Could Death Exist Before Sin Biblically?

The big picture of sin and death in the Bible at the beginning, relating to animal death, human death, and whether death could have existed before sin

by Bodie Hodge on March 2, 2010; last featured October 30, 2021
Also available in Español

Death and sin—these are two things today’s society seems to want to avoid in a conversation! In today’s secular society, kids have been taught for generations that death goes back for millions of years. But there is a huge contrast when you open the pages of Scripture beginning in Genesis.

The Bible is the authority on the past (as well as the authority on scientific and theological aspects), and it is logical that the Bible should be the authority on the issue of death and its relationship with sin. Getting a big picture of sin and death and how they are related in the Bible can make us better witnesses to today’s culture.

Everything Was Originally Perfect

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)
Figure 1: A very good creation

Figure 1. A very good creation

He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. (Deuteronomy 32:4)

When God finished creating at the end of day six, He declared everything “very good”—it was perfect. God’s work of creation is perfect. We expect nothing less of a perfect God.

What was this “perfect” or “very good” creation like? Were animals dying? Was man dying? Let’s look closer at what the Bible teaches.

Everything Was Originally Vegetarian

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:29–30)

We know that animals and man were not eating meat originally, according to Genesis 1:29–30. So, meat-eaters today were all vegetarian originally, which also points to death not being part of the original creation. Plants are not “alive” in the biblical sense of nephesh chayyah, only animals and man. So, plants being eaten did not mean death existed before the Fall. One would not expect a God of life to be a god of death. When we look at God’s restoration in Revelation 21–22, there will be no death, pain, or suffering.

If a Christian wants to side with the atheistic view of a world where death existed for millions of years using the majority of the fossil layers as evidence of slow, gradual accumulation instead of a global Flood, they have major problems. The fossil layers consist of many animals that have the remains of other animals in their stomach contents. As we’ll discuss later, Scripture tells us that sin brought about animal death, something that did not occur prior to the Fall. This rules out many of the rock layers as evidence of millions of years because the Lord declared that everything was originally vegetarian. The Flood of Noah’s day is a much better explanation of the rock layers, which show animals eating other animals after sin.

Death Is a Punishment

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16–17)

God gave the command in Genesis 2:16–17 that sin would be punishable by death. This is significant when we look at the big picture of death. If death in any form was around prior to God’s declaration in Genesis 1:31 that everything was “very good,” then death would be very good too—hence not a punishment at all.

Some have pointed out that this passage is not referring to animal death. In one sense, we agree with them: this verse was not directed toward animals. But by the same logic, this command was only directed toward Adam, yet Eve died, and so do we (Adam’s descendants) for sin. This shows the all-encompassing impact of the sin-death relationship.

Adam Knew What “Die” Meant

Adam knew what death meant—even if he did not have experiential knowledge of it.

Some people have brought up the objection that if there was no death existing in the world, then how did Adam know what God meant in Genesis 2:17.

God, the author of language, programmed Adam with language when He created him, as they conversed right from the start on day six (see Genesis 2). Since God makes things perfectly, Adam knew what death meant—even if he did not have experiential knowledge of it. In fact, he probably understood it better than any of us because he had a perfect mind, uncorrupted by sin and the Curse.

Sin Brought Animal Death

The first recorded death and passages referring to death as a reality came with sin in Genesis 3 when the serpent, Eve, and Adam all were disobedient to God. Please note that what happened is the first hint that things will die:

So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. (Genesis 3:14)

Genesis 3:14 indicates that animals, which were cursed along with the serpent, would no longer live forever but have a limited life (all the days of your life). This is the first hint of animal death. Since animals were cursed, they too will now die.

Figure 2: Making coats of skins for Adam and Eve

Figure 2. The Lord’s sacrifice to make coats of skins for Adam and Eve

Though this particular verse doesn’t rule out animal death prior to sin, its placement with sin and the Curse in Genesis 3 may very well be significant. The first recorded death of animals comes in Genesis 3:21, when God covered Adam and Eve with coats of skins to replace their fig leaf coverings they assumed would cover their nakedness.

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

Abel apparently mimicked something like this when he sacrificed from his flocks (fat portions) in Genesis 4:4, as did Noah after the Flood in Genesis 8:20. The Israelites did this as well, giving sin offerings of lambs, doves, etc.

Figure 3: Noah offering sacrifices

Figure 3. Noah offering sacrifices

The punishment for sin was death; so, something had to die. Rightly, Adam and Eve deserved to die, but we serve a God of grace, mercy, and love. And out of His love and His mercy, He basically gave us a “grace period” to repent.

The Lord sacrificed an animal to cover this sin. It was not enough to take away sin but merely offered a temporary covering. This shows how much more valuable mankind is than animals (see also Matthew 6:26, 12:12). The punishment for sinning against an infinitely holy God is an infinite punishment, and animals are not infinite. They simply cannot take that punishment. We needed a perfect and infinite sacrifice that could take the infinite punishment from an infinite God. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is infinite, could take that punishment. These animal sacrifices foreshadowed Jesus Christ, who was the ultimate, perfect, infinite sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Hebrews reveals:

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)

This is why Jesus had to die, and this is why people sacrificed animals to cover sin. These passages make it clear that animal death has a relationship with human sin, as well as the fact that it came after sin (see Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science). Also, it is the very basis and foundation of the gospel.

Sin Brought Human Death

This same type of proclamation that animals will ultimately die (all the days of your life) comes back in Genesis 3:17, where man would also die (all the days of your life). So, like the animals, man would die in fulfillment of what God said in Genesis 2:17.

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:17)

Some have stated that they believe this was only a spiritual death, but God made it clear in Genesis 3:19 by adding that humanity will return to the dust from which we came, which makes it clear it was not excluding a physical death.

By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:19)

Even Paul, when speaking of human death, specifically says:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)
The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (Romans 5:14)
For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:17)

If the death God mentioned is only spiritual, then why did Jesus have to die physically—or rise physically? If the Curse meant only spiritual death, then the gospel is undermined.

It is true that Adam and Eve didn’t die the exact day they ate, as some seem to think Genesis 2:17 implies. The Hebrew is die-die (muwth-muwth), which is often translated as “surely die” or literally as “dying you shall die,” which indicates the beginning of dying (i.e., an ingressive sense). At that point, Adam and Eve began to die and would return to dust. If they were meant to have died right then, the text should have used muwth only once, as is used in the Hebrew meaning “dead, died, or die” and not “beginning to die” or “surely die.”

Does the Bible Teach Death before Sin?

The Bible tells us very clearly that there was no death before sin from many passages. In fact, there are no Bible verses indicating there was death prior to sin.

Figure 4: Death before sin is a problem for a perfect creation

Click to enlarge

Figure 4. Death before sin is a problem for a perfect creation at the end of day six

The only reason some people try to insert death before sin is to fit man’s ideas of “millions of years” of death from a uniformitarian view of the fossil record into the Bible. But this makes a mockery of God’s statement that everything was very good in Genesis 1:31. Death, animals eating other animals, thorns, cancer, tumors, and so on are not very good, and yet these are found in those fossil layers.

This leads to compromising what God plainly says to accommodate fallible man’s ideas. Besides, the Scriptures reveal a global Flood in Genesis 6–8, after sin, which explains the vast majority of fossil layers. So, one need not appeal to billions of years to explain these layers. It is better to trust what God says:

It is better to trust in God, than to trust in man. (Psalm 118:8)

Keep in mind that having death before sin also undermines the very gospel, where Jesus Christ stepped into history to conquer sin and death. In doing so, He graciously offered the free gift of salvation to all who receive him.


Figure 5: Biblical view of death

Figure 5. A Biblical view of death

Figure 6: A secular view of death

Figure 6. A secular view of death

Keep in mind there are primarily two views of history (secular and Christian) with two different authorities (man’s fallible reason apart from God and a perfect God) with conflicting views about the past.

According to the Bible, a perfect God created a perfect creation, and because of man’s sin, death and suffering came into the world. But through Christ, we look forward to a time when there will be no more pain or death or suffering (Revelation 21:4).

In a secular worldview, there has always been death. So, when Christians try to incorporate the secular idea of millions of years into their theology, two main questions arise. Was there really a change when Adam and Eve sinned? And what will heaven really be like then?


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