Wednesday, July 01, 2009

More on Death Before Sin

A few weeks back I had an interesting discussion with several of my readers about the concept of death before sin as it pertains to the question of theistic evolution. Catholic theology teaches that death came into the world through the sin of Adam, and that death originates from sin. There are two ways to take this truth. First, one can take it in the absolute sense, as I do, which would mean that before Adam sinned there was no death of any kind; no animals died, no plants died, nothing experienced death whatsoever, and that when the first man experienced the death brought on by sin, not only the human race but all creation, of which he was the head, was brought under death as well. Or one could interpret it in a restrictive sense: that the death that Adam's sin brought about was human death only, and that prior to the Fall everything else in the world was still dying as they do today - animals were still eating each other, plants still dying, and everything going on according to the cycles of nature we currently witness, with the exception of an immortal man in the midst of it.

Both of these positions, as far as I can tell, are perfectly acceptable, their only real difference being that the restrictive interpretation allows for the possibility of theisticly directed evolution to have occured, while the former absolute interpretation does not.

This Sunday in the NO readings we heard from Wisdom 2:23-24 which had this to say about death:

For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it.

This verse has the same difficulties as the other verses (Rom. 5:12, 1 Cor. 15:21), in that it simply says that death, generically, came through sin, without making any distinction as to whether it refers to human death or death in general. Though the general word "death" is used without qualification, the surrounding context lets us know that it is emphasizing the reality of human death specifically.

Rabbinic tradition at least seems to have viewed Adam's fall as the source of death for all creation, not just the human race, so that, as the rabbis taught in the Talmud (Sanh. viii. 4-9):

Why was only a single specimen of man created first? To teach us that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world and that he who saves a single soul saves a whole world.

I'm not pretending to prove my position by appealing to the Jewish Talmud, which is in so many other ways a despicable book to Christians by virtue of its many blasphemies, but I think it does show at least a historical witness that some of the earliest commentators on Genesis saw the corruption of not only man but the whole world as bound up in Adam's Fall.

St. Augustine, when treating of the question of death is mainly concerned with refuting the errors of Pelagius, who said that Adam incurred death only for himself, dedicates most of his writing on the topic to human death alone, which he of course says is a result of sin. I found an interesting passage from City of God Book XIII.6 in which he reflects that death afflicts the good and the evil alike, but that even for the good the experience of death is never good:

Wherefore, as regards bodily death, that is, the separation of the soul from the body, it is good unto none while it is being endured by those whom we say are in the article of death. For the very violence with which body and soul are wrenched asunder, which in the living had been conjoined and closely intertwined, brings with it a harsh experience, jarring horridly on nature so long as it continues, till there comes a total loss of sensation, which arose from the very interpenetration of spirit and flesh. And all this anguish is sometimes forestalled by one stroke of the body or sudden flitting of the soul, the swiftness of which prevents it from being felt.

While I assume he is talking about human death, since he mentions the soul and later on talks about the sin of Adam later in the chapter, he makes an interesting point here: death is "good unto none." The experience of dying is "harsh" and jars the nature of a thing horribly. If it is never good, or "good unto none," then would it make sense to say that God, who created all things "good" and "very good", willed as part of His creation that anything should of its own nature be subject to an experience which is so harsh and jarring upon that nature?

St. Augustine goes on in chapter 17 of the same book to assert that it is possible for God to render anything, even animals, to be immortal if He so pleases:

But earth, say they, must return to earth, out of which the terrestrial bodies of the animals have been taken. For this, they say, is the reason of the necessity of their death and dissolution, and this the manner of their restoration to the solid and eternal earth whence they came...What, then, hinders God from ordaining the same of terrestrial bodies? And since, indeed, Plato acknowledges that God can prevent things that are born from dying, and things that are joined from being sundered, and things that are composed from being dissolved, and can ordain that the souls once allotted to their bodies should never abandon them, but enjoy along with them immortality and everlasting bliss, why may He not also effect that terrestrial bodies die not? Is God powerless to do everything that is special to the Christian's creed, but powerful to effect everything the Platonists desire?

Although Augustine is of course using this point to frame an argument in favor of the Resurrection of man, he is making an important speculative argument that there is no reason to assume that God couldn't hold any terrestrial body in a state of immortality, even an animal, if He so wanted to. We also have to keep in mind that when he says "animal", he is referring to man and beast together, anything that is animated. I also cite this passage because he is reminding us that there is nothing inherent in the nature of animals or lesser beings that makes their death a necessity. Therefore, it is not against reason to postulate that animlas before the Fall enjoyed an existence of earthly immortality.

I am not presenting a cogent argument in this post, but merely thinking out loud. I still maintain that there was no death before the first sin, but I am open to other ideas. I don't base my rejection of evolution on this fact alone, but I do think that postulating millions of years of animal death before the creation of an immortal man, who enjoys his immortality only briefly before falling from it, is not as satisfying as believing in a unified vision of a glorified and immortal creation, with man at its head, which fell in a domino-like effect with man: Adam rebelled against God, man's lower passions revolted against him, the natural world under man rebelled against his leadership and everything was subject to "futility" (Rom. 8:20). This, to me, makes better sense of St. Paul's statement in Romans 8:19-22:

For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.

If creation is awaiting its freedom from slavery and corruption, we have to assume that it is therefore corrupted or fallen in someway, and if it is fallen or corrupted, I think we can safely assume that its corruption consists in its subjection to death. Is there ever any other implication for terms such as "corruption" in Scripture when discussing sin? (e.g., Psalm 16:10, 55:23). This is why when man is ultimately redeemed and the children of God enjoy the Resurrection, the world itself will experience a kind of resurrection to life along with us - if it awaits our glorification because within it is found its own glorification, doesn't it stand to reason that our fall is the reason for its subjection to death and futility?


Anonymous said...

Interesting point, this link from a protestant site might help

(I know that having anything to do with protestants at all is bad but in my part of the world having any Christian friends means that you sometimes have to settle for a less than ideal solution and hey knowing them means you can evangelize them)

Friend of the Cross said...


Just playing devils advocate here but if nothing experienced death, as you say, then how would Adam and Eve understand the concept of death? For the serpent said, "Certainly you will not die" like God said they would. How could a person surrounded with immortality grasp death? It would be like someone saying that if I were to stand up "Kytos" would "lemon" me. I would stare at them and ask "what's a 'Kytos'" and "what do you mean by 'lemon'" and unless they could make a comparison I wouldn't be able to understand. By what means would God be able to explain death to Adam and Eve?

Perhaps one could argue that Adam had that knowledge infused in him or that as Adam was made first he was able to see all things come out of dirt and God had him reason backword, that is, make him think of those things returning back to dust as death.

I only post this argument because of St. Thomas Aquinas. He would have certainly permitted it as an objection as he permits even the most ridiculous objections. Let us see how you reply.


Boniface said...

Friend of the Cross-

Thanks for the objections. But, on the contrary-

First, it is not necessary to have experiential knowledge of something to grasp it. For example, with my little toddler, if he goes to stick his finger in the outlet on the wall, I tell him, "Don't do that or you'll get shocked." By this reasoning, he would not be able to understand the statement unless he first witnessed other people being shocked. But the fact is that the fact that his daddy tells him that a shock is something bad is enough for him to avoid it - he need not have experiential knowledge of it. In the same way, the very fact that God warns against the thing called "Death" is enough for Adam to understand that it should be shunned, whatever it may be.

Furthermore, most theologians agree that Adam possessed infused knowledge, which by its definition does not come from experience; therefore, he certainly could have understood what death was without seeing it.

Finally, I think the line of argumentation you presented is a little inconsistent methodologically. What I mean is that many (not all) who argue against my position do so by reason of trying to affirm theistic evolution; ie, they do not take Genesis in an absolutely literal sense. Since when do we attempt to prove that something is not strictly literal by insisting on a strictly literal interpretation of God's words to Adam? It is very possible that God said a lot more to Adam than is recorded; that he said, "You shall surely die, and here's what I mean by death, etc." but that the Sacred Writer didn't record this. Are we to assume that what is recorded in Genesis is EVERYTHING God ever spoke to Adam? That is a form of very strict literalism that it doesn't make any sense to stress if the end of your argument is that Genesis isn't absolutely literal.

Thanks again - hope these arguments hold water.

Aaron Linderman said...

I think the distinction you introduce at the beginning of the post, regarding the two different kinds of death (natural/prelapsarian and spiritual/postlapsarian), is a very useful one. But how do we apply it to folks like St. Augustine and St. Paul? You travel rather lightly over how they use the term.

Which raises an interesting question: Is it just a linguistic convention that we use the same term for each, or is there a fundamental connection? If so, what is it?

Moreover, what are we to make of the fact that the first chapters of Genesis are myth? I don't mean this as comment on veracity, but as a literary genre. Should we read them the same way we read the Gospels? The Song of Songs?

Aaron Linderman said...

Thinking a little more about myth: is the whole question of the literal truth of the first couple chapters of Genesis a red herring? Isn't it kind of an Enlightenment fallacy that the physical, the empirical, the sensible and measurable, is the "real" truth? Don't we know better, that there is a higher kind of truth?

Boniface said...


I don't at all accept the premise the the first chapters of Genesis are a myth. I take them as history, as we are told in Humani Generis and by the Pontifical Biblical Commission...that Genesis 1-3, even though some of it may employ symbolic language, narrates true events. The CCC is amiss, I think, when it chooses to employ the word "mythological" in its treatment of Gen 1-3. I know it is a genre, but still think Genesis should be read the same way we'd read the Gospels.

Ben said...

Here’s one possible way of looking at it.

St. Thomas says that the difference between living and non-living things is that the former has a soul (principle of life), but the latter doesn’t (obviously, something without a principle of life isn’t alive!). And the difference between human and non-human (when both are living) is that the former has a rational and immortal soul, and the latter has a material and mortal soul or “principle of life”. Both, however, share a mortal material bit: the body. So, it seems to me, that man and beast are both mortal according to the flesh. However, God also gave man an immortal soul when he breathed the breath of life into him, which prevented him from ever dying. So man is mortal by nature and immortal by grace, because the immortal soul informs the mortal body and prevents it from dying. But animals are mortal by nature because, being without free will or rational soul, they cannot receive the grace of immortality. So they simply die by nature.

It was sin that destroyed man’s natural immortality. It was a rebellion of the lesser against the greater: man against God, the will against the intellect/reason, and the body against the soul. That’s why there is now an unnatural separation (death) between man’s body and soul: he no longer functions in the harmonious and ordered hierarchical way he was supposed to.

If you look at Romans 5, St. Paul says: “12Therefore, 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.” You can see the close connection between sin and death because sin is spiritual death. But that doesn’t mean that animals didn’t die before the first sin: sin is an act of the intellect, and since animals don’t have this intellect, they can’t sin. Therefore, they don’t die in the same way that man dies: the separation of immortal living soul and body. They die by nature.

He goes on to say that “just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” There’s the contrast between the Old Adam and the New Adam. If the Old Adam brought death to all animals and plants too, not just men, it would follow that the New Adam brought (eternal) life to all animals and plants. This is obviously not the case. He brought life only to men; therefore, Adam brought death only to men. In each case there’s also spiritual death (sin) and spiritual life (righteousness) which also obviously applies only to men. It seems like these kinds of beautiful parallelisms indicate that only men were killed in Adam, only men brought to life in Christ, just as only men sinned in Adam, only men are made righteous in Christ.

It seems to me that saying animals are naturally immortal is confusing nature and grace. Only by grace can we become immortal: by the infusion of God’s Spirit, who is the “breath” or “wind” of life, as our Lord said: “My words are Spirit and Life” (Jn. 6:63).

So when St. Augustine says that it’s “good unto none” he presumably means “good to no human person, because in us only is the soul unnaturally rent from the body in death”.

Just my opinion, God bless,

Ben Gordon.

Boniface said...


Sure, it can be a red herring, and thete is a higher truth, but it is based in the literal truth.


Those are great points, and I think you may be on to something. But what I insist on being preserved is the idea that not only man, but the whole creation is fallen. Remember, after the first sin, God cursed the earth. The earth is somehow under a curse, whatever that means. It states that before the Fall there were no thorns or briers, something I take to be literal. It is not simply man that is fallen, but the whole world, and the whole world is fallen because man is fallen. The world is not fallen in the sense that it "sinned," as you pointed out that without a soul it can't sin, but it is fallen in the sense that through the sin of man it is deprived of the glory and perfection it would have had had man not sinned.

In this sense, I don't think the animals were ever meant to be "immortal" the way man was created to be, which as you pointed out, has to do with the soul. But man's original immortality did not involve any death, not even a physical one, whereas now it does...we have to die to be born into eternal life. Though there is a strong connection between sin and spiritual death (as you mentioned), we have to remember to assert that not spiritual death only but our own physical death is the result of sin.

I think animals, plants, etc. each were created to have an immortality after their own nature. It would not have been like the immortality of man, and perhaps immortality is not even the best word for it...maybe a kind of indestructability...somewhere between the immortality of man and the current state of things. This is pure speculation of course...St. Paul says each object in the universe has its own kind or degree of glory according to its nature,

"There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory."

I think, then, just as we can imagine what a glorified man would be like, or what Adam before the Fall would have been like, there is a glorified state of plants, animals, etc. tha existed before the Fall that must be posited. Perhaps they had a kind of passing that was not a real death...kind of like the elves in Tolkien going over the sea. LOL.

But what I cannot accept is that God created the natural world pretty much the way it is and that man alone was glorified and immortal within it and that the Fall affected only man. Here are my main points:

1) All creation was created with a type of glory and perfection, not just man alone.

2) When man, as the head of that creation fell, he took with him all of the other things in the world, just as he took with him all human subsequently to be born. Therefore, the physical world not is not as it was created to be,and all the things in it are somehow less or fallen from what they once were.

3) The earth, even now, is under a curse (though Christ redeemed men from the penal nature of this curse) - just as we still endure bodily death, the creation is still "groaning" until it, too, will be redeemed along with man at the end of time.

I realize its a highly speculative topic, but one that interests me greatly.



Boniface said...

Oops, my bible quote is from 1 Cor. 15:40-41

Ben said...

I see where you’re coming from, and I appreciate your thoughts. Of course, nothing is dogmatic, so this is all friendly discussion.

It’s of course true that all creation fell in Adam and because of Adam. So the issue boils down to this: does the fallenness of the creation mean subjection to death? Or is it something else? I would say the latter.

Look at what Gaudium et Spes says: “According to the almost unanimous opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown.” Or Psalm 8 says: “Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour: And hast set him over the works of thy hands. Thou hast subjected all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen: moreover the beasts also of the fields.” So all creation is ordered towards man as its crown and perfection, because he is a mix of flesh and spirit and thus a kind of mediator between the divine spirit and lower material things. Maybe (just maybe!) the fall of the universe would involve the fact that this chain is broken by the fact that man is broken. By his sin and death he has broken this chain and made it disordered, thus disordering the whole universe.
So as you said: “it is fallen in the sense that through the sin of man it is deprived of the glory and perfection it would have had”; the glory of being ordered towards man and through him to God. Otherwise, I’m not sure precisely how the universe fell. For example, Genesis 3 says: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil YOU will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles FOR YOU” (NIV). The earth is the same earth as before, but now it is difficult for man to produce food from it. The relationship between man and the earth is damaged because man is damaged; not the earth itself per se. That’s what I would see as the curse imposed on creation.
God bless,


Friend of the Cross said...


I agreed with you from the very beginning just thought I'd try to mess you up. Your last argument was particularly clever and I much enjoyed it.


Boniface said...

One last point-

One evidence that man is meant to be immortal is that he naturally shuns death - every man tries to preserve his own life, because there is something inherently "unnatural" about death and we all try to hold ourselves in existence - a kind of futile striving for the eternal.

If animals were naturally "meant" to die, don't you think they would embrace death as naturally as they do eating or sleeping? But animals, like humans, attempt to preserve their life at all costs - they have an instinct for self-preservation that seems to indicate that they, too, find death unnatural and try to flee from it.

This is a very rough idea and could be explored a lot more to see if it holds water.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Where does the Catechism use the term "mythological" in relation to Genesis 1-3?

I only see the word-fragment "myth" twice:

"Since the beginning the Christian faith has been challenged by responses to the question of origins that differ from its own. Ancient religions and cultures produced many myths concerning origins..." (285)

"Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike;151 so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age." (498)

Neither reference, in my opinion, treats Genesis 1-3 as "myth".

Boniface said...

Oops...sorry, I think I was confusing the CCC with another official document, something with much less authority, that used the word "mythic language" or something similar. I'll have to go back and find out what it was. Thanks.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Oh, you were thinking, perhaps, of the hit-and-miss post-Conciliar non-Magisterial PBC's document on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.

"This requires that exegetes take into consideration the reasonable demands of educated and cultured persons of our time, clearly distinguishing for their benefit what in the Bible is to be regarded as secondary detail conditioned by a particular age, what must be interpreted as the language of myth and what is to be regarded as the true historical and inspired meaning." (III, C, 4)

Aaron Linderman said...

I think some clarification of the term "myth" is in order here. It does not simply mean symbolic. Allegories, for example, are symbolic, but not mythical. I would suggest that the power of a myth lies more in its action.

In any event, myth is not somehow exclusive with truth, even literal truth. Take for example the notion of the Resurrection: most cultures have stories of a god or hero who dies but then rises from the dead. What's unique about Christ' resurrection is that it is a myth which is not simply a good story - as are all myths - or even a good story which points to a certain truth, but in Christ case it is a story which also HAPPENED.

Whether or not the early chapters of Genesis happened literally or not, I don't think we need to depend on Church documents to conclude that they are myth. This is not a matter of faith or morals: it is a matter of literary criticism. This is an archetypal story which fits into a certain genre. (Just as we can classify the Psalms or the Song of Songs or Chronicles as belonging to different genre.)

Whether or not this myth, like the myth of the Resurrection, actually happened, or what this myth means, those are questions we can rightfully ask of the Church.

Boniface said...


Yep. That is definitely the one I had in mind.


I agree with everything you said. However, like many other issues with the way the Church presents things nowadays, the problem isn't what the word literally means, but what the average person will conclude. Even though your synopsis of myth is accurate (borrowed from Lewis in Mere Christianity I believe), the fact is that to 99% of the people, when you say something is "myth" to them it is like saying "didn't really happen." Do you deny this is so? Therefore, the Church ought to be more careful in its choice of words. It can't say that Genesis is a "myth" and then get upset if people end up concluding it is not historical. What do you expect will happen if you tell people it is "the language of myth" and "figurative"?

Ben said...

Hi Boniface,

I thought I'd post another comment on this old subject because I found this text from Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange that I thought you might be interested in. It's from a discourse on the Immaculate Conception. It reads:

"But why did the Immaculate Conception not make Mary immune from pain and death since they too were consequences of Original Sin?

"It should be noted that the pain and death which Jesus and Mary knew were not consequences of Original Sin as they are for us. For Jesus and Mary they were consequences of but human nature, which, of itself, and like the animal nature in general, is subject to pain and death of the body: it was only because of a special privilege that Adam had been exempt from them in the state of innocence. As for Jesus, He was conceived virginally in passible flesh in order to redeem us by dying, and when the time came He accepted suffering and death, its consummation, freely for love of us. Mary, for her part, accepted suffering and death voluntarily in imitation of Him and to unite herself to Him; she was one with Him in His expiation and in His work of redemption."

The interesting point is that he claims that animal nature and human nature are both naturally mortal, and that only Adam (+ Eve) received the special priviledge of being made immortal.

God bless,


Anonymous said...

But if all animals were peaceful and co-existant, how come sharks exist with all their menacing teeth? Were they scooping up sea-weed? Or what about other predators? Perhaps you'd say these were just innocent animals until the fall, they went mad and twisted and their bodies changed?