On Biblical Concepts and Terms: Part 2, Death is Described as…

So…have you thought about it? Did you come up with an answer? No, no, no…I’m not trying to trick you. This isn’t a trap.

You have no idea what I’m talking about? So…you’ve never ran into a person that persistently attempts to make a point that they believe is valid, airtight and cannot be refuted, but when you ask a probing question…something that attempts to get to the heart of the issue…silence ensues? They refuse to answer. Now their reasons are their own, true as that may be, but there is something very telling at that moment. Telling about the individual and the position that they fervently hold.

The question that I am referring to was presented at the end of my last post (here, if you haven’t read it). I’ll state it again for clarity: What is the relationship between God and Man? What was their status in the beginning? With what we are told in the first two chapters of Genesis what is the relational status between God and Man?

Why this Question is So Important

There is a tacit denial by some who profess belief in the Christian faith that “spiritual death” is really taught in the Bible. For such individuals when the Bible says “death” they tend to take it in what we might label a naturalistic sense; a cessation of life. When you die your body decays and returns to the earth from which it came.

Certainly, this is one way in which the Bible defines death. To deny that this is the case would be silly. There is ample evidence in the biblical record that proves this point. However, to then say that this is the only way that the Bible defines death is to argue the case too strongly. Why? Because, the Word of God offers alternative definitions for the meaning of death in various places.[1]

In fact, a better overarching definition of death that encompasses all that Scripture teaches on the subject would be to label it “separation.” The defense of which would be easy enough, if that were my desire today. Instead, my goal is to show how we can see this sense of the term death, as separation, in just the next couple chapters of Genesis.

A Quick Review of Gen 2:15-17

What I would like to do in this section is provide two alternative English translations of this key passage. Consider the implications based off what is revealed here and what we know about man’s status before (cf. Gen 1.26-28). As well as identify the promise as conditionally presented by the Creator to His creature.

“Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die’” (NASB (this version throughout); emphasis added).

“The Lord God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it. Then the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surly die’” (NET; emphasis added).

Implication #1—

  • The man was God’s creature to do as God willed. Based of what we had revealed to us in Gen 1:26-28 about mankind, we know that the human status and function[2] is to bear the image of God—i.e., to reflect, shadow, mirror the Creator. So, God placed man in the garden to do His will, to follow His Word, to live for Him.

Implication #2—

  • The command in vv. 16-17 emphasizes what has been revealed prior (v. 15 and Gen 1.26-28). Both a positive and negative aspect are present in the Lord’s edict. In the command God presents His image bearing creature with a promise of Life or Death. Obedience, which is the appropriate reflection of God’s will, offers life. Disobedience, which is an inappropriate distortion of God’s will (i.e., rebellion), brings death.

Implication #3—

  • The reward and/or consequence of the decision on man’s part to obey or disobey God’s Law is immediate. I emphasized the two different ways that the English language attempts to capture the biblical Hebrew found in Gen 2:17. The NASB translates the Hebrew “for in the day that you eat of it…;” whereas, the NET offers the Hebrew with the following rendition “for when you eat from it….” I have heard the argument presented against immediate death on the day of rebellion as we see in Gen 3 because “when” does not necessarily carry the same force as “in that day.” It is argued Adam and Eve didn’t die on (in) that day, they were merely denied access to the Tree of Life, so “when” conveys the idea better in terms of physical death not spiritual death, since it was years later that they returned to the dust from whence they came. Whether “when” or “in that day” is used, the implication remains the same. On the day that Adam chose to eat from that which he was explicitly forbidden, death would be the consequence.[3] A legal termination of the relationship would incur…but I get ahead of myself.

Moving on to Genesis 3

Though we are not given the exact day it seems safe to assume that it was not long after this command that the man would put the Lord his God to the test. It would be the serpent, a beast of the field and not a creepy crawly that would present to the woman made from the man’s side the possibility of an alternative understanding of reality (Gen 3.1). After drawing her attention to one of the two trees placed in the middle of the garden, he directly opposed what God had revealed.

“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die!” (Gen 3.4).

God emphasized that the penalty for disobedience would be death, but the serpent just as strongly emphasized an alternative…death would not happen. Death would not be the result. In fact, the opposite of death would occur…for a better life would ensue as a result of eating of this fruit because then they’d be like God. (Implication: God wouldn’t be necessary).

Listen carefully to the argument the serpent presents and weigh it against what God said to the man in Gen 2:16-17:

“For God knows that in the day [when] you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3.5; emphasis added).

Claims Compared…

  • God says “in that day [when] you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2.17)
  • The serpent says “that in the day [when] you eat from it your eyes will be [surely?] opened, and you will [surely?] be like God…” (Gen 3.5).

Who’s Telling the Truth here?

At first glance, it appears that the serpent is right and God is wrong. For when the woman (Eve) and then the man (Adam) ate from the fruit of the forbidden tree the following occurred:

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings” (Gen 3.7).

Did they die when they ate the fruit as God said they would? Or, were their eyes opened to an alternative reality as the serpent said they would? Well, the text says that their eyes were opened not that they died. So, it appears (at first glance) that the serpent was right and God was wrong. Therefore, those who deny a spiritual death in the garden are right after all?

I’m not saying that those who hold to only a cessationist view of death, have purposely placed themselves in line with the serpent in the garden, but their view is exactly what the serpent said. He denied that eating the fruit would bring death that day (when they ate) contrary to the clear statement given by the Lord God to the man. He said their eyes would be opened, and they were. “Can dead people open their eyes? I think not!” comes the ready retort of those that deny death took place in the garden.

What Sense Should be Taken?

If we take death in only one sense, then it appears that the serpent was right and God was wrong. However, there are various senses that the word death may be taken. God emphasized to the man (Adam) that death would be the result of his disobedience. As I said earlier this was a legal determination on God’s part as the Law-Giver.


The eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree was the “cause”[4] of the man and woman’s death in the garden. The eating of the fruit stripped the man and woman of their rights to life[5] under God. The eating of their fruit brought about the death of their relationship with God immediately. How so?

What Resulted from the Act?

Notice the reaction of the couple upon having their eyes opened. What were they opened to? What was the result of their defiant act?


“Nakedness, of course” comes the apt reply. Okay, but what changed? They’d been naked before and they both knew it and according to Gen 2:24 they were “unashamed.”[6] However, now the opposite appears to be the case and they are trying to cover it.


And when “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3.8; italics added). Prior to their eating of the forbidden fruit they seemingly enjoyed the presence of God. God spoke to Adam and told him his responsibilities (vv. 15-17), He delighted in Adam’s intellect and leadership. Demonstrated first by bringing to the man various animals to him (Gen 2.18). Secondly, in preparing and giving to him a helpmate (Gen 2.19-24).

Important Observations: Two things might be said of this. God brought the man animals to that he might exercise dominion by observing their qualities/characteristics and then naming them. Second, this was to teach that man that he was unique and alone in comparison with the rest of created things. To which God gifted the man (and the woman) with marital union, the promise of future blessing in the form of offspring, and a cherished relationship to enjoy. In these things, God gave the man opportunity to exercise godly dominion; a sign of favored relationship between God and Man, man and his wife, and man and those others that dwelt upon the earth.

Shame and Fear Drove them… (Gen 3.10)

In this scenario (Gen 1-2) the man and the woman did not run from the sound of their Creator, their Lord and God, but had a loving relationship they enjoyed. However, after eating the fruit something drastically changed. Shame and fear drove their hearts. Their hiding from God reveals a separated aspect to the former relationship they once shared.

Hostility Against the Maker Identified… (Gen 3.12)

This is further highlighted by the antagonism that the man showed his Creator when he was ordered to given an account (i.e., bear responsibility) for what had transpired. When answering for his sin, the man blamed God who gave him the woman for his own transgression. In this, the woman was also blamed.

Closing Question…

Just like before, I’ll ask the same question: What is the relationship between God and Man now? Post-fall what does the relationship between God and Man look like?  Is it alive and well or is it dead?

Perhaps you don’t like the way I asked that last question. I smuggled in “death” there as if we can talk about relationships as living or dead things. We can’t? We don’t? Have you never heard the phrase “He/she is dead to me?” What does this idiom convey but the death, the termination or the separation of people in terms of relationship? Is this type of language permissible in our human vernacular, but not so when discussing our relationship with God Post-fall? Hmmm…interesting…

More to come…


[1] These will be entertained and explained in a future post.

[2] It is often argued against Calvinistic thought that we believe the image of God was destroyed in the Fall. This is inaccurate. Either done maliciously or in ignorance. What Calvinists/Reformed Theology argues is that the image of God was marred, distorted, or tarnished by the fall, not eradicated. The image bearing status (state of being) of mankind has not been removed via the Fall. However, the functionality of bearing God’s image has been grossly distorted. There are moments when a person shadows communicable attributes of God (goodness, love, kindness, etc.), but these are inconsistently applied internally. As a result, an evil parent will give good gifts to their children (Luke 11.13), but when it comes to their Maker they are hostile to God as over them (Rom 8.7-8).

[3] Later we shall return to the oppositions argument and see why it is a poor argument not only linguistically, but also theologically. This will be presented when we begin to look at Genesis 3.

[4] Def. 2a,b, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (   ), 319, “death,” s.v.

[5] Ibid., 226, “civil death,” s.v.

[6] The very fact that Gen 2:24 explains the purpose of the response towards nakedness before the fall—i.e., unashamed—ought to clue the reader that after disobeying the result will be “shame.” This is what shame brings into the equation. Something foreign that maligns what God had called “very good.”