Death of animals before the fall - what did the early church fathers believe?
At least some Church Fathers believed that animals dying was a result of man’s sin and thus prior to man’s fall there was no death within the animal kingdom.
In the early church, the doctrine of creation was important. This affected not only the way they looked at this world, but also how they saw God, as well as what they expected of Him for the future.
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. AD 180) and Theophilus of Antioch (c. AD 168) believed that the beginning and the end of this world belong together. It was their conviction that the paradise once lost through the sin of mankind would be regained. The suffering and death of animals did not come with God’s good original creation, but only later as a consequence of human sin. These church fathers specifically claimed that God’s future will do away with violent death and suffering for animals.
The early church in the time after the Apostles speaks very explicitly about man as the cause of suffering in the animal world. Irenaeus left little room for misunderstanding on the subject. As a student of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, he plainly states that animals were not carnivorous in the original creation. He also brings creation and eschatology together when he writes about God’s future plans in his five books, Against Heresies. The church father believed that the original goodness of God’s creation will be restored in the completion of the kingdom of Christ.
Irenaeus took Isaiah’s prophecies as the basis for his expectation that God will restore things to a paradise-like state in the end time. Lambs and wolves will feed together and lions will be vegetarians again (Isaiah 11:6–9, 65:25). Irenaeus says:
“I am aware that some try to refer these texts metaphorically to savage men who out of various nations and various occupations come to believe, and when they have believed live in harmony with the just. But though this now takes place for men who come from various nations into the one doctrine of the faith, nevertheless it will take place for these animals at the resurrection of the just, as we have said; for God is rich in all things, and when the world is re-established in its primeval state all the animals must obey and be subject to man and return to the first food given by God, as before the disobedience they were subject to Adam [Genesis 1:28–30] and ate the fruit of the earth.”
The church father addresses the condition of the animal world before the Fall, and connects this with the future when God’s promises will be fulfilled. The animosity between present carnivores and their prey will be something of the past. A defenceless little boy will be quite safe in the company of bulls and lions. They will even do his bidding.
Theophilus: nothing was made evil or venomous by God
The church father Theophilus of Antioch had similar views on the subject of animal suffering and the ultimate restoration of all things in a perfect state. From ancient sources we know that he became Bishop of Antioch (Syria) in the eighth year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (c. AD 168). He states that nothing was created evil or venomous by God:
“And the animals are named wild beasts, from their being hunted, not as if they had been made evil or venomous from the first—for nothing was made evil by God, but all things good, yea, very good,—but the sin in which man was concerned brought evil upon them …. When, therefore, man again shall have made his way back to his natural condition, and no longer does evil, those also shall be restored to their original gentleness.”
For Theophilus, wild beasts were a consequence of mankind’s fall into sin. Indeed, the Greek word for beast (θηρία/thēria) is derived from “being hunted”. He takes care to explicitly state that animals were not created violent or even venomous. The church father specifically uses a Greek word (κακὰ/kaka) that can be translated as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. It was the sin of man that brought this evil on the animal world and caused their nature to become bad. Theophilus also believed that with the redemption of man in the fullness of time, the evil consequences of the Fall for the animal world will be undone as well.
Because the early Christians believed God’s message about Paradise and a good creation, they trusted him for the future of this world, for humans and animals alike. Their expectations of God’s coming kingdom may inspire Christians today to trust that God really is good. He will ultimately do justice to all His creatures. - 2nd Century Church Fathers: God will make lions vegetarian again
Explained as follows, Theophilus believed that carnivores result of sin:
Theophilus—carnivores result of sin
Irenaeus worked in the south of France. Elsewhere in the Roman Empire of the 2 nd century Christians had similar convictions on the subject of animal death and the restoration of all things in a perfect state. Theophilus, who became bishop of Antioch (Syria) in the eighth year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, c. ad 168, writes in his essay to Autolycus (Theophilus ad Autolycus 2.17):
“And on the sixth day, God having made the quadrupeds, and wild beasts, and the land reptiles, pronounced no blessing upon them, reserving His blessing for man, whom He was about to create on the sixth day. The quadrupeds, too, and wild beasts, were made for a type of some men, who neither know nor worship God, but mind earthly things, and repent not. For those who turn from their iniquities and live righteously, in spirit fly upwards like birds, and mind the things that are above, and are well-pleasing to the will of God. But those who do not know nor worship God, are like birds which have wings, but cannot fly nor soar to the high things of God. Thus, too, though such persons are called men, yet being pressed down with sins, they mind grovelling and earthly things. And the animals are named wild beasts, from their being hunted, not as if they had been made evil or venomous from the first—for nothing was made evil by God, but all things good, yea, very good,—but the sin in which man was concerned brought evil upon them. For when man transgressed, they also transgressed with him. For as, if the master of the house himself acts rightly, the domestics also of necessity conduct themselves well; but if the master sins, the servants also sin with him; so in like manner it came to pass, that in the case of man’s sin, he being master, all that was subject to him sinned with him. When, therefore, man again shall have made his way back to his natural condition, and no longer does evil, those also shall be restored to their original gentleness.”
As with Irenaeus and Chrysostom, one finds the expectation with Theophilus that, eventually, in the fullness of time, the evil consequences of the Fall for the animal world will be undone. For him God’s eschaton means the final restoration, not only of mankind, but of animals as well.
However, Basil taught the possibility of animals dying before the fall of Adam.
Animal death, Aquinas and Basil the Great
This idea of animal death before the Fall was not invented by Aquinas. It hardly features in his work and then only implicitly. Still this view has old papers in the history of Christianity. It can be traced to at least the 4th century, the writings of the eastern theologian Basilius the Great in particular.
Around ad 370, Basil delivered an influential series of homilies on the six days of creation. In these, he presents animal death as part of the original creation:
“So nature, being put in motion by the one command, passes equally through birth and death in a creature, while it keeps up the succession of kinds through resemblance, to the end. Because it is so that a horse succeed to a horse, a lion to a lion, an eagle to an eagle. And while every one of the living beings is preserved by these uninterrupted successions, she directs them to the end of it all.”
For Basil, animals belong to the realm of non-human nature, where death was not only acceptable but viewed as a natural principle. Young-earth creationists today look in a similar way at plant or insect death. Basil just extended this to all of the animal kingdom. More a closet monk than a biological observer, he saw animal life and multiplication as impersonal perpetuation, creatures without relevant capability of sensing pain and loss. Whether they lived or died, they continued to live in the blood of the species. For the Church Father one horse was as good as the next, as long as the idea of horse was perpetuated. His views are based on limited perceptions of biology, rather than flowing from a careful exposition of Scripture. Even in Basil’s time, some- one with even a limited exposure to animal life would have been aware that animals are capable of sensing pain and anguish, if not loss, as, for instance, the death rituals of elephants and dolphins suggest.
With the words “the end of it all” Basil refers to the ultimate goal of history, the end of the world as we know it. The “command” he refers to takes creatures through stages of life and death (τὴν ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ κτίσιν). This is a reference to God commanding the earth to bring forth living creatures. Isolated from its textual context this command could have meant God’s curse at the Fall of mankind, in which case animal death could have referred to the post-Fall situation only, but the passage rules this out, as Basil continues:
“The peculiarities of animals are not destroyed or effaced by any length of time; but forever young their nature follows its course in time, as though it had been just constituted. Let the earth bring forth soul-creatures! [Obedience to] this commandment was continued on earth, and there has not been a pause in its performance to the Creator.”