The question whether humans were mortal before the fall only comes up in a religious, and more specifically a Judeo-Christian, context. That is not just because the notion of the fall refers to the Bible, but also because from a secular point of view it is obvious that humans must have been mortal all along. How else could it be?
Don’t we bear the marks of our mortality in our very bodies, just like the animals, with cells dying all the time and organs having only a limited lifespan? And isn’t our body-plan at least part of what makes us human, so that if we had had immortal bodies at some stage we would hardly have been humans? From a scientific point of view, therefore, the very question whether there might have been a time when humans were not mortal seems odd. Immortal beings figure in fairy tales, myths and science fiction, but not in real life—neither now nor in the distant past.
Adam and Paul
Why would Christians be inclined to disagree with this view? The answer is: because a couple of crucial biblical texts suggest otherwise. In Genesis 2, the Lord God commands the human being He has created not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17). Clearly, death is mentioned here as a punishment for sin. And indeed, after the man and his wife have sinned against God, part of the divine judgement is that death will from now on be inescapable: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). In fact, it is remarkable that death does not make its appearance immediately in the lives of the first humans, as was suggested by the prior threat (“in the day that you eat of it you shall die”), butSome read these verses as pertaining to the death of all living beings (including animals), but surely that is an overinterpretation; although some translations are ambivalent, the Greek is perfectly clear that it is human death that Paul is talking about. only much later. Apparently, days in Genesis are not always literal days. Or does the author have spiritual death in mind here rather than physical death? A third possibility is that the Lord God showed mercy upon Adam and his wife by postponing their death sentence. Given the fact that God changes his plans more often in the book of Genesis (e.g., Gen. 6:6–7), this is not entirely inconceivable. However this may be, there is—to say the least—a strong suggestion in Genesis 2–3 that the first humans would not have to die if it wasn’t for their sin(s).
This causal connection between human sin and death is confirmed in the New Testament, especially in some of the letters of Paul. In 1 Corinthians, for example, drawing on the Genesis story Paul relates that “death came through a human being” (1 Cor. 15:21). In the next verse he specifies that this human being was Adam. Adam figures as the antitype of Jesus Christ here: just like all people die in Adam, all will be made alive in Christ. Even more explicit in connecting human death with sin, however, is the famous passage in Romans 5 where Paul draws the same parallel between Adam and Christ. This passage starts with an anacoluthon (an unfinished sentence): “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread because all have sinned . . . ” (Rom. 5:12). It is reiterated in the following verses that “many died through the one man’s trespass” (5:15) and that “because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one” (5:17). Likewise, in Romans 6 Paul states that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). Some read these verses as pertaining to the death of all living beings (including animals), but surely that is an overinterpretation; although some translations are ambivalent, the Greek is perfectly clear that it is human death that Paul is talking about. Whereas the NRSV quoted above has “and so death spread” (5:12), the Greek explicitly adds that “in this way death spread to all men” (HCSB). Animals are out of the picture in this passage; nowhere in the Bible is it denied that they died from the outset. But when it comes to human beings, the strong suggestion of Genesis 2–3 is turned by Paul into an unambiguous assumption: if it was not for his rebelling against God through sin, the human being that God created would not have had to die but might have lived forever.
What Is at Stake?
Thus, it seems that we have a dilemma here: according to the Bible, humans were created immortal and started to die only after they had sinned, whereas according to what we can empirically infer from the natural world humans must have been mortal all along. It is therefore seductive to urge people to make a clear choice on this issue: “Whom do you trust—modern science or the eternal Word of God?”. Given the fact that science is by its very nature fallible whereas the Bible comes from the infallible God, this doesn’t seem a very hard choice to make. Who will know better what was the case in the beginning than God?
Perhaps, however, we do better to pause a moment before pitting off science and faith in this way, thus reinforcing the old nineteenth-century paradigm that science and faith are by definition in conflict with each other. If we realize that the primal Author of the Bible is the very same God as the one who created the natural world, including us human beings, we can be pretty confident that there is no conflict between both “books”. Rather, we should expect that both point in the same direction; and if at first sight this is not the case, we may have to critically revisit our interpretation either of the book of nature or of the book of Scripture. If we rejoice in making a sharp contrast between contemporary science and the Christian faith, we only play into the hands of influential atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the like, who use this contrast to deride the faith.
The Difference between Mortality and Death
So the question becomes: should we revise our interpretation of nature or our biblical exegesis when seeking a unified answer to the question whether humans were mortal before the fall? I am sure that whatever choice we would make here, it would be controversial among Christians. In the larger debate on creation and evolution, Christians are hopelessly divided on whether to give precedence to traditionalSo the question becomes: should we revise our interpretation of nature or our biblical exegesis when seeking a unified answer to the question whether humans were mortal before the fall? Bible interpretations or to contemporary scientific theories when trying to bring the two in harmony with each other. Perhaps, however, no such choice is necessary in this particular case. What if we try to overcome the confusions that so often come with sloppy thinking and ill-considered conclusions by making some sound conceptual distinctions?
In particular, it seems to me that we must distinguish here between the concepts of death and mortality. Mortality is a modal term. That is: it tells us something about what can be the case. ‘Mortality’ is in line here with other ‘-ity words’, like mutability, visibility, comprehensibility, etc. Something that is mutable is something that is open to change; something that is visible can be seen; and if something is comprehensible, it is possible to grasp or understand it. Similarly, if a living being is mortal this means that it can die. It does not mean that it must die, just like when a certain star is visible this does not mean that it will necessarily be seen. This point can also be confirmed from the biblical writings, since according to the Old Testament not all human beings have actually died. In particular, the figures of Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) did not see death but were taken up into heaven, although we can assume that they had mortal bodies just like ours.
Now let us go back to the key biblical passages on the connection between sin and death which we referred to above. As far as I can see, nowhere in Genesis 2–3 is it suggested that the first humans were immortal in the sense of being unable to die. Rather, it is assumed that they needed fruits in order to sustain their bodies, and the divine death threat presupposes that they could die. There is an allusion, however, to the possibility that they might live on forever when eating from the ‘tree of life’ (Gen. 3:22). In the narrative plot of Genesis 2–3 the first humans would somehow have received the capacity to keep themselves alive endlessly if they had not sinned.Cf. James Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992). We can even imagine that in that case by God’s grace they might have obtained “full” immortality, in other words, without the need of regular sustainment by food and drink. Though we do not know how it is humanly possible to become immortal, given our biological constraints, such a scenario is not ruled out by what we know from There is, therefore, no reason to see any conflict or incompatibility between science and the Christian faith on this topic.science (just like the possibility of miracles is not ruled out by science). In any case, for those who believe that God will give imperishable life to his children (1 Cor. 15:42), it is not inconceivable that He might have done so already at a much earlier stage had Adam not fallen into sin. In this way, then, we can make perfect sense of the clear statements of Paul in Romans 5–6 and 1 Corinthians 15. These statements do not ascribe immortality to the first human beings. Rather, they claim that the entrance of human death (not mortality!) is the result of sin. Whereas humans, though created with mortal bodies, had been given the possibility to keep themselves alive indefinitely, from now on they will now no longer be able to escape death. In that sense, death is the wages of sin. Indeed, the meaning of human death can only be fathomed if we acknowledge the element of divine judgment that is inherent in it.
So the answer to our question is: no, humans were not immortal before the fall. Not only does science forbid it, but the Bible also presupposes that humankind has been mortal all along, having been created “from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). By contrast, “it is God alone who has immortality” (2 Tim. 6:16). There is, therefore, no reason to see any conflict or incompatibility between science and the Christian faith on this topic.