I believe the Bible testifies that humans could die before the fall, and I also believe contemporary evolutionary science potentially suggests humans were dying before the fall ever could have happened.
But I also believe that Christian theology (in light of Holy Scripture) has always made important links between the fall, human sin, and death as a result. While I have hardly resolved all of the issues in my own mind, I do think an important theological task in our era is to think carefully about mortality both before and after the fall.
What Does the Bible Say?
Let me start with the Bible first. In Genesis 2, God warns Adam and Eve not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or they will “surely die.” The text here is clear about mortality as a possibility before the fall, even if Genesis 2 only describes mortality as the potential result of disobeying God (which is the story of the fall then realized and told in Genesis 3). At the other end of the Bible, in Romans 5, the apostle Paul presents a New Testament account linking Adam’s disobedience to death and sin and to the response of the incarnate Jesus Christ in redemption. Paul does not appear to struggle with holding together the possibility of death before the fall with the clear connection of death to sin (again, Rom. 3:23, “the wages of sin is death”). He is simply trying to describe what has happened to all creation through the fall and through sin, and then what Jesus does in response.
We live in a very different age from Paul. Contemporary evolutionary science presents an account of human life which develops and emerges over a long period of time and must genetically and biologically involve more than an original man and woman who existed prior to any other humans. On this account, death is happening to humanity from the very beginning. Mortality is not merely a possibility which could happen to creation, it is a given. The subsequent challenge to Christian faith is two-fold. If we want to remain in conversation with evolutionary science, we have strong reasons to think of mortality as something that may well be a part of a creation created to evolve. Yet to be faithful to Scripture and the Christian theological tradition we must also seemingly articulate anew any understanding of death as a result of human disobedience and sin.
What Do the Fathers Say?
Augustine is regularly viewed as the great theological progenitor of this traditional understanding. His reading of the fall in Genesis 3 not only confirms what Paul says about death in Romans 5, Augustine develops a full-blown concept of original sin as the reason for human mortality. Some very recent scholarship challenges this common reading of Augustine (for example, Stan Rosenberg of Wycliffe Hall at Oxford proposes that Augustine’s work should be read more openly in how he views death before the fall), butAugustine’s doctrine of sin remains a kind of obstacle which requires reconsideration, or at least additional theological resources. for many thinking about human mortality in relationship to science and theology, Augustine’s doctrine of sin remains a kind of obstacle which requires reconsideration, or at least additional theological resources.
One primary resource, increasingly turned to in recent decades, is the work of one of the very earliest Christian theologians, Irenaeus of Lyon. For those concerned with evolutionary science, Irenaeus immediately appears helpful because he argues that God created humanity (and all creation) to grow and develop over time. The first humans were humans but also not created fully mature. For Irenaeus, nothing in creation can emerge perfect as God is perfect simply because intrinsic, unchanging perfection characterizes only that which is divine. He goes further to compare Adam and Eve to children, and while this comparison may be more of an analogy for Irenaeus, he still suggests that their relative immaturity could have made them more vulnerable to falling into sin. This kind of approach, of course, seems to separate him from the later Augustinian understanding of sin and death, something which has held significant appeal for some prominent contemporary thinkers including Richard Swinburne and John Hick. Both draw a strong contrast between Irenaeus and Augustine on death and sin, and both have evolutionary concerns in mind. As a result, both suggest that not only are humans mortal from the beginning, but humans are inherently created with the capacity to sin. For Swinburne and Hick, and the many others they have influenced, if we start with death and sin from the beginning, then the fall is not really much of a fall after all.
Irenaeus simply does not share this view, nor could he possibly do so. Over and against the way in which he is read by Swinburne and Hick, Irenaeus holds together his developmental approach to creation with the scriptural belief that sin and death are the result of human disobedience on the part of Adam and Eve. Mortality comes into play here, but for a different reason than addressing Augustine (who comes later) and complications of evolutionary science (still centuries away).Irenaeus holds together his developmental approach to creation with the scriptural belief that sin and death are the result of human disobedience on the part of Adam and Eve. The Irenaean concern is Gnosticism and its influence on the early church. Gnostic thinkers tended to utilize human mortality as an example of why the goodness of God’s creation only includes spiritual realities, not material things like frail human bodies. Irenaeus brilliantly defended the goodness of material creation relationally by suggesting that God intends creation to grow and develop in relationship with what Irenaeus termed God’s “two hands,” the incarnate Christ and the Holy Spirit. Adam and Eve are created finite, relatively weak, not yet mature, and in need of growing in relationship with these “two hands” of the triune God. But sin and death only come to reign over humanity and creation when Adam and Eve break their relationship with God through the fall. The fall really is a fall for Irenaeus. Humanity and any created process (this would include everything we now understand as evolution) does not progress or develop as God intended because of sin. The only way the proper developmental trajectory of creation can be restored and redeemed is through Christ. Here, though there may be differences between Irenaeus and Augustine, the former is undoubtedly closer to the latter on sin and death than Swinburne and Hick allow.
Irenaeus was never directly concerned about mortality before the fall because he lived long before theories of evolution were first proposed. Such concerns, though, are critical in contemporary conversations with science. Evolutionary science contends that death is part of the process by which humanity as we know it has developed from the beginning. If we are to press the point, does Irenaeus still provide helpful theological resources?
What Do I Say?
My answer remains yes. The developmental way in which Irenaeus approaches creation expands our thinking about the frailty of human existence and the trajectory of human growth over time. I further believe this Irenaean view opens the door for ourWalton’s move to place human mortality in the realm of developing creation while continuing to emphasize the historical fall as the reason for the “disorder” of sin is, at very least, one which significantly resonates with Irenaean theology. theological imaginations to hold together conversations about human mortality before the fall while also helping us retain a theological priority on the fall as an event whereby sin enters the world and death reigns over creation in a way that would not have happened without the fall.
A pertinent example is John Walton’s recent work The Lost World of Adam and Eve (which in one chapter also contains a contribution by N.T. Wright). Walton proposes that Adam and Eve are actual people in history though not strictly speaking the first humans. Rather, they are intended by God as archetypes who represent before God all those in the group of earliest humans. Walton’s specific chapter on death and sin briefly considers Augustine and Irenaeus before he affirms mortality as a part of developing humanity before the fall (this he calls “non-order”). Walton then differentiates this natural death from the invasiveness of sin which results from the fall (this he calls “disorder”). It’s unclear to what degree Irenaeus exactly influences Walton here, but Walton’s move to place human mortality in the realm of developing creation while continuing to emphasize the historical fall as the reason for the “disorder” of sin is, at very least, one which significantly resonates with Irenaean theology.
Equally fascinating is the contribution N.T. Wright makes in Walton’s following chapter dealing with Romans 5. Wright’s excursus speaks of death—more clearly than Walton does—in terms of something that “engulfs” Adam and Eve through their fall into sin. Wright states:
[Adam and Eve] were supposed to be the life-bringers, and if they failed in their task, the death that was already endemic in the world as it was would engulf them as well . . . Not that death, the decay and dissolution of plants, animals and hominids, wasn’t a reality already; but you, Adam and Eve, are chosen to be the people through whom God’s life-giving reflection will be imaged into the world, and if you choose to worship and serve the creation rather than the Creator, you merely reflect death back to death, and will share death yourself.John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 178.
One reading of Wright’s work here would be to say that his exegesis simply confirms Walton’s position that human mortality and death in creation are part of creation before the fall. But I also wonder if there are not hints here of struggle on the part of Wright to retain a sense that the fall, at the very least, makes mortality somehow worse when Adam and Eve choose to disobey. That would move Wright a bit closer back to aspects of the traditional reading of Romans 5. Such a reading, while not making our conversations with science necessarily easier, also pushes closer to Irenaeus in his original context. It also pushes closer, of course, to Augustine.
I am reminded of a John Cavadini essay I recently read (to be published later this year) which makes an impressive case for why the Christian tradition needs both the Irenaean and Augustinian theological approaches to death and mortality. Irenaeus may suggest directions in which mortality is possible in a developing creation, while Augustine only sees death in relation to the fall. Cavadini affirms both, however, in how they place the person and work of Christ at the center of their understanding of creation and redemption. The resurrection of the incarnate Christ is clearly the ultimate confirmation that God does not mean death for creation. May we never lose sight of this as we consider the biblical witness and the theological tradition, even in an age of evolutionary science.