Why are our life spans so short today? If you’ve read the early chapters of Genesis, our average life span of eighty years is woefully short compared to when folks lived to be three hundred, four hundred, even nine hundred years old. The question today is from a listener named Stephen. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for this ministry. Would you provide your thoughts on why people lived so long in the early chapters of Genesis? Thank you!”
The question of why people lived so long in the early history of mankind as described in Genesis 1–10 is the flip side of why people for thousands of years have lived only 70 or 80 years, compared to hundreds of years. Of course, it’s also the flip side of why people by the millions have died at 5 years old or 45 years old. In other words, the issue of mortality in this world is a massive contrast not only to eternal life but also to living 900 years. So, what’s up? That’s what the question is.
In Genesis 5, Adam lives to be 930 years old; his son Seth, 912 years; Seth’s son, 910 years; Methuselah, the oldest, 969 years; and Noah, 950 years. Then after the flood, Noah’s son Shem lives 600 years; his son, 438 years; then Shelah, 433 years; then Peleg, 239; and then Terah, the father of Abraham, 148 years. And then the age of the patriarchs: Abraham, 175 years; Isaac, 180 years; Jacob, 147 years. And then after the four-hundred-year bondage in Egypt: Moses, 120 years; Joshua, 110 years. And when we get to the period of the kings, David died at 70, Solomon at 80, which is where things have stood, I suppose you could say, for three thousand years — 70 or 80 years at best.
Where Death Reigns
Now, as far as I can see, the Bible does not state explicitly why God would ordain that early mankind would live so long, but I think if we ponder what the Bible says about why our lives are so short, we will get a clue as to why the early generations lived so long. We know from the story of creation in Genesis 1–3 and in Romans 5:12–14 that death was not intended to be a part of the perfect world before sin entered the world — and with it, death. Death was threatened by God as a penalty for disobedience (Genesis 2:17). Therefore, the presence of death in the world is not a natural part of the original, perfect creation but a judicial part of the fallen creation. It’s a punishment. The apostle Paul puts it like this in Romans 8:20–21:
The creation was subjected [so that’s the fall under God’s judgment] to futility [by God], not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
“Look for your portion and hope and treasure outside this world. Look to Christ.”
Paul describes the present situation of the created world as subjected to futility and in bondage to corruption. And that word corruption regularly refers to mortality and how things move from a state of vitality to dissolution and death. God subjected the world to corruption, futility, death. Death is a divine, judicial sentence upon humanity because of sin. The psalmist put it like this:
A thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning. . . .
For all our days pass away under your wrath [that’s the judicial part of death];
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:4–5, 9–10)
Life Is a Vapor
Now, if we ask what the aim of this divine judgment is, the answer is at least partly to make us aware that sin is horrible. Sin is a great outrage against God, and life is short and eternity is long, and we need wisdom to know how to think and live with so little time on earth compared to eternity. So, the psalmist prays,
O Lord, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!
Surely a man goes about as a shadow! (Psalm 39:4–6)
And James in the New Testament makes the same point when he says, “[Let the rich boast] in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away” (James 1:10). Peter makes the same point in 1 Peter 1:24–25: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” In other words, human mortality and the shortness of life cries out to the world, “Your life is a vapor. Your life is a vapor. Take hold of what lasts. Take hold of God. Take hold of Christ. Take hold of the gospel.”
God’s point to the world in the brevity of life is that a trumpet blast be sounded from every funeral — millions upon millions of funerals — “Look away. Look away from this mortal life. Look away from this fallen world of sin and corruption and futility. Look for your portion and your hope and your treasure outside this world. Look to God. Look to Christ. Look to the gospel.” That’s the point of mortality.
What can we say about the extraordinarily long lives, then, of those first humans in Genesis 1–10? Why did they live 900 years? Perhaps there’s a clue in listening to the patriarch Jacob before he died. He said in Genesis 47:9,
The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.
Jacob feels the contrast between his length of life, which we would consider long, and the length of those who have gone before. And surely we feel it — we should feel it — when we look at our “threescore years and ten,” or “by reason of strength . . . fourscore years” — or 87 or 88 like my dad (Psalm 90:10 KJV). Surely we are to feel that some of our ancestors lived ten times that long, and we are to wonder at it.
“The gospel of Christ reverses the curse of mortality, and opens the door of eternal life for all who believe.”
So, my suggestion is that God granted those long lives so that we, looking back, could see from which we have fallen. In other words, those long lives testify that death was not part of the perfect creation. God ordains as a lesson to us that the force of life be preserved for hundreds of years in very long lives in those early centuries to show that life, not death, was his design and our portion in creation at the beginning. So, the long lives of those first humans stand as a testimony of how utterly short our lives are and how God’s design at the beginning and his design in the future is life — indeed, eternal life.
Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:10, “[Grace] has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” In other words, the gospel of Christ reverses the curse of mortality, and opens the door of eternal life for all who believe. Those long lives were just pointers: it’s about life; it’s about life. And then it’s taken from us in its fullness and restored in the gospel through Jesus.