Did Adam really die when he ate of the forbidden fruit?
In Genesis 2:17 God warned Adam, “But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (NASB). Later, in Genesis 3:4, Satan’s serpent assured Eve, “Surely you will not die!” When Adam and Eve yielded to temptation and partook of the forbidden fruit, they certainly did not drop dead on that fateful day; but they lived on to face the rebuke of God (3:8–19). Was Satan right? Did God fail to carry out His promise? Certainly not! But the death that overtook the guilty pair that day was spiritual only; physical death did not come until centuries later (Gen. 5:5).
Scripture distinguished three types of death. First, there is physical death, which involves separation of the soul form the body. The separated body undergoes chemical dissolution and reverts to the “dust of the ground” (i.e., the elements of which it was composed). The soul (nep̱eš) of subhuman creatures apparently ceases to exist (cf. Eccl. 3:21: “Who knows that the breath [rûaḥ, used here in the sense of the breath of life metonymic of the nonmaterial personality of the human or subhuman animal] of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?”). On the day Adam was disobedient, the sentence of physical death was imposed; but by God’s grace the execution of that sentence was delayed.
The Old Testament people of God were fully aware that physical death did not entail the annihilation of the person who indwelt the body. Genesis 25:8 states that Abraham after his decease “was gathered to his people”—which implies a continuing consciousness of personal relationship with those who had preceded him in death. Job 19:25–26 quotes the suffering patriarch as saying: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is flayed [lit., ‘stripped off’], yet in (lit., from) my flesh I shall see God” (cf. 2 Sam. 12:23; Ps. 49:15; 73:24; 84:7; Isa. 25:8; 26:19; Hos. 13:14). Already in Daniel 12:2 we find a reference of the bodily nature of deceased persons as “sleeping” in the dust of the earth, from whence they shall be raised up.
In the New Testament this same resurrection of both the evil and the good is taken up by Christ Himself in John 5:28–29: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds, to a resurrection of life, those who committed evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (NASB). The implication is that all humans after death remain in a state of sleep or suspended animation so far as their bodily nature is concerned. In the New Testament specific references to this state of sleep pertain to believers, at least so far as Paul’s Epistles are concerned (1 Cor. 11:30; 15:51; 1 Thess. 4:14; 5:10). But their soul and spirit, which prior to the resurrection of Christ waited in that portion of hades referred to by Christ as “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22), go to be with Christ immediately upon death (Phil. 1:23).
The second type of death taught in Scripture is spiritual death. It is this aspect of death that overtook our first parents immediately upon their act of sin. Alienation toward God was shown by their vain attempt to hide from Him when He came to have fellowship with them in the cool of the evening (Gen. 3:8). It was apparent from their attitude of guilty fear toward Him (3:10), in the curse of expulsion from the Garden of Eden (where they had enjoyed intimate and cordial fellowship with Him), in the curse of toil and pain both in the eking out of a living from the soil and in the process of childbirth, and in the eventual death of the body and its reversion to the soil from which it was made (3:16–19,23–24). From that moment on, Adam and Eve fell into a state of spiritual death, separated from the living God through their violation of His covenant. As Ephesians 2:1–3 expresses it, they became “dead in trespasses and sins,” walking according to the course of Satan and this present evil world, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and the mind. as children of disobedience and wrath.
Not only did Adam and Eve become guilty before God and thereby fall into a state of unrighteousness, but they also incurred that defilement and pollution that characterize the unholy life of the fallen sarx (“fleshly nature”) that is basically alienated toward God and in a state of enmity toward Him (Rom. 8:5–8). Hence the mind-set (phronēma) of the sarx is death (v.6 and those who abide in this state are incapable of pleasing God (v.8 Hence they are alienated from the life of God, being completely helpless to save themselves or to earn any merit or favor in the eyes of God. They are utterly lost from the time they first begin their earthly life (Ps. 51:5), for they are born as “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).
Such was the condition of Adam and Eve as soon as they committed their first transgression. They were plunged immediately into a state of spiritual death, from which they had no prospect of recovery, despite the most strenuous efforts to lead a better life. Yet the biblical account goes on to tell of God’s forgiveness and remedial grace. To that guilty pair He gave the promise (Gen. 3:15) that one of Eve’s descendants would someday crush the head of the satanic serpent, at the cost of personal suffering (suggestive of His death on the Cross).
Instead of immediately inflicting the penalty of physical death on them, God gave Adam and Eve a set of guidelines for their life subsequent to their expulsion from Eden—which surely implied that their execution was to be delayed for some gracious purpose, even though they had forfeited the communion they had formerly enjoyed with God. God also provided them with animal pelts to cover up their nakedness and to protect them from the cold and the rigors of the outside world. But to furnish them with such pelts, it was necessary to take the lives of the animals whose fur they were to wear. It may have been in this connection that God taught Adam and Eve about blood sacrifice on the altar, as a means of their laying hold in advance of the atoning merit of the Cross—that vicarious, substitutionary death that the messianic “seed of the woman” was someday to offer up on the hill of Golgotha. As they responded in repentance and faith (bestowed on them by the Holy Spirit), they were rescued from their state of death and brought into a state of grace. This faith is deduced from the sacrificial practice of their son Abel, who presented the firstlings of his flock as a blood sacrifice on his altar in his worship of God. Blood sacrifice presupposes a concept of substitution, whereby the innocent dies in place of the guilty.
The third type of death referred to in Scripture is eternal death, that final, complete, and irremediable state of eternal separation from God, who is the only true source of life and joy. This death is referred to in Revelation 20:14 as the “second death.” This is characterized by unending and unrelieved pangs of conscience and anguish of soul, corresponding to the ever-ascending smoke of the torment of the damned (Rev. 14:11). This is said to be the final state of Satan, the Beast (or the self-deifying world dictator of the last days), and his religious collaborator, the False Prophet (Rev. 20:10). All three are to be cast into the “lake of fire and brimstone,” there to be tormented “day and night forever and ever.” Revelation 21:8 reveals that every type of unrepentant, unforgiven sinner (the cowardly, the unbelieving or untrustworthy, the murderers, the sexually immoral, the sorcerers and idolaters, and all liars) will likewise be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, which is the second death. This, then, is the ultimate destiny of those who willfully abide in a state of spiritual death until they experience their physical death. “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18, NASB). “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey [or believe] the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).