In honor of John Walton’s visit tonight I thought I would give a selection from his book The Lost World of Genesis One. The issue is this: Did death occur before the Fall? Walton answers yes. Here’s why:
Some might object that if the material phase had been carried out for long ages prior to the seven days of Genesis, there would be a problem about death. Romans 5:12 states unequivocally, ‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.’ Interpreters have inferred from this verse that there was no death at any level prior to the Fall, the entrance of sin. But we should notice that the verse does not say that. Paul is talking about how death came to people—why all of humanity is subject to death. Just because death came to us because of sin, does not mean that death did not exist at any level prior to the Fall.
Not only does the verse not make a claim for death in general, everything we know logically repudiates the absence of death at any level prior to the Fall. Day three describes the process by which plants grow. The cycle of sprouting leaves, flowers, fruit and seeds is one that involves death as part of it. Likewise with animals: we need not even broach the topic of predatory meat eaters to see that the food chain involves death. A caterpillar eating a leaf brings death. A bird eating the caterpillar brings death. Fish eating insects brings death. If animals and insects did not die, they would overwhelm their environment and the ecology would suffer. Furthermore, if we move to the cellular level death is inevitable. Human skin has an outer layer of epidermis—dead cells—and we know that Adam had skin (Gen 2:23).
All of this indicates clearly that death did exist in the pre-Fall world—even though humans were not subject to it. But there is more. Human resistance to death was not the result of immortal bodies. The text indicates that we are formed from the dust of the earth, a statement of our mortality (for dust we are and to dust we shall return, cf. Gen 3:19). No, the reason we were not subject to death was because an antidote had been provided to our natural mortality through the mechanism of the tree of life in the garden. When God specified the punishment for disobedience, he said that when they ate, they would be doomed to death (the meaning of the Hebrew phrase in Gen 2:17). That punishment was carried out by banishing them from the garden and blocking access to the tree of life (Gen 3:23-24). Without access to the tree of life, humans were doomed to the natural mortality of their bodies and were therefore doomed to die. And so it was that death came through sin. (99-101)