I believe that one of the hallmarks of a young-age creationist is the belief that the punishment for Adam's sin was physical death for humans and animals. This isn't explicitly taught in the oracle of the Curse in Genesis 3, but it can be inferred from a number of passages (esp. in Isaiah and Revelation). This causes no end of snide (and frankly bizarre) comments about death before the Fall. Just last year I was at a conference where someone gave eating vegetables as a counterexample to "no death before the Fall." After all, plants are alive, right? Clearly, these people are not paying attention.
The standard creationist position is that plants in biblical terms are not alive and cannot be described as truly dead. The "no pre-Fall death" position we hold to only applies to animals and humans. So a year ago, when my Bryan colleague Doug Kennard asked me what I'd like to hear about at BSG, I requested a discussion of the Hebrew concepts of life and death. I wanted to know from a qualified biblical theologian whether or not the standard creationist response was accurate or at least reasonable.
After Doug presented part of the work at BSG, he submitted the full paper to ARJ, and it was published on New Year's Eve. The full title of the paper is "Hebrew Metaphysic: Life, Holy, Clean, Righteousness, and Sacrifice," and it was posted at the AIG site among several other updates (including a sensationalized promo piece for ARJ) where I'm afraid it might be overlooked.
What does he conclude? Well, not surprisingly, the answer I was looking for is much more complicated than I expected. Doug confirms that the Hebrew notion of life (embodied in the terms hyh and nps) does indeed apply exclusively to animals and humans, but he gives examples where both Hebrew terms are applied to recently deceased corpses. This would imply a greater semantic range to the Hebrew terms than to our modern English word life.
Beyond that question, though, the paper also deals with the related categories of holy, clean, and righteous, which, as it turns out, are not synonymous. Doug gives examples of critters on a continuum (which he calls a "chain of being") from dead to alive, and from unclean to clean, and from common to holy. There seems to be a hierarchy of "life," where things created on day six are more important (or more alive?) than things created on day five.
One interesting theme was the idea that death is associated with curse or disorder. I've always thought that the Bible depicted death as the enemy to be vanquished. Christ's resurrection demonstrated His victory over death, and in the end, death gets thrown into the lake of fire. I think this has a lot of relevance to the question of the age of the earth. If death preceded human sin, as it would have to do in progressive or evolutionary creationism, then how is death the ultimate enemy? If it's not a punishment for sin, if it's a normal part of creation, then why is it defeated and thrown into the lake of fire?
Doug's paper is detailed and long, but it's worth the effort to read it. He confirms the basic concept of animal death that creationists have believed, but he also gives us much more to think about.
Kennard, D. 2008. Hebrew metaphysic: life, holy, clean, righteousness, and sacrifice. ARJ 1:169-195. [HTML] [PDF]