Were humans mortal before the Fall? As a biblical exegete first (rather than a theologian), my methodology in answering this question is to analyze the specific relevant OT and NT Scripture and, as much as possible, avoid speculation.
A few presuppositions are in order. First, I believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God and are therefore accurate in what they state. Second, though to be sure the first chapters of Genesis are in many ways unique in subject matter, dealing with the very beginning of life on earth, they are not unique in genre. Genesis 1–3, like virtually all of the book of Genesis (with the exception of chapter 49), is straightforward historical narrative, with the brief speech by Adam in 2:23 and the pronouncements by the Lord in 3:14–15, 16, and 17b–19 being the only likely poetic sections. What this means is that I take the accounts of Genesis 1–3 at face value: the actual creation of the world, the creation of the first man and woman, an actual Garden of Eden including the two specific trees mentioned, a talking serpent, and so forth. This approach seems to be the same as that taken by Jesus and the apostles in the NT (see, for example, Matt. 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-8; 1 Cor. 6:16; 11:8–9; Eph. 5:31; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:11–14; Rev. 12:9; 20:2–3). Specific details of the creation and fall are mentioned by the NT writers (including the woman being created after the man and from the man, the woman being tempted by the serpent, and the woman being deceived), not just the general conceptsSee my elaboration of these points in my chapter “Contemporary Hermeneutical Approaches to Genesis 1–11” in Terry Mortenson and Thane Ury, eds., Coming to Grips with Genesis (Green Forest: Master, 2008), 131-62. There is no warrant for taking these chapters figuratively and thus robbing us of important relevant details in the discussion of man’s mortality.
Creation and Fall, Life and Death
So to Genesis 1–3 we now go. When man is created, there is no direct mention of either his mortality or immortality. Two specific trees in the Garden of Eden are mentioned: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). In Gen. 2:16–17, the Lord permits Adam to eat of any tree in the Garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If he does eat of that tree, the Lord says that Adam will surely die. The Hebrew absolute infinitive construction is used, intensifying the verb: “you will certainly die.” Some translate it as “dying, you shall die,” implying two deaths (physical and spiritual), but the Hebrew construction simply indicates certainty. Interestingly, in Gen. 3:4 the serpent contradicts the Lord’s statement using the same absolute infinitive construction: “you certainly won’t die!” The Lord’s judgments upon Adam for his sin include 1) difficulty in tilling the ground because of the presence of weeds; and 2) death: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
We actually get the most information regarding the question of man’s mortality in the final three verses of Genesis 3. Here the Lord states: “And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever . . .” (Gen. 3:22). In order to prevent Adam from eating the tree of life after the fall, the Lord drives him out of the Garden of Eden and places cherubim to guard the way to the tree (Gen. 3:23–24).As for physical death, while in one sense the serpent was correct that Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately once they sinned, it seems that at that moment the seeds of death were implanted into their bodies. In other words, they became mortal. Adam’s mortality, and the mortality of those who followed after him, is made clear in Genesis 4–5. The refrain “and he died” is repeated eight times in Genesis 5, beginning with Adam (Gen. 5:5) and continuing through Lamech, the father of Noah (Gen. 5:31). The only man of whom the phrase “and he died” is not used is Enoch, who “walked with God,” so “God took him” (Gen. 5:24). Precisely what “God took him” means is uncertain (was he translated to heaven directly without seeing death?), but in any case Enoch did not live forever on earth. The pattern of man’s death after Adam’s sin is clearly established.
Now a number of questions arise from the narrative of Genesis 2 and 3. First, when the Lord says in Gen. 2:17 that Adam will “certainly die” if he eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is He speaking of physical death, spiritual death, or both? I would argue that both are in view. The immediate spiritual separation from God is evident in the narrative following the fall, in which the first couple sought to hide from God. As for physical death, while in one sense the serpent was correct that Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately once they sinned, it seems that at that moment the seeds of death were implanted into their bodies. In other words, they became mortal. Note that the Hebrew beyom of Genesis 2:17 should be translated “when” rather than “in the day,” so that the Lord never stated that death would be immediate (see a similar use of beyom and the infinitive absolute of muth [“die”] in 1 Kgs. 2:37 with respect to Shimei, who did not die on the very day of his disobedience to Solomon’s command). As already mentioned, the punishment given in Gen. 3:19 specifically speaks of physical death.
A second set of questions revolves around the tree of life. Did one need to eat from the fruit of the tree of life continually in order to avoid death?Andrew Kulikovsky, Creation, Fall, Restoration (Nairobi: Mentor, 2009), 190-93.. If so, then Adam and Eve had probably already eaten from this tree, so what the Lord was preventing in Gen. 3:22 was any further eating of the tree’s fruit. Or was it necessary only to eat once from the fruit of the tree of life in order to live forever? That would appear to be more in line with the Lord’s statement in Gen.3:22, which seems to indicate a one-time action. But if so, then we must assume that Adam and Eve did not eat from the tree of life prior to the fall. And perhaps we are further to assume that there was some actual impediment to eating the tree of life before Adam and Eve’s time of testing was complete, so that they couldn’t become immortal prematurely. Yet no such impediment is actually indicated in the text.
What does seem clear from Genesis 1–3 is that man was not mortal prior to the fall, but his mortality (physical death) was directly caused by the fall. Furthermore, man could have lived forever had he not disobeyed the Lord’s command. So, despite some theologians saying that man was created immortalFor instance, Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1996), 210, 226., it seems more accurate to say that man was created neither mortal nor immortal. This is in essence the position of Millard Erickson, who speaks of the state of Adam prior to the fall as one of “conditional immortality”: “given the right conditions, he could have lived forever”Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 559.. That seems to me to be the position closest to what Genesis 1–3 reveals.
Turning to the New Testament
No consideration of the issue of man’s mortality would be complete without looking at the NT data. And indeed, several NT passages strongly confirm what was already evident in Genesis 1–3: Man’s mortality came about as a result of the fall.
Rom. 5:12–21 is the clearest passage that links death and man’s mortality directly to Adam’s transgression. Paul writes in 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” As a result, Paul concludes that “death reigned from Adam to Moses”—even before the law, Adam’s transgression led to death for all mankind. He states similarly in 5:17: “For if by the one man’s offense death reignedIndeed, several NT passages strongly confirm what was already evident in Genesis 1–3: Man’s mortality came about as a result of the fall. through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ.” So Paul’s argument in this section is that through the action of one man sin entered the world, and death through sin; yet through the actions of Christ what was done through Adam can and will be reversed. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul states that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Some attempt to claim that Rom. 5:12 is speaking of spiritual death, not physical death. But the second main NT passage dealing with this topic, 1 Cor. 15:12–23, makes that interpretation untenable. The entire context of 1 Corinthians 15 is the physical bodily resurrection of Christ and the promise of physical bodily resurrection for all believers in Christ. Paul states in 1 Cor. 15:21–22: “For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” As in all of the rest of Scripture, death is regarded as an enemy, not the natural result of God’s good creation. Paul states in 1 Cor. 15:25–26 that Christ “must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”
In the climactic end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul envisions the time when man will receive His new resurrection body and death will be defeated: “So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54–57). It is at that time when man will finally become immortal, and death will no longer reign.
Mention should also be made here of Rom. 8:19–22, which speaks of the effects of the fall upon all creation. As evidenced from Gen. 3:17–19, the ground itself is cursed because of Adam’s sin. In Rom. 8:20, Paul states that “the creation was subjected to futility,”Death entered the world through Adam’s sin, meaning that prior to the fall he was not mortal. Rather, he was in a state of conditional immortality. an event that happened as a result of Adam’s sin. In 8:22 he observes that “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now,” waiting for its deliverance.
Finally, the book of Revelation presents an eschatological end to death and the setting up of what appears to be the eternal state. After the millennial reign of Christ, Rev. 20:14 states that “Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire.” Rev. 21:4 explains that there will be a reversal of the curse of Genesis 3: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Even the tree of life makes a reappearance, providing healing for the nations (Rev. 22:2). Rev. 22:3–5 says that “there shall be no more curse”; instead, believers will see the Lord’s face, “and they will reign forever and ever.”
The NT evidence is very clear and confirms what we observed in the narrative of Genesis 1–3: man’s mortality is directly linked to Adam’s sin. Death entered the world through Adam’s sin, meaning that prior to the fall he was not mortal. Rather, he was in a state of conditional immortality. When the believer eventually receives his new resurrection body, he will experience the immortality and fellowship with his Creator that was tragically lost at the fall. Hallelujah!