On an Old Earth View, How Do You Reconcile Animal Death Before the Fall with Genesis 1?

Greg brings clarity to the issue of animal death before the fall of mankind.


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Christianity, the Bible, and theology are not tidy. One of the most untidy aspects of our Christian understanding has to do with the opening chapters of Genesis. People in ancient time communicated differently than we do today. Moses wrote Genesis 1500 B.C. That’s 3,500 years ago. There were different methods for recording events than we have now. Even the Gospels, which were written 2,000 years ago, don’t seem to be in chronological order. That’s because they didn’t care about the chronological order as much as the thematic order. 

Back then, writers and historians were free to shift some things around a to make a point, and it wasn’t considered deceptive or an error. It was a different way of writing. It's the same with Genesis. Some have looked at Genesis with a concordist look. Concordists try to match up the particular details of Genisis with what they would have seen happening if they were there at the time. You have old-earthers and young-earthers who are concordists. They are trying to read a progressive history in the texts. What if it turns out those texts were not meant to be read that way? What if they have a different theological purpose considering the Ancient Near Eastern cosmologies? 

I know some people say, “Look at the words!” and, “it says day, morning, and evening.” That could be because it is being read the way a 21st century person would read the account instead of reading it the way the persons who lived at the time would have been reading it. I’m not passionate on any side of this, but these are the reasons there’s some confusion here. 

The specific question is, “How do I deal with animal death given Genesis 1?” The presumption is that Genesis 1 teaches animals did not die until after the fall. That’s not clear on a straightforward reading of the text, but it might be inferred from something Paul wrote in Romans 5 about the fall. They might understand Paul to mean there was no death of any kind, no sentient death or creaturely death, until after the fall, and therefore, animals would not have died prior to the fall. If you’re an old-earther, that’s a problem. Animals did die before the fall on an old-earth view, so that would seem like the old-earthers are at odds with the Scripture. 

I don’t see where it says that animals didn’t die before the fall in Genesis 1, and I can see an interpretation of Romans 5, which would bring someone to that conclusion. But that isn’t what Paul says either. Paul isn’t talking about all creatures, he’s talking about human beings. He’s talking about the first Adam and the second Adam, human death, human life, and salvation. He’s not addressing the question of animal death in the passage. Maybe he’s referring to all creatures when he says death came in through one man. Or it may mean that the death he has in view pertains to the subject he’s discussing, which is men. 

Paul does not claim that animal death happened after the fall. If he did, countless numbers of theologians would not hold to animal death before the fall. They feel comfortable doing so because Paul’s teaching does not preclude it, and well-justified information from an examination of the natural world seems to indicate that there were animals dying before man was even on the earth. That seems to be reasonable, and it doesn’t, by itself, seem to cause any theological problems. 

Keep in mind that Hebrew genealogies are wildly incomplete. It was not their style to be complete. In any event, there are a lot of questions regarding these things. Here, I’m not going to campaign for one side or another. I think there are a number of different ways of understanding Genesis 1 that one can legitimately hold. We can even legitimately hold non-concordist views and maintain an inerrant and high view of scripture, the cross, and salvation. 

It’s interesting that this issue was never really discussed until modern times. The early church didn’t seem to care about it. Augustine, one of the great saints of the church, who would be considered an old-earther nowadays, didn’t seem to undermine his own robust theology of the cross and the sovereignty of God. There are different alternatives, and the best thing for us to do is do our best thinking and our best work, be responsible for our own views, and be charitable to those who disagree. This discussion is about non-essentials. When it gets to the fall of man, that’s different. 

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Greg Koukl