You Shall Surely Die: Death, the Fall and Evolution

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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.”

…Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.  He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,  but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'”  But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not 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.” (Genesis 2:16-17, 3:1-5, ESV)

Even as a boy I was bothered by the above passages.  It seemed like God had made an empty threat to Adam:  Adam did not die when he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; in fact, he lived at least 800 more years.  The serpent had been telling the truth!  I’m not saying that the curse Adam and Eve received wasn’t terrible, especially given Adam and Eve’s pre-fall context, but it just seemed like God didn’t follow through on the threat.  (Aside: maybe this was the first case of God’s grace?)

However, if we see the death that came about after the fruit is eaten as a spiritual death, the threat no longer seems so “empty”.  Indeed, nothing outward noticably happened once they ate the fruit.  They became aware of their nakedness, felt ashamed and felt guilt?the immediate change was psychological or spiritual as they became aware of things they were not aware of before.  In this sense, perhaps the “death” that came about was a spiritual one: separation from God, the “death” of innocence,  the “death” of their pre-fall relationship with God (he walked with them only one more time according to the text).  If this is the case, the consequences of eating of that tree were just what God said they would be.

Furthermore, as Ian helpfully points out in his comments to one of my previous posts on this subject, after God finishes explaining the curse on humanity, He says

“Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever–” (Genesis 3:22, ESV)

And then he banishes Adam and Eve from the garden.  Apparently eating of the tree of life would have made humans immortal (why didn’t they eat from that tree first?), implying, perhaps, that humans were not yet immortal.  (It could also be read to mean that humans could regain their immortality, but that seems less likely.)  But I think these verse is important to note when discussing this issue.

On the other hand, the curse against Adam mentions death: “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.” (Genesis 3:19 ESV)  But is “returning  to dust” a new concept, part of the curse, or is God merely stating a fact?  The curses are all written in a poetic form; what difference would this make to how we read it?

Some further questions:

1.  Is the “tree” was an actual tree or does it have a symbolic function in the story?  After all, it doesn’t appear as if there was something on or in the fruit itself that would effect the change Adam and Eve experienced, no poison or “serum”.  From what I can tell, it was their disobedience that was the problem, not the fruit itself.  (rabbit trail question: could the “tree of life” in the garden being a metaphor for Christ?)

2.  If Adam and Eve were immortal before the fall and they (or their descendants) never disobeyed God and they continued to be fruitful and multiply, would the earth not have been overpopulated ages ago?

These questions may seem trivial, but they are an inevitable outcome of the way I have understood the creation story and the fall of humans.  How much of the accounts of creation and the first humans is symbolic or metaphor?  Need we read the first couple of chapters of Genesis as literal history?

Of course, any doctrinal study of Genesis 1 and 2 assumes that all the details necessary to do that are in the text (e.g. every word God spoke is recorded), and we all know what assuming does.  It also assumes (such as with the question of overpopulation) that things as they have been will continue on indefinitely, which, from a Christian point of view, is not going to be the case.

9 thoughts on “You Shall Surely Die: Death, the Fall and Evolution

  1. Andrew

    Interesting post. I like your idea on the first occurrence of grace being no physical death; though I would say that creation as a whole is grace — since God’s self-sufficience would not require God to create anything at all.

    The tree of life reappears at the end of the bible–and I would think that it is a metaphor for Christ. There are theologies that maintain that God’s plan was all along to integrate himself into his creation by becoming human, fall or no fall. Going by what Paul writes in Colossians, all things hold together in Christ – he is literaly at the center of everything — a tree of life.

  2. Kelly

    It seems to me that the idea of overpopulation is not Christian in origin (not that that makes it wrong, but obviously the idea has vast theological implications if it is true). In a lecture I listened to recently by Janet Smith, she discussed this issue and asserted that the U.S. is capable of feeding the rest of the world, so the problem of starvation has nothing to do with overpopulation.

  3. Marc


    I don’t understand your comment. What I mean with overpopulation is this: if humans were immortal and were all “being fruitful” as God commanded, then the earth would be overflowing with people in no time. One could argue that sin and death are inevitable, I suppose, but let’s imagine for a moment that the Fall wasn’t inevitable.

    People living forever and over that time having children on a regular basis. Earth’s population would grow exponentially and would have reached the billions thousands of years ago.

    (Assuming God didn’t intervene somehow).


    Can grace be shown to something that doesn’t exist? I’m asking only for the sake of argument: is our existence (and the existence of the universe) a sign of God’s grace when it didn’t exist beforehand? My understanding of grace is, in a nutshell, “getting what you don’t deserve” (in a positive sense. As opposed to mercy, which would be “not getting what you do deserve”), which doesn’t seem to be something you can apply to something that hasn’t existed before the supposed act of grace. But then I probably have a limited understanding of the concept.

  4. Marc

    Incidentally, I realized after I posted this that I never mention evolution in this post, in spite of the title. This post, as you probably already realize, came out of my thoughts about evolution and its apparent tension with Christian theology. There’s the connection.

  5. Johanna

    Well, one thing I’ve learned at school is that the first eleven chapters of the Bible were written in colloquial language, unlike the rest of the Old Testament, which was written in classical Hebrew. It was not written in a legal historic manner like the rest of the Torah (excluding things like the psalms). Also, from what I know, most Jews will read the first 11 chapters metaphorically, which I think is interesting compared to most evangelical Christians who take it all literally.

    I’m still not sure what I think of it all, but I just thought this stuff was interesting to take into account. And I do have to trust other people, because I can’t read Hebrew.

  6. Marc

    Thanks, Johanna. That’s helpful.

    Is that including chapter 11? It includes Abraham’s lineage, which, on the face of it, seems like a somewhat historical approach to writing.

    Just curious.

    It’s a fascinating subject.

  7. Andrew

    I guess from the perspective of “why is there something rather than nothing” I’d say grace can be seen as God granting life to us, and sustaining the Universe. I think grace can be seen a little broader than your definition, although even in those parameters I’d say our existence is grace, since God didn’t need to create anything or anyone, and no one deserves to be sustained.

  8. Jerry

    I love playing with the first few chapters of Genesis — like you said, Marc, how do you know what’s metaphor and what’s not? (Is fiction ever without literal truths or non-fiction ever without symbolic knowledge?)

    I was wondering if the author of Genesis considered Adam and Eve’s deaths (spiritual and physical) to be in a process, a slow decline or removal from God.

    As far as over-population is concerned, couldn’t God have changed humanity’s ability to reproduce? OR — could the “rulers of the earth” have used their God-given minds to accomplish a healthy end to reproduction? Just curious.

    I agree that the creation of our existence is an act of grace. We don’t DESERVE existence.

    I love this subject. It’s so rare to find people talking about it!

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