That Paul has spiritual death, not physical death, in view in his argument in the early part of Romans becomes even clearer when we observe that he makes a statement about sin and death but then restates it in two different ways that bring out its spiritual emphasis. He first says, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned . . .” But this is later restated, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” And then Paul expresses this same meaning in yet another way: “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” We see from these parallels that coming under the reign of death is equivalent to being condemned and to being made a sinner. The death in view, in other words, is the spiritual death of separation from God.
We find final confirmation of this understanding in the exhortation Paul gives as the argument of these section of the epistle reaches its culmination: “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” We see here that the “death” Paul has been talking about is a state we can be in even as we are physically alive, and which we can leave without being resurrected from physical death. It is thus, once again, the spiritual death of being under the power of sin, alienated from God.
We should therefore make no more appeal to the book of Romans than to the book of Genesis to argue that physical death only entered the world after the fall of humanity. Both books describe a spiritual death from which physical death necessarily resulted, but neither thereby excludes there having been physical death beforehand, from other causes.
One more observation we may make is that the objection we have been considering expresses a misunderstanding of the evolutionary process itself. Death is not, strictly speaking, necessary for evolution, and so this process could have been responsible for human origins even if there had been no death before there were people. Evolution simply posits that new life forms originate from previously existing ones through genetic variation under propitious conditions. It is not necessary that the older life forms die in order for the newer ones to come into existence.
We often think of evolution, in misleading popular terms, as “survival of the fittest” (and thus the extinction of the less fit). But the “fittest” need to be there in the first place if they are to survive a changed set of conditions that others may not survive. They thus come into existence not through the death of their predecessors, but through genetic variation. At least in theory, new life forms could have become established as adaptable variants moved into or emerged within new habitats, worldwide environmental conditions remaining unchanged, with those forms not adapted to the new habitat staying behind alive in the old one.
But because environmental conditions have changed dramatically and repeatedly, the matter may be stated even more strongly. Far from being dependent on death, the evolutionary process as seen in the fossil record is actually the antidote to death. If new species were not formed by the process of genetic variation, there would be no survivors when environmental conditions did change and existing species proved so poorly adapted to the new conditions that they became extinct. So death is not necessary for evolution, but evolution has been necessary for the continuation of life.
One might object, however, that even if death were not necessary to the evolutionary process itself, it would nevertheless have been necessary to have kept the earth from becoming overpopulated to the point where all of its inhabitants starved. Such overpopulation would admittedly have been the result if no creatures had died during the long periods of time evolution is understood to require.
But this very same objection can be made to the creationist scenario. Until and unless humans sinned, creatures with a potentially infinite lifespan and no natural predators would have reproduced exponentially and in a few generations have exhausted the world’s available food supply. We have already seen that the Bible regards eating to have been necessary for their survival. The only way to address this objection is therefore to say that God foresaw or perhaps even foreordained the fall and so created the world the way he did knowing that death would intervene before the world’s creaturely population all starved. But this position is really not very far away, theologically, from “death before the fall.”