But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:17)
This week a young man, who labeled himself an agnostic, wrote in with a very good question concerning the curse of death. His question was posed as follows:
Genesis 2:17 says, “in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Assuming that day equals 24 hours (big assumption, but Gen 2 is still part of the creation account) then the death must be spiritual or non-literal, since Adam lived to be 930 years – Gen 5:5. If the death resulting from sin is not literal, what is the relationship between sin and physical death? Is there any relation at all? Could physical death have occurred before sin? If sin and physical death are not related, why would Jesus have to rise from the dead? Is a bodily resurrection necessary for salvation? Why? Does any of the apostle Paul’s teaching of Christ conflict with a spiritual interpretation of death and sin? (I Cor 15:12-22)
Alternately, if the term “day” in Genesis 2:17 is not 24 hours, but instead an unspecified length of time equalling [sic] at least 930 years, most of the same questions about the relationship between sin and physical death would still apply.
His question is a very good one, and one of the key points in our biblical apologetics. The “death” described in Genesis 2:17 must be taken in context with the entire account of creation and the Fall, and in light of the rest of Scripture. Genesis 1 and 2 both narrate the creation account. Genesis 1:1-2:4 is God’s account of creation, and it gives a broad overview of the creation week. (For more details, see the notes on Genesis 1 and Genesis 2:1-4). Genesis 2:5 begins Adam’s account, and the focus is on Day Six and the creation of man. Allow me to regress and point out that chapter and verse divisions are not inspired. The original text was a continual reading with no breaks. This can sometimes be an obstacle, if one does not recognize that fact.
Another point that needs to be clarified is that the 24-hour day is not an “assumption” as he suggests. The Hebrew word used is yom, and it almost always means a normal 24-hour day in the Bible. When it is not a 24-hour day, such as in the “day of the Lord” (yom laYahweh) it is referring to a specific time, but never an extended period of time. Furthermore, God clearly defines the meaning of “day” with the phrase “evening and morning were the nth day” (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23).
At the end of the sixth day, God declared His creation not only “good” as in the previous five days, but “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Keep in mind that this assessment comes from an ultimately perfect being. So, if death existed before the fall, can death be considered a very good thing? If we say death is good, then how can death be a curse? And if death cannot be a curse, then why should Jesus die to pay the curse (the wages) of sin? If death was just a “spiritual” death, then, again, why should Jesus die a “physical” death to atone for a “spiritual” death? That really does throw a huge wrench in the works of the Gospel.
But “physical” death is NOT good. The Bible calls death the “enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). In the end, “death and hell (Greek hades “the grave”)” are cast into “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14). So, physical death cannot be part of a “very good” creation, if the Creator counts it as an enemy and something to be abolished. When God issued the command “thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17), He was speaking of physical death. “Spiritual” death, i.e., separation from God, was a necessary consequence of that disobedience because He is the source of life (Job 33:4; Psalm 36:9; John 1:4; 5:26; 6:48; 10:28; 11:25; 14:6, et al). So, the death was both physical and spiritual. To further emphasize the point, Adam and Eve, since they had never experienced or observed death (keeping in mind that this all occurred shortly after creation – probably within a week or so), God (in the form of the pre-incarnate Christ – my opinion) sacrificed two (or more) innocent animals (probably sheep) in order to “cover” (atone for) their sin (Genesis 3:21). This was the first physical death of anything to this point, but on the spiritual side, man had already lost that intimate relationship with their Creator (Genesis 3:8).
This young man observed that Adam lived 930 years and concludes that the death curse must not have been physical but only spiritual, because they did not die immediately. One needs only to read Chapter 5 of Genesis and count how often the phrase “and he died” is repeated. Adam and Eve did not die instantly when they ate of the fruit, but they initiated the dying process. The phrase “you shall surely die” (Hebrew: mot tamot) would be better translated “dying you shall die.” Furthermore, the couple was denied access to the “tree of life” (Genesis 3:22) because apparently it had properties that would extend their life forever. The fact that they lived the long ages that they did is attributable to near perfect DNA (with the exception of the death mutation), and a near perfect environment. You may want to note the steady decline in longevity following the Global flood (Genesis 11:11-32).
Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15:12-22 confirms that the curse of death is both physical and spiritual – physical in that our bodies degenerate to the point that they cease to function (we die), and spiritual in that our sin separates us from God (as physical death separates our spirit from our body). Jesus was sinless, like the first lambs sacrificed for Adam and Eve. Paul tells us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23); here we are speaking of that spiritual death that separates us from God. Jesus’ death on the cross was the only sacrifice suitable to pay that debt of sin that separates us from God for all of mankind. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Then when He rose again, He conquered the curse of physical death so that we can have eternal life. The choice, however, remains with us. From beginning to end, God has provided the way to restore that broken relationship and to enjoy eternal life with our Creator. We can either accept His offer, or reject it. “He came unto his own [not only the Jews, but mankind in general], and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:11-12).