[F]or in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. (Genesis 2:17 NKJV)
Some liberal theologians have used this verse to undermine and discredit the authority of the Genesis account of creation. They say that, obviously, Adam did not die when he ate the forbidden fruit, so they use that as an excuse to allegorize the entire creation account and so make God out to be a liar. A superficial reading of the passage seems to confirm that their understanding is correct, but like many things in the Bible, this requires a little study. God did not lie, nor can he lie (Hebrews 6:18), so their interpretation must be false. Before we can understand this passage in its entirety, we must first get an understanding of what the Bible means by life. I have found some sermons preached by Spurgeon that help explain.
What Is Life?
Five Kinds of Life
In two sermons (mid 1800s), Spurgeon defines five kinds of life: plant life, animal life, mental life, spiritual life, and legal life.
The following extract of one of his sermons defines the first four types of life.
Life, what is it? We know practically, but we cannot tell in words. We know it, however, to be a mystery of different degrees. Just as all flesh is not the same flesh, so all life is not the same life. There is the life of the vegetable, the cedar of Lebanon, the hyssop on the wall. There is a considerable advance when we come to animal life — the eagle or the ox. Animal life moves in quite a different world from that in which the plant lives — sensation, appetite, instinct, are things to which plants are dead, though they may possess some imitation of them, for one life mimics another. Animal life rises far above the experience and apprehension of the flower of the field. Then there is mental life, which all of us possess, which introduces us into quite another realm from what is inhabited by the mere beast. To judge, to foresee, to imagine, to invent, to perform moral acts, are not these new functions which the ox does not have? Now, let it be clear to you, that far above mental life there is another form of life of which the mere carnal man can form no more idea than the plant about the animal, or the animal about the poet. The carnal mind does not know spiritual things, because it has no spiritual capacities. Just as the beast cannot comprehend the pursuits of the philosopher, so the man who is only a natural man cannot comprehend the experience of the spiritually minded. Thus says the Scripture: “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are only understood by the spiritual man. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is judged by no man.” There is in believers a life which is not to be found in other men — nobler, more divine by far; education cannot raise the natural man into it, neither can refinement reach it; for at its best, “what is born of the flesh is flesh,” and the humbling truth must be spoken to all, “You must be born again” [emphasis added].1
And in this second sermon, Spurgeon defines legal death.
First, all of us are, by nature, legally dead: — “In the day that you eat from it you shall die the death,” said God to Adam; and though Adam did not die in that moment naturally, he died legally; that is to say death was recorded against him. As soon as, at the Old Bailey,2 the judge puts on the black cap and pronounces the sentence, the man is considered to be dead at law. Though perhaps a month may intervene before he is brought to the scaffold to endure the sentence of the law, yet the law looks at him as a dead man. It is impossible for him to transact anything. He cannot inherit, he cannot bequeath; he is nothing — he is a dead man. The country considers him not as being alive in it at all. There is an election — he is not asked for his vote because he is considered as dead. He is confined in his condemned cell, and he is dead.”3
Hence there is “legal death,” where “legal life” (the fifth type of life) is the opposite. According to the Bible, if one does not believe in Jesus Christ, he is already condemned, and only the sentence for that crime awaits fulfillment.
He who believes in him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18 NKJV)
Hebrew Grammar in Genesis 2:17
Hebrew is an adverb-poor language but makes up for it by using what is called a verb in the infinitive absolute, which is placed just before its matching verb. It is usually translated in English as an adverb. For example:
Genesis 2:15: Eating you eat = you may freely eat
Genesis 2:16: Dying you die = you shall surely die
The infinitive-absolute construction occurs about 1000 times in the Old Testament and is just a method of emphasizing the verb, which we also do in English but by the use of an adverb. One should not read anything into a literal rendering of Genesis 2:17 that is not there.
One common creationist interpretation of this construction is “dying, you begin to die and die until you are dead,” but understanding the Hebrew construction and the concept of legal death adds helpful nuance.4
The theological implications of this verse are profound and beyond the scope of this short article. We will briefly list some of them with a short explanation.
- Adam is the representative head of the human race. By that, we mean that whatever he did impacts all of us for good or evil. Because he broke God’s law, a death sentence was passed on him and on all his natural posterity. This system of representation is actually a great blessing for us. Just as Adam represented the human race to its condemnation, so God can use a system of representation to provide redemption for us through Jesus Christ. He also is a representative person for all who believe in him.
- The human race is born spiritually dead. You can no more communicate spiritual things to one who is spiritually dead than you can talk to a corpse. If this is the case, then why should we even try talking about spiritual matters? God commands us to do so. When our words are accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, there are results. God has chosen the foolishness of preaching to exercise his power. Hence, we should pray most earnestly for God’s power to go with our words and actions when we seek to proclaim the simple gospel of Jesus Christ, not entertainment, seeker-sensitive, Madison-Avenue methods or other humanistic programs to spread the gospel.
There are other items one could list but this is enough to start you thinking.
We have shown that the type of death referred to in Genesis 2:17 is spiritual and legal death. Physical death, however, is the result of the curse God pronounced on Adam and his posterity and all of creation because Adam broke God’s command.