Life and Death, Physical and Spiritual

One of the arguments against evolution commonly used by young earth creationists concerns animal death before the Fall of Adam and Eve. The established science of evolution clearly implies that animals died long before humans came on the scene. After all, carnivorous animals evolved to eat other animals. And what are fossils except the remains of dead animals, and sometimes plants? However, as former creationist Phill Sacre writes,

One of the Creationist doctrines is that there was no death before the fall. No animals or humans died before mankind sinned, and God instituted his curse.

Michael RamsdenBut what is the basis of this doctrine? Does it have any foundation in biblical teaching? Sadly, first we need to clear away some misinformation which has been put around. BioLogos is a usually excellent group which “explores, promotes, and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith”, and takes a clear stand against the anti-scientific approach of many creationists. So it was a surprise to read a recent post at The BioLogos Forum Life and Death in which Oxford-based lecturer in Christian Apologetics Michael Ramsden says the following, in a video with a transcript, when he really should know better:

In the New Testament we find when we talk about life, we have the idea of living or ‘bios’. In other words, we talk about how we are alive. But Jesus talks about the fact of “coming to life “ when we know him. That doesn’t suddenly mean that our heart starts beating. It means that there is this whole side to us which was dead… which wasn’t alive and is now… that has actually sprung to life.

(I twice tried to comment on this BioLogos post, but my comments disappeared, and even their moderators cannot find them.)

Well, either Ramsden doesn’t know his Greek, in which case he shouldn’t quote Greek words, or he is deliberately misrepresenting it. The word he quotes, bios, has nothing to do with “coming to life” when we know Jesus.

In the New Testament there are two main Greek word groups used for the concepts of “life” and “live”. There are also some words, mostly derived from oikos “house”, used for “live” in the sense of “dwell”. By far the more common of the main word groups consists of the noun zōē “life”, the verb zaō “to live”, and a few cognate words, together found over 300 times in the New Testament. The less common group, consisting of bios and its cognates, is found only 15 times.

The bios word group has a very specific meaning, at least in the New Testament. These words are used only for physical earthly life and lifestyle, and for the physical resources needed to live this life. Typical examples are Luke 8:14 and 21:4. They are never used in any relation to non-material or spiritual aspects of life, and certainly never for the new life which Jesus gives.

By contrast, the zōē/zaō word group, although sometimes used for physical and earthly aspects of life, is most commonly used for the life of God, in himself and in his people. Interestingly, this word group is never used for animal life, except for the beasts of Revelation which are only symbolically animals.

This suggests a clear distinction in biblical teaching between two different kinds of life – and by implication two different kinds of death, although there are no separate Greek words for them. The first kind of life, often described by bios, is purely physical and earthly, and ends in physical death, the first kind of death. This kind of life and death is shared by humans and animals. The second kind of life, for which zōē/zaō is always used, is spiritual and heavenly, is shared by humans and God, and doesn’t usually end in death.

This distinction can help to explain many of the details of the Genesis account (although zōē/zaō words are used for animals in the LXX Greek translation of Genesis). We read that

the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7 (NIV)

Thus the first human being is distinguished from the animals by “the breath of life”. God also tells this first man

you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.

Genesis 2:17 (NIV)

But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit their physical life did not come to an end. In fact Adam lived at least 800 more years (Genesis 4:4). How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction? The point is surely that at that moment the first couple lost their spiritual and eternal life, and became merely mortal, like animals. For the first time they are forbidden access to the tree of life by which they could live for ever (Genesis 3:22). For the first and last time people who had been truly alive spiritually died. Their descendants, although made in the image of God, were not born with this spiritual life. The only exception was Jesus Christ, the second Adam, who was born with physical and spiritual life, died spiritually as well as physically on the cross, and was raised again to new physical and spiritual life. And he made it possible for us to be born again with spiritual life.

Adam and Eve lost their spiritual life but continued to live physically. As Christians we have regained the spiritual life which they lost. If Jesus doesn’t come again first, we will die physically, but we will never lose our spiritual life, and at some time we too will be raised to new physical life.

The implication of this is that only this zōē life has any spiritual significance. The bios life of animals, and of humans without Christ, has no true meaning, although it sometimes functions as a symbol of spiritual life. For people without zōē life, human physical death, the end of bios life, is the ultimate tragedy, the ultimate evil. Increasingly animal death is also considered evil. But in God’s scheme of things this physical death is not an evil, not a result of sin, but simply what is natural in the world.

So there is no reason to deny death before the Fall of Adam and Eve. For hundreds of millions of years, according to the evidence from fossils, animals have lived and died. But this is nothing to do with sin or evil. The creationist doctrine about this has no proper theological basis, and so offers no reason to reject the consensus of scientists about the past of our planet.

The prophesied time will indeed come when

The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox …

Isaiah 65:25 (NIV)

Maybe this will be true of literal animals at some future time. But its main significance is surely not to do with carnivores changing their diets, but that there will be an end to human conflict in the everlasting kingdom of the Prince of Peace.

0 thoughts on “Life and Death, Physical and Spiritual

  1. Hi Peter,

    Many thanks for linking through to my blog post.

    I think I’ve been finding that many of the doctrines taught by Creationists generally don’t make a whole lot of sense. I remember being struck reading Genesis 1-2 a while ago, “How did I ever think this was literal?” So many of the things I remember reading, looking back now, were based on dodgy assumptions and ‘castles in the sky’.

    Anyway, thanks again,


  2. I could add that whoever coined the words “biology” and “zoology” apparently thought of bios being animal and plant life, and zōē being just animal life. A similar distinction may have been in the mind of those who named the BioLogos Foundation. But it should be clear that the New Testament distinction is rather different.

  3. I am distinctly uncomfortable with your assumption that God was happy to call His creation ‘Good’ & ‘Very good’ when it would have had to include cancerous tumours and other various diseases which have turned up many times in the fossils.
    Also, in Hebrew, when ‘Yom’ is used with a number and/or a designation like ‘morning’ and/or ‘evening’ it always, without exception refers to a literal 24 hour day, but then you are supposed to know that already, not that it makes a lot of difference sadly.

  4. According to Gods word all animals were vegetarian before the fall so the wolf and the lion would be returning to their original diet.

  5. Glenn, I am distinctly uncomfortable with your suggestion that God would call “good” and “very good” a creation which was so unstable and flawed that it only remained “good” for a few days, or at most a few years, until the Fall, and then fundamentally lost that “good” character. But perhaps we should allow God, rather than our modern sensibilities, to decide whether animal sickness and death should be considered not “good”.

    As for “all animals were vegetarian before the fall”, please can you cite chapter and verse for that.

  6. Hi there. Good post, I think you may have missheard Michael – he was drawing on CS Lewis’ own distinction between Bios & Zoe, which Alister McGrath also makes. It is not exegetically such a strong distinction but it is evangelistically and apologetically extremely fruitful and helpful. Nonetheless, although he didnt refer to zōē by name, that was clearly the distinction he had in mind. If you put in the word Zoe, which probably just slipped his mind, it makes the same sense you’re arguing for. He’s clearly aware that there are many different words used for life & for death, and ways of speaking about them. He’s saying on the one hand we have bios BUT Jesus talks about (insert Zoe) i.e. coming to life in relationship with him…

  7. Chris, thank you for that. I can see that Michael Ramsden might have meant that. But it is certainly not clear from the written transcript – which may have missed the strength of his “But”. Is the distinction you think he is trying to make, following C.S. Lewis, more or less the same as I make later in my post?

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