The Bible portrays death as the consequence of human sin. Death was the sanction that God tied to the Garden of Eden stipulation: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). And God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden on account of their covenant breach and treason demonstrated that His threats were not empty. Death became the lot of Adam and his posterity. To borrow the apostle Paul’s language in Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin [became] death.” What did God have in view when He issued His death-threat to Adam? What is the meaning of “death”? How would Adam, Eve, and their offspring come to experience this consequence for human sin? What purpose does death serve in God’s sovereign plan for humankind? These are the questions that we’ll attempt to answer in the article below.
The Meaning of Death
The common Hebrew terminology used for death is related to the verb used in God’s death-threat. The phrase “you shall surely die” combines the infinite absolute (מוֹת) and the finite verbal form (תָּמוּת) of the Hebrew מוּת (mût). From this verbal root comes the cognate noun מָוֶת (mäwet). The common Greek verb for death, ἀποθνῄσκω (apothnêskõ), and its related noun, θάνατος (thanatos), share a similar semantic range with the Hebrew counterparts. The terminology for “death” is often used in antithetical parallelism with the Hebrew and Greek terms for “life” (Deut. 30:19; 2 Sam. 15:21; Prov. 18:21: Jer. 21:8). Therefore, at the most basic level, “death” denotes the opposite of “life.” In a certain sense, we may define death as the cessation or deprivation of life. However, we mustn’t construe the meaning of death in purely naturalistic terms. Death isn’t merely the functional cessation of our vital bodily organs, such as the heart, lungs, and/or brain. On the contrary, the Scriptures accord “death” a larger theological significance. Consequently, we cannot properly understand human death apart from man’s relationship with God. With this theological perspective in view, we will examine the biblical meaning of “death” under three headings: spiritual death, physical death, and eternal death.1
The first dimension of death experienced by Adam, Eve, and their offspring by ordinary generation may be termed “spiritual death.” By spiritual death, we are referring to the cessation of covenant fellowship between man and God. This rupture in communion between man and God has both a human and also a divine component. In other words, the alienation is two-sided.
1. Man Estranged from God
The first thing Adam and Eve experienced when they ate the forbidden fruit was the opening of their eyes and an immediate urge to cover their nakedness (3:7). These metaphors are indicative of the presence of a bad conscience and a consequent feeling of shame.2 Moreover, in addition to a bad conscience and feeling of guilt, Adam and Eve experienced a dread and aversion to God’s special presence (3:8, 10). As a result, they not only attempt to hide from God (Gen. 3:8b, 10b), but they also try to mitigate their guilt through blame-shifting (3:12-13). Furthermore, Adam and Eve’s fall into sin consisted of disaffection toward their heavenly Father. God alludes to this disaffection when He promises to reverse it in His curse upon the Serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Gen. 3:15). To summarize, Adam and Eve’s initial estrangement from God consisted in a bad conscience, as well as the feelings of shame, fear, and disaffection toward God.
The rest of Scripture confirms that this spiritual deadness or moral estrangement has been inherited by Adam’s offspring. One of the key texts that highlights the continuance of “spiritual death” is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he asserts,
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1–3, ESV)
Here, Paul describes men before conversion as “dead in trespasses and sins.” This spiritual deadness does not just refer to our moral corruption and inability. It also refers to the fact that our allegiance and affections were aligned with Satan rather than God. We did not merely carry out our own lusts, but we followed “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Thus, death, in this context, conveys the idea of estrangement from God.
Jesus also alludes to this spiritual death when He declares to a Jewish audience, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24). Conversion, Jesus argues, results in a transition “from death into life.” The “life” Jesus has in view does not merely consist in the prospect of existence after death. The tenses of the verbs indicate that Christ is speaking of realities experienced in this life. The moment a person believes in Christ, he “has passed from death into life.” And what kind of life does Jesus have in view? Listen to his answer in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Eternal life experienced in this life is equivalent to communion with God. Conversely, spiritual death experienced in this life is equivalent to estrangement from God.
It’s also important for us to note that there are degrees of spiritual death or estrangement. All men are born with a conscience that testifies of their estrangement from God (Rom. 1:18-21, 32; 2:14-15). It is possible, however, for men to harden their conscience and to intensify their enmity toward God. Think, for example, of Pharaoh’s response to Yahweh. Ten times God commanded Pharaoh to release the people of Israel from bondage; and ten times Pharaoh hardened his heart against God’s command (Exod. 7:13-14, 16, 23; 8:15, 19, 22; 9:7, 12, 34, 35; 10:1; 11:10; 14:8). Consequently, when men harden their conscience against God, God in turn gives them over to a reprobate mind (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28), that is, a heart that is more deeply estranged from God.
2. God Estranged from Man
We mustn’t limit the alienation between man and God merely to a human estrangement from God. The Scriptures also teach that God himself is estranged from man. It wasn’t Adam and Eve who left the Garden because they no longer enjoyed God’s fellowship. God himself expelled them from the Garden (Gen. 3:22-24) as act of judgment and expression of divine wrath. As the sin of Adam’s offspring increased (Gen. 6:5), so God’s grief and righteous indignation grew in proportion (Gen. 6:6-7) until he executed the judgment of the Flood (Gen. 6:13ff.).
Perhaps one of the greatest indications of God’s estrangement from man is the fact that of all the divine emotions portrayed in Scripture, God’s anger, wrath, and displeasure occur most frequently. In his study of the divine emotions, Greg Nichols counts at least 459 explicit references to God’s anger in the Old and New Testaments. Then he concludes, “No other divine affection even begins to approach this massive testimony.”3 David writes in Psalm 7:11, “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.” As we noted earlier in Ephesians, spiritual death does not merely constitute us as the followers of Satan (Eph. 2:2) but also as “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).
Ironically, the most poignant display of God’s estrangement towards humankind is seen in God’s abandonment of Christ upon the cross. Recall the words of Jesus as he cried out under darkened sky, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). No more eloquent testimony to the alienation God felt towards man was ever heard!
In summary, the first consequence of sin is “spiritual death.” This kind of death consists in what might be called “covenant-estrangement.” The sinner is alienated from God (Eph. 2:12; 4:18; Col. 1:21), and God is alienated from the sinner (John 3:36; Eph. 2:3). Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring about the reconciliation (Rom. 5:11; 11:15; 2 Cor. 5:18-19).
2 Since the urge to cover their nakedness indicates a reversal of the condition described in 2:25, then one should infer that the humans now experience “shame” (בוש), which in the Old Testament can refer to a disappointment felt because of unrealized expectations (Job 6:20; Isa. 42:17; Jer. 14:3; 22:22; Hos. 10:6), to a disgrace felt because of defeat at the hand of one’s enemies (Ezra 9:6; Isa. 1:29; 30:5; Jer. 2:36; Dan. 9:7; Mic. 1:11) or because of immoral or imprudent actions of a relative (Prov. 10:5; 12:4; 14:35), or to feelings of guilt for sin committed (Job 19:3; Jer. 2:26; 6:15; 8:12). Note also this last meaning in the apocryphal Sirach 41:17. Since this “shame” has come as a result of disobedience, it is most natural to interpret it in the last sense, as feelings of guilt.
3 “The Emotivity of God,” Reformed Baptist Theological Review 1:2 (July 2004): 128-33.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.