St. Paul tells us:
"For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:21-22).
Does this mean that there was no death--of any kind--before the Fall of Man?
Would that mean that no animals, plants, or microbes died?
What about animals that are carnivores?
Were lions vegetarians? How about alligators? Or sharks?
How about carnivores like Tyrannosaurus Rex?
Let's take a look at the subject . . .
A Key Concept
To set the stage, I need to introduce a key concept: entropy.
Entropy is a very important concept in the sciences. Put simply, entropy is the tendency of things to run down or break down over time.
Systems that are subject to entropy tend to dissipate energy and lose organization over time.
Entropy is the reason why the stars shine, and it's the reason that you get hungry.
As stars burn their fuel, the heat and light they produce spreads out into the universe. It dissipates.
If stars weren't subject to entropy then all the energy they generate wouldn't dissipate. It would stay bundled up in the star.
As your body burns fuel (food), you dissipate energy, too--partly in the form of body heat. That's why you need to eat, to replenish your body's fuel.
If you weren't subject to entropy, your energy would never flag, and you wouldn't need to eat.
Now here's the thing . . .
The Whole Material Universe Is Entropic
The entire physical universe, so far as we can tell, is entropic, or subject to entropy.
All material systems run down or break down over time.
A seeming, partial exception is life. Living things, in some respects, seem to gather energy and create organization.
Thus some have tried to define life in terms of a kind of weird anti-entropy.
But the exception is, at best, partial, because all living things die. Ultimately, entropy overcomes every living organism.
So what about death before the Fall?
And what about our prospects for immortality after the General Resurrection?
St. Thomas Aquinas on Material Things
Although the term "entropy" hadn't been coined in his day, St. Thomas Aquinas recognized that it was the tendency of all material things to break down over time.
In his day, they referred to this as the tendency of material things to "corrupt" and to the idea that material things are "corruptible."
It's the same basic insight people have today; they just used different language to express it.
Given that man has a material body, how does Aquinas explain the idea that death entered the world through sin?
Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death!
Aquinas's basic answer is that, because man's body is material, it would have a natural tendency to run down and break down--to "corrupt"--over time.
Thus, in that sense, death is natural to man.
The human body will eventually die . . . unless something stops that from happening.
Nature can be supported and elevated by grace, though, and so it is within the power of God's omnipotence to prevent death.
And God chose to do this. He gave man the grace needed to avoid dying, but we lost this grace through the Fall.
Now God, who is the author of man, is all-powerful, wherefore when He first made man, He conferred on him the favour of being exempt from the necessity resulting from such a matter: which favor, however, was withdrawn through the sin of our first parents.
Accordingly death is both natural on account of a condition attaching to matter, and penal on account of the loss of the divine favor preserving man from death [Summa Theologiae, II-II:164:1 ad 1; cf. I:97:1].
This also explains how we will be immortal after the General Resurrection: After the General Resurrection, God will restore to us the grace needed to prevent our bodies from breaking down over time.
Indeed, he will do far more than that.
So much for man.
What About the Animals?
Hypothetically, God could have done the same thing for the animals (and all other life forms) that he did for us: He could have made them initially immune to death and then removed this grace when man fell.
But did he?
Aquinas doesn't think so.
In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals.
But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man's sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon.
Nor does Bede's gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some.
Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals [Summa Theologiae I:96:1 ad 2].
Aquinas thus holds that it was not all death that entered the world through man's sin, but human death.
In his view, animals could and did kill and eat each other before the Fall.
Can we do anything to test this view?
Good Morning, Starshine
You have to be careful looking to Genesis with an eye toward mining scientific ideas out of it.
The purpose of the creation accounts in Genesis is to present the work of the Creator in a religious and theological way rather than in a scientific way.
Thus John Paul II warned:
Above all, this [creation] text has a religious and theological importance. It doesn't contain significant elements from the point of view of the natural sciences. Research on the origin and development of the individual species in nature does not find in this description any definitive norm or positive contributions of substantial interest [General Audience, Jan. 29, 1986].
But it is worth noting that, even on a highly literalist reading, Genesis does envision the pre-Fall universe in a way that suggest the existence of death for non-humans.
First, there is the fact that the sun and the stars are shining before the Fall.
Second, there is the fact that God gives Adam and Eve permission to eat the various fruits found in the Garden of Eden (except for one). Thus, Adam and Eve needed food.
Both of these facts indicate that the pre-Fall universe was subject to entropy.
Living things in the pre-Fall universe would have had the same tendency to run down, break down, and die--unless supported by God's grace, as in the case of man.
Death Visits the Plant Kingdom
We can go even further, though, because of God's permission to eat fruit.
That means death. Specifically, the death of the fruit's flesh (and its seeds, if those get chewed up, too).
The fruit's flesh (and its seeds) are alive. They're made of living cells.
The seeds are even little fruit embryos, which makes them independent organisms.
Of course, they aren't human.
They aren't rational beings, so they don't have rights or a right to life, and it's okay to eat them.
But they do die when we eat and digest them.
The same thing is true of other plant matter we eat.
Dinosaur Death Before the Fall?
The subjection of the pre-Fall universe to entropy and the existence of plant death before the Fall have significant implications for the question of animal death.
We know from these that, because of entropy, every living organism (including animals) would die unless supported by grace.
We also do not have any indication that life forms other than man had access to the grace needed for immortality (the tree of life). Nothing is said about them eating from it.
And we know, because of the permission to eat plants, that some living things did die, either on the level of cells (as in the case of a fruit's flesh) or on the case of an organism (in the case of a seed).
Absent any particular reason to group animals with humans rather than plants, one would naturally expect animals to have died prior to the Fall as well.
That includes dinosaurs.
This conclusion seems reinforced by the fact that some of them are carnivores.
And it seems abundantly reinforced by the fossil record.
Given what we now know, it looks like Aquinas was right: It was human death, not all death, that is the result of the Fall of Man.
Back to St. Paul
This seems to be what St. Paul had in mind in the passage we began with.
Note that he spoke in terms of human death and resurrection--of death and resurrection coming to those who are "in Adam" and "in Christ" ("For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive").
The Christian faith does not envision animals fitting those descriptions.
St. Paul himself thus seems to be speaking of human death entering the world.
The same is true of the parallel passage in Romans 5:
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned [Rom. 5:12].
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