Table of Contents
Part I: Embodiment and The
Death: A Fact of Life?
Natural or un-natural?
"in the pew" if asked what kind of death Adam introduced
by his disobedience, would say spiritual death. Theologians
are pretty well agreed that because of Adam's disobedience, physical
death also was introduced. But even they, all too
often, play down the physical aspects of the Fall as though physical
death is as natural to man as it seems to be for the rest of
nature. What was threatened as a punishment, many would say,
was not death per se but premature death, a death
sooner than expected.
There is another group of Christian
writers whose orientation tends to be more scientific than theological,
who however take Genesis to mean that the cause of physical death
as a penalty of man's sin applies not only to man but even to
the animal and plant world.
And then, of course, there are
the evolutionists in general who would not attach any factor
of penalty to the introduction of death but simply say
that death is common to all life and not related to the disobedience
of man at all.
Who is right?
How universal is physical
death? What actually is the
Does death in other organisms than man really occur for the same
reason that it occurs in man, and is it the same phenomenon?
These are the questions to be addressed
in this chapter. They will be dealt with very briefly, but hopefully
looked at from all the basic angles which are or have been under
scientific investigation in recent years.
The Greeks had
an ideal: to die young and postpone it as long as possible! Dying
senile was what the Greeks wished above all to avoid.
So do we. For most people approaching old age, death is often
feared less than the senility which is apt to precede it.
Perhaps the vast majority of animals,
by contrast with man, neither anticipate nor experience this
long slow decline but retain remarkable vigour and apparent contentment
until very near the end. A few domesticated animals may "die
away" more slowly but chiefly because they have lived longer
than they would have done in the wild so that situation
The hazards of normal animal existence
tend to be such that any significant decline in strength and
vitality is quickly taken advantage of by other competitors and
death is hastened for the individual in one way or another as
a consequence. Man is exceptional in this slower pace of dying,
and we shall have occasion to comment later on the significance
of this fact. At the present moment my object is to look at the
subject of physical death as a simple fact of life
without regard to theological
It should, throughout the
discussion that follows, be kept in mind constantly that death
is not the inevitable consequence of having lived. Some
of the lower forms of life, and not a few plant forms (trees,
for example), can continue their existence for thousands of years
without any decline in vigour. There are some trees now known
from Japan which may be 7000 years old! (48) And many of the amoebae that share our world today
shared the world of Adam. Moreover, there are some cells, cancer
cells for example, that give all the appearances of possessing
immortality. Death in itself is not a concomitant of life in
It seems proper
to start with a definition of death itself, and here we run into
difficulty. In the first place, it is difficult to lay down a
precise definition of death without first of all having a precise
definition of life and this we do not yet have. One would
think it would be a simple matter to define life but it isn't.
There is a group of people who have committed themselves extensively
to the view that there is no difference between what is living
and what is non-living.
In all seriousness they go even
so far as to say that if cells are alive then the components
of the cells are alive: and if the components are alive, then
the atoms which make up their substance are alive: and if the
atoms are alive then even the particles the protons and
the electrons and all the rest of them must be alive. (49) The determination of the
purely materialistic philosophers to avoid any hiatus in the
transition from non-life to life drives them relentlessly to
this seemingly logical conclusion.
Someone in exasperation suggested that
you can tell whether something is alive or not, just by kicking
it. If its response is predictable, given sufficient background
information, then you can assume it is dead: if it is quite unpredictable,
then you can presume it is alive!
Now, at the present stage of medical
wizardry it has
48. Trees, longevity of: as reported for the
species Cryptomeria japonica in in New Scientist,
25 March, 1976, p.2.
49. Atoms alive? See Charles Hartshorne, "Mind, Matter and
Freedom" [Scientific Monthly, May, 1954, p.31420];
E. W. Sinnott, Cell and Psyche: The Biology of Purpose, [University
of North Carolina Press, 1950, p.4850]; A. N.Whitehead,
Process and Reality, [New York, Macmillan, 1929, p.486497];
and D. F. Lawden in Letters to the Editor under Biology, Nature,
vol.202, 1964, p.412.
suddenly become very
important to be able to determine when a human being is dead
or merely in deep coma. Individuals declared to be clinically
"dead" have more than once in recent years shocked
surgeons about to remove their kidneys for transplant purposes
by suddenly sitting up on the operating table and asking them
what in the world they were up to. Furthermore, certification
of death has become more and more difficult in view of the currently
available means of sustaining life artificially. The case of
Karen Quinlan is a distressing illustration of this fact.
In 1975 Karen, then a teenager,
swallowed a murderous cocktail of alcohol and tranquilizers.
She has been unconscious ever since. She is now an insentient,
motionless, curled-up, skin-wrapped skeleton, having "recovered"
from the cocktail to the extent that she now survives without
a respirator. (50)
No one even pretends to believe
that she will ever recover consciousness, while in the meantime
the bill for this cruel exercise has reputedly passed the three
million dollar mark. "She" (if this preparation can
be personal still) has effectively been condemned to life,
not to death . . . a new thing in human history. And no one
has the right (it seems) or the courage (perhaps) "to blow
out the candle" (if the candle is alight) in order to allow
this tragic example of man's over-sophistication to be terminated.
In Karen Quinlan's case, how do you define life? And how do you
But some very serious attempts
have been made in recent years to define what death is. In 1968
the Harvard Medical School tried to give an answer in a statement
issued under the heading, "A Definition of Irreversible
Coma" in which were listed four basic criteria: (51)
1. Total unresponsivity
i.e., total unconsciousness of externally applied stimuli,
even when painful, judged by vocal or other forms of response
such as groaning, limb withdrawal, or quickened respiration.
2. Total absence of movement
over a period of at least one
50. Karen Quinan: "The case of Karen
Quinlan", New Scientist, 17 Dec., 1981, p.826.
51. Harvard Medical School: "A Definition of Irreversible
Coma", Special Communication, Journal of the American
Medical Association, vol.205, 1968, p.337.
hour. This would include detectable pulse
or respiration. It recommended artificial respiration be cut
off to see whether any attempt at breathing would be made within
3. No reflexes: the pupil
fixed, dilated and unresponsive to movement or variation in intensity
of a light source. Since the establishment of a fixed dilated
pupil is clear-cut in clinical practice, it was felt that there
should be no uncertainty in such a case.
4. Flat encephalogram (
= 'cerebral silence') for twenty-four hours with no measurable
In each case
the assumption is made that there is no evidence of hypothermia
(a body temperature below 90 degrees F. or 32.2
degrees C.) or the use of central nervous system depressants
such as barbiturates.
But how this definition of death fits
the case of Karen Quinlan is difficult to see since breathing
continues to be observed in the absence of artificial assistance.
Karen would appear to be alive in so far as purely physiological
considerations are concerned. But apart from these borderline
cases which keep cropping up, there is no doubt that unequivocal
death comes to millions of organisms, even if we have difficulty
This is not the time or place
to go into the distinctions that now have to be made between
necrosis (the death of cells locally but not the death
of the whole organism); clinical death when the doctor
says the patient is dead; legal death when the coroner
clears things for the undertaker to proceed and the will to be
probated; and biological death which signifies that heroic
measures to resuscitate are futile and the body is already disintegrating.
But to complicate the matter
even further, in both man and animals death can be viewed as
either a process or an event. (52) It is not certain whether (apart from accident) it
is ever truly an event. When God told Adam that "dying
he would die," we have a hint of the fact that dying is
a process and many now believe that we are dying from
the moment of birth. (53) The same may be true of animals, though not on account
of sin but for purely physiological reasons
52. Morison, R. S., "Death: Process or
Event?" and L. R. Kass, "Death as an Event: A Commentary
on Robert Moison", Science, vol.173, 1971, p.694702.
53. Dying from moment of birth: Medawar, Sir Peter B., The
Uniqueness of the Individual, New York, Basic Books, 1957,
which may perhaps be
'natural' for the animal because it suggests a mechanism which
is set to program the animal's life span in order to prevent
But there is almost always a terminal
period in which what may have proceeded for a long time at a
slow rate suddenly gallops away, and life is brought abruptly
to an end.
while admitting that death is not a concomitant of life, are
driven to argue that it must have been invented and preserved
by nature because it is both necessary and beneficial. Nature
is assumed never to invent except on a utilitarian basis. It
is held to be necessary for the following basic reasons:
1. To prevent over-population by any one species.
2. To leave the way open for further evolutionary progress by
ensuring the removal of less successful species which would
otherwise clog the system.
3. To remove diseased, malformed, or less vigorous members of
a population so that they do not perpetuate themselves.
The vigour of the stock is thus preserved.
4. To provide food for predators of a higher order which by a
carnivorous diet have a higher energy level, such a higher
level of energy being considered a superior form of life.
Let us consider
these in slightly greater detail.
It is obvious that some species, rabbits for example, breed much
more rapidly than, say, stoats. In the economy of nature it is
logical that a world over-crowded by a single species could,
under certain conditions, become fatally infected with a disease
peculiar to that species which could wipe them out entirely,
and the web of life accordingly might be grossly disrupted. Or
such a prolific species could consume all vegetable foods necessary
for other species to live on, and so bring about their extinction.
Planting only a single species of tree in reforestation may be
because of the danger
of some species-specific disease wiping out the whole area and
robbing the soil of ground cover.
By the same token, it would
not do to have stoats multiply explosively without constraint,
for an opposite reason. They could endanger every other species
because of their efficiency as predators.
Professor Edward O. Dodson gives
a striking illustration of what could happen but for death in
the case of starfishes. In one species the female spawns some
1,000,000 eggs in a year. In a small area of only a few square
yards there may be 50 such females. Each year the eggs laid would
therefore be 50,000,000. Assuming 25,000,000 of these are females,
at an ordinary rate of reproduction these 25,000,000 females
would produce 25,000,000,000,000 eggs. It would take only 17
years for the number of starfishes on the earth to exceed the
total number of electrons in the whole visible universe! (54)
In the long view, evolutionists hold that in any species there
will be individuals born with some slightly modified structure
or habit or instinct which has the potential for real advantage
to the species. But at first the numbers of such individuals
will be too small for the advantage to be shared widely. It could
also happen that the potential advantage is an actual
disadvantage until the number of individuals who possess
it mark out a niche for themselves and multiply sufficiently.
The competition for food and mates
is assumed to be keen. Thus if the more dominant mates of the
old stock are not somehow removed, the new stock will not be
established in time to preserve its unique and advantageous characteristics.
But if the old stock have limitations placed upon their life
expectancy, the newcomers' chance of survival and multiplication
will be enhanced.
If we transfer this scenario
into the business world, we see something of the basis for fixing
mandatory retirement age at a lower rather than a higher level.
54. Dodson, Edward O., A Textbook of Evolution,
Philadelphia, Saunders, 1952, p.4.
term of office of senior
staff can work to the disadvantage of a company by stifling the
initiative of the younger members who see little hope of advancement.
3. This situation is illustrated very nicely by the
finding in Northern Canada some years ago, a finding since repeated
elsewhere, that when the wolf population is reduced by man to
below a certain level with the intent of increasing the deer
population, the opposite effect may occur. (55)
The reason for this is now believed
to be because when the predatory wolves are reduced in number,
the deer population does indeed increase but the increase includes
sick or less fit deer that would otherwise have been killed off
by the wolves. The well-being and vitality of the deer herd declines
as a result and they begin to die off at a higher rate than expected.
Matings are less successful and the offspring less healthy.
By leaving the wolf population
to set its own level, the deer herds are healthier and prove
better able to survive the vicissitudes of northern weather.
In the animal world, survival depends to some extent upon individual
energy levels. Animals which eat meat can maintain higher levels
of energy with less time spent foraging for food than comparable
It is a known fact that a man in good
condition can run down a horse. (56) It is obvious that the horse can run faster than
the man, but the horse, being herbivorous, tires more quickly
and will have to keep stopping to browse. Each time the man begins
to catch up, the horse will be forced to run again. In the end
the horse exhausts its energies and allows itself to be caught.
The Indians of the Plains could apparently catch horses this
way, and such horses once caught were less likely to run away
even when free to do so.
55. Wolves: see Pierre P. Grasse, Evolution
of Living Things, New York, Academic Press, 1977, p.116.
56. See story of "Fast Walker," a Sioux Indian who
"out walked a horse" in 1862, The Rivermen in
Old West Series, New York, Time-Life Books, 1975, p.144.
is a case of a man who is said to have volunteered to obtain
medicine in an emergency for Queen Elizabeth I. The distance
he had to go was some thirty to forty miles, and a man was sent
out on horseback at the same time in case of accident. The runner
made the round trip of over sixty miles in less time than the
horseman, and he was interestingly awarded by the Queen. He received
a new suit of clothes to compensate for the spoiling of his old
suit on the trip, the award to be repeated annually: and the
head of his household in each succeeding generation was promised
the same reward each year in perpetuity. Only Cromwell's Republic
put an end to the arrangement, so it is said, or perhaps his
descendants would still be beneficiaries.
Whether the story is true
or not, it is not difficult to see that energy is more quickly
recovered on a pre-digested diet of meat than on vegetables,
since one step in the conversion to energy has already been taken.
Death by predation thus advances the course of evolution, according
to this thesis.
the mechanism of death, there have been scores of explanations.
A few have won wide acceptance for a while, but fewer still have
stood the test of time to the present. The following are six
more or less current explanations of ways in which death may
occur 'naturally' apart from accident or predation.
1. Animals often display an internal mechanism which "self-destructs"
the organism once it has become infertile.
2. A built-in limitation to cell doubling and therefore to new
growth and tissue repair, has been observed. The life span of
the whole organism is therefore believed to be "programmed"
3. "Wear and tear" brings about reduced viability so
that the animal succumbs to stress.
4. DNA errors of transcription accumulate until a point of "error
catastrophe" is reached.
5. Since millions of sperm are released by the male and only
a few can continue their existence by fusion with the ova, millions
are destined to die.
6. Unicellular animals that multiply
by simple division appear to escape natural death. It is concluded
that procreated animals are mortalized
by some factor relating to, or associated with, the process of
gestation and birth.
Let us elaborate these alternatives briefly.
According to Jerome Wadinsky of Brandeis University, this "self-destruct"
mechanism is found in a number of species of which an excellent
example is the octopus. (57) When fertility is at an end, the individual animal
under some hormonal influences ceases to eat and dies of starvation.
By experimentally preventing the hormonal effect, it is found
that the animal will continue to eat normally though remaining
infertile, and its life is considerably prolonged.
The evolutionary explanation is
that from the point of view of the species (as opposed to the
individual), an animal no longer fertile will make no further
contribution to the improvement of the species but will still
continue to compete for its food resources. A mechanism has thus
been invented by nature to save this waste of food by putting
an end to the individual. Man is one of the few creatures that
continues to live for a comparatively long time after ceasing
to be fertile.
Leonard Hayflick, over a period of years and by some very elegant
experimental techniques has proved to the satisfaction of many
biologists (though by no means all) that cells have a limited
capacity to divide and multiply. The organism thus loses the
ability to continue growth and to heal wounds.
Since growth and continued life
appear to be almost synonymous, a cell that has the capability
of only a certain number of doublings (one cell becoming two,
two cells becoming four, and so on) the organism has what is
termed a "spanned" life which it rarely exceeds significantly.
species have either a different rate of cell division or a different
allotment of doublings.
57. Wadinsky, Jerome, "Hormonal Inhibition
of Feeding and Death In the Octopus," Science, vol.198,
58. Hayflick, Leonard, "The Limitd in Vitro Lifetime of
Human Diploid Cell Strains", Experimental Cell Research,
vol.37, 1965, p.614-636.
The finding not only limits the life span of the animal
but probably also its size. Since there are real limitations
to the size of any free-standing animal, this seems to reflect
a certain wisdom in nature. Some years ago, J. B. S. Haldane
wrote a fascinating paper on the subject which he titled "On
Being the Right Size"! (59) A neat balance is thus struck between the ability
to heal, which requires a high level of cell multiplication,
and growth in size which must be controlled. It also effectively
spans the life of the individual organism.
The wear and tear theory of the cause of death is a common-sense
view since it seems obvious, but it is no longer taken seriously
because experimental evidence has shown that stressed animals
(whether physiologically or psychologically) live just as long,
and sometimes longer, than unstressed animals. Records of hard-worked
animals in captivity, like elephants and horses, by comparison
with free animals in the wild show, according to Professor Raymond
Pearl, that the worked animals out-live the wild animals, contrary
to expectation. (60)
Mutations, or DNA transcription errors, are constantly occurring
in animal cells for a number of reasons not yet fully understood.
If a sufficient number occur in a given cell, it will cease to
function. If a sufficient number of non-functioning cells occur
in a particular organ, it will fail as an organ. At some point
these errors overwhelm the whole animal and what Dr. Leslie Orgel
of the Salk Institute has aptly termed an 'error catastrophe'
occurs which results in the death of the whole organism. (61)
At the present time this appears
to be the most acceptable view of the mechanism of animal
According to Professor B. Bacetti of the University of Siena,
there is evidence that in a number of species, the extraordinary
proliferation of spermatozoa of which the
59. Haldane, J. B. S., "On Being the
Right Size" in The World of Mathematics, edited by
J. R. Newman, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1956, vol.2, p.952f.
60. Pearl, Raymond, Man the Animal, Bloomington, Maryland,
Principia Press, 1946, p.47.
61. Orgel, Leslie, "Senesence and the Selfish Gene,"
New Scientist, 29 Mar. 1979, p.1042.
vast proportion die
without contributing to the fertilization of the ovum, serve
the purpose of providing by their decay a protein-rich environment
for those which succeed. (62) This is true of certain species of gastropods.
A rather similar situation exists
in the case of codfish. The female spawns some 6,000,000 eggs
of which only 4 or 5 survive. (63) It is believed that the non-surviving ova, in a like
manner, provide a protein-rich environment for the eggs which
do survive to grow more vigorously.
August Weismann in the late nineteenth century was the first
to underscore the fact that asexual reproduction leads to potentially
immortal animals whereas all sexually propagated offspring appear
without exception to be mortal. (64)
It is not clear why this is so
in nature, but it does suggest that if an animal wants to live
for ever it should avoid being born!
There are a
number of people who feel that the death of animals is a direct
result of the Fall, and they occasionally point to Romans 8:22
as implying this. Here we are told that "the whole creation
groans" as man awaits his redemption. But the fact is that
the phrase "the whole creation" is recurrent in the
New Testament and clearly applies to human kind, not to animals.
In Mark 16:15 the same phrase in
the original Greek surely cannot mean that the Gospel is to be
preached to animals, as Francis of Assisi preached to
birds. Colossians 1:15 (again the same phrase in Greek) cannot
mean that the Lord Jesus Christ was the firstborn of all the
animals. In Colossians 1:23 (once more the same phrase)
Paul did not mean that the Gospel had already been preached to
And finally, Romans 5:12
which speaks of the entrance of death or as Martyn Lloyd-Jones
acutely observes, the invasion of death (65) cannot be extended to animals as
62. Bacetti, B. and B. A. Afrelius, The
Biology of the Sperm Cell, Monographs in Development Biology,
No.10, Basel, Karger, 1976, p.78.
63. Codfish eggs: see Science Digest, Aug., 1981, p.25.
64. Weismann, August, Essays Upon Heredity and Kindred Biological
Problems, translated by E. B. Poulton, S. Schonland and A.
E. Shipley, Oxford University Press, 1889, vol.1, p.139.
65. Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, Romans: Chapter V, Zondervan,
some would have it to
be, because the proof of this invasion according to the verse
itself is that all have sinned. The universality of death for
man is proven by the universality of man's sin. The whole point
of the passage is that all men die because all men
are sinners. Animal and plant life are clearly not in view.
Moreover, amoebae and paramecia are animals; yet they are not
subject to death except by accident. That such creatures are
tiny has no bearing: they are alive. Thus the concept of death
as universal and due entirely to man's sin is neither supported
by the facts nor required by Scripture.
It is clear
that death exists in nature not as a punishment but ultimately
for its maintenance and well-being. Therefore it is most important
to realize that none of what has been said about the necessity
of death in the animal and plant world applies to man. This
cannot be emphasized too strongly. For them death is natural:
for man it is not.
But it is also evident from what
we know about amoebae and paramecia (and unfortunately, cancer
cells) that cell life is not necessarily subject to death at
all. Once created, it would appear to have potentially the capability
of endless existence, barring accidents. The phenomenon of life
per se thus illustrates Augustine's concept of immortality
as something which it is not impossible to kill but which otherwise
has no necessity of dying.
The death of
man and the death of animals are thus two very different kinds
of death. In the case of animals, death is a necessity, something
programmed for them for the benefit of the web of nature as a
whole. No single species of animal is allowed to multiply and
"fill the earth," though taking all the species together
they have in sum successfully fulfilled the command of Genesis
1:22 to fully occupy it.
With man, the case is different
because, though he is a single species it was intended that he
should fill the earth and govern it, but there is good reason
to suppose that each
individual, as soon
as he or she had matured, would have been removed from the earth
by translation without tasting death at all, thus preventing
over-population. No such removal by translation was planned for
any of the other species. Only man was designed for this happy
Thus the why
of death for animals has no bearing on the why of death
for man, even though the mechanism may not be altogether dissimilar
since both live rooted in the same natural order. But for animals,
death being appointed like all else in nature, makes it natural:
whereas for man, though death is also now appointed (Hebrews
9:27), it was appointed only as a penalty and as such was unnatural.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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Therefore it seems clear that Adam's
un-natural death is no more to be accounted for by some supposed
animal ancestry, than the natural death of animals is to be attributed
to the Fall of Adam.