Describing the state of humans before the fall as mortal or immortal can easily lead to misunderstanding. As with many other questions, labels by themselves are not enough. In brief, most of the confusion is due to the presence and function of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. They indicate a conditionality and a potentiality that make it difficult to describe the original state of humanity. Because of these concerns, commentators often make specific distinctions between types of mortality and immortality. For this essay, I’ll just avoid the labels.
In order to illuminate the issues, I will focus on three parts of the Genesis 2–3 narrative: Adam’s creation from dust, the role of the tree of life, and the relationship between the prohibition on the tree of knowledge and the curses for disobedience. I will argue for two main conclusions that must be held together. First, before the fall, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden did not possess the “living forever” attached to the tree of life. It was possible for them to die; their bodies were susceptible to natural death. Second, because of the possibility offered by the tree of life, Adam and Eve were not “doomed to die” until after their disobedience concerning the tree of knowledge. Thus, human death is a result of sin (Rom. 5:12).
Created from Dust
Gen. 2:7 tells us that God formed the first man from the dust of the earth.
Does that carry any implications for the nature of his body? Dust is a substance in the Old Testament and in the ancientDust is a substance in the Old Testament that is frequently associated with frailty and transience and would characterize Adam’s body accordingly. Near East that is frequently associated with frailty and transience and would characterize Adam’s body accordingly. Thus, creation from dust raises our expectations for more. It is not a question of whether humans were created good but whether there was something greater in store for them.
Paul expresses similar notions in 1 Cor. 15:42–53 as he seeks to describe the nature of the resurrection. In 15:45, he compares Christ’s glorified body (“a life-giving spirit”) with Adam’s as created (“a living being”), quoting from Gen. 2:7. And he goes on to highlight the differences between a man “of dust” and one “from heaven” (15:47–49), using terms like “corruptible” or “perishable” (15:42, 50, 53) and even “mortal” (15:53) to describe the former. We can debate if and how much these terms are colored by our current sinful state; however, the contrast still remains. Adam, as created, needed a change to inherit the kingdom of God (15:50–53).
The Tree of Life
The tree of life plays a very small part in the Eden narrative, and yet it is of immense importance. While mentioned already in Gen. 2:9 in conjunction with the tree of knowledge, its significance is not revealed until 3:22—the one who eats from it lives forever. And because of that possibility, God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden and places the cherubim to guard the way (3:22–24). They are sent from the garden not as a way to remove their former blessedness but in order to remove the possibility of eating from the tree of life and living forever. The implication is that humans did not have eternal life as created; otherwise, why would they need the fruit of a tree of life? Only by eating from the tree of life would the man and woman live forever.
Now, it is possible that Adam and Eve were already eating from the tree of life before they disobeyed and in that way lost eternal life when they were barred from it. However, the phrase “lest he reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever” (3:22) implies by the “also” (versus, e.g., “again”) that Adam had not yet eaten from it. The phrase also implies that a one-time eating (as with the tree of knowledge) is all that is needed for living forever. Nevertheless, even if the man and woman had been eating from the tree of life, it would not change our description of the nature of their bodies as created just of their state in the garden before the fall.
The Prohibition and the Curses
The prohibition in Gen. 2:17 sets up the main tension in the narrative—will Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge? Thus, it seems natural to interpretTherefore, based on the form of the prohibition, it is hard to see how Adam’s death 930 years later (or any number of years later) can be seen as the fulfillment of these terms. the curses pronounced by God after the man and woman eat as the fulfillment for the punishment threatened in 2:17. They ate, so they will die. However, as we will see the details do not match up. The curses in Genesis 3 are not the fulfillment of the death penalty of 2:17. Also, they do not describe a change in the nature of human bodies but in God’s providence.
The death envisioned in Gen. 2:17 is, in its fullest sense, nothing short of eternal damnation, God’s just judgment upon sinners. And it was portrayed as a punishment that would come temporally close after the crime, “in the day you eat from it, you will surely die.” Even though the phrase “in the day” does not always refer to a specific 24-hour period, it indicates a close temporal connection. For example, the statement by the serpent in Gen. 3:5, “in the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened,” is fulfilled immediately (and ironically) in 3:7. Therefore, based on the form of the prohibition, it is hard to see how Adam’s death 930 years later (or any number of years later) can be seen as the fulfillment of these terms.
Because of these difficulties, some commentators, concerned to defend God’s truthfulness by showing how he carried out his threatened judgment, try to explain the death mentioned in 2:17 as a spiritual death or a beginning of misery. However, such a defense is not needed. Instead, it is best to say that God was merciful. He does not bring about the threatened judgment on the man and the woman, a restraint seen elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., the interpretation of Micah’s prophecy [3:12] in Jer. 26:18–19, God’s statement in Ezk. 33:14–15, and Jonah’s complaint in Jon. 4:2). Such an understanding would also explain Adam’s reaction to God’s curses—he named his wife “Eve” meaning “life” (3:20)! Adam understood he had received mercy.
God does punish, just not according to the terms of the prohibition. Therefore, human death as described in 3:17–19, while not the fulfillment of 2:17,Death was not supposed to be a part of human life. In the logic of the narrative as a whole, humans were not doomed to die until they had broken the prohibition. is a consequence of the disobedience of the man and woman. They are now doomed to die. These verses, however, do not introduce death as brought about by a change in the nature of human bodies but as a physical end that will come to humans that have failed to attain the living forever promised in the tree of life.
In Gen. 3:17–19, it is crucial to note that the ground is cursed, not humans or their bodies. These verses elaborate on how this curse will affect humans—increased pain in man’s labors in parallel with the increased pain of childbearing in 3:16. Death is alluded to in these verses but only in the temporal clauses describing how long the pain will endure—”all the days of your life” (3:17), “until you return to the ground” (3:19). And man’s eventual death is not explained by some transformation in his body. Instead, the end of 3:19 connects the death of humans with their origin, alluding to 2:7 and not 2:17. Humans came from the ground, from dust, and thus will return. Therefore, in one sense, human death is not the focus of the curses.
Nevertheless, 3:19 highlights human death so we know its misery and feel its foreignness. The focus of 3:19 on this inevitable end reminds us of what the man and woman failed to gain, eating from the tree of life. Death was not supposed to be a part of human life. In the logic of the narrative as a whole, humans were not doomed to die, to return to the ground, until they had broken the prohibition. Also, the dust to dust pattern in 3:19 does not indicate that human death occurs apart from God’s hand. God is still the one who brings about human death. Thus, human death, the returning to the ground, is properly understood as a part of God’s curse, a result of and even a punishment for eating from the tree of knowledge as the tree of life is now barred from the man and woman because of their disobedience.
This understanding of Genesis 2–3 fits well with Augustine’s three categories for human mortality before the fall, after the fall, and after consummation: possible not to die, not possible not to die, and not possible to die (City of God, XXII.30). Adam before the fall was not doomed to die. Yet, Adam before the fall also did not have the consummated/glorified body, the fullness of the living forever tied to the tree of life. Thus, Adam before the fall was still awaiting confirmation in eternal life.
Adam, if he had obeyed, would have attained to the consummated/glorified body without having to pass through death. The Bible, especially Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, makes it clear that Adam’s body would have been changed at some point, but the details of how and when are not revealed. Some commentators, including John Calvin and Derek Kidner, have wondered if Enoch provides in some ways a pattern for what human life would have been like if Adam had obeyed, not in his experience of the common curse during his earthly life, but in his translation to heavenly life without experiencing death.
However, Adam sinned, and so the question remains of what changes occurred in Adam’s body because of the fall, when he was now doomed to die. I think the biblical evidence indicates that the change had more to do with God’s providential care of Adam’s body rather than a change in its physical makeup. God now allowed Adam’s body and those of all his descendants to decay unto death, a return to the dust. But we can’t finish on that note for we know that such a death is not the end; there is a resurrection!