The Bible tells us that death, suffering, and disease were not part of the original creation. Rather, they came as a result of Adam’s sin, which affected the entire creation (Romans 8:19–23a). The grief that we experience when someone close to us dies bears witness to the fact that this was not how it was originally intended.
Although naturalists try to say otherwise, death is most certainly not a natural thing.
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian church describes death as the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26).1 Jesus wept at the death of His friend Lazarus, even though He was about to revivify him (John 11:35).
The Bible promises that all trace of this awful state of affairs will be removed with the final restoration of all things. The last chapters of Revelation foretell, with clear Edenic allusions, a restored new creation with no more death because there will be no more curse, and the Tree of Life will exist.
This whole sin-death causality is a key reason we can’t logically mix the Bible with millions of years.2
The doctrine of the Restoration/New Creation is also banefully undermined—restored to what exactly—billions more years of death and suffering?3
It’s natural for people to ask questions about what the Bible means when it talks about ‘life’, since this has to inform our understanding of what ‘death’ is in the Bible. While most can at least understand the concept of life and death in terms of cats, collies and canaries (creatures that we naturally have a certain degree of empathy for), fewer people are as certain when it comes to creepy crawlies, corals and carrots—creatures that are certainly biologically alive, but which are different from ‘higher animals’.
Common questions may include: What do you mean by ‘no death’? What if Adam had stepped on an ant? What about skin cells dying? Don’t plants die? What about the bacteria in Adam’s digestive system? Weren’t these organisms already dying before the Fall?
What is really alive? Where do we draw the line between life and non-life? This is important, since in order to adequately explain what is meant by the doctrine of ‘no death before sin’, we must have a correct definition of what constitutes ‘life’ in the first place (since logically, only something that is alive can die).
Under the modern western biological definition, any organism that can display at least most of the following characteristics is considered to be living: movement, respiration, sensation, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition (feeding). Viruses are excluded under this classification system since they are really only capable of reproduction (and even that completely depends on a host cell).
However, this approach may not tally with the biblical definition of life. And if the Bible defines ‘life’ differently from modern biology, then arguments against the notion of ‘no death before the Fall’ that presuppose the modern biological definition of ‘life’ are invalid because they are anachronistic. Thus, as with all matters; in our quest to define what ‘life’ is, we must ground our thinking in God’s Word.
The life principle
The biblical answer to the question of life and non-life can be found in that foundational document: the book of Genesis. There, it is tied intrinsically to the Hebrew word nephesh (נפש), meaning ‘living being’ or ‘soul’. We can therefore understand that if nephesh defines life, then only the nephesh creatures are subject to death as a result of the Fall.4
The word conveys a sense of a ‘breathing creature’. It is used throughout the Old Testament to also convey a sense of ‘emotions’, ‘feelings’ and ‘consciousness’.5,6
This is similar yet subtly different from the Hebrew ruach (רוח, e.g. Genesis 1:2) meaning ‘spirit’—which also carries a sense of ‘wind’ or ‘breath [of life]’ and is also used on occasion in reference to animals.7
Animals (in the everyday sense of the word) and humans both possess this life quality.8
Most often, the word nephesh is combined with another in the form nephesh chayyāh (נפש חיה), from chay meaning life (modern Israelis toast lechayyim, meaning ‘to life’). This is normally translated as ‘living creatures’ when referring to animals (e.g. Genesis 1:20), and ‘living soul’ when referring to man (e.g. Genesis 2:7).9
The two main areas in Genesis where the word nephesh appears with particular frequency are the creation of the animals and man (Genesis 1 and 2), and the description of the animals taken aboard the ark (Genesis 6 and 7). In both places the term is used in conjunction with defining specific groups of organisms: one deals with the impartation or inclusion of this life principle as the organisms are created; the other addresses the preservation of certain organisms and the watery destruction of others.
These will help us determine which creatures are included (as nephesh life) and which are not.
Creatures that swarm in the water (primarily fish).
Creatures of the earth (of which livestock, creeping things and beasts of the earth would appear to be subsets).
All creatures that possessed this ‘life’ were to eat plants.
Adam after God breathed into him.
‘[every] living creature’
The creatures brought before Adam in order that they might be named.
Life that is linked to the blood.
‘[every] living creature’
The creatures preserved on the ark with Noah.
The creatures with Noah.
Gen 9:15, 16
‘[every] living creature’
All creatures, including those with Noah.
Note: The list is not exhaustive, but merely intended to illustrate the main occurrences.
The Flood account is relevant because it was God’s intent to destroy ‘all flesh, wherein is the breath of life …’ (Genesis 6:17); while preserving representatives of all living land creatures upon the Ark (along with Noah and his family). The creatures that went on the Ark are described as nephesh chayyāh (although it is only dealing with the land-living, air-breathing ones, since the sea-living nephesh creatures were able to survive the Flood). These were: birds, cattle (likely domestic animals), creeping things (likely reptiles and small vertebrates—see later), and beasts. Thus any land-dwelling creatures not included in this description are probably not regarded as nephesh life.
Life in the blood
Other passages also shed valuable light on how we define life. Leviticus 17:11 states: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (also mentioned in Deuteronomy 12:23 and Genesis 9:4—see table). The word translated ‘life’ here is nephesh. This links life (or spirit) with the presence of blood. By ‘blood’, it is likely that the common understanding of the term is intended.
That is, the red liquid that is actively circulated in the bodies of vertebrates (specifically with hemoglobin-containing red blood cells).
Blood is an indicator of life (in the nephesh sense), and this logically connects with the way in which blood had to be shed for the forgiveness of sins. Sacrifices for this nature involved animals (specifically certain mammals and birds). While the flesh of the sacrificial animal was given for food (post Flood at least), the animal’s life—its blood—was given for sacrifice.10
Death was the penalty for sin, so something had to die in order to atone for people’s sin.
Thus blood had to be shed—albeit this merely covered sin only on a limited and temporary basis (Hebrew kapharכפר (cover) hence Yôm Kippur (‘Day of Atonement’). Only the blood of the Messiah shed on the Cross could take away sin (Hebrews 9–10). Something without blood was not alive in the nephesh sense, and so could not die as a substitute.
Armed with this information, we can now draw up some boundaries for what is considered nephesh life.
Humans are clearly referred to as nephesh chayyāh right from the start—we even get our own flavour of translation ‘living soul’ as compared to ‘living creature’ although the Hebrew phrase is identical.
Other vertebrates, including fish,11 are regarded as nephesh creatures. Fish, while they don’t ‘breathe’ in the same sense as we do, are among the swarming living creatures of Genesis 1:20–21. Whales and large sea-going reptiles are also included under the grouping of the ‘great sea creatures’.
Land vertebrates (including those now extinct, such as dinosaurs) are covered under the classifications of ‘cattle’, ‘beasts’, and ‘creeping things’.
Birds are also included. If not referenced directly as nephesh chayyāh in Genesis 1, they are certainly included among those ‘living creatures’ brought before Adam (Genesis 2:19) and also in the Flood account among those brought on the Ark.
‘Non living life’
Insects and other invertebrates are likely not regarded as nephesh creatures. While the group translated as ‘creeping things’ in Genesis 1:24 (remes) are regarded as nephesh, this is referring to small vertebrates such as lizards, frogs, mice, etc. This term is not used to refer to insects or other invertebrates.12
The account of Noah further backs this assertion. The creatures taken on board the Ark did not include invertebrates.6 Although the creeping things are included in the description of ‘all flesh’ that perished in the flood, this is then further qualified as being ‘all those in whose nostrils was the breath of life’ (Genesis 7:21–22).
Insects do not have nostrils, but rather breathe through small openings in their sides (spiracles).13
Also, invertebrates do not have blood in the true sense (as vertebrates do), so they are ruled out as per Leviticus 17:11. Sessile creatures such as coral, sea anemones and tube worms are not included. Apart from being invertebrates as per above, they can be excluded on the basis that all the sea-dwelling nephesh creatures mentioned in Genesis 1:20 are moving (swarming), and of course they do not have blood in the true sense either.
Single-celled organisms such as bacteria, and individual cells within an organism are not regarded as nephesh life. Indeed programmed ‘cell-death’ (apoptosis) is a necessary part of multicellular life,14 particularly in fetal development,15 and would have been occurring even in the perfect pre-Fall world.
The descriptions of created things in Genesis are not all-inclusive. They focus primarily on those creatures that are regarded as nephesh chayyāh (perhaps because these are the very creatures that were affected directly by the curse of death, and so their inclusion had the greatest relevance to the overall narrative). Thus, the specific mention of the nephesh creatures in the creation account should not be taken to mean that only nephesh creatures were created at that time.
What about plants?
Right from the outset, plants are excluded from being classified as living things.
The term nephesh chayyāh is never used to describe plants.6 While plants do experience tissue damage (wherein individual cells may ‘die’ in a biological sense—to cease functioning), a plant has no brain to interpret that damage as pain. Furthermore, plants do not have blood, which is intrinsically linked to nephesh life. This is evident in the account of Cain and Abel, where Cain’s sacrifice of plants was not acceptable to God—for there was no blood—unlike Abel’s sacrifice of animals from his flock.16
Plants were the original food source for all creatures in God’s creation (Genesis 1:29–30), while animal carnivory began at the Fall17 (not the Flood,18Genesis 9 was the beginning of divinely allowed human meat eating).
Plant consumption clearly could not have involved suffering or death or else it would contradict God’s declaration of the finished creation as ‘very good’.19
A clear understanding of the Bible’s definition of what life is—and what is considered to be truly alive—helps us tackle the skeptical questions levelled at us regarding Scripture’s reliability in the areas of life, death and the Fall. As with any subject, we should start with what the Bible has to say, and build our understanding from there.
However, whenever we look at what the Bible teaches on a subject, we need to come to the text on its own terms.
This includes understanding the Bible’s definition of words like ‘life’. As we can see, the biblical view of life differs from the usual biology textbook definition and if we don’t recognise this difference at the outset, our reasoning will become confused later in the process. In general terms, the biblical classification of ‘living creature’ best seems to fit those that we would recognise today as vertebrates.
Any other organism could arguably be considered not truly alive as defined by Scripture, and therefore need not be covered by the ‘no death before the Fall’ ruling.
If "creeping things" in Genesis 1:24-26, 1:30, 6:7, 6:20, 7:21-23, and 8:17-19 doesn't refer to invertebrates, when did God create them? It seems that the reduction of "creeping things" (remes) to only vertebrates creates more problems than it solves. This is made even more obvious by the fact that Genesis 6:20 specifies that two of EVERY creeping thing of the ground was to be brought to Noah. Most insects definitely fit into the category of "creeping along the ground". I can't see how the plain reading of the text would suggest otherwise?
Shaun Doyle responds
While we don't know for sure, the most likely options are either Day 3 (as part of the vegetation system) or Day 6 (as part of the mobile creatures on land) of Creation Week. Nevertheless, Genesis 1 doesn't provide an exhaustive list of what God made, though it does say that he made everything during Creation Week (e.g. it doesn't mention coral or bacteria, and yet God made them). However, the "creeping things" brought on the Ark for survival were those "on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life" (Genesis 7:22, emphasis added). Invertebrates don't have nostrils. Therefore, they are not included in the suite of creatures brought on the Ark to survive Noah's Flood. Why? They didn't need to be; they could survive outside the Ark.
Richard L., United Arab Emirates, 8 April 2014
Thanks for the article!
A point of clarification re. the Ark-scope animals: A very helpful datum is “nostrils”.
“15 … went into the ark… all flesh in which there was the breath of life. … 20 The waters prevailed… 22 Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. (Gen. 7, ESV)”
The Ark-target animals are thus: (1) land-based animals, (2) with nostrils (and associated specialized breathing organs [either lungs or the avian air-sac]), (3) that can drown. This gives the list you describe.
Application: even though Biblical animal taxonomy (in the kosher-law details of Leviticus 11) extends the scope for “flyers” (Strong’s H5775, “fowl” in the KJV) beyond flying birds to bats (11:19) and to flying insects (11:20ff), the “nostrils”-criterion eliminates the “flyers”-extension to insects while retains the extension to bats (and, presumably, flying reptiles) with respect to Ark-target “flyers”. (Some insects—flying or otherwise—or their eggs probably stowed away in the animal fodder on the ark.)
J. M., Australia, 8 April 2014
If fish are also in the nephesh category, do you think all fish were also "vegetarian" or non nephesh eating creatures?
Yes, a good article that makes a sound argument for what does and what does not have "real" life in the sense of how we ought to understand life. Nonetheless, the defining limit of nephesh could be influenced by how we define other words used in analysing what creatures consist of.
For instance, I do have a problem in trying to understand why insects are excluded. The spiracle can be considered the insect's "nose" through which air - more pertinently oxygen - is taken into its respiratory system to ensure it continues to live. Compare this with the way fish (which also have nephesh) breathe, which is through their gills. These gills can be considered the fish's nose, n'est pas?
The fact that insects may not have flesh in the same sense that we understand flesh to be, should not necessarily preclude them from inclusion in the nephesh category. As the apostle Paul pointed out, stars differ in glory to glory, therefore in the same manner it could be said that creatures differ from flesh to flesh. Maybe the limit as to what type of creature can be excluded from the definition of having nephesh could be more elastic than we think?
Keep up the good work.
Shaun Doyle responds
We need to be tentative on these things, as the Bible doesn't give us a definitive list of nephesh animals. Therefore, it should be no wonder that biblical creationists have legitimately disagreed over whether some or all invertebrates are nephesh creatures.
Nevertheless, this doesn't mean the Bible says nothing relevant to the issue. As we often point out, the term nephesh is never used unequivocally of invertebrates in the Bible. Moreover, Genesis 7:22 reveals that the nephesh designation (at least as far as land vertebrates are concerned) is at least partially reflected in readily observable characteristics such as nostril breathing. And whatever we may say of spiracles and insect respiration based on modern science, it's readily observable that insects don't have holes on their head readily discernible as breathing apparatuses.
Eileen M., United States, 8 April 2014
It looks to me like Jesus wept over Mary's and his other disciples' distress. He was showing compassion for their pain. He cared about how they felt even though he knew all would soon be restored. John 11:33-5 Thank you for all you do. I love your site and am learning and being encouraged through it.
David M., Australia, 9 April 2014
Thanks for the article David. With reference to the “entire creation” and Romans 8:19-23a, I found it interesting to do a simple search on the Greek phrase “pas ktisis” in the N.T. and found that of the 5 hits, only once is it translated “whole creation” (in Rom:8:22). Three times it is “every creature” in relation to Christ the firstborn (Col 1:15-16) and the preaching of the gospel (Mar 16:15 & Col 1:23) and once it is “every ordinance” (1Peter 2:13-14). I wonder whether it is good exegesis to use a one off meaning of a N.T. phrase as the go to verse for supporting this foundational doctrine.
I have appreciated your references to the original Hebrew in answering some basic questions. In fact, your work was one of the reasons I started studying Hebrew on my own, about 5 months now (so I am still very much a beginner). But one thing is clear- when you read it in the original- the issue of creation days is so direct and clear, as is Hebrew so concise: "and the evening (erev), and the morning (boka), was the first day (y'om)". How direct can it be! It says it over and over again- 4 times (of course 4- for the number of earth). Thank you for your direct and simple adherence- as in this article- Nephesh Chayah- it builds faith in our Creator who clearly wanted to make a clear statement.
J. K., Australia, 9 April 2014
I don't understand why there is a need to create a class of non-living animals (surely an oxymoron). What is the motive for doing this?
The most natural way to understand the Bible is that all animals were created on the 5th and 6th days, including spiders, crabs, snails, and octopi. The Bible does not distinguish between higher and lower animals - this is an artificial and arbitrary distinction. Some invertebrates are a lot more intelligent and sophisticated than many vertebrates. Granted we would not expect the Bible to discuss bacteria and certain types of stationary life (eg. coral), but it strains credulity to imagine that the ancient Hebrews (including the author of Genesis) would read Genesis 1 in a way that excluded familiar animals such as crustaceans, spiders and snails. Likewise, it is far-fetched to think that an ancient Hebrew would regard a crab or even a moth as any less "alive" than a frog, mouse, goldfish or small lizard. Making distinctions based on nostrils or blood seems particularly tortured. (NB. fish do not have nostrils, while some invertebrates have blood.)
Do you have any evidence that Jewish or ancient Christian thinkers made these distinctions?
In fact, Leviticus 11 uses the terms nephesh chayyah in a way that includes insects (eg. the locust which is specifically mentioned) and unclean (invertebrate) marine animals. The Jews have always understood from Lev 11 that prawns and other shellfish are non-kosher animals; Lev 11 was not meant to leave them in any doubt about such creatures.
Given that there is no sensible reason to distinguish between higher and lower animals, would it not make sense from a creationist perspective to simply teach that ALL animals became subject to death at the time of the fall?
Shaun Doyle responds
As we have mentioned in a few other responses to comments, we would suggest a relatively clear distinction between nephesh and non-nephesh terrestrial animals can be based on Genesis 7:22, which identifies nephesh land life with those in whose nostrils is the breath of life. Given that we do not observe land invertebrates to breathe, and they certainly don't have nostrils, it becomes harder to attribute to them nephesh life. However, aquatic life is more ambiguous, and all the references of nephesh and chayyah in Leviticus 11 that refer to aquatic animals reveal this ambiguity in comparison to land animals. Moreover, it's not hard to see why there would be more ambiguity with respect to aquatic animals on the basis of ordinary observation; many more aquatic animals bleed like land vertebrates than breathe like land vertebrates.
Dave P., Canada, 9 April 2014
Fantastic article! Genesis answers the biggest fundamental questions of mankind. How did we get here and why? It answers these in a logical and coherent manner because Genesis is the foundation of God's word. Understanding what our Creator tells us constitutes "life as soul" impacts how we interpret the rest of his word. Listening to man's biological definition like all of fallen mankind's secular reasoning misses the mark and will bring us out of sync with our Creator's truth.
Jeff H., United States, 9 April 2014
This is a very interesting topic, one I've considered a few times.
Along with some others that have commented, I'm not sure about the "nostrils" being the best distinguishing feature between "life" and "non-life" as far as insects are concerned--the breath seems to be the important thing, and nostrils perhaps a convenient metaphor. God is often described as having "nostrils" (Is 65:5, Ps 18:15), but does a spirit have nostrils?
Also, the reference to Cain's sacrifice uses a debated interpretation--that the Lord did not accept his sacrifice because it wasn't life is not specifically confirmed in scripture, 1. we aren't told what the purpose of the sacrifice was (to cover sins? or thanksgiving? or what?), and 2. the other distinction given in the passage is that Abel's sacrifice was from the "firstlings" of his flock and the "fat", while Cain's was just some of his produce ("of the fruit of the ground"). Certainly your interpretation is a possible one, but doesn't seem to be a slam dunk.
Excellent topic and article--Thanks for sharing it!
David Pitman responds
Regarding anthropomorphisms of God in the Bible, they are not limited to features that only vertebrates have, e.g. "the eyes of the Lord" (2 Chronicles 16:9), though of course both insects and land vertebrates all have eyes. Anthropomorphisms of God are irrelevant for Genesis 7:22 because that verse does not anthropomorphize God; it describes the animals that were wiped out by the Flood. This also means the designation of 'nostril' in Genesis 7:22 is only for terrestrial nephesh chayyāh animals—it cannot apply to marine life because marine nephesh chayyāh animals were not destroyed by the Flood.
Regarding Cain’s sacrifice: I certainly understand that there are other approaches to this passage (as there are for almost every part of Genesis 1–11)—I have heard several that attempt to explain God’s displeasure at Cain’s offering from the point of view of Cain’s attitude (and who is to say that they are not at last partly correct—Cain’s actions were certainly preceded by his thoughts and attitudes). However, I felt that the interpretation used here is generally well-accepted and logical, given that the previous chapter introduces the first animal sacrifice as a sin-covering (God’s killing of an animal/s to clothe Adam and Eve). Since the establishment of this bloodshed-as-a-sin-covering principal immediately precedes this passage, it makes sense to see Cain and Abel’s offering as a sin-offering in the absence of direct words to the contrary. Note also that the next mention of any offering to appear in the text is Noah’s offering after the flood and it clearly involves animal sacrifice.
James V., United States, 11 April 2014
In regard to plants, have you considered John 12:24 and 1 Cor. 15:35-38 and their implications? The latter, for example, speaks of "death" and "resurrection" in regard to seeds or plant life.
"But some one will say, How are the dead raised? and with what body do they come? Fool; what thou sowest is not quickened unless it die. And what thou sowest, thou sowest not the body that shall be, but a bare grain: it may be of wheat, or some one of the rest: and God gives to it a body as he has pleased, and to each of the seeds its own body." (1 Cor 15:35-38)
"Death" in reference to seeds or plant life refers to its destruction. And when the seed "dies" it sheds its current "body" . . . thus it "dies." But in "resurrection," when it is "quickened," it is clothed in a new "body."
Plant life, to be sure, is quite distinct from animal life (and it should go without saying, human life). But plant life is a form of life nonetheless.
Scripture, however, in speaking of a seed or plant "life", never attributes to it a "soul."
In our houses, we see the crawling insects. Some more than others. Dont think Noah would have gone through the ark and sprayed with natural Pyrethrum, do you, before he set 'sail'? The ark would have been big enough to be a home for many insects, during it decades of construction.
Shaun Doyle responds
We have no reason to believe that Noah would have fumigated the Ark. Just because God did not intentionally send a sample of every insect kind to Noah does not mean there were no insects on the Ark. Indeed, Noah couldn't have stopped insects boarding if he tried! Nor was it our intent to imply that housing insects on the Ark creates a logistical problem for the Flood narrative. There would have been enough room on the Ark for every insect kind, especially since they take up very little space. Nevertheless, it was those animals "in whose nostrils was the breath of life" that died in the Flood (which does not include insects), and thus it was only those animals that Noah needed to take on board the Ark. The purpose of the Ark was singular: survival. No doubt many insects died in the Flood; perhaps even the majority of them. But many if not most insect kinds would have survived outside the Ark.
Alister H., New Zealand, 18 April 2014
This might be a neat loophole to answer "what if Adam stepped on an ant?", but it doesn't answer "what if Adam stepped on a tiny lizard?"
A pity it also doesn't address whether there is reason to believe that some/many kinds of invertebrate died out in the flood.
Shaun Doyle responds
The problem with such 'what if' questions is that it implies the omnipotent and omniscient God is a slave to such 'accidents'. He is not. God clearly has the ability to keep Adam from stepping on tiny lizards, or even ants, if that were a problem.
And there is plenty of reason to believe that many types of invertebrates died out in the Flood; the majority of animal fossils are invertebrates (well, marine invertebrates), many of which have no known equivalent alive today.
Peter D., New Zealand, 18 April 2014
Interesting article, hadn't thought of the Cane & Abel sacrifice perspective, thanks. One question, if insects aren't nephesh & therefore (presumably) didn't go on the ark, where did they come from after the flood?