A Religious Animal?

I shall grapple with the theological difficulties of death in the Judeo-Christian story of the Fall of Man, drawing from the work of James Barr1, Jon D. Levenson2, and N. T. Wright3, in the hope of reconciling that story with an evolutionary account of Man’s origins.


The Judeo-Christian creation story in Gen 1-2 is unusual among its contemporary creation stories, such as the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite ones, in that it alone claims that the world was created wisely and well by a wise and good Creator4. This is an extraordinary claim to make about a world full of earthquakes and stillbirths and diseases, any of which might lead us to believe that the world is hardly good at all, even downright rotten. If God is good, why is His world not so good? This is the problem of theodicy.

Judeo-Christianity confronts the problem of theodicy in Gen 3 in the story of the Fall of Man. The story goes that it was Man who rebelled in the middle of perfection, his hubris upending an entire world and marring the goodness of the Creation. It was not the Creator’s fault but the creature’s, so we are told. The destruction caused by Man’s disobedience to God becomes a major theme developed throughout the Old Testament in particular. At first glance, it would seem that the Bible portrays death as an example of such destruction. As Genesis tells, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Gen 2:17). For Paul, too, the connection between sin and death apparently couldn’t be clearer: he writes, “[S]in came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). At this point many a modern (and ancient5) reader has raised a skeptical eyebrow. Death is a consequence of sin? Are we to understand that before Man first sinned, back when he was “good” (as he was created to be), Man was deathless? There are various scientific considerations that would suggest Man couldn’t possibly have been deathless in the past, especially if one believes Man to be descended from the primates by an evolutionary process (which necessarily involves death all the way down). Thus I arrive at this present task: how to understand the story of the Fall while accepting that death, too, was there from the beginning of life on earth?


Two interpretive notes:

First, when I analyze the Genesis accounts, I will be treating them as literary documents whose truth-claims are primarily theological. I will only be making scientific or historical claims where it is necessary to satisfy the internal logic of the narrative. So, for example, the creation account would not be truthful even as a story unless there is a God who is the ultimate Author and Authority of the universe, who created the world from nothing, in such a way that all things were, in the beginning, good. It is in this spirit that I use the language and terms of Genesis 1-3.

Second, I remain agnostic on whether there was a literal Adam and Eve, whether Eden was a literal place, and similar questions. I am interested in theological claims about Adam insofar as they are theological claims about mankind. This article is concerned with how death entered the world and whether any of the early humans were in any way responsible for that entrance. In speaking of “Eden,” I am thinking theologically of a state in which there was no sin, which is to say, Man knew and obeyed God, and all was right with the world. Finally, as discussed earlier, I understand the “Fall of Man” in very broad terms as the beginning of sin, or the first disobedience of Man, or the severing of the relationship between God and Man. The Fall is the reason why we are not currently living in Eden. Instead, according to Christian theology, we live in the ground zero of the Fall.


Before proceeding to the main argument, I will briefly sketch the scientific evidence that Man was never biologically deathless. I will need to define “biologically deathless.” What must such a definition encompass, if it is to solve the theological problem of explaining the existence of death in a way that is consistent with the goodness of God? Certainly a biologically deathless man should not die of “old age” or of his own accord. So his cells must not be harmed by oxidative damage, or radiative damage from UV light, or any other part of the usual aging process. But what about other causes of death? Could a biologically deathless man ever be killed by disease or falling onto sharp rocks, for example? Could he drown if immersed in water? Could he starve if deprived of food? Surely for such a man to be “deathless,” he must be invulnerable to such dangers. Yet if this is the case, then we are forced to hypothesize a very odd physiology for this man, together with so many protections placed around him as to require modifications to the laws of physics. It appears that it would take nothing short of a new heavens and a new earth, so to speak, if one were to accommodate such deathless men.

It is also difficult to imagine how a deathless man could arise from the primates by a natural evolutionary process. I say this because I do not think that animals could ever have been deathless. Overpopulation, which I did not mention in the human case (under the optimistic assumption that people would eventually show some common sense and stop reproducing when they ran out of space), would very quickly become an enormous problem for deathless animals. There is also the paleontological problem that we have fossil evidence of animal death long before Man existed. So it is safe to conclude that animals have never been deathless. But it is then difficult to imagine how deathless Man could descend by evolution from ordinary mortal primates.

For these reasons, it will be assumed in this article that there was never a time in which humans or their ancestors (or indeed any other animals) were deathless. The project of this piece is to present a theological view of death consistent with this assumption, focusing on two themes:

i) articulate a theology of the origins of death that is consistent with God and His creation being “very good” in the beginning (theodicy);
ii) explain the apostle Paul’s teaching that death is a consequence of sin (death and sin).

With these questions in mind, the investigation begins at the beginning: in Genesis.


Our story begins when God created a “man of dust from the ground” and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature [LXX eis psychen zosan]” (Gen 2:7). God “put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). God gave the man a single command: he may eat of any tree in the garden except “‘of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Gen 2:17). Deceived by the serpent, who told them that “‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Gen 3:4-5), Adam and Eve ate the fruit. Then they heard God walking through the garden, and they were afraid, and they hid.

God then delivers judgment on the serpent, the woman, and the man. In the last of these judgments, death enters the picture: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) After this, “‘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 from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Gen 3:22).


In order to unpack this passage, particularly the verses “to dust you shall return” and “lest he…live forever,” it will be helpful to make several observations on the Biblical view of death. In the first place, the Bible’s concept of death is not just biological, but also theological. The theological component consists chiefly of two things: first, the fear of being forgotten by God, separated from Him and abandoned by Him; and second, the consequent futility of the God-forsaken life. This theological vision is inseparable from the very concept of “death,” insofar as death is an enemy or has power over us. Both the Old and New Testaments support this reading, particularly the Wisdom literature (esp. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes; e.g. Ps 89:46-48) and Paul’s writings (e.g. Rom 5-8, Eph 2).

However, there are some very important exceptions which are often missed. The Old Testament does have a category for a ‘good death,’ describing the peaceful, fulfilled deaths of those blessed by God: “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Gen 25:8). “And Job died, an old man, and full of days” (Job 42:17). This will be very important in imagining death before the Fall. I will argue that before Man sinned, death did not carry the fear of being forgotten by God, and neither death nor life was futile.

I must emphasize, however, that what we have just said is not a solution to the original problem. In Jewish thought, the theological component of death does not supersede the biological component of death, namely as cessation of consciousness. Death was total. Where the Biblical authors speak of being saved from death, for instance, they are not being merely metaphorical. They invariably mean being bodily saved from death. For instance, when Job is eventually heard by God in his near-death state and rescued, his “salvation” is a bodily restoration to health, rather than (say) reaching some theological place of peace without the hoped-for biological recovery. And as NT Wright has argued, the essential unity of the human being (mind, body, soul all inseparable) persists into New Testament theology as well. So there is some work to be done.


Applying these ideas to the Genesis story, James Barr argues that “to dust you shall return” is a punishment pertaining to the futility of Man’s work as a consequence of sin, not the introduction of biological death to the world. Interestingly, this particular judgment was given only to Adam, though both Eve and the serpent also sinned and receive their own judgments. Two observations stand out. Firstly, Adam is the man of dust, so it makes sense that the curse of “to dust you shall return” would be specifically given to him. Secondly, Adam is the one who was given the vocation to work and keep the garden (Gen 2:15). That vocation is modified after Man is exiled from the garden: now he is to tend the ground whence he came, rather than the garden of God (Gen 3:23). He labors over the earthly and no longer the divine. From the foregoing points (and others), Barr concludes that this punishment primarily concerns Adam encountering futility in his vocation of working the ground and keeping it7. In a final irony, the ground which will exact from Adam so much pain and toil will ultimately conquer him, a humiliating inversion of the creation order and Adam’s job description therein (“fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28)). Adam’s punishment is an unfulfilling life ending in an unfulfilling death., the earth (adama) conquering the man (adam)8. Under Barr’s view, it is not that Man would not have experienced biological death before the Fall; rather, biological death got co-opted into the punishment as the “final frustration…the final proof, far off in the future, that all his work will get him nowhere.”9

This theme is supported by Ecclesiastes 3:18-23, which offers a grand commentary on the futility of both life and death on account of the Fall:

I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them, that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

The bulk of the New Testament teachings on death and the Fall generally support these basic intuitions. As Paul writes, the Creation was subjected to “futility” and “bondage to decay” on account of Man’s sin (Rom 8:20-21). With this underlying theology of death in mind, we can make more sense out of the two classic ‘trouble passages’ in Paul’s exposition of the Genesis story. These are “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—” (Rom 5:12) and “by a man came death” (1 Cor 15:21). By comparing Rom 5 with the style of the next three chapters, it seems clear that death is not a strictly biological thing for Paul. In one place, for instance, he says that in baptism Christians die to their sins and are brought “from death to life” (Rom 6:13, cf. Eph 2:1-5). Paul emphasizes that Christ gives life to all by freeing his people from the power of sin. So there remains the possibility that death might have existed before the Fall, but not have been such a bad thing if Man had not sinned. This seems consistent with 1 Cor 15:56, for example: “The sting of death is sin.”

That said, death in the Bible still has the biological meaning of cessation of consciousness, which seems like an unavoidable “sting” as well. Somehow we must find an extremely good reason for pre-Fallen Man to have believed that God would not abandon him to futility in the face of a very real death.

1 Cor 15 is more difficult to explain. But notice that Adam is being contrasted with Christ throughout this passage: “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). It is later explained that Christ makes possible our resurrection from the dead. And this is very interesting.


Our guiding question with which this investigation began was that of theodicy: is God good? Does he keep His word? Is it worth obeying Him, or is the righteous life futile? 1 Cor 15 has suggested a possibility. What about a biological resurrection? If there was not only a biological death but also an intended resurrection from the very beginning, then is the theological problem of death resolved?
I will argue that Paul’s exposition of resurrection in 1 Cor 15 is consistent with a vision in which resurrection was always part of God’s plan in bringing His children to birth out of the dust.


“Old and full of days” as the vision for a good death is the flip side to another persistent biblical theme: it is bad to die while still in one’s youth (cf. Ps 89:45, Isa 65:20). Those who die young never reach the fulfillment of their life and vocation on earth. They never reach maturity. This highlights an important aspect of earthly life: we are not created ‘complete,’ but we must work out our vocation, or grow into our completeness. There is a spiritual dimension to this idea which I believe holds true even in Eden: Man has always had a lot of ‘growing up’ to do, in every sense of the phrase. As Irenaeus argued, the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden is best understood as one of childhood:

[The angels] were in their perfection; but the lord, that is, man, was (but) small; for he was a child; and it was necessary that he should grow, and so come to (his) perfection….. Man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver….. And Adam and Eve—for that is the name of the woman— were naked, and were not ashamed; for there was in them an innocent and childlike mind, and it was not possible for them to conceive and understand anything of that which by wickedness through lusts and shameful desires is born in the soul.10

A childlike Adam and Eve, not knowing good from evil, nor that they are naked, can hardly be imagined as perfected beings, but rather, good beings in the process of being made perfect through the deepening of their relationship with God. (There is a sense, by the way, in which Christianity conceives of our relationship with God as a boundless thing which is never ‘completed’ or exhausted, but instead gets better and better eternally. Even absent evil, it is difficult to imagine a relationship as ever being a finished work.) Now I want to suggest that this logic accounts for why man was not, under our hypotheses, created biologically immortal. Man has to ‘grow up’ spiritually in order to be ready to put on immortality. Thus James Barr has made the case that the Fall was not the loss of an immortality already possessed, but the loss of the ‘easy road’ to the immortality we were intended for.11 In support of this idea, recall that the very reason Man is expelled from the Garden is “‘lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever’” (Gen 3:22). This readily suggests an interpretation wherein at the time of the Fall, Man has not yet eaten of the tree of life and was not yet going to “live forever.”

If this seems a far-fetched suggestion, consider the nature of the universe we live in, one in which time passes. We do not live in a world of constancy but of change. For us this means both positive and negative change, growth and decay, ebb and flow. But imagine for a moment the pre-Fallen Creation. Would we imagine it to be static? Surely not: “there was evening, and there was morning” (Gen 1). Man had a garden to tend. So the passage of time was, in the beginning, good; in fact it was woven into God’s creative activity in Gen 1. Part of God’s continued creative activity is to bring about growth and maturation from bare seeds and nothingness. He shapes the dust of the earth into His image. Couldn’t his intended work in Man have been to father-forth immortality out of what was mortal? Come to think of it, this makes a lot more sense than if Adam and Eve were originally immortal, possessing some kind of eternal youth. Eternal youth is a dangerous concept and displays a tendency towards instant gratification. God’s creative activity demands a little more patience than that. And I believe that patience, too, was a virtue from the beginning. Both work and time were originally blessings, and it was a blessing to Man that since the very beginning he was created as a corporeal, temporal being in a world created likewise. It was only his sin that made time, and work, and lastly death become a curse for him.


What if Man had not sinned? I suppose that eventually he would have been ready to put on immortality. How? I will propose that Man would still have had to die in order to be raised to immortality. Let us examine the words of Paul:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”…What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.…

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable….It is sown a natural [psychikon] body; it is raised a spiritual [pneumatikon] body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being” [LXX eis psychen zosan]; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
(1 Cor 15:35-53)

I think that Paul gives us reason to believe that Man was not created with the resurrection body up front. Paul’s contrast between psyche (“soul”) and pneuma (“spirit”) is significant here. Here I will state the conclusions of N T Wright’s discussion on these terms.12 Psyche (confusingly translated as “natural”) and derivatives refer to something like the breath or the spark of life. Pneuma (confusingly translated as “spiritual”) and derivatives refer to something like God’s Spirit insofar as it dwells in us. The adjectival forms psychikos and pneumatikos which Paul contrasts with one another appear to mean, roughly, “animated by” or “powered by” psyche and pneuma respectively. The psyche appears to be linked with the perishable flesh-and-blood body of verses 50-53, and the pneuma with the imperishable. That is, a body powered by psyche is perishable; it must be filled with Spirit in order to be imperishable. The way in which the metamorphosis from being animated by psyche to being animated by pneuma is accomplished is death (v.44).

Most crucially, what sort of body is Adam described as having? Paul directly quotes the Septuagint (Greek translation) of Genesis 2:7, saying that Adam became eis psychen zosan: “a living psyche.”

Putting everything together, if the breath of life that God gave to Adam was psyche, then Adam would have needed to undergo a physical death in order to be filled with pneuma and put on immortality. Death is the act of putting away the oars and putting up the sails, traveling on in God’s grace alone. As St. Francis of Assisi put it, “In dying, we are born to eternal life.”13


This is the case for death before the Fall. I believe that Paul applies the Christian eschatology retrospectively to Genesis, revealing that the plan for humanity, and indeed for the whole Creation, was always that it should continue to be transformed into fuller and greater things. Under this view, the Christian hope of eternity as a bodily resurrection after a physical death is not Plan B, but in fact was Plan A all along. The great tragedy of the Fall was not that there was death, but that death also ‘fell’ from its initial purpose because of Man’s sin, and it required Jesus Christ to put it right again. That is the faith of those who believe in the power of the mercy of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ completes the story by himself suffering the abandonment and God-forsakenness (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34)) of the death meant for the wicked – meant, that is, for us – and thereby somehow bringing new life those who call him Lord.14



[1] Barr, James. The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993. Print.

[2] Levenson, Jon D. Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

[3] Wright, N. T. “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All: Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in His Complex Contexts by the Rt Revd Prof N. T. Wright.” Lecture. Society of Christian Philosophers: Regional Meeting. Fordham University, New York. 18 Mar. 2011. NTWrightpage.com. Web. 05 Apr. 2013.

[4] See, for instance: Longman, Tremper. How to Read Genesis. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005. 78-80. Print.

[5] Including Athanasius, Augustine, and Calvin. See: Murphy, George. “Human Evolution in Theological Context.” Biologos.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2013.

[6] See Levenson ch.3-4, Barr ch.1-2, and Wright.

[7] Barr, 9.

[8] Levenson, 32, expositing Barr.

[9]9 Barr 9.

[10] Irenaeus. The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Ed. Armitage D. D. Robinson. N.p.: Macmillan, n.d. Print.

[11] Barr 4.

[12] Wright, “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body.”

[13] From “A Prayer of St Francis of Assisi”

[14] This article has been abridged. For the unabridged version, please check out harvardichthus.org.


Image: Detail from Cain and Abel by Titian.

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