when did death come into the world?

I’d like to fly a theological kite (which I definitely wouldn’t go to the stake for):

The Apostle Paul famously declares that ‘sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin’ (Rom 5.12).

But I have to admit that I struggle to think of the second law of thermodynamics as simply the result of the Fall. Death — of a sort — seems to play an inextricable role in the life cycle of every cell of pretty much every known organism. Which seems hard to square with the suggestion (implied in the popular reading of Romans 5.12) that death was originally absent from the creation, only invading it later — and consequently becoming entangled with life at its most basic level.

Now, none of this would be in the least decisive if I didn’t have exegetical warrant for doubting the popular reading of Paul’s statement. In his book, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, James Barr helpfully highlights the significant — though often overlooked — stratum of Old Testament testimony to the naturalness of death as a matter of creaturely limitation. Even if I’m not quite ready to admit death’s naturalness, I’m more inclined to accept that there are things worse than death (just as there are illegitimate ways to oppose death).

Of course, this must also be set alongside other biblical strata that testify to the dehumanising and adversarial aspect of death — not simply as a matter of natural creaturely limitation but rather as the fearful implement of destruction wielded by one opposed to the living God. (Interestingly, it’s this aspect of death that seems most prominent in what follows immediately from Paul’s statement in Romans 5.)

In order to maintain these perspectives in an appropriately constructive tension I wonder if some sort of distinction between death and perishing might help. E.g.,:

Only man dies. The animal perishes. It has death neither ahead of itself nor behind it. (Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’ in Poetry, Language, Thought, p 178)

Or am I barking up the wrong tree?


  1. I once asked ‘the Don’ what God meant by “die” when he said you will surely die in Gen 2. He said my question was a linguistic question rather than a theological one… don’t remember much else of what he said though…

  2. Chris,

    You missed my issues paper last year which dealt with aspects of this very topic (Is there a natural death?). I think there are other issues other than the second law of thermodynamics at play – consider the fossil record! I think there seems to be a connection in Paul’s statement with sin, death and law! Consider the second half of Rom 5:12 which speaks of the relationship going the other way i.e. death coming to all men – because all sinned. Much more to say, but some interesting reflections.

  3. God killed animals as substitutes to cover Adam and Eve. The animals died a physical death instead of Adam and Eve dying a physical death. It can’t be spiritualised. The Covenant sanction was death for disobedience. But Adam was “passed over.”

    As for the fossil record, a worldwide flood is a perfectly suitable explanation, surely? Where are we putting our faith?

    1. Thanks Mike. I’m very keen to take the Bible seriously. And to continue putting my faith in the Lord Jesus who meets me in its pages.

      However, if I may push back a little, I’m not entirely clear where you detect ‘spiritualisation’ in the (tentative) explorations I’ve been making. I guess it may be in the fact that I’m pretty clearly not convinced that the author of Genesis 1-3 means to provide a straightforward, blow-by-blow account of what happened. But as far as I can see, the purpose and interest of the story that gets going in Genesis doesn’t really map neatly onto our modern debates: e.g., about whether the fossil record is best explained with reference to a worldwide flood or to millions of years of evolution.

  4. But yet does 2 Peter 3:6 “map” closely to Gen. 1:1? “The world that then was”.. Its Creation in eternity past. And its end, “ruin”… Gen. 1:2. “Without form”= waste. Later in like manner man became a ruin (Gen. 3)

    And Gen. 1: 2-31. “The heavens and the earth which are now”. (2 Pet. 3:7) Their creation in time present. (The Six Days., literal)

    Their end, Gen. 2:1-3, “Blessing”.

    It seems there are “gaps” in the Scripture? Two Creations? Or one re-creation?

  5. Always questions Chris! lol The longer I read, the older I get, always more questions. But happily they are really questions in faith! Can I get an amen? lol

  6. I am still very open to some conservative and past (so-called) positions about Creation. I am classic old earth, but still open-minded also to the Young Earth position and people. After all James Ussher was Irish! lol There is still so much we just don’t know! And most likely never will. But perhaps ya might want to take a peek at the Irish Articles of 1615 (Ussher, etc.) Not so much for creation, as just the theological, and perhaps my own favorite later Creed reformational.

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