We now come to the most important theologically topic associated with this old-earth vs. young-earth topic. How could death have existed before sin? According to the New Testament death only entered in as the result of sin—the sin of Adam and Eve. We must say unequivocally that this is true. Both Adam and Eve were sentenced to death because of their sin in the Garden of Eden, and so all of humankind was plunged into futility and doomed to death.
Death of man. Here is the key to all. Let us examine the passages and see if this is justified. I’ve included each verse that mentions death. (Emphasis is mine.)
12Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned. . . . 14Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man's offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. . . . 17For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) . . .
20 . . . But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. –Romans 5:12-21 (NKJV)
Verse 12 says that death entered because of sin of man. It says specifically, “Thus death spread to all men.” The whole passage is clearly talking about human sin and human death. Human sin resulted in human death. There is nothing in these verses that indicates human sin resulted in animal death. The context does not require that death be referring to anything other than death of people. In fact, the most obvious interpretation is that death was a judgment of sin, and since man sinned death would come strictly upon man. It is a stretch to interpret death in this passage to be a death falling on all living things. That could be an application, but it is not the direct interpretation. The phrase at the beginning, “death spread to all men,” seems pretty clear to me.
Another passage is 1 Corinthians 15:21-22:
For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
Who is in Adam? The animals? No, only Adam’s physical descendents. Therefore, the point of the phrase “in Adam all die” is that all of Adam’s descendents would die. The animals are not under consideration, it seems. “In Christ all shall be made alive,” certainly does not mean that all men without exception shall be made alive, but only those who are “in Christ”—believers in Him who are His people. The “in Adam” and “in Christ” phrases make a clear parallel and only apply to those who are born of Adam or born of Christ. So, the correct interpretation is that being born of Adam means death, but being born of God means eternal life. Animals clearly aren’t represented in these verses, and so the word “death” does not directly apply to animals.
Theologically, therefore, death is the punishment of sin, but the sin was man’s sin and so death would only need to fall on man. There is no theological basis for saying that death could not have been already over the animals before Adam fell. We are only told that Adam and Eve were not doomed to death except until they sinned against God. Being dogmatic about anything more than that is adding to Scriptures, I believe.
The other passage that is used to “prove” there was no death before the Fall is Romans 8:19-23:
19For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. (NKJV)
However, this passage does not mention the Fall or Adam or the original sin. It only talks about the futility and the decay of the present world that has been happening “until now.” There is no indication here that the world was once not subjected to futility, or that the world was ever free from corruption. One might be able to interpret this passage as saying that the creation was subjected to futility because of the sin of Adam; but, one could also interpret the passage as saying that the creation was subjected to futility from the very beginning because God was preparing the world with sin and redemption in mind, knowing all along that it was going to happen. The point is that this passage is inconclusive about when the “futility” and the “groans and labors” began. It is quite clear that these things are negative, but we cannot tell from this passage when it all began.
“Because of Him who subjected it in hope,” can only be referring to God subjecting the world. Many, if not all, commentators agree with this. The “in hope” phrase seems to make it clear that this was God doing the subjecting. The passage would seem to be saying that the creation was unwillingly subjected to futility from the beginning even up “until now.” The “not willingly” only indicates that the creation do not choose this state of decay.
Is it unlike God’s nature to “plan ahead” and do something with something future in mind? Would it be uncharacteristic of the Lord to prepare the world with the Fall of mankind in mind from the very beginning? I don’t believe it would be unjust, uncharacteristic, or unusual of God. No matter how one looks at it, the futility of the creation is not direct punishment of sin. Death of man alone is the punishment of sin. The creation was subjected to futility as a witness to man after the Fall, and “in hope” of a better age of rest, but it was not subjected to the bondage of decay because it deserved judgment. There is a difference. So, God could justly subject the world to this decay and death of animals before sin came into the world, and yet offer Adam and Eve a way to live forever if they did not sin. The death of man was not guaranteed just because animals had been subjected to that.
Nor can one argue that Adam and Eve before the Fall deserved a “perfect” and always enchanting world without any difficulties or minor annoyances. Consider the angels who have not fallen. They are constantly interacting with this futile world, and they are apparently constantly battling with the fallen angels (cf. Daniel 10:10-13). They do not have a perfect world or environment just because they are perfect beings. Yes, the angels have their rewards for their labors and struggles, but so also, I’m certain, did Adam and Eve have their rewards from their labors and struggles in knowing the Lord God. The YEC position tries to defend the idea that the world was perfect before the Fall just because sin hadn’t entered in. (Well, actually, sin had entered in because clearly Satan had fallen at some point before Adam and Eve.) However, that is nothing more than an assumption, as best as I can tell. There was nothing in the justice of God to demand that the world be created in a state of perfection—only that God have a good and meaningful purpose for the futility and groans to which the creation was subject.
It is my personal opinion that Romans 8:19-23 actually more easily supports the idea that the earth has always been groaning and laboring with futility and decay. Notice that the passage compares the earth to a woman giving birth. The child, which is the state of perfection and glory, hasn’t been born yet. The child has never been seen yet. The idea from the passage is that the state of perfection for the universe has never existed yet and is a future blessing that is held in anticipation. The phrase “until now” also seems to support this idea that the world has been continuously in “birth pangs” from the beginning of time. The idea that the child was once alive and somehow reentered the womb of the mother is ridiculous. So, it seems to me that this passage more easily supports the belief that the earth has never enjoyed a state of perfection, but it is subject to futility in hope of a future time of recreation of all things.