At first blush the question proposed in the title seems ridiculous. Everything we have ever read in science manuals tells us plants are living organisms. However, just because it is the accepted norm, does not mean it is correct. Evolution is the accepted norm throughout the scientific community but it is riddled with fallacies and falsehoods. So before dismissing the question as a ridiculous one, let us consider the facts.
The first thing to note in this discussion is that there is a generally accepted definition of life among biologists. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary it is as follows: “an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction” In the next section, we will break that definition down into its meanings and explain if plants fit this definition. Before that, however, we must also understand what the Bible means when it says something is alive. Leviticus 17:11, in discussing the laws for cooking of food, says ” For the life of the flesh is in the blood:” In a moment, we shall discuss the implications of this as well.
First, do plants fit the biological definition of life? In order to understand this, it is necessary to know what the biological definition of life means. The first qualification is metabolism. A metabolism is the ability of an organism to digest nutrients and use those nutrients to produce energy. Plants most definitely do this through the photosynthetic cycle, which is the subject of a future blog post. Plants most definitely grow as well, with some plants such as trees, growing over a hundred feet in height. Reaction to stimuli is dicier. Some plants do react to stimuli, such as vines responding to touch. Most plants also respond to increase or decrease of sunlight. However, not all plants respond to stimuli. Some do not respond to a variance of sunlight, while others only respond to some forms of stimuli. This cannot be used as a hard and fast determinant for whether plants are alive. The fourth aspect of life is the ability to reproduce itself. Plants most definitely have the ability to reproduce themselves. So, on three of the four counts, plants are biologically alive, with the fourth most in that court as well.
The issue with this biological definition of life is that it could also include crystals. Crystals are solid objects which are made of inorganic molecules formed in a latticework. They have the ability to grow on their own, provided the correct inorganic materials are available. They do respond to some forms of stimuli, particularly chemical and tactile stimulus. They can metabolize in certain situations, though they do not metabolize organic material as we expect, but rather inorganic material. However, the ability to reproduce is where crystals falter. They can grow larger, but there is no obvious forming of new crystal colonies from the old ones. However, this is an area that has not been thoroughly studied so it is possible that crystals are just as alive as plants. This being the case, the definition of life probably should be tightened up somewhat to include something along the lines of consciousness and thought. This would exclude plants and crystals alike.
Biblically, plants face a much larger challenge to be considered alive. Nowhere in the Scripture does the Bible call plants alive or living. Animals are routinely affirmed to be alive, but plants are not. The words for life in the Hebrew, chay, nephesh, and n@shamah chay are not used until after plants are created. The last phrase, n@shamah chay, literally means “breath of life” and is used to describe man. Note also that when God sought an help-meet for Adam, He did not offer plants, rather chay nephesh or “living creatures”. Unsurprisingly, based on Scripture, we find that God defines life differently than scientists do.
How then should life be defined to ensure it matches with what God says? It would definitely need to get more specific. For example, a definition might read ” A living organism is one that has the ability metabolize nutrients, increase in size from within, respond to external stimuli, has the ability reproduce itself and has some internal consciousness. ”
So, are plants actually alive? The answer is it depends on your definition of alive. If you go by the Biblical definition, the answer is no. If we go by the scientific definition, the answer is yes. It’s completely dependent on which definition you choose to use. Which is why it is important that we as Christians settle on a definition. The Bible demands that there cannot be death before sin. If that is the case, plants cannot be alive, because they would have needed to be eaten herbivores in the Garden of Eden, causing death. Therefore the definition suggested above is perhaps a more Biblical definition of life.
You might consider extending the thought of what is alive to other groups of things. It seems like your discussion of viruses might be amended if you consider if they are alive as you have here. At the end of that article you suggest that viruses were created “good” in the original creation as if their present actions are not good and thus they had a different function originally. For example you suggest that viruses may have had a “good” purpose of transferring DNA from one bacteria to another. However, think about your definition of life above. If plants are not “living” in a Biblical sense then use of a plant for forage or even building or fire is not “bad” or “evil” in any way but rather part of God’s sovereign plan for maintaining his creation. By extension, surely if plants are not truly “living” then neither are bacteria or viruses. You can go on and ask the same thing of fungi, algae and even insects and “lower” animals. If animals in the garden could have eaten plants without impunity why couldn’t a virus consume a plant as well? Even a virus that might “kill” its host is not really killing (you can’t kill what is not alive) but rather using a resource and the degradation of that resource adds new resources back into the soil for other plants to use. How different is this really from water eroding a rock or mist watering the ground or sunlight heating the soil? Taking that a bit further, it is estimated that viruses may “kill” a significant portion of marine bacteria every single day but that is “good” in the sense that if bacteria were not lysed on a regular basis within days they would consume and store all the necessary nutrients for “life” and the food web would collapse. God’s good design could be that viruses are purposed to be global nutrient recyclers.