating smallpox virus. Did God create both after the fall? Where does the Bible describe this “second creation”?

Speaking for myself, early in my academic career I was far too confident of my powers of intuition. I eventually learned not to blindly trust my intuition. As @swamidass made clear at the presentation last evening, science can’t blindly rely on intuition. We have to test it. That’s why rely on the scientific method. (Before Paracelsus, most philosophers were still in the mindset of Aristotle. Many assumed that intuition and contemplative reasoning was the way to go, not by careful empirical methodologies. Thus, it was very easy for them to think, “It’s just common sense that heavy objects fall faster than light objects!” That’s what happens when one relies on intuition.)

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How would you answer @jongarvey?

What I said above was intended to be in response to @jongarvey. I think when he states that the idea is not in Scripture at all he is overstating things, which tends to get peoples hackles up. Or perhaps I should add that his statement could be presumptive of a conclusion which is not itself as certain as the evidence for the conclusion.

But maybe I’m not understanding what you’re looking for?

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I don’t think YEC would agree with the way you frame their position: of it being motivated by intuition of what a good God must do (although this is a problem for some philosophers in regards to perfect being theology).

As for how you account for what the text does and does not say, I would be interested to know what you say about the specifics of the two points I made above. So, for instance, when you say:

Does the Bible state that there was no death of any kind in God’s creation? No, it states that human death was not experienced in the garden.

I would point out that when we conjoin 1 and 2 from my post above, we at least have reason to think that death was introduced to the cosmos generally.

Regarding the Tree of Life, I think this is a good indication that Adam and Eve were not naturally immortal. But it doesn’t indicate that death occurred prior to the fall.

I’m headed out to some meetings so I can only respond briefly for now:

I’m speaking from my own experience raised in a Young Earth Creationist church and environment. I read The Genesis Flood (1962, Henry Morris & John Whitcomb Jr.) soon after it was published, and used to listen to Dr. Whitcomb speak on these topics at various local church. (We lived in the same community and eventually got to know him when I started collaborating in in research and publishing with one of his faculty colleagues.)

I left the Young Earth Creationist community long ago. It is certainly possible that those of us of the “old school” were more “motivated by intuition of what a good God must do” than later generations. However, that would surprise me because I’ve read tremendous quantities of YEC literature over the years and haven’t noticed any such shift. Even so, I’m certainly willing to examine the evidence of such changes. (I don’t keep as current on YEC literature as I once did.)

By the way, I don’t recall if we’ve interacted before. If I haven’t previously welcomed you to Peaceful Science, I gladly do so now.

Thanks for the welcome! Keeping things brief is good for me too right now.

I guess I would say in response: doesn’t the book you mention make its case based on how the author reads the text? I haven’t read it.

I don’t doubt that YEC have the goodness of God argument as part of their toolkit. But I don’t think it’s the one which motivates the rest of their arguments.

“…the problem with this is that when God punishes Adam and Eve he extends the punishment the creation generally…”

That statement appears to be a supposition in the context of Genesis 3, since the text says nothing about the punishment of the rest of creation. Rather it speaks of Adam and Eve being exiled to the rest of creation from the special circumstances of the garden, wherein is the tree of life, lest they live forever.

And therein Scripture provides adequate context: in a perishable natural world (1 Cor 15:42-49 - note the parallelism between “perishable” and “natural”, and the stress in priority to the spiritusalm rather than opposition) Adam is called into a sacred space where there is access to imperishability, via the tree of life.

It is in that immediate context that death for eating the other tree is threatened, and it is by exclusion from the garden and its imperishability that Adam and Eve, who had tasted communion with God, are returned to the perishable world.

Death is defeated by the resurrection - and yet the risen Jesus cooks and eats fish: there is a clear distinction between the sons of Adam intended for eternal life with God, and the animal world.

Regarding Nineveh (and closer to Eden, of course, the flood), that destruction involves other elements of creation does not equate to their punishment.

Paul’s argument, of course, is couched entirely in human terms, as are the vast majority of the arguments about death from early theologians, who simply did not address the question in terms of “natural evil” but in terms of sin, judgement and redemption. His use of “kosmos” is no more absolute there than it is in other NT passages, in which it can mean anything from the sinful world order we should shun, to the Roman empire taxed by Caesar. Context surely determines scope, and in Romans 5 the scope is Adam, and the curse of death laid on him (with no mention of the natural world) in the garden.

So when I wrote that I could find not find natural fallenness taught in Scripture, it was simply because I could not find it, not because I wanted to make a sweeping claim.

There is also, of course, the small aspect of what a world with creatures ordained to “multiply and fill the earth” without death would look like after even a year of insect reproduction, and the fact that there is much evidence that all creatures perished long before recent times.

If there is an exegetical choice between limiting the compass of a word to its context, and committing oneself to a version of nature that shows no sign of having existed, nor even of being biologically possible, when no positive Scripture teaches it, then it would seem perverse to choose the latter.

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Let’s grant that the text of Gen. 3 doesn’t say that God curses the rest of creation (where “rest of creation” = the whole of it). It does say God curses part of creation, doesn’t it?

As for getting to “the whole”, I think it’s a reasonable inference from elsewhere. But I’ll have to get to that later.

Well, no - actually, It curses that particular serpent - which the whole of the rest of the Bible strongly suggests to represent the spiritual being Satan, and not generic legless reptiles.

And it curses, for an indeterminate period, the agricultural capacity of the soil, by means of a preferential benefit to thorns and thistles.

There are, I think, specific ways to understand that particular curse on Adam’s agriculture, but even if we take it at face value and as archetypal for the whole human race permanently, the rank growth of weeds is not the introduction of animal death, carnivory (unless thorns are deemed carnivorous!), disease and (to Martin Luther) the dimming of the sun.


I’m confused as to why you said no and then went on to explain how God curses the ground. So the answer is yes, actually, correct?

The point is that the ground is only “cursed” in the aspect of its production of food according to Adam’s farming agenda, and not on its own behalf. I’ve never heard a field groaning in agony because it brings forth thistles rather than wheat: just such a field sits outside my window, and we call it a valuable wild-flower meadow.

There is certainly plenty of biblical evidence that nature remains God’s obedient tool both for judgement and mercy after the fall. But that is a far cry from the concept you stated earlier, of nature being punished alongside Adam, because of his rule. And it’s a farther cry still from the original claim to which I responded, that there was no death before the fall.

On that subject, once again Scripture gives a context: if there was no death at all in the whole world (for some reason the death of plants gets exempted from the universal application of that word in Romans 5), then for what purpose was there a tree of life in the garden of God? It would appear to be as redundant Bill Gates having a pawn shop as well as a cocktail bar in his mansion.

But once more the Bible makes it plain - when the sentence of death is executed on Adam (in delayed form - a whole other discussion), it is specifically done through, and as far as the text goes only through, his expulsion from the garden, thus excluding him from the tree of life “lest he live forever.”

Clearly the promise of eternal life was a distinctive of life in the garden, and the warning of death as judgement a warning specifically to the man who, created outside, was brought into God’s presence in the garden.

It is the death of a being called to eternal rule with God that is an anomaly in God’s creation, not the perishability of the physical creation, which is what the Bible teaches to be its distinction from the new, spiritual, creation that brings heaven and earth together at last.

And that is where the theological focus ought to be - not on whether armadillos in Paraguay would also be refused permission to migrate to Eden to top up their eternal life, but for what exalted purpose God had created a paradisical garden and placed an earthly couple in it in the first place.

GAE encourages the examination of that important question, which is intimately linked to the eternal purpose of God in Christ for the (universal) cosmos.

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You’ll hear groaning from a field every time I ride mountain bike trail and flub a tight turn, or a fail a jump over a woodchuck hole to land in a multiflora rose patch. It’s a particularly annoying, invasive species here. Thistles are nothing. They don’t tangle around your legs and body like barbed wire. In contrast, I haven’t groaned because of falling into grasses, which are both cushioning and more importantly, much less likely to puncture one’s skin. Then again, grass cuts hurt more than simple punctures so perhaps this theological riddle needs deeper pondering.

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@jongarvey I’m not sure we’ll have a fruitful discussion because you seem too eager to jump ahead in the conversation and import a lot of baggage into claims you think I’m making or which I made earlier but which I set aside for a narrower point.

At this point you and I agree that God cursed part of creation in Genesis 3 because of Adam’s sin. But you don’t want to just say that.

At the risk of starting a tangent - it’s actually unfair to Aristotle to say he gave undue weight to intuition over empirical data. His works in both biology in physics show that he was a careful observer of nature, and as a matter of fact he was (at least partially) right that heavier objects fall faster than light objects - when you take fluid resistance into account. Carlo Rovelli has a delightful little paper going into more detail on that topic; I think it’s worth a read for anyone interested in the history of physics: [1312.4057] Aristotle's Physics: a Physicist's Look

(@dga471, you might be interested in that link, if it isn’t one you’ve come across already!)

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Very apposite point, Argon. As it happens I was brush-cutting the outer perimeter of our church today: brambles were smitten into nothingness, but hurt me when the branches caught my hands. Grass was more troublesome for the machine (the stuff we have in East Devon being particularly tough).

Between us we make my point - what counts in Genesis 3 was what affected Adam’s ability to harvest a cereal crop - otherwise, as Augustine pointed out, they are a mixed blessing even for mankind:

Concerning thorns and thistles, we can give a more definite answer, because after the fall of man God said to him, speaking of the earth, “Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you.” But we should not jump to the conclusion that it was only then that these plants came forth from the earth. For it could be that, in view of the many advantages found in different kinds of seeds, these plants had a place on earth without afflicting man in any way. But since they were growing in the fields in which man was now laboring in punishment for his sin, it is reasonable to suppose that they became one of the means of punishing him. For they might have grown elsewhere, for the nourishment of birds and beasts, or even for the use of man.

And so, to reply to @JohnB, the text necessitates nuance in considering the word “cursed” in relation to the land. That is the nuance I was seeking to make before: as one of the old Reformers might say, “Moses speaks, strictly speaking, improperly here, for it is Adam who is cursed through the land, and so in a manner the land is cursed.”

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If you mean that God’s point in cursing a part of the non-human creation is as a punishment to Adam and not to that non-human part of creation per se, then we agree. There was nothing in my narrower question that required God be punishing the ground. We might say the same about the cattle in Nineveh. God wasn’t going to punish the cows, but God’s judgment (curse, one might say) was going to extended to/involve the cattle.

I should probably clarify what my point is here. I think this adds some support (not that it’s a knock-down argument) for a broader interpretation of the term “cosmos.” You might picture it like this:

Again, this isn’t supposed to be “proof.” It’s just a piece of evidence, maybe a light one, that we can throw on the scales.

OK - some clarity there. The Jonah example, by mentioning compassion on “much cattle,” implicitly suggests that the judgement God had in mind for Nineveh was “total”, and so would not have targeted sinful man exclusively.

That is true, and there are many such examples, from the flood to Jesus’s sending of the demons into the herd of swine. That mankind’s “realm” (which, at the point of Genesis 4 is, in our terms, the cosmos as “earth”, rather than “the universe”) becomes involved in the ongoing judgements of God for human sin is not in doubt to me.

The question is whether nature, in itself, has changed at all, or simply God’s providential administration of it as a still “good” and obedient creation (1 Tim 4:4). My key passages here are the covenant blessings and curses of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which show clearly that God remains sovereign over nature, which obeys him completely either to bless or to curse.

For one example, God either sends or withdraws wild beasts from the land according to Israel’s faithfulness. If they attack Israelite villages, no doubt they will kill or be killed - hard luck for them and sinful Hebrews. But God regards that, in the text, instrumentally, and they remain fierce beasts whether ravaging Israelites or safely tucked away in the wilderness. There is no evidence in Scripture that they were created as tame beasts.

And so in the case of Jonah, it would seem that, “collateral damage” aside, the cattle would have been destroyed because they represented the sinful Ninevites’ livelihood and wealth, just as the buildings did. God’s thinking appears to be, “I’d rather spare both men and cattle, all my creatures, but if I need to destroy animals to judge men justly, then so be it.” There is no evidence in Scripture that cattle were not slain by natural phenomena before the fall, unless one eliminates the evidence by denying that there was any significant time before the fall, and that any physical evidence found simply must therefore post-date Eden.

To restate your diagram as a kind of syllogism, your argument seems to be

  1. Death came into the “kosmos” through one man in Romans 5.
  2. Animals die.
  3. Ergo “kosmos” in Romans 5 refers to “creation generally.”

But that does not follow, if (as the context suggests), “kosmos” refers to the world of Adam’s race, who unlike the world’s animals ought to have been exempt from death because of their calling into the garden, in which they could access the tree of life.

And we know that is the intent because the passage, having said that death came into the world through one man, goes on to say, “and so death came to all men (pantas anthropous) because all sinned.” To spell it out, the context is limited to mankind because “anthropous” defines the scope of the death intended, whereas Paul could, had he wished, simply said, “death came to all.” That understanding is confirmed by the fact that the whole argument of Ch 5 thereafter deals with the answer to human death through the forgiveness of human sin and condemnation through the man, Jesus Christ.

What that means for the creation generally is a separate matter to do with the transformation of the “whole kosmos” rather than its redemption.

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This is an interesting topic, as recent threads on camouflage and predation have had me recently mulling over the role of death in nature. For so much of the animal kingdom, nearly everything about them revolves around feeding to stay alive, or not becoming a meal. Their camouflage, stealth and appearance, vision and placement of their eyes - forward, sideways, on top of head to hide in water, dentation, venom, speed, claw and talon, digestive tracts, social behavior, it is all about eating or avoiding being eaten. Alfred Tennyson’s verse is astute, nature itself is red in tooth and claw. The pitiless imperative is either starve and die or be digested and die.

The fall is not just about once docile lions getting bored of tofu and the thought dawning that zebra might taste good with mustard. Predation is so pervasive and engrained in nature that it would scarcely be possible to recognize life on earth without it, for looking around, it has shaped most animal life from the inside out. What would nature, unfallen and benign, even begin to look like?

From the standpoint of evolution, however, without death, we would not be here. Apart from perhaps Enoch and Elijah, all creatures without exception are either dead or will get there, it is just a matter of whether breeding occurs first, as dictated by fitness or pure dumb luck. Fitness is defined by the forestalling of mortality. Natural selection is driven by death, without that culling there is no direction, no favoring of the more suited to the environment, no preferable exploitation of open ecological niches.

So that is what the cursed ground looks like; blood cries from it. What would unfallen nature look like? I do not know, and an angel with a flaming sword guards the gate back to providential paradise. Biblical literalists are quick to point out the amoral quality of evolution, but it does seem to define the contextual human experience. This is why the risen Christ is such a powerful theology, because that was preceded by incarnation, becoming in all things human, which demanded that Jesus drink the cup of dying alone, having been forsaken by heaven itself.

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