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Genesis 2:16-17 (NIV):

16And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

KJV says:

for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

It seems clear that Adam and Eve did not die on the day they ate from the tree. And even without the word "day" there, it seems they didn't die "when" they ate from the tree, either, but many many years later.

What gives?

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The death promised and that Adam experienced the moment he chose to sin was not a ceasing to exist or a physical stopping to breathe, it was a separation: a rending apart of two things that were once closely joined. On the day that Adam ate the fruit, he died1. He was separated from God. The fellowship between them was broken.

The reverse of this death happens when we are 'born again'. The fellowship is restored, and we are born into new life -- the power of the cross is that it reverses death!

The alternative, for those who are not born again into a new life, is that they will experience a 'second death'. This is partly a contrast between physical and spiritual death. It happens sequentially after physical death (making it second) but is also the point at which spiritual separation becomes permanent (having died once with Adam, they will be judged to permanent death). The reverse is true for believers: we will be raised into life even though we die.

This is an important doctrine to understand in light of many popular culture understandings of death as some kind of annihilation or ceasing to exist. Never in Scripture do we find an indications that any humans well cease to exist, but we do find lots of information about the change in our relationship before God.

This understanding of death as a separation or rending apart of two things once joined is also the sense of 'death' that Romans and 1st Peter use when they speak of believers being dead to sin. We are no longer bound to it as a slave is to his master. Believers relationship with sin has been severed and we have been cleaved to a new master.

When we physically die, our spirits are separated from the bodies that we have been one with2. Our bodies don't cease to exist nor do our spirits, but they part ways3. Our bodies then decay and return to dust, but even the material in this world doesn't cease to exist. Our spirits meanwhile continue, either in eternal life (unity with Christ) or eternal death (separation from Him).

  1. Genesis 2:17 (ESV)
    but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat1 of it you shall surely die.”

  2. Genesis 35:18 (ESV)
    And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.
    James 2:26 (ESV)
    For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

  3. Ecclesiastes 12:7 (ESV)
    and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

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Sadly it seems the year I was born was the year somebody forwarded a different idea about what death means. Here is an article for further reading. Also here are lots more verses and some charts. – Caleb Sep 19 '11 at 14:50
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What about Gen 3:22? after Adam and Eve sinned "the LORD God said, 'The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.'" That sure sounds like physically living forever. – Dale Mar 2 '12 at 3:28
    
@Caleb You mention separation from God in eternity for those who do not believe. Do you believe in "eternal damnation" as more than just separation, but suffering, as in living in pain a lake of fire or whatnot? – aeoril Nov 3 '12 at 18:01
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Well thought answer – Seek forgiveness Mar 8 '13 at 10:12

That is talking about physical death because when Adam disobeyed, God in his mercy had to cut him off from the tree of life so he would not live forever in his sin Genesis 3:22-24 (KJV).

22And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

23Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

God DID in fact cut him off from the tree of life that day, so Adam did start to die.

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This raises the question, which has also been asked, what is the tree of life? – Flimzy Sep 2 '11 at 13:55
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I find the argument "they began to die" difficult to swallow... if that's what the Bible meant, surely it would have said that, no? Also in light of other uses of the term 'die' and 'death', it seems that it always means something more immediate (and not always physical) in the Bible. – Flimzy Sep 19 '11 at 22:45

Perhaps a more superficial answer might be that if one day for God is 1,000 years for man, and Adam lived to be 930 years old (Genesis 5:5), then Adam really did die on the same "day".

2 Peter 3:8 (KJV)

But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

Also Psalms 90:4

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

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Exactly. Provided Adam was also immortal and eternal when God told him not to eat. I believe that Adam was not bounded by time before the fall and hence a day and a thousand years was same to Adam as well. Remember, Adam was created in the image of God. – Mawia Jan 11 '14 at 11:41

According to Romans 6:23 "the wages of sin is death" (KJV) so death is the wages of sin and all that involves. For instance,

  • Temporal life on earth because the physical death appears like something new.
  • Total depravity or corrupted nature of men slaved to sin. With the new physical death, the men could kill each others and themselves.
  • Sickness.
  • Aging.
  • Unhollyness and separation from God.
  • All of this and much more...

Would help to know what Christ came to do, because consist in the reverse or the restitution of the falled nature.

EDIT: Obs: I ommited the connection of the word "death" in that verse of Romans with the word "die" of the verse of Genesis because that is obvious for every christian and we are in a christianity forum.

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There is a doubling in this phrase that is not uncommon in Hebrew syntax and has been translated various ways like, "you will surely die."

I would like to focus on "in the day that you eat of it" and suggest that a proper understanding of what God says is best gained by looking at the events following their disobedience.

Note how, prior to Adam and eve's disobedience, they could eat of any fruit of any tree in the garden. The only one they could not eat of was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So they could have eaten any time from the tree of life and thus lived forever.

15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;

But instead they chose to eat of the fruit from the tree God forbade:

17 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."

cf.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.

Now notice right after God finishes reproving Adam, eve, and the serpent, he clothes them, and (seemingly in that very day), He sets a guard so they no longer could eat and live forever. Thus, they will die.

Genesis 3:24 So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

So, rather than reading t as "in the day you eat of it you will die that day," we understand by the unfolding of its fulfillment: in the day you eat of it you will no longer have access to the tree of life. Thus you will surely die.

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See https://answersingenesis.org/death-before-sin/genesis-2-17-you-shall-surely-die/

They say that an acceptable translation of the phrase is "dying you shall die", and back it up by showing an identical construction found in Numbers 7:10–84, informing the people that that generation would die in the desert without reaching the promised land. The whole generation did not die on the same day - it was spread out over time.

Thus the phrase means that a process of dying would immediately begin, and its sure result would be an ultimate death.

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Die as described in Genesis 3;19:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground: for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.

Ecclesiastes 9;5

For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know not any thing; neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

Adam and Eve did not die physically that day, a substitute was offered, Jesus Christ.

Genesis 3;21

Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

However, Adam and Eve did die spiritually, that day.

Isaiah 59;2

But your iniquities have seperated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.

Later, Adam and Eve physically died. Eves death is not recorded.

Genesis 5;5

And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.

Note; When Adam was driven out of the garden, they no longer had access to the tree of life that had sustained them and immortality. They would now physically die. Mans life force has always existed outside himself. We are not immortal in any fashion.

2 Timothy 1;10 But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immorality to light through the gospels:

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