Over on Jesus Creed, RJS asks about death before the Fall. Following Ronald Osborn, she suggests that the place of death within the creation is a problem, especially for those who take Genesis literally. As death is supposed to arise from the curse, she suggests three ways in which we might choose to reconcile the text with the reality that we observe:
Possibility One. After the sin of Adam, God gave over the animal kingdom to natural predation.
Possibility Two. God cursed or dramatically modified the animal kingdom after Adam’s Fall.
Possibility Three. Predatory animals are a result of demonic forces at work in the world.
I haven’t yet read Osborn, but the following are a few thoughts on a fourth possibility. I believe that this possibility is suggested by reflection upon the text of Genesis itself, rather than being a highly speculative theory to fill a crucial gap in the biblical account.
The fourth possibility begins by challenging the premise that there was no animal death before the Fall (along with the assumption that human beings were naturally immortal). The claim that there was no animal death before the Fall is not one that the text itself gives us, but arises out of the conviction that animal death is characteristic of the futility and bondage of corruption to which creation was subjected following the Fall of Adam. For this fourth approach, death is associated with the state of innocence, immaturity, wildness, and being unperfected.
How might we develop such a reading from the text itself?
The world was never created ‘perfect’, but was created ‘good’. In Genesis 1:2, the entire creation was formless, void, and untamed. In Genesis 2:5, this situation is recapitulated on a smaller scale. God begins to address this situation by creating a man. Then, after creating the man, he creates the Garden and places the man within it. It is not unreasonable to assume that the man would have witnessed both the unformed, void, and untamed creation and then God’s planting of the Garden within it.
The Garden is the divine sanctuary, the place where God walks in the midst of mankind, and the template for the solution to the problem of the wider world. The Garden is walled or hedged and there is limited access to it, enabling those within it to defend it against intrusion (cf. Genesis 3:24). In creating the Garden, God establishes boundaries within the land, preventing unauthorized access and dividing one zone from others. The act of creating the Garden is one of forming and filling, much like that of Genesis 1. The Garden is walled off from the untamed creation that surrounds it and then it is filled with trees and with beauty. Within the Garden itself there are further boundaries established. The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were placed in the heart of the Garden. These trees don’t only organize space—identifying the centre of the Garden—but also create a world with new ethical boundaries.
James Jordan suggests a set of parallels between the events of the creation days of Genesis 1 and the establishment of the Garden in Genesis 2, following the formless, void, and untamed situation of Genesis 2:5. The first day, the day when God created light, corresponds to the creation of man in his image, the human light of the world. The second day, when God created the firmament division between heaven and earth, corresponds to the division of the heaven-model of the Garden from the general formless void of the rest of the earth. The third day, the separation of dry land from the waters and the creation of grasses, herbs, and fruit trees, corresponds to the creation of the trees of the Garden and the river that flows out from Eden to water the Garden and to divide the earth into its respective lands.
The fourth day, the placing of lights in the firmament of the heavens, corresponds to the placing of the human light, Adam, in the firmament of the Garden as its ruler and priest. Jordan connects the fifth day, the creation of creatures to fly across the face of the firmament above and to teem in the waters beneath, with the blessing and judgment associated with the trees. I am more inclined to join together days five and six (the day of the creation of land creatures and humanity) and relate it to God’s formation of the birds and the animals and his bringing them to Adam to name. Just as the sixth day of the creation of Genesis 1 culminates in the creation of humanity, so the bringing of the animals to Adam to name culminates with God’s formation of a new human from his side, who is brought to him to name. The union of man and woman in the Garden that follows corresponds to the seventh day, the day of rest. In this manner, the larger order of the creation is recapitulated in microcosm in the creation of the world of the Garden, not merely in structural order, but also in its temporal sequence.
The man is placed within the Garden as the priest. As the priest, he is charged with the task of guarding and serving the enclosed sanctuary in the midst of which God walks. He is also given the law concerning the holy food, a law that he will be expected to treat his wife when she is created, and to their children after them. The priest is the one who maintains the ‘tamed’ and ‘domestic’ character of the Garden and the one who upholds, defends, and enforces its boundaries.
As the man upholds the order of the Garden, it will provide a model that he will bring out into the world and a temple into which he will bring in the riches of the world (we should note the references to precious stones and metals in the description of the lands surrounding Eden). He must make the world into a Garden and the Garden into a glorious garden city, clothed with all of the riches of the world, much like the city that we see in Revelation. He learns within and from the order of God’s own creative work, so that he can engage in creative work of his own as God’s image.
The world is unlike the Garden and doesn’t yet have any gardener working within it. It is formless, void, and untamed, and the beasts that dwell within it are also untamed. It remains to be subdued by a gardener and a tamer of wild beasts. God brought the animals to the man for him to name. Just as God had planted the Garden after the man’s creation, providing the man with a model for his own work within the world, the bringing of the animals to the man also served to acquaint him with the nature of his task. As God brought the great wild animals to the man to name, the man was like a son learning from his Father’s example. Just as his Father tamed the wild beasts—even the Leviathan and Behemoth—so he was to exercise God’s rule over them. The Garden is to be glorified as God’s ‘domus’ and the wild creation must be ‘domesticated’, as man shepherds God’s good yet untamed creation. The fulfilment of man’s rule is seen when the lion is made to lie down with the lamb, house-trained creatures in the temple of the Lord.
To fill out this picture, we must recognize that the original creation was good, yet imperfect. It is a world in its infancy. Adam and Eve are naked like infants in a kindergarten, under the training of angels, not yet clothed with glory and honour as rulers over the whole creation. God protects them from the wildness of the wider world within the walls of the Garden. The task within the world still remains to be done: they have yet to be fruitful, multiply, fill the world, and subdue it. Perfection was not the creation’s natural state, but its intended destiny (and salvation is not a ‘rebooting’ of creation to its primary state, but the restoring of creation to the future that God originally intended for it).
Death is related to immaturity in various ways. I have already mentioned the issue of being untamed. Death is also an engine of growth. It clears away the old to make way for the new. Without death the world could easily become stagnant. No wind would blow away the stale air of an older generation’s prevailing ideologies. The world would be a place of exhausted possibilities, with little space within which a novel departure could occur.
‘Death’ can be part of the means by which new life comes, as we die to an old form of existence and are raised up to another more glorious form (‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…’). 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 would suggest that Adam’s original physicality was immature too, that it was always destined to become a glorious spiritually empowered mode of bodily existence, and that a ‘good death’ was an essential mechanism by which this would take place. As Christ bears the alienation of ‘bad death’, we are able to view death as a good thing, as that which delivers us from our old failing Adamic bodies in preparation for being clothed with a much more glorious physicality.
The immature world is also a world of inchoate ethics. Innocence is not an ideal moral state, but is characterized by moral naivety and a lack of knowledge of good and evil. The innocence of the newborn is its incapacity for moral action, either good or evil. The infant cannot morally ‘fall’, because it cannot yet ‘walk’. Animals can’t sin in the same way as human beings not because they are perfect, but because they do not possess our moral capacity. An immature world is one with limited capacity for moral responsibility with respect to life. As various people have observed, the violent criminal is just a two year old who never learned how to stop functioning as a two year old. On a related front, human sinlessness before the Fall shouldn’t be considered in terms of moral perfection according to the Ten Commandments, for instance. The commandment concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil assumed only a very limited moral capacity of those receiving it (also, biblical evidence strongly suggests that Adam and Eve would have been given to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when they had matured). The sinlessness of Christ is a radically different thing from the sinlessness of the pre-Fall Adam.
As infants don’t yet know good from evil, they must be directed to the good by external command, which is how God trained Adam and Eve. It is also why they were capable of falling. However, with maturity, we are more internally oriented to the good and ethics starts to function according to different principles (wisdom, persuasion, etc.). With perfection, our wills will be so capable of apprehending our good that we will no longer be capable of willing to do evil, not by virtue of some external compulsion, but by virtue of mature wills and natures and their appropriate mutual correspondence.
How does the judgment upon Adam following the Fall play into this picture?
First, after the Fall, in the task of taming, ordering, and mastering the creation, Adam would find that the creation would be far more powerfully resistant to his efforts. He would try to make the creation into a garden and the creation would fight back with thorns and thistles. He would have to engage in the task given to him with bitterness and pain. The beasts that he needed to tame might even take his life. He wouldn’t have the power to hold the creation in check and the violence of the natural order would increase (Genesis 9:1-7 is a significant development, as it gives men greater power relative to the wild animals).
Second, by expelling man from the Garden, God removed mankind from the protection of its walls and hedges. Cast out from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve would have to operate in the wild, in an untamed and hostile world. Much as God removed the ‘hedge’ surrounding Job and protecting him from the assaults of Satan and his enemies (cf. Job 1:10), so God made Adam and Eve vulnerable to being harmed or attacked by wild beasts, natural forces, Satan, sin, and later human violence.
Third, picking up on the third possibility identified in RJS’s post and related to the previous point, there are suggestions in Scripture that demonic forces can exercise a measure of power within the created world and over its forces (not least in the instance of the serpent in the Garden). By lifting the hedge of protection from Adam and Eve, God gave Satan and his forces a longer leash with which to attack them. The serpent was to eat dust, but Adam was reminded that he was dust and that he would return to it: prey of the serpent. As his children rejected him, God would not protect them in from the hostile forces within the creation to the same extent.
Fourth, by expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden, they were denied access to the holy food of the Tree of Life and to the transfiguring presence of God. Cut off from the source of their life, they would wither, as they had no source of life in themselves. Cut off from God’s vivifying presence, we gravitate to the grave, physically as well as spiritually.
I submit that the proposal outlined above is a much richer, more biblical, and a considerably more satisfying way of understanding the role of death within the original creation as described by Genesis. In addition to its value in understanding Genesis, it also provides us with a number of key insights that help us better to understand the work and person of Christ.
First, Christ’s obedience is not about ‘innocence’ but about ‘perfection’. Christ brings humanity to the height and fullness of its divinely intended moral stature. He gives us, not merely innocence or obedience, but full maturity.
Second, humanity was always intended to die and rise again to a more glorious form of life. Christ death and resurrection achieves this destiny.
Third, as the last Adam, Christ will pacify and tame the entire creation, ruling until every enemy is placed under his feet.
Fourth, as we are in Christ, the bad character of death is minimized. We are not unclothed to be left naked, but in order to be more fully clothed, to have death swallowed up in life. We are still subject to the hostile attacks of the world and to the possibility of death within it, but Christ is the Tree of Life and we have unrestricted access to him. Death is no longer the alienating power that it once was.