Because the Orthodox Patristic writers accepted the notion of free will, they did not believe that death was an inevitable part of human existence (See for example Adam in St. Gregory Palamas). Humans were created with the potential for immortality, but that potential could be realized only through the choices the humans made. Some Eastern Christians clearly read the Genesis 3 account as not explaining the existence of mortality in all of creation, but only of explaining why humans created in God’s image and likeness now die like the rest of creation.
Theodoret of Cyrus commenting on Romans 8:20 (“for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope”) says of St. Paul that:
“He teaches that all visible creation shared a mortal nature, especially since the maker of all foresaw the Fall of Adam and the sentence of death imposed on him; it was not right or just, after all, that the things made on his account should share incorruption while he, for whose benefit they were made, should be subject to death and suffering.” (THEODORET COMMENTARY ON THE LETTERS OF PAUL Vol 1)
Theodoret claims that God knew Adam would sin and that death would be imposed upon him. Thus God made all the rest of visible creation to have a mortal nature so that when man sinned, man would not end up lower than the rest of visible creation but equal to it. Theodoret’s logic is that the rest of visible creation was after all made for the benefit of man – including the fact that creation was by nature mortal. This would imply that not all mortality was caused by human sin, but rather the rest of creation was created mortal – “to benefit humans” – and so that when we became mortal due to sin creation was of benefit to us rather than being superior to us or beyond our reach.
According to Elizabeth Theokritoff notes:
“From the silence on the subject from Fathers such as Irenaeus, we might guess that they see death in the non-human creation as ‘natural’- at least in the sense that it existed from the beginning of time. … The original mortality of animals would be an obvious conclusion to draw from the Fathers’ consensus that even Adam was not immortal by nature: he was created for immortality, which is a different matter. Adam, as a creature of earth, would have returned to earth according to his own nature; he was offered the chance of a different destiny through keeping God’s commandment. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the animals who had not been given that option were mortal. A few writers, Gregory of Nyssa notable among them, are quite explicit that death did already exist among animals: what happened at man’s fall was that he lapsed into an animal state. On this view, the moment of the fall … would have made little immediate difference to the condition of earth’s other inhabitants.” (LIVING IN GOD’S CREATION)
She mentions St. John Chrysostom, St, Gregory of Nyssa and St. Ephrem the Syrian as believing animals were mortal by nature and thus mortality was natural to all creatures except humans. At the fall, humans become like all creatures in dying.
Fr. Georges Florovsky seemed to hold to an idea that what happens to animals – life ends – is not strictly speaking “death” but just part of the cycle of nature which animals are in. Thus only humans really die – we have through sin been reduced to being part of this cyclical nature and are now ruled by the animal in us. This is a creative way of dealing with how death and extinction could have existed before the sin of Adam and Eve. Florovsky writes:
“Strictly speaking it is only man that dies. Death indeed is a law of nature, a law of organic life. But man’s death means just his fall or entanglement into this cyclical motion of nature, just what ought not to have happened at all. As St. Gregory says, ‘from the nature of dumb animals mortality is transferred to a nature created for immortality.’ Only for man is death contrary to nature and mortality is evil. Only man is wounded and mutilated by death. In the generic life of dumb animals, death is rather a natural moment in the development of the species; it is the expression rather of the generating power of life than of infirmity. However, with the fall of man, mortality, even in nature, assumes an evil and tragic significance. Nature itself, as it were, is poisoned by the fatal venom of human decomposition. With dumb animals, death is but the discontinuation of individual existence. In the human world, death strikes at personality, and personality is much greater than mere individuality.” (CREATION AND REDEMPTION, p 106)
Interesting, St. Gregory sees death as being a natural part of animal existence – from before the Fall. Death from the Fall is only introduced to humanity, not to the rest of creation – we become dust again – losing the divine breath.
Next: The Garments of Skins