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.” 1
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: 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 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.” 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 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 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.
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- 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 (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.
- 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.
- See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865.