In , 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 ( 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.”1

The main objection to this view is that Adam and Eve did not die “in the day” that they ate (), if in fact ordinary death was in view. But this is to misunderstand the Hebrew idiom, as Walter Kaiser et al. explain:2

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 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 ; ).

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 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.”3

So the verse does not refer to a so-called “spiritual death,” an idea popularized relatively late in church history. It is often read into , 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. ). 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” (). 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 ().

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 (). However, is warning about the ultimate consequence or judicial penalty for sin (cf. “the wages of sin is death,” ). This should not be confused with the sinful state itself.

The view that 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 speaks of ordinary death is also clear in the New Testament. 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,” ), to overcome the problem introduced by Adam. Resurrection undoes death, and a victorious one overturns it forever ().

In 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” (), and explain that “the end of [sinful] things is death” (). This is the context for understanding the famous statement: “the wages of sin is death” (). 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” (). While we are united with Christ through baptism, which is symbolic and “spiritual,” our future resurrection, like Christ’s, will be spectacular and physical.

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). 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” ().

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

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

 

 

*       *       *       *       *       *

 

 

  1. I do not recommend using the term “physical death” (or “biological death”) unless deemed necessary. If further clarity is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” The term “physical death” implies an unhelpful dichotomy between physical and spiritual death, and prejudices an interest in mechanisms that might attend death, in terms of things like bodies and souls. But 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 (), unlike ordinary death where resurrection follows, but it is still an end to life. 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. 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. []
  3. See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865. []

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of 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—”

10:1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.

16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.

26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Matthew 28

28:1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

37 For on the day you go out and cross the brook Kidron, know for certain that you shall die. Your blood shall be on your own head.”

5:1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.

28 On the day when the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt,

Exodus 10:28

28 Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.”

Exodus 32:34

34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Genesis 3:22

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of 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—”

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of 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—”

14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of 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—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.

16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.

18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Romans 6:9

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,

2:1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,

“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.”

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,

“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”

13 And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again,

“Behold, I and the children God has given me.”

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrews 2:14-15

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”