The long life-spans of the first humans, recorded in the book of Genesis, have been a source of contention for many people. How could people possibly live for hundreds of years? Is this an indication of the Bible’s fanciful nature? Is there any science that could explain such extreme longevity? The answer might surprise you.
The first ten Patriarchs in the Bible achieved ages of between 777 and 969 years (excluding Enoch, who did not die, but was apparently taken directly to Heaven at the age of 365).
These unbelievably long life-spans seem to defy common sense and have caused many to question the Bible’s veracity. Some biblical scholars have argued that a literal interpretation of these ages should be avoided, proposing instead that there is some kind of symbolic numerology involved. For example, the scholars at biologos.org have calculated that the ages of the first ten patriarchs can be generated using just the numbers 60, 5 and 7 in various mathematical formulae. Significantly, however, they cannot propose any meaningful explanation for these numbers or formulae. A further problem with their calculations is that the ages of the next ten generations of Patriarchs (see below) CANNOT be generated using the same numbers and/or formulae.
In short, the ages of these first 20 generations of Patriarchs appear to be completely random, conforming to no known numerology. We are left with the conclusion that the Bible intends us to interpret these ages quite literally.
But how is this possible? How could people live for such a long time? In attempting to explain this, some people have suggested that the orbit of the Earth around the Sun could have been much quicker in the beginning, resulting in years that were much shorter. However, there is no scientific evidence for this and it flies in the face of all known laws of physics.
We are left, therefore, with an intriguing puzzle. How could someone live to be 969 years old?
The answer lies in the nature of the Fall in Genesis 3 and the resulting cumulative degeneration of the human genome. The first humans would have been genetically perfect and the early generations that followed would have had very few genetic imperfections that would have caused the cumulative degeneration of their bodies – a process that we now call ‘ageing’.
The fact is that Adam and Eve would never have died if they had not sinned. This seems an inconceivable truth to us because we have been born into a world where all things eventually die. But this was not the way God created us in the beginning. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). Death is an unnatural invader into our world. The results of that first sin for the human race were catastrophic. One of the pronouncements that God made over Adam and Eve immediately following their first sin was that they would now experience death (“from dust you came and to dust you will return”). Consequently, Adam and Eve began to die at that very moment – in the sense that their bodies began to deteriorate – albeit very slowly.
The Fall introduced a spiritual sickness into the physical universe that now affects every part of creation, even down to the individual cells of our bodies. Consequently, there are now several biological and genetic factors that contribute to process that we call ‘ageing’.
Biologically, cell replication is now flawed. Our cells can no longer replace themselves perfectly or indefinitely. In 1961, Dr Leonard Hayflick proved that 50 cell replications is the upper limit, after which a cells loses its ability to divide and replicate. In other words it simply dies and cannot replace itself. As your body ages, you gradually lose the ability to replace dying cells with new ones, resulting in a steady decline in functionality and general health.
Genetically, this is exacerbated by the accumulation of genetic errors in our genome (DNA). Even when cells are still dividing healthily (prior to losing their ability to replicate) an increasing number of genetic errors creep into the DNA within the nucleus of each succeeding newly-copied cell. These errors are random and many are corrected by the cell’s built-in self-correcting ‘program’, but some slip through this process. Some of these genetic errors may be in parts of the genetic code that are not essential to that particular cell and are therefore harmless. (Almost every cell in the body has a complete set of DNA in its nucleus, but it only reads that part of the DNA relevant to its own function. Thus, an error might occur in a segment of DNA that codes for eye function, but this would be irrelevant for, say, a liver cell). In some cases, however, the error applies to a segment of the genome that codes for the functionality of that particular cell, and depending on the error, the new cell’s functionality may be reduced or completely destroyed. As we age, the number of these errors increases, resulting in the decline of biological functionality – a process that we commonly term “ageing”.
But all of this would not have been present in the very beginning. Cellular death, genetic transcription errors and harmful cellular mutations would not have been present in the first humans until they sinned.
Furthermore, these genetic errors accumulate within the human genome over successive generations – and this is where we start to arrive at an explanation for the long life-spans of the first humans.
Some genetic errors (but not all) are passed on through sexual reproduction to successive generations and accumulate within the gene pool of a species. This process is ongoing. Biologists estimate that up to 300 genetic mutations and defects enter the human genome every generation (about 20 years). This is measurably obvious when the human genome (DNA) of modern humans is compared with that of people in the past. When DNA samples are studied from mummified remains and bone tissue samples from people living thousands of years ago and compared to modern DNA, we find that our genome today contains significantly more genetic mutations. The fact is, you have up to 300 more genetic mutations than your parents do! This is one of the reasons why we see increasing intolerances, allergies and disorders among new generations today, compared to just a few generations ago. Humans are on a downward genetic slide! (By the way, this also proves that humans have not been in existence for hundreds of thousands of years, as evolutionists propose, because at our current rate of genetic degradation, humans would no longer be genetically viable after about 20,000 years. This is strong evidence for a much younger timescale since the beginning of creation!).
The progressive degradation of the human genome can be seen in the ages of the early humans, resulting in a downward slide of their lifespans. Indeed, this is precisely what we find in the biblical record:
Thus, the earliest humans had very few inherited genetic errors in their DNA and were able to live for hundreds of years before the genetic transcription errors produced through their own cellular reproduction would have rendered them ‘old’ and eventually decrepit. But as each successive generation was born with a higher accumulated store of genetic errors, the time needed to reach decrepitude via the transcription errors of their own flawed cellular reproduction process would have grown increasingly less. In other words, they died younger and younger.
Significantly, God halted this downward slide of human lifespans, proclaiming in Genesis 6:3, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be 120 years”. This now appears to be the upper limit of human longevity. While genetic mutations and errors continue to accumulate in our genome to this very day, affecting all aspects of health and functionality, God has somehow protected us from further deterioration of our overall lifespans.
So, yes, Methuselah really did live for 969 years! The biblical account of the long but progressively diminishing lifespans of the earliest humans is completely in accord with today’s science of genetics.
Interestingly, the long lifespans of the first humans meant that there was significant overlap in the lives of the biblical patriarchs. As the diagram below shows, Adam was still living when Noah’s father, Lamech, was alive, and Noah was born only 126 years after Adam died. Similarly, Abraham was born only 2 years after Noah’s death.
If you are interested in reading more about this whole issue, I have gone into greater detail in a chapter of my book, “No More Monkey Business: Evolution in Crisis”, available from my website, Smartfaith.net or from Amazon and most other online book retailers.
You might also want to read this excellent article on the topic from Answers in Genesis: https://answersingenesis.org/bible-timeline/genealogy/did-adam-and-noah-really-live-over-900-years/
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He is the author of 13 books, and his latest, “Reconnecting with God”, is now available. Connect with Kevin on Facebook or his website, SmartFaith.net.