A deductive argument: Is animal death the result of the fall of man, or merely incidental?

Silver lining: If the literalists are right, this antelope at least had the chance to find eternal life in Christ. (Photo by NJR ZA, Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: Today’s post, the first in a two-part series, comes from our resident philosopher, Zachary Lawson, an engineering student at Texas A&M. He presents two simple arguments that demonstrate that — however distasteful it may be to some believers — the idea that animal death is incidental to God’s original created order is more consistent with scripture than the alternate idea that animal death arose as the result of human sin.

One of the common touch-points in discussing the age of the universe is the issue that the old-earth hypothesis requires animal death to be in the world before the fall of man. The argument is often made by young-earth creationists that having animal death in the world before the fall of man is theologically unacceptable. I will attempt to demonstrate (via two logical arguments) that this is not the case and, in fact, it is the young-earth position which is theologically problematic.

First, I will present a deductive argument that leads to one of three conclusions: (a) animal death is incidental, (b) animals are included in the plan of salvation, or (c) Christ was not victorious over death. Second, I will present an inductive argument that aims to show the scriptural data is more probable on the hypothesis that animal death is incidental.

Finally, it is important to note the scope of these arguments. If they are completely valid and sound, they will not completely rebut the young earth hypothesis. The entire purpose is to demonstrate that the issue of animal death before the fall is not a substantial objection to the old-earth hypothesis.

If taken consistently, the common YEC position leads to some rather uncomfortable theology. Consider the following argument:

  1. All things that die in Adam have the potential to live in Christ.
  2. Animals die in Adam.
  3. Therefore, animals have the potential to live in Christ.

Premise (1) comes directly from the language of 1 Corinthians 15. So, denying (1) will not be an option for a Bible-believing Christian. Since (3) follows logically (through modus ponens), the only controversial premise is (2).

The common old-earth position is to deny (2) by saying that animal death is merely incidental; it didn’t come about through the fall nor is it a curse or anything like that. But, those who think that animal death is not incidental will have to come up with an alternative explanation or embrace the fact that their theology allows animals to be included in the plan of salvation. (To my knowledge, there is only one organization that promotes this.)

The first response to this argument will be “Wait, that’s not right. Animals don’t have souls (or at least not in the same sense humans do) so they can’t be included in the plan of salvation or resurrected!” Of course, I agree with this sentiment. However, this response is equivalent to denying the conclusion of the argument. As the argument is valid, denying the conclusion without rebutting one of the premises is insufficient.

For the sake of discussion, suppose that all the premises were true and yet animals were not resurrected or included in salvation. This presents an immensely awkward situation. Consulting 1 Corinthians again: “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory?’”

Remember, death is the last enemy to be defeated, and as demonstrated above in verses 54-56, death is defeated in resurrection. These data can be summarized as follows:

  1. Death can only be defeated through resurrection.
  2. Animal death exists.
  3. Animals are not resurrected.
  4. Therefore, animal death is not defeated.
  5. Therefore, not all death is defeated.

Wait a moment. Didn’t Christ “conquer death, hell, and the grave”? (Note: This wording is from a song, not the Bible). If this is true, then how can Christ be victorious over death if the death of the animal kingdom is left undefeated?

For those who hold that animal death is incidental, this isn’t a problem. Animal death isn’t the type of thing meant to be defeated and all the verses referring to the conquering of death refer exclusively to the death of humanity.

However, this option isn’t available to those who think that animal death is a result of the fall or the curse. The only options at this juncture are to say that animals are included in salvation (and subsequently, resurrection) or admit that Christ was not entirely victorious over death.

“But wait!” the non-incidentalist may say in an effort to split the horns of this dilemma, “these passages in 1 Corinthians are written about humans, not animals. That means that all the death that’s being referenced has to be human death.” I would agree! The only problem here is that these passages (1 Corinthians 15, Romans 5, et cetera) are all written in the same form — to human audiences.

It’s been my experience that young-earth, non-incidentalists point to these epistles as the primary evidence for their position that animal death is the result of human sin. So recognizing that all of the passages apply exclusively to humans effectively nullifies all the New Testament proof texts thought to concern animal death. Thus, there would be no textual justification for holding the position that animal death is non-incidental in the first place.

Now, consider the third option, that animal death is merely incidental. If this is true, then, none of these theological problems arise. All those that die in Adam are humans and there’s nothing controversial about humans being in the plan of salvation or being resurrected. If this is the case, then Christ is truly victorious over death as expressed in verses 56-57: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Moreover, the connection between sin and death can be clearly understood if humans are the only party included. Non-human animals are not morally culpable creatures, meaning references to “sin” are categorically erroneous. In the end, the hypothesis that animal death is incidental comes out as the most theologically acceptable position given all the considerations.

There are some implications to consider. Supposing this argument is completely valid and sound, it does not say how old the universe is or anything about evolution. Saying that animal death is incidental is not inconsistent with also saying that the universe is young (i.e., 6,000-50,000 years old). What this argument does demonstrate is that animals dying before the fall is not a substantial objection to the view that the Earth and universe are old (4.5 billion years for earth, 14 billion years for the universe).

— Zachary Lawson

Find the second half of Lawson’s essay here. In the meantime, check us out on Facebook and Twitter!

  • Scott

    Thanks for your publishing these arguments wrt animal death before the “fall”. As a fifty something WASP (white Anglo-Saxon protestant) who until recently espoused YEC without ever thinking why, this is so refreshing to read. I’ll admit that all I ever did was read YEC stuff because that’s what my elders always taught…. and I’ve been doing that for thirty five years or more…. Stupid I know. I’m even a veterinarian who daily looks at the battle of tooth and claw, of parasites and looking at elegantly created teeth, and digestive tracts that were designed to process meat etc, poisonous reptiles and the like…. It was only about four years ago that the lights came on, as it were, that I’d been taught and swallowed hook line and sinker the YEC myth. My enlightenment came along the lines of considering all by my little self the texts that are quoted in the two links at the beginning of your article. I also pondered why did God speak of death to Adam if Adam and Eve already hadn’t experienced death around them? I’d swallowed the story that all death, including animal, was a result of the “fall”. No – I came to see that God had provided for the bear through its ability to hunt and kill – in fact all carnivorous plants and animals have their part to play in this creation of life and death. Death in fact is natural – it’s what God intended. In an eschatological sense – His eternal purpose is to be found in a new heaven and new earth… (I have no idea what that will look like – will it be a return to Eden with animal, plant etc life and death, in a way that Adam missed out on ??? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a perfect new creation with animal death being part of it…. I know I’m probably a heretic..)

    Anyway – enough of a rant – I’m looking forward to the second part.

    from Australia

    • Hey Scott! Great to hear from you! Thanks for your thoughts! Part 2 is up, so be sure to check it out when you have a chance!

  • RichardS

    Why phrase it as “All things that die in Adam have the potential to live in Christ” rather than “All humans that die in Adam have the potential to live in Christ”?
    Not that I disagree with your conclusion, but I think that your inductive argument is much stronger.
    I’m not sure that many would stretch the context of 1 Corinthians 15 to cover other animals.

    • Zachary Lawson

      Good question! The exact verses are: “21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

      The idea here is that many YECs will take these and try to apply them to animals. The argument as I’ve heard it from YECs will start out saying explicitly “human death” but then quickly transitions into “physical death” which is then applied to the animal kingdom. My argument is that one is going to apply these verses to animals at all, one needs to be consistent and start out with animals in the beginning.

      You’re absolutely right: Paul only has humans in view when writing this chapter so, “all that die in Adam” and “all humans that die in Adam” would be identical in content. Consequentially, stretching 1 Corinthians to cover animals would be inappropriate (this is true for all of the other epistles as well).

      The argument could be condensed to “No no no! The epistles are written to humans so you’ve got the context all wrong!”. However, my approach was “Okay, let’s assume yours is the correct understanding and see what logically follows….oy, it’s pretty nasty”.

    • The author’s view does pretty clearly appear to be that 1 Corinthians 15 rightly refers to humans only, not animals. However, young-earth proponents like Answers in Genesis commonly claim the passage, along with others like Romans 5, include all living things and refer to some supposed cosmic fall. The author adopted the latter view, not because he agreed with it, but for the sake of argument, in order to show the logical consequences of such an interpretation.

  • Will

    Tyler, this essay Zachary sent you is very astute. My only response, thus far, is to reiterate what I already told you on Facebook, which is that all physical death *even in humans* is “merely incidental” this essay puts it. The Death from the Fall is instead Everlasting Death, which is to say the Fall made us capable of going to Hell.

    Jesus, who defeated Everlasting Death, reopened Everlasting Life (Heaven) to us. Some people go to Hell, but not without being offered the chance of a saving relationship with God.

    Beings incapable of sin (due to lack of moral awareness, and this covers not only non-human animals but non-animal life too) are for that very reason Unfallen, incapable of Everlasting Death. So, why would Jesus need to defeat an enemy which never existed? Perhaps to some extant Zachary and I are both saying the same things in different shades of language.

    The Biblical argument in this essay may be nevertheless consistent with Young Earth (the Universe being anywhere from 6 000 to 50 000 years old as the essay author defines it), but not so the myriad bodies of evidence we find in nature. I’ll leave that subtopic at that. 🙂

    • Hey, thanks Will! Glad to hear your thoughts. And yes, it does seem to me that you and this author are thinking largely along the same wavelengths here 🙂

  • It is actually a growing idea that animals attain salvation and one that both my best friend and girlfriend both accept. My problem with the idea is that if animals are saved, then there are ways to God outside of salvation through acceptance of christ since animals don’t have the mental capacity to accept christ and are never baptized to show this acceptance. My friend accepts this line of logic and believes the gates of heaven open wide to everyone short of Hitler (and the entire staff of Fox News). My girlfriend on the other hand just believes that because she wants to see her cat in heaven, and I don’t blame her… I would love to see my dog in heaven…

    • I think the question is not necessarily whether animals can “attain salvation.” The question is whether they need salvation. As you mention, animals are not capable, intellectually, of accepting Christ. I believe, and think it is quite clear in scripture, that they are also incapable of sinning. They are instincts, stimuli and response. They may be intelligent enough to be trained to do simple tasks; they may even show loyalty, altruism and basic “emotions.” But they cannot understand an ethical standard and have no free will ability to act according to said standard. Thus, I have no problem with the idea that animals we know in this life might reappear in heaven. The Bible doesn’t say they will be, but it also doesn’t say they won’t be. They are not sinful, so there’s no reason they couldn’t be in the presence of a holy God. It is the young-earthers who have the problem, because their claim is that animals were part of the curse of Adam, ergo, they “should” be capable of attaining salvation just as we are.