Death Biblically Defined as Separation: Dealing with an Objection

What we Witness in the Garden Narrative

God told Adam that the day (when) he ate of the forbidden tree he would “surely die” (Gen 2.17). Either God was telling the truth or He was wrong. The serpent said to Eve you won’t “surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3.4b-5). Again, stated another way, either the serpent was telling the truth or he was lying. This is not an either/or fallacy (a.k.a. bifurcation) because there are only two choices: either God was telling the truth or the serpent was; either God was lying or the serpent was. The issue revolves around the word “death.”

In what sense is death being meant by the Lord God and the serpent? Did the serpent equivocate using the same word in a different sense? Or is it possible that our human understanding of death as cessation from life (a naturalistic view of death) is being read into the text? Is it possible that God used the word “death” emphatically in order to cover all the various ways we might use the word death?

Group 1…

You have one group that says “death means cessation of life, Adam and Eve after eating didn’t immediately die; therefore, their death was just a legal sentence that condemned them to return to the “dust of the earth” (Gen 3.19) since they were only mortal beings. Therefore, the penalty of death comes across as only a physical punishment, a temporal thing. From this belief stems other various forms of thought.

Group 2…

Another group claims that yes there was most definitely a legal sentence of condemnation placed upon the first human couple, and their offspring after them. We are, as the Scriptures confess “…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9.27).

**(Which in and of itself is an interesting admission since this implies further legal sentencing after death. How can there be legal sentencing after death, unless there is a spiritual aspect to our sin?).

This second group doesn’t stop with the legal ramifications of violating God’s law in a physical sense, but understands them spiritually as well. In fact, this group argues (of which I am a part) that Adam and Eve did die later (physically) outside of the garden hundreds of years after the event (see Gen 5), but they also died that day in the garden when they ate the forbidden fruit—spiritually. Spiritually they died that day (an inward corruption beset the heart of man). They were cut off from the righteousness of God. They were separated from His goodness, their relationship with Him was severed.

The previous group mentioned (we can call them the cessationiers) denies that Genesis 3 teaches or even implies this. Some go so far as to argue that the Bible doesn’t really teach this idea of death as “separation.” This is due in part to their commitment of only seeing the term “death” defined in one sense. The other aspect is it throws a bit of monkey wrench into a treasured teaching of theirs…freewill. You see, if spiritual death is true, then we are born with a corrupted nature that does not seek God, does not do good, fails to discern the truth of His Word, and is hostile to His Law. All of which the Bible actually testifies are true.

All that is necessary to debunk that idea is to show that the Bible does speak of death as separation and not just cessation from life. Actually, the two go hand-in-hand if you understand them. To die spiritually is to cease to enjoy a life of holiness before God. Just as dying spiritually guarantees that our physical forms as they now are will cease to exist like countless others have done before us.

  • “…the dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl 12.7; ESV throughout). **Here the clay vessel returns to where it came from, and the spirit that God gave returns to Him (cf. Heb 9.27).
  • “…How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life…We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom 6.2b-4, 6-7). **Here we find Paul speaking of our separation from the old to the new, from death to life, from sin to righteousness in Christ.
  • “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God…[Moreover] now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom 7.4, 6). **Here we see that those in Christ are separated from the condemnation of the law as sinners, to newly created creatures led by the Holy Spirit to produce good fruit. These good works are the (super)natural byproducts of being recreated in Christ Jesus (cf. Eph 2.10), under grace (cf. Eph 2.8-9).

A Quick Overview of Separation (death) in the Garden

Separation on three levels…

First, the man and woman experienced separation from the goodness of God revealed in their shame of nakedness. This is the reason they hid from the Lord in the garden when they heard Him. Their refusal to present themselves to their Maker reveals an inward desire to stay away from Him. If you argue that is because they are afraid, that’s fine, it does nothing to disprove what I have said thus far. They didn’t want to come to Him because they were afraid, because they were ashamed, and they didn’t want to come to Him to face judgment. All point to a break, a separation in their relationship with their Creator.

Second, we see separation experienced between husband and wife. They covered their nakedness from each other, although they had previously seen each other naked. I think we would do well to pay attention to the play on the phrase “eyes were opened.” Their eyes were already opened. They saw everything that God had made. They saw each other. They saw the various other creatures that were not human. They saw beauty and possibility in the Tree of knowledge of good and evil. Seeing (i.e., physical sight) wasn’t their problem, but seeing became their problem as they experienced the seeing of separation that sin had caused them. Ashamed they desired to hide from one another. And not just that, but they also demonstrated this separation in the break of their harmonious relationship.

  • In Genesis 3:12 not only attacks God, but also “the woman whom you gave to be with me” for his sin. Rather than accepting the blame he tried to lay the fault at another’s feet. Such activity demonstrates a break in relational bonds, as the result of sin.
  • In Genesis 3:16 we find that an overriding desire for the woman in sin would be a desire…for [her] husband, [but] he shall rule over you” (brackets added for clarity). This declaration by God as a judgment against the woman shows a breakdown in the relationship she shared with her husband.
  • In Genesis 3:17-19 God says that the “ground…is cursed…because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Adam’s sin brings about death in the sense of separation from the creation and ease of life and life itself. Rather than blessing, the earth has become a curse. Rather than blessing, labor has become a curse. Rather than blessing, life has been cursed in being separated from the land of the living. (to this latter point we shall return to in the next post).

Third, we see the man and woman separated from the garden of Eden, the garden of God (3.23-24). If you look back at Genesis 2 you will notice that the garden was not creation itself, but a sanctuary of sorts that God had placed the man. It served as the heart of creation where the Lord God dwelt with His people. For those familiar with the book of Revelation you will note that this has a striking similarity for what we witness at the consummation of all things.[1]

And so, we learn that death did happen that day in the garden. Adam and Eve experienced the judicial sentence of death, the separateness that death brings. But some say “no, that can’t be. How can separation be death? How can it be said that they were separated from God, for we see God in the very next chapter dealing with them?”

Genesis 4

Of all the chapters that one might come to claim denies spiritual death or death is in one sense separation, this does not appear to be a good choice. Why do I say that? Isn’t it true that we see mankind as a whole offering worship to God? How can they be separated from Him, if they are worshiping Him? If He is still instructing them?

Adam and Eve’s first two Sons: Cain and Abel…

Eve claims that she bore Cain “with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4.1). In verse 2, we are told that she bore another son “his brother Abel.” More than likely these two boys were twins, but if you want to argue the contrary, I see no need in being dogmatic on this point. If they weren’t twins, they weren’t far apart. Both boys grew up together to be men. We are told that “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground” (Acts 4.2b).

Eventually, as they grew, they put into practice what they had been taught from Adam; namely, the worship of the Lord.[2] We are told that “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions” (Gen 4.3-4a). Only one brother’s sacrifice of worship was acceptable to God (Gen 4.4b-5a), which made Cain angry (Gen 4.5b). When the Lord challenged Cain for his folly and warned him of the consequences if he continued to follow the lead of sin, Cain did not listen (Gen 4.6-7). Rather “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen 4.8).

Cain’s Sin Brought Separation (Death) in more than one way…

Now for the sake of time I will pass over some of the details of this chapter to get to the point at hand. Cain’s sin drove a wedge between him and his brother leading to death. The death of Abel, and the death of many familial relationships (Gen 4.14). Cain’s sin brought death to the benefits of his labors (Gen 4.11-12a). Cain’s sin drove him from the presence of the Lord— “You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen 4.12b). Even Cain understood that his sin separated him from the Lord’s presence (Gen 4.14b, 16); cutting him off from the worshiping community (Gen 4.26).

Why Separation is Taught as a Proper way of Defining Biblical Death

If God was separated from mankind due to sin, how was mankind in Genesis 4 able to offer worship to Him? How were they still receiving instruction from the Lord above if the death spoke of in Gen 2:17 and seen in Gen 3 really has spiritual connotations? How can Christians teach spiritual death as separation from the life of God, if life continues to exist?

Categorical Distinctions…

Let’s deal with the question of whether or not it is possible to be separated from God. There is a sense where it is impossible to be separated from the presence of God. Even when Cain was driven from his family with only his wife beside him, he was still in the Lord’s presence. It is impossible for the finite creature to ever be fully removed from the infinite God of Scripture. Impossible since God is always present.

  • “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psa 139.7-8).
  • “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord” (Jer 23.23-24).

So, if we view separation in this sense, it is impossible to be separated from the presence of God. But that would be to confuse the category of the infinite nature of God—His omnipresence—with the separateness that sin brings. Sin destroys, it kills. Sin is that which drives a wedge between us and the holiness of God. Sin result in our being cut off, driven away…the very death of the relationship that man first enjoyed with their Creator. This is what we see as the result of Adam’s rebellion. In this sense then a person is separated from the life of God, the blessing of God and is under the death from God,  the curse of God.

Our Foreparents and their Children…

Let’s look at how mankind in a sinful state is able to come close to God? What do we see in the third chapter of Genesis that might help shed light on this issue? After issuing the consequences of their sin, of Adam’s sin in particular, “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen 3.21). Why?

God is not a pragmatist. He does things for a reason, and it is not an “end justifies the means” type of thing. When the man and woman sinned, they attempted to cover themselves. Their attempt failed horribly. They could not hide what they had done. They could not cover their shame—their sin. But God does for them what they cannot do for themselves. He offers them grace and mercy in this moment. He slays an animal (unless you think He just pulled the skin of the back of some poor creature, or ex-nihlo) to cover their nakedness/shame.

“Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins” (Heb 9.22).

Not only do we find the protoevangelium given in Gen 3:15 of the promised offspring who would crush the power behind the serpent, smashing his skull with His foot, but we are also given a glimpse in how this salvation/deliverance is possible—substitutionary atonement. More than likely it was the blood of the lamb (i.e., the life) that provided atonement in terms of shadowy fulfillment that covered our foreparents sin (cf. John 1.29, 36). This first sacrifice performed by God would serve as a memorial; a reminder of what He promised would one day come.

This knowledge would have been passed down to their children. And more than likely this is the reason why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s was not. Abel’s was offered in faith, which is the only way to please God, the only way to draw near to Him and beseech mercy. Cain’s was not offered in faith. Faith is a demonstration of obedience, so obviously the Lord was displeased with Cain because he was being disobedient. His disobedience resulted in further separation (death) as we have already seen.

Up next…the Tree of Life


[1] This concept or imagery of God dwelling in the midst of His people is seen with the establishment of the tabernacle and later temple where the Holy of holies was located. Thus, Jerusalem is identified in Scripture as the “heart of the earth” (Matt 12.40), the throne of God where God promises to dwell (see Jer 3.17) on His holy mountain (Ezek 43.7). Of which we know is Christ Jesus (see Dan 2.35, 45). “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21.3).

[2] There are several instances in the Bible where parents are told to instruct their children. I fail to see why we should view this knowledge of worship as being acquired by any other means here. So, the boys (now men) learned from their father and mother as children and were now applying what they had been taught on their own. Cf. Exod 12.26-27; Deut 6.7; Psa 145.4; Prov 22.6. This is explained further at the bottom of the post.