There is something wonderful about having a pet, these cute wiggly little balls of fur that give us unconditional love. They just want to be near their human, often to the point that they practically jump out of their skin to greet us as we return home from time away. But we only have them for a while. Our animal friends come with an unknown yet unavoidable expiration date. And when you lose your little buddy, it is a sad day. Though they are not made in God’s image as people are, nonetheless, losing an animal friend is painful. How do we account for such a sad thing as animal suffering and death? Why does God permit such an awful thing? And ultimately, whose fault is it that animals suffer and die?
The Fall of Man
When God first made the world, He saw everything that He had made and “behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). But the world didn’t stay very good. Adam’s treason against the King of kings brought death into the world, along with other sources of pain, such as thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:18). Since Adam was given dominion over the animals, his sin affected the animal world as well. We understand this principle all too well; when our government officials act wickedly, all of us suffer because we are under their authority. A straightforward reading of Scripture indicates that animal death is man’s fault.
But we don’t like to take responsibility for our failures. Ironically, part of our sin nature is to deceive ourselves about our sin nature. “It’s not my fault!” We would rather blame others. The first man started this trend and we inherited his nature. When God confronted Adam about his sin, Adam responded by blaming Eve, and indirectly blamed God! Adam said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Why did Adam add the qualifier “whom You gave to be with me?” It obviously was not to distinguish Eve from all the other women, since there were no others. Rather, it seems to have been a tacit attempt to blame God for Adam’s sin. It seems that Adam’s intention was to say, “If you had not given me this woman, I would never have eaten. So it’s really your fault, not mine.”
Likewise, many professing Christians subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) blame God for animal death. Old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists generally claim that animals had been living and dying for hundreds of millions of years before human beings were even created. So obviously, death cannot be man’s fault if man did not exist at the time. Belief in millions of years requires us to blame God rather than man for animal death. But is such a position Scripturally defensible?
Unfortunately, some old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists misrepresent the position of those of us who take Genesis as literal history. Perhaps you have heard the claim, “Young earth creationists believe that Romans 5:12 proves that animal death is a result of the fall.” The problem with that claim is that it is not true; it is a misrepresentation of our position. Biblical creationists do not teach that Romans 5:12 – in isolation – proves anything about animal death because the focus on that passage is man. Let me explain:
Romans 5:12 states, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” The passage indicates that death came into the world because of Adam’s sin. Notice that the passage does not explicitly limit death to “human death.” On the other hand, the last part of the passage emphasizes that Adam’s sin is why death has spread to all men. So the focus on this verse is the effects of sin on humanity. While the passage certainly does not limit death to human death, its emphasize on mankind suggests that we should be cautious about extrapolating the effects of sin to the rest of creation from just this verse.
However – and this is the part that most old-earthers seem to miss – Romans 5:12 is not the only verse in the Bible. In fact, it is not the only verse just in the book of Romans. And when we read on, we find that the Apostle Paul does go on to elaborate about the effects of sin on the rest of creation, especially in chapter 8. So, were the effects of Adam’s sin limited to humanity? No, according to Romans 8:20-22 which states, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” God cursed the creation as a result of Adam’s sin. Notice that it is the whole creation that groans and suffers under a slavery to corruption on account of the curse. The effects of the curse, including death, are not limited to human beings.
Contrast Paul’s theology with the theology of the old-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. Since the latter groups believe that fossils are millions of years old, and since many fossils show evidence of disease in animals, these groups necessarily believe that death and disease in the animal kingdom existed millions of years before Adam’s sin. In that event, what effect did Adam’s sin have on creation? Basically, none. In old-earth theology animals suffer disease and die today by God’s pleasure, just as they always have. Thorns are found in rock layers that old-earth supporters believe to be 400 million years old, long before humans existed, and could therefore not be a result of the curse, in contrast to Genesis 3:18. The whole creation has always been groaning in corruption according to old-earth theology, and not because of Adam’s sin but because God made it that way.
However, the Apostle Paul argues that the bondage of corruption was introduced by God as the right response to Adam’s sin. Furthermore, Genesis 3:14 explicitly teaches that animals were cursed on account of Adam’s sin. We must admit that taking Scripture at face value, we have every indication that animal death was a result of Adam’s sin, and absolutely no evidence of animal death before sin.
That death in general (human death and animal death) entered the world as the result of Adam’s sin is the collective teaching of the entire Bible. Genesis specifically mentions animal death as part of the curse. Recall that God sacrificed an animal or animals and used their skins as garments of clothing to cover the shame associated with Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:21). This was actually an act of mercy and pointed forward to salvation. And God continued to use animal death to teach the Israelites the concept of substitutionary atonement. The lesson is clear: this innocent creature dies in your place, and you who are guilty and deserve death will live in its place. This symbolic act pointed forward to Christ – the innocent lamb who dies the death you deserve, so that you may enjoy the life that He deserves.
“But it’s not fair!” True enough. If life were fair, all people would end up in hell (Romans 3:23). Eternal death is what all people deserve. But God in His mercy saves some, grants them repentance, and takes their place on the cross (Romans 9:14-15). God either gives people exactly what they deserve, or He pays their penalty and gives them something much better than they deserve. The Son of God on the cross accomplished both justice and mercy. God uses animal death to teach us that lesson.
But doesn’t this make animal death God’s fault? He instituted the curse. God was the one that killed the first animal(s) to provide skins of clothing for Adam and Eve. However, it was not God’s fault because God has no faults. God’s actions were the right (and merciful) response to Adam’s sin. Since Adam was given dominion over the world, his treason necessarily affected the world. This is the nature of authority. When our leaders do good, everyone under their authority rejoices; when they do evil, the people suffer (Proverbs 29:2, 4). If God refused to allow the consequences of Adam’s sin to affect animals, then it would mean that Adam really didn’t have dominion over the animals in the first place. That would make God a liar (Genesis 1:26-28). The curse was morally right, logically necessary, and yet God’s mercy was evident in it. But it was Adam’s sin that made the curse morally necessary. Animal death is our fault, not God’s.
The Character of God
By assuming that fossils are millions of years old, advocates of deep time must tacitly blame God for animal death since humans had not yet been created. Blaming God for animal death impugns His character. When God finished His acts of creation, He saw all that He had made and “behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). At that point in time the universe was exactly as God intended; God approved of everything in creation. Did that include disease, animal suffering and death? If so, then God apparently enjoys torturing His creatures. What does that say about the character of God?
Furthermore, we are supposed to emulate God’s character (Ephesians 5:1, Isaiah 55:7-8). So, if God enjoys the suffering and death of animals, then so should we. Yet this is contrary to the Scriptures. The Bible teaches that a righteous man cares for the life of the animals under his authority, but the wicked are cruel (Proverbs 12:10). A good shepherd cares about the life of his sheep (John 10:11). So, if God does not care about His animals, then wouldn’t that make man more righteous than God? And we know that isn’t biblical.
The Bible teaches that God does care about animals, even something as seemingly insignificant as a little sparrow (Luke 12:6; Matthew 10:29, 6:26). This is why there are biblical laws against needless cruelty to animals, such as Deuteronomy 25:4, or Deuteronomy 22:6. The latter verse forbids taking a mother bird along with her eggs. You can take the eggs for food, but the mother bird is to be free and may reproduce again. This serves to protect the species, and also prevents needless cruelty.
Deuteronomy 25:4 teaches that an ox should not be muzzled while it is threshing. Oxen were used to plough, or beat out the corn, and they enjoyed eating a bit of the corn as they did so. It would be cruel to muzzle it, thereby preventing the animal from enjoying some of the fruits of its labor just so we can get a bit more corn. Of course, this passage is not primarily about oxen, but is teaching a larger principle. It shows us that God’s creatures (including people) should be allowed to enjoy the fruit of their labor. But the fact that God uses an animal as the specific illustration of this principle shows that He does care about animals.
So why then did God give Adam dominion over the animals, knowing that Adam’s sin would bring death and suffering to animals? If God cares about animals, why did He intentionally kill an animal to provide skins of clothing for Adam and Eve? Why did He instruct the Israelites to offer animal sacrifices? The answer to all these questions is that God cares about humans far more than animals. The Bible specifically teaches this principle (Matthew 10:31, 6:26; Luke 12:7, 24). We are made in God’s own image, after His likeness. Hence, God was willing to sacrifice animals to teach humans the way of salvation (Hebrews 10:3). Eventually, God even allowed animal death to provide food for our consumption (Genesis 9:3). But before sin, none of this would have been necessary (Genesis 1:29-30).
As a last resort, a deep-time supporter will sometimes argue, “There must have been death before sin, because Adam and Eve would have eaten plants or at least parts of plants. So plant death was already present.” This is an equivocation fallacy which conflates two different meanings of the word “death.” Our English word “death” can refer to the cessation of biological functions in a conscious being such as an animal or human. Or it can be used in a less literal sense to refer to the cessation of function in a non-conscious structure, either biological or mechanical, such as a plant or a battery. Yes, we can talk about a “living” tree or a “dead” battery. But this is quite different from the life and death of a conscious creature. And it is fallacious to confuse these two very different types of “life.”
This is particularly important when we consider the language in which the Bible was written. Biblical Hebrew does not use life in the second sense. That is, when the Bible uses terms like “living” it does not apply these to things like plants. The Hebrew word used to refer to a living creature is nephesh. It is used of animals (Genesis 1:20, 24) and of people (Genesis 2:7). But it is never used to refer to plants. Biblically, plants are not considered “living creatures.” Rather, plants are classified as food (Genesis 1:29-30), not life. So plants do not literally die in the biblical sense of the word because they are not really alive in the first place – in the biblical sense of the word. Plants were designed to be self-replicating food. The plant cycle would have existed before sin, yet without any death in the biblical sense.
Animal death is the logical consequence of Adam’s sin. God rightly cursed the world that was under Adam’s dominion as part of the punishment for sin. Punishment, by its nature, is unpleasant. We rightly suffer for our treason, as do those creatures under our authority. And yet God can use the wicked actions of men to bring about a greater good (Genesis 50:20). God has graciously allowed us to see some of the effects of our treason against Him. When we see animal suffering and death, it reminds us of what sin does, and what we rightly deserve. If you rebel against the God of life and peace, it makes sense that you have chosen death and suffering. And yet God used the consequences of our sin for His good and Holy purposes. Though animal death is our fault, God used it to teach us about the devastating effects of sin, and to teach us about substitutionary atonement. And when we see the effects of sin, we can all the more appreciate the graciousness of God who paid our penalty.