Death before the Fall: an exploration


Was there death before the Fall?

Assuming the biblical record of creation in my thinking, the answer – at least as it relates to human beings – has to be no.  If Adam and Eve – the pinacle of God’s creation and made in His image – are in fact the first people (and i think they are) then clearly, no one dies before the Fall.

But that, of course, is not really the question i want to explore.  The question is: Could they have died before the Fall?  Or, even more to the point: Did God create human beings immortal (unable to die) and then they became mortal (able to die) after rebelling against God and bringing sin into the world?

I want to look at a few notable passages of Scripture and then draw a few conclusions.  The answer is by no means settled in my mind, however, hence the title of this post.

When it comes to answering in the negative, viz. that human beings could not have died before the Fall, two of the big-daddy Scriptures that seem to close the case are Gen. 2:16-17  and Rom. 5:12.  Here we see clearly that God promises death to Adam if/when he should eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Then later, in Romans 5, the apostle Paul – referring to the event when Adam and Eve did in fact sin in this way as a literal, historical event – says that because of Adam’s sin death entered into the world and it spread to all mankind.

Clearly, Scripture is revealing to us that physical death is a consequence of the Fall which, by necessity, implies that before the Fall, death did not – nay, could not – occur.

Or is it ….?

I want to quickly look at three interesting Scriptures that – for me anyways – at least make me want to look further and longer.

1. But they don’t die!  Ok, maybe this one should be obvious, but after clearly warning Adam (and then Eve through Adam) that if they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they will “surely die”, most of my life hearing this story i have been constantly bothered by the fact that when Adam and Eve eat of that fruit and disobey that one, simple command … they don’t die!  I always expected the fruit to be like poison in their mouths and they just drop dead then and there, and God is like, “SEE!!!!  I told you you would die of you ate the fruit!  Ugh!!”  I don’t think we need to belabour the point, but it stands to reason that, right away, we should at least consider other possible definitions if God says they will surely die if they eat the fruit and then they eat it and don’t die.  We know God isn’t lying to them or tricking them, and so it could be possible that He meant something other than physical death.  Of course, it could be argued that then they do later die and so what God really meant was that they would then experience the decay of sin and eventual physical death as we do now.  But for the moment, let’s just put a post-it note by “it could be an option that God did not mean physical death” and that humans always could die before the Fall.

2. Paul’s shifting definition of death in Romans 5.  What’s interesting about Romans 5 is that after hammering the whole “Adam’s sin = death” thing for verses 12-15,17 (and even then he never says physical death), he then goes on with the same description/comparison about the first and second Adams, but he starts substituting the terms “death” and “died” with “condemnation” and “made sinners” (ESV) [this starts to sound very much like Romans 8 now].  So he switches from a death-life comparison to a condemnation/made sinners-imputed righteousness of Christ/justification comparison.  To me, that adds yet another question mark to the cut and dry case of physical death being a consequence of the Fall.  Beyond this even, we know that even those who have received the free gift of grace from Christ still physically die.  Of course, we have life eternal, but that leans more towards the conclusion i am considering presently, viz. that the “death” God promises to punish Adam with (and all mankind after him) is spiritual and not physical.  This would also line up with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in 2:1-6 which describes us as “dead in our sins” even though, physically, we are still very much alive.

3. The tree of life in Gen. 3:22-24 and Rev. 2:7, 22:2.  This is the other piece that, as long as i have heard this history of Adam and Eve, has brought up questions.  And yet it is so easy to pass over!  In Gen.3:22 after cursing the serpent, Eve and Adam for their sin, in an act of grace and mercy to His now sin-stained creation God says,

” ‘Behold the man has become like one if us in knowing good and evil.  Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever –‘ therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.  He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”

Now, this is the same tree of life that is mentioned in Gen. 2:9b that God had made, and the implication of Gen. 3:22-24 is that God does not want mankind to live in this eternal state of sinfulness forever.  And so, to keep them from living forever He keeps them from eating of the tree of life in the garden ever again.  The obvious implication is that it is in eating of the tree of life that this (living forever) would be possible.

Even more intriguing is the fact that we are told in the book of the Revelation, that this same tree of life is now in Heaven (Rev. 2:7, 22:2).  The implication then being that we will truly have eternal physical life (in our glorified bodies) because we will always be able to eat from the tree of life forever as well as drink from its water which flows from the tree throughout Heaven.  This should also gives us a new slant by which to view Christ’s command to abide in Him like a branch connected to a Vine in John 15.

So where does that leave us?  A good case could be argued from these passages above that physical death was the result of sin for all mankind because we were bared from the garden  of Eden where the tree of life was located at that time.  Fine.  Granted.  But it still leaves the question of the mortality of mankind apart from eating of the tree of life before the Fall open in my mind. For it seems that God’s gracious kindness to mankind is to bar them from the tree of life so that they can die,  thereby freeing them from eternal captivity to the consequences of their sin.  But that the source of that eternal life was eating from the tree of life, not that they were made immortal before the Fall.

For me, the Revelation 2:7, 22:2 piece along with the John 15 (cf. Eph. 2:1-6) piece make an all the more compelling case for the idea that spiritual death, not physical death, was the primary consequence implied by God’s command in Gen. 2:16,17.  The separation of mankind from God because of sin is  the cause of spiritual death and ultimate, eternal death – though we are currently physically alive – apart from the saving work of Christ, in Whom we again partake of spiritual Food/Life, Cf. John 6:53-56, 15:4-7, Rev. 2:7.


5 thoughts on “Death before the Fall: an exploration

  1. The “deep sleep” God puts Adam into refers to a death-like state (a decreation in preparation for resurrection to greater glory – Eve). So Adam probably at least had some idea of what God said when He said “you will die.” Not sure if that helps or hurts your argument but there it is.

    • Interesting point for sure. I would question whether or not that “death like state” was anything more than qualifying the depth of sleep that God put him into, viz. one in which he would not wake from without God awakening him. Be that as it may, it is an interesting thought i had not considered before. Are you saying then that you think Adam needed this example to know what this consequence of “death” was for eating the forbidden tree?

      • That’s part of it – the more important implication is that for Adam, more glorious life (with Eve) followed his “death.”

        This is the pattern throughout Scripture, of course. We are in one state, to move to another, we die and are raised to greater glory (Job is a good example).

  2. 1. It’s not that they die, because they surely end up dying, it’s that they don’t die when they eat, “…for in the day [when] that you eat from it you will surely die.” This reminds me of the passage I was just reading a week or so ago in 1 Kings 2, when King Solomon, at the start of his reign, says to Shimei, who had mistreated his father David, “Build for yourself a house in Jerusalem and live there, and do not go out from there to any place. For on the day [when] you go out and cross over the brook Kidron, you will know for certain that you shall surely die…,” which is essentially the same wording. Yet when Shimei goes to Gath to recover his servants and returns, which would take far more than a single day, Solomon doesn’t put him to death right away. He calls him in after his return after he’s been told what he does, dialogs with him and then has him killed. Furthermore, what is translated surely die in Hebrew is more something like die die (Hebrew way to emphasize or intensify, but also marking completeness or forcibleness), which I think could be just as well be translated more literally “dying you shall die”, which is exactly what happens to Adam and Eve. Furthermore, I don’t think we can separate what happens without also looking at Genesis 3 where God pronounces the curses on Adam and everything that was given under him. God says, “Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.” So, the fact that physical death is in view is unavoidable. I read this analogy: if a branch is chopped off a tree and it falls onto hard concrete, one can say that it’s already dead, cut off from the source of life. But the process of physical death takes some time―the cells in the leaves will continue to photosynthesize for several days at least. Similarly, when Adam sinned, he immediately cut himself off from the Source of life, but the dying process took 930 years. For me, the greatest mystery that always gets me is how God still interacts with his rebellious creation after they sin, still going after them, talking to them, and giving them God-label garments out of animals that get killed to clothe them. To me there’s still a lot of interaction between God and Adam and Eve even after their spiritual death. It was not that the fruit of the tree was poisonous, but the fact that they disobeyed that caused their death.

    2. I don’t understand why it can’t be both/and, not either/or. In other words, I don’t understand how rightly understanding the condemnation/made sinners-imputed righteousness/justification comparison then can be turned around to change the clear meaning of sinning/physical dying. The condemnation/justification is grounded on historical events that happened and occur to everyone thereafter. I don’t see a shift in definition, but death is talked about in the first place, while something else, the basis of the “eternal [lasting forever] life” (v. 21) whereby we “*will* reign in life”, or as in v. 18 “justification of life” is talked about near the end of the chapter. Perhaps Romans 5 is also better illuminated by Paul’s treatment of Adam and the last Adam in 1 Corinthians 15, and not Ephesians 2:1-6, where the “dead” there is explicitly “in sins”. Otherwise, why would Paul be starting out Romans 5:6 with Christ dying? Why couldn’t Christ just have spiritually died? He goes on to say at the pre-amble, “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, and talks about His blood, death, and life.”

    3. Returning to the tree of life that was briefly discussed in 1 above, I think it is likewise analogous to asking whether it’s the tree of life that allows everyone to live forever in the new heavens and earth in Revelation. As in Revelation 2:7, is it not to those who overcome that are granted to eat of that tree? So it is really remaining in Christ that gives the eternal life, and not merely the eating of the tree of life. It’s like how God perfectly sustained the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years where, “your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandal has not worn out on your foot (Deuteronomy 29:5).” Whereas in the Garden he could have used the Tree of Life as the means. I’ve heard it alluded to as a sacrament, both in the Garden of Eden and in the Paradise of God. While I think this statement may get me in trouble with Roman Catholics, do you believe it’s in the baptism that grants you salvation? Is it not just a sacrament that symbolizes your unity with what Christ in what he has done and your new resurrected life? I think it was Calvin that said something along the lines of putting the Cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life so that man may look to something/someone else for his salvation/life.

    I like MadDawg’s analogy to Adam being put to a deep sleep so that Adam would know what it would be like to die, when I hear some say that there must have been other animal death so that Adam would know what God was talking about when he gave his command and its consequences. Of course, God made Adam with the intelligence to communicate abstractly. As an aside, I’m sure Adam didn’t have to watch animals mate before knowing how to have sex with Eve, I think they had sex the first day!

    In summary, I think it’s important to also consider other passages, when taken together solidify that we are right to take the inference that man would not have physically died had he not sinned, such as from the Curse and 1 Corinthians 15, among others. It is quite interesting for instance that at the end of almost every person listed in the genealogies of Genesis 5 is the statement “and he died.” May we look to Christ, and him alone, both for our future bodily resurrected life and our current spiritual life.

    • Davey Crocket –
      thanks for this thoughtful and well reasoned reply. I appreciate your interaction with this stuff as always bro.
      1. Truly, as you say, it’s not that the fruit is poisonous and God is just warning them not to eat it. As for the similar wording you mentioned in 1 Kings 2, i would want to be careful in drawing a 1-1 comparison between the spoken covenant promises/curses of God and the warnings of an earthly king first off. I think we may draw a thematic parallel but surely you would agree that God has the power to carry out instantaneously what Solomon could not have. It’s interesting that you bring up the curses pronounced in Gen. 3. This was also – for me – evidence to the punishment *not* being physical death as well b/c none of the curses for mankind are about physical death but about the struggles they will now have in life. Ergo, i read 3:19 as “now instead of the ground producing easily for you until you return to the ground from which you were made, it will be by the sweat of your brow, viz. hard labour, that you work the ground until you return to the dust from which you were made.” So i agree that physical death is unavoidable to see in the curses; i just wonder of that part is not already assumed. Beyond all that, as you say, i too am amazed at the continued interaction God has with His rebellious creation – even promising their redemption within the curses! (I love the “God-lable” garments 😉 ) This to me points to God’s plan of redemption already being in place long before He creates a single atom of earth.

      2. The Rom. 5/Gen.2 may in fact be both/and and not either/or (again, this is just an exploration). I agree, the 1 Cor. 15 does seem to make a clearer distinction but i still feel that, b/c Paul is focusing more in that pericope on the fact that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead shows that His payment has been accepted by the Father for this sins of mankind, that the “death in Adam” Paul speaks of and the “life in Christ” can still be referring to the spiritual life we can have in Christ alone b/c He alone is the Way to receive it. I want to look more into that though and see if that follows; that’s a good addition.

      3. As for the tree of life, i think we need to begin by settling the question: is the tree a literal tree? I agree there is seeming sacramental language to what is presented, but i don’t think that we have to get to an ex opera operato implication. Either way, i think before we get to Rev. 2:7, we have to deal with Gen. 3:22 and God’s clear statement that it is in eating from the tree that man is able to live forever (at least that’s how i read it). Revelation is – as you say – harder to make a definitive statement about as the book is apocalyptic in genre but i think there is, at least, a referential connection. one could argue that – if the tree is not literal – than it is referring to Christ himself and so, in sinning, man is barred from feeding on Christ in Whom we find life (this is surely some of the sacramental part). Surely, i think the RC’s take this too far in suggesting that the eating of the Eucharist confers grace to the partaker irrespective of their faith in Christ.

      In the end, while i see logically many of the points you make, i still feel like they require importing more into the text itself to explain why physical death *is* in view than in simply seeing the death God refers to as a spiritual death. Of course there are implications for seeing the text in such a way, but … Sola Scriptura means that i must allow the text to be the authority and not allowing the way i wish to see things to inform my reading of the text.

      Love to continue learning and growing in this with you.

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