Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23

In Genesis 2:17, God’s warning “you will certainly die” (מֹות תָּמֽוּת) refers to the penalty or consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin, should they disobey God’s command. They had been given the ongoing privilege to “live forever” by accessing the Tree of Life (Gen 3:22 cf. 16), but this would be forfeited and their lives would be cut short by death—death as normally and universally understood; sometimes called “physical death.”1I do not recommend using the term “physical death” (or “biological death”) unless deemed necessary. If further clarity than simply “death” is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” The term “physical death” implies an unhelpful dichotomy between physical and spiritual death, and/or prejudices an interest in mechanisms that might attend death, in terms of things like bodies and souls. The more obvious way to define death is through its operation upon life, which is, simply, to bring life to an end. Death at any time does this, so we should also be mindful not to think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). It might be complete and permanent (Matt 10;28), unlike ordinary death where resurrection follows, but it is still an end to life. Romans 6:23 simply says “death” for good reason. The universal wages of sin is not first death, second death, physical death or spiritual death. It’s just death, the ending of life.

The main objection to this view is that Adam and Eve did not die “in the day” that they ate (Gen 2:17), if in fact ordinary death was in view. But this is to misunderstand the Hebrew idiom, as Walter Kaiser et al. explain:3Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Baruch, “Hard Sayings of the Bible” (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 92, emphasis in original.

It is just as naive to insist that the phrase “in the day” means that on that very day death would occur. A little knowledge of the Hebrew idiom will relieve the tension here as well. For example, in 1 Kings 2:37 King Solomon warned a seditious Shimei, “The day you leave [Jerusalem] and cross the Kidron Valley [which is immediately outside the city walls on the east side of the city], you can be sure you will die.” Neither the 1 Kings nor the Genesis text implies immediacy of action on that very same day; instead they point to the certainty of the predicted consequence that would be set in motion by the act initiated on that day. Alternate wordings include at the time when, at that time, now when and the day [when] (see Gen. 5:1; Ex. 6:28; 10:28; 32:34).

In other words, “you will certainly die” became true instantly, as a kind of death sentence or curse. But the timing of the death event is not specified in the warning. This is clear in the Aramaic translation of Genesis 2:17 found in Targum Jonathan, which suffices to show that at the time of Jesus this was viewed as ordinary death. It reads, “in the day that thou eatest thou wilt be guilty of death.”2See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865.

We might also consult other well-known scholars. Robert Alter, an expert on ancient Hebrew literature, put it this way:4See Robert Alter, “Genesis: Translation and Commentary,” W.W. Norton & Company.

The form of the Hebrew in both instances is what grammarians call the infinitive absolute: the infinitive immediately followed by a conjugated form of the same verb. The general effect of this repetition is to add emphasis to the verb, but because in the case of the verb “to die” it is the pattern regularly used in the Bible for the issuing of death sentences, “doomed to die” is an appropriate equivalent.

Or John Walton, another recognized expert in this area:5See John Walton, “NIVAC Bundle 1: Pentateuch (The NIV Application Commentary),” Zondervan.

The KJV, NKJV, and NASB all translate “in the day” you eat from it. The NIV has replaced this with the appropriate English rendering “when.” The expression “in the day” is one of the major ways in Hebrew to say “when” and does not suggest that the events described will take place within the next twenty-four hours, though, as Wenham maintains, its use implies promptness. More important, the verbal combination that describes the penalty (“you will surely die”) needs clarification. The profile of this combination of verb forms (infinitive absolute coupled with finite verb of the same root) using the root “to die” can be established with a good deal of confidence. In Jeremiah 26, the prophet delivers a scathing message to the people of Judah to the effect that the temple will be destroyed (26:4–6). The response of the people and priests is not repentance but antagonism toward Jeremiah as they seize him and pass sentence: “You must die!” (26:8). The explanation is given a few verses later, “This man should be sentenced to death because he has prophesied against this city” (26:11). Jeremiah 26:8 uses the same phrase as we have in Genesis 2:17, but it is Jeremiah 26:11 that shows us exactly what the people mean by using that phrase in verse 8. When they say, “You will surely die,” they are talking about the eventual outcome of the behavior. The sentence will be passed, the doom will be fixed. This phrase is also used in the historical literature to pass sentence on offenders of various kinds (Gen. 20:7; Num. 26:65; 1 Sam. 14:39, 44; 1 Kings 2:37, 42). The resulting paraphrase of Genesis 2:17 then is: “When you eat of it, you will be sentenced to death and therefore doomed to die.” Consequently, death will be a certainty.

The significance of this has some impact on theology. The theological logic that has been applied to this text in the past is that since Adam and Eve did not drop over dead on the first bite of the forbidden fruit or die shortly thereafter (“that day”), the warning from God must have referred to spiritual death. This is an excellent example of how exegetical shortsightedness can result in unwarranted theological conclusions. There is no reason to dispute the concept of spiritual death or to question that Adam and Eve’s sin eventuated in that condition. It is a mistake, however, to deduce that the warning of 2:17 had spiritual death in mind because physical death did not occur right away. In actual fact, the language of the threatened penalty did not imply that physical death would immediately ensue. This penalty was enacted when they were driven out of the garden and prevented access to the tree of life. Without such access, they were doomed to die.

So Genesis 2:17 simply does not warn about a so-called “spiritual death,” an idea popularized relatively late in church history. It is often read into Genesis 3:7, on the assumption that whatever happened immediately on that day must be indicating death. The verse says that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked,” so clearly, something happened. But what it depicts is the acquisition of knowledge from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (cf. Gen 3:11, 22). According to the narrative they had been created naked, but it wasn’t until their figurative eyes were opened that they understood this nakedness on a different level, and felt ashamed. The explanation, as God soon declared, was that they had “become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:22). Therefore, they were prevented from living forever, following a series of penalties ultimately consigning the first man to the ground from which he was taken (Gen 3:14-23).

To make these observations is not to deny that any immediate “spiritual” fallout occurred, where to be in a state of sin may be likened to being dead (Eph 2:1). However, Genesis 2:17 is warning about the ultimate consequence or judicial penalty for sin (cf. “the wages of sin is death,” Rom 6:23). This should not be confused with the sinful state itself.

The view that Genesis 2:17 speaks of ordinary death is not unique to conditionalism. It was common in the writings of the early church Fathers, and is held by many theologians and commentators today, who routinely discuss the mortality introduced by Adam and Eve. It is pervasive in Young-Earth Creationism (YEC), which insists that there was no death before Adam and Eve. But we may insist on it as a feature of the narrative without necessarily holding to YEC, treating the text first and foremost as a piece of (inspired) ancient literature. Only once it is parsed on its own terms, should we consider how to harmonize it with scientific perspectives (or whether that is even desirable).

That Genesis 2:17 speaks of ordinary death is also clear in the New Testament. First Corinthians 15:21 explains the relationship between death and resurrection: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” In context, Paul is presenting resurrection as the solution for those “in Christ” (v22 cf. “the dead in Christ,” 1 Thess 4:16), to overcome the problem introduced by Adam. Resurrection undoes death, and a victorious one overturns it forever (Rev 1:18).

In Romans 5:12-14 Paul is referring to the same problem, saying, “death spread to all men because all sinned . . . [even] before the law was given . . . death reigned from Adam to Moses . . . [Adam] was a type of the one who was to come.” Here Paul is reasoning that the death penalty for serious sins in the law of Moses could not explain why everyone beforehand still had to die, so there must be liability to a more universal law. He will go on to label it “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2), and explain that “the end of [sinful] things is death” (Rom 6:21). This is the context for understanding the famous statement: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). James poetically echoes the same two-stage progression, explaining that “sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (Jas 1:15).

The gospel message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection elucidates biblical descriptions of the “bad news” of the human predicament. We must be able to see a direct correspondence of problem and solution. Whether we do preserve the integrity of this cruciform structure in our theology can serve as a litmus test.

For Paul, Christ’s sinless life and consequent victory over death is the solution: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his . . . Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:5, 9). While we are united with Christ through baptism, which is symbolic and “spiritual,” our future resurrection, like Christ’s, will be spectacular and physical.

Second Timothy 1:10 says that Jesus “abolished death . . . through the gospel.” Knowing how he did this, according to the gospel, helps us see clearly what “death” is in view here (whether death as ordinarily understood, or else a spiritual kind of death). Hebrews 2 explains: Jesus took the human form of “flesh and blood” so that he might “taste death for everyone,” that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:9, 14-15).

Although Christ has already conquered sin and reconciled us to himself, the salvation process culminates in “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26), which will occur with the resurrection of believers, when “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54).

Critics of conditionalism sometimes urge that “the biblical definition of death” is a spiritual one. But when we focus our interest on the particular death that Adam introduced into the world, which Jesus overcame for us by dying without sin and then rising from the dead, that claim is hard to reconcile with the relevant biblical descriptions.

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1. I do not recommend using the term “physical death” (or “biological death”) unless deemed necessary. If further clarity than simply “death” is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” The term “physical death” implies an unhelpful dichotomy between physical and spiritual death, and/or prejudices an interest in mechanisms that might attend death, in terms of things like bodies and souls. The more obvious way to define death is through its operation upon life, which is, simply, to bring life to an end. Death at any time does this, so we should also be mindful not to think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). It might be complete and permanent (Matt 10;28), unlike ordinary death where resurrection follows, but it is still an end to life. Romans 6:23 simply says “death” for good reason. The universal wages of sin is not first death, second death, physical death or spiritual death. It’s just death, the ending of life.
2. See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865.
3. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Baruch, “Hard Sayings of the Bible” (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 92, emphasis in original.
4. See Robert Alter, “Genesis: Translation and Commentary,” W.W. Norton & Company.
5. See John Walton, “NIVAC Bundle 1: Pentateuch (The NIV Application Commentary),” Zondervan.
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