In 2019, the United Nations reported that “all societies in the world are in the midst of [a] longevity revolution—some are at its early stages and some are more advanced.”1 Although it is highly improbable that nations will ever succeed in prolonging the average lifespan to any significant extent, there was a time when mankind lived extraordinarily long lives during the time leading up to the flood. Scripture teaches that there was then a progressive shortening of man’s lifespan from Noah to Abraham, and from Abraham to Moses. There are several important reasons why God purposed to allow the first generations of humanity to live as long as they did; and, there is a significant theological rationale for why He shortened the lifespan of humanity.

At the beginning of Genesis, we read of a number of extraordinarily long lives at the beginning of human history. In Genesis we read that Adam lived 930 years, Seth lived 912 years, Enosh lived 905 years, Kenan lived 910 years, Mahalalel lived 895 years, Jared lived 962 years, Methuselah lived 969 years, Lamech lived 777 years, and Noah lived 950 years (Gen. 5:5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31; 9:29).


In the first place, extended lifespans allowed mankind to populate the earth in partial fulfillment of the promise of redemption (Gen. 3:15). God had promised to redeem a people through the seed of the woman. God chose to use the very people who brought sin and misery into the world to populate the world in light of His promise of redemption. In Genesis 5:4 we read, “The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters.” We don’t know how many children Adam and Eve had in addition to the three sons we read of in the early chapters of Genesis. However, we do know that they had many other children, which would certainly include daughters, who must have married each other and then produced children themselves. The mandate to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) did not pass away after the fall. God still intended for humanity to populate and fill the earth. Martin Luther explained:

If you carefully compute the years of Adam, our first parent, you will observe that he lived more than fifty years together with Lamech, Noah’s father. Therefore, Adam saw all his descendants down to the ninth generation, and he had an almost countless multitude of sons and daughters whom Moses does not enumerate, since he was content to enumerate the main line of descent and its closest branches down to Noah.2

In light of the fall, it was a great kindness from God to Adam to allow him to see so many of his descendants—even to the seventh generation. This is heightened by the fact that Adam’s first son murdered his second son. How kind our God was to show Adam something of His covenant faithfulness by allowing him to participate in and witness the populating of the earth. What a reminder to mankind that God had promised to send a Redeemer into the world—the “offspring” of the woman.


In addition to the mandate to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), the mandate to cultivate the earth and develop civilizations was still in force. Perhaps another reason why God granted extended lifespans in the primitive era of human history was to give people the time to contribute to the initial development of society. How much quicker would cultures emerge and exploratory advancement occur if man lived longer in the primitive era? Although Scripture focuses on Cain and his descendants as those who made social advances for themselves and their evil intentions (Gen. 4:17–24), it is reasonable to conclude that the godly lineage of Seth also made contributions to society for the glory of God. By prolonging their lives, the Lord allowed image bearers to do significant exploration, invent, and make progress for the good of human society by means of longer lifespans.

God chose to use the very people who brought sin and misery into the world to populate the world in light of His promise of redemption.

Extended lifespans also facilitated the transmission of revelation during this period. Adam lived to the days of Lamech, Noah’s father. Between the times of Adam and Noah, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that God’s oral revelation was communicated and preserved from person to person and from generation to generation until it was ultimately written down in the days of Moses. John Calvin writes:

For through six successive ages, when the family of Seth had grown into a great people, the voice of Adam might daily resound, in order to renew the memory of the creation, the fall, and the punishment of man; to testify of the hope of salvation which remained after chastisement, and to recite the judgments of God, by which all might be instructed. After his death his sons might indeed deliver, as from hand to hand, what they had learned, to their descendants; but far more efficacious would be the instruction from the mouth of him, who had been himself the eye-witness of all these things.3

Robert Candlish observed, “The length of their days well fitted them for being the depositories of the revealed will of God, preserving and transmitting it from age to age; and since so many of them survived together, not for years only, but for centuries, they must have formed a holy and reverend company of teachers and witnesses in the world.”4


The question of the shortening of man’s lifespan is also a matter of great interest to the Christian. The shortening of the lifespan of humanity was a merciful restraint. Imagine if an Adolf Hitler, a Benito Mussolini, a Joseph Stalin, or a Mao Zedong had eight hundred years to perfect his evil regime. Think of the devastating effects that would result if people were given more time to act on their sin and depravity. The world would certainly destroy itself. This is evident from what we read about the violence on the earth in the days leading up to the flood. In light of that wickedness, the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years” (Gen. 6:3). While some have concluded that the reference to 120 years marks the length of time between God’s rebuking men on the earth and the sending of the flood, it is more likely that it is a reference to the shortening of man’s lifespan after the days of Noah (Gen. 25:7). Ultimately, God reduced man’s lifespan to an average of seventy or eighty years by the time of Moses (Ps. 90:10). The psalmist reflected on this principle of restraint when he described murderers and liars who “shall not live out half their days.” The psalmist concludes, “But I will trust in you” (Ps. 55:23).


No matter how long men lived after the fall, the curse of the fall echoed in the words “and he died.” Man could not outlive death, no matter how long his life may have been. The futility of life and the inevitability of death served to produce in that primitive era a greater taste of the bitterness of the fall, the longing for the promised Redeemer, and the hope of the resurrection. The extraordinarily long lives of Adam’s descendants served the purpose of God’s mercy, as did the shortening of man’s life. God shortened man’s lifespan so that we may hope in His mercy and long for His promised redemption in Christ. Additionally, it is a mercy for God to take believers away from this wicked and fallen world. Scripture teaches that the Lord sometimes takes the righteous away to keep them from experiencing more of the calamities and evils in this life (Isa. 57:1–2).

The Son of God came into this fallen world to take the sin of His people on Himself. Since He died in the place of murderers and liars, His life was cut short. He rose from the dead in order to give eternal life to all who trust in Him. Rather than hoping in a long life in this present fallen world, we can hope in the certainty of eternal life in glory with the Savior. Whatever else we may conclude, something of the glory and wisdom of God is displayed in the way that He has ordered His purposes in conjunction with the human lifespan.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 23, 2021.

  1. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Ageing 2019: Highlights” (New York: United Nations, 2019), ↩︎
  2. Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5, eds. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia, 1999), 342. ↩︎
  3. John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Bellingham, Wash.: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 1:229. ↩︎
  4. Robert Candlish, The Book of Genesis Expounded in a Series of Discourses (Edinburgh, Scotland: Adam and Charles Black, 1868), 119. ↩︎

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