Is death part of the natural world as part of the Divine Intention? To answer that we need the Genesis narratives. Can we see death in Genesis 1 and 2 – death before the Fall? I don’t mean human death – that was a result of the Fall. But, did animals and plants die? The more I meditate on these chapters, the firmer my belief that this is the case.
In Genesis 1 and 2 we meet the world we know – sun, moon and stars, day and night, earth and sea, animals, birds, fish, and plants. It is the familiar world. In Gen 1:24 and 2:20, wild animals are mentioned alongside domesticated (or domesticatable) animals. Wild animals includes carnivores (like snow leopards), which are part of our familiar world. So, death would seem to be implied in this classification of familiar animals. In Genesis 2 we meet familiar humanity: working the ground, sleeping, needing food, having flesh and bones (and ribs). As John Walton points out, the first humans had skin (he translates basar in 2:23 as skin) and skin is a layer of dead cells. So, at the cellular level, death is implied. Certainly, the fact that plants are for food shows that the usual metabolic cycles are present, with cells requiring energy. Perhaps even more fundamentally, in Genesis 1 God creates plants and trees with fruit bearing seed. In the botanical life cycle, seeds are only required because of biological death. In a world without death, why would seeds be required? The plants are given for food (1:29,30), and are consumed. So plants are certainly dying. And if biological death is present in the plant kingdom, where is the objection to a similar situation in the animal kingdom? The sixth day connection between animals and humans might be used as basis for an objection, but the botanical/zoological divide seems an unlikely boundary for the principal of death. A far more likely boundary for death is between animals and humans, who are created in (or perhaps preferably, as) the Image of God. Humans are not created to die because they mirror their Creator in a way that animals do not.
To my mind, theological objections to the principle of biological death in the animal and plant kingdoms falter in the light of the above. In Genesis 3, it is specifically human death that results from the Fall. The Divine Intention for the immortality of humans is part of the distinctiveness of humanity as God’s image on earth.
Animals that survive through the death of other creatures, whether bacteria, spiders, flies, birds, whales, fish, pumas, wolves or seals – these creatures display the glory of the Creator in the brilliance and wonder of their design, in the amazing beauty of their function, and in the complexity of the ecosystems in which they participate. The redemption of creation will reverse the effects of the Fall, and the glory and beauty of these ecosystems will remain. The world as created had to be ruled, or subdued (1:28) and even the Garden in all its beauty had to be worked and cared for (2:15). The work of humanity is in a sense a continuation of God’s work in fashioning the world from its formless and empty watery darkness. The created world was a world containing challenges – of growing food, keeping livestock and coping with wild creatures. It was a world where there was a Garden, but also wildness. In redemption of the fallen world, there is also challenge; sin has increased the challenge beyond all boundaries. The life and work of Jesus Christ testifies to this. There is challenge in the process of redemption and there is challenge, albeit of a different nature, that remains in its realisation.