I was talking to a Jehovah's witness who did not believe in the immortality of soul and he pointed out a scripture to me.

Genesis 3:22 And the LORD God said, Behold ... lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever

If the soul is already immortal what was God afraid of? Did he mean to say:

Lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and his soul shall stick to his body forever.

How do Protestants explain this?

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    Are you looking for a defense of this interpretation from a Jehovah's Witness perspective or a general interpretation? If the former, I think the question needs the jehovahs-witnesses tag and if the later, I think it's too general to be a constructive question. Am I making any sense? Aug 16 '12 at 18:46
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    @Jas3.1 Jehovah's Witnesses believe hell is a pagan concept. They believe in a form of annihilationism. Aug 16 '12 at 19:41
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    This question prompted a meta-question from me. Monika, I think your question is good, but I'm not sure that asking us to refute a position you don't hold is good for the health of the site. Aug 16 '12 at 23:00
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    @JonEricson "Are you looking for a defense of this interpretation from a Jehovah's Witness perspective" Nope. I'm looking for a protestant defense of immortality of soul in the light of this verse. It seems to contradict with that doctrine and I'd like to see how its resolved. Aug 17 '12 at 17:00
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    I'll let it be known that I'm not asking for someone to confirm my belief on the subject and don't intend to make this subjective. I'll gladly accept an answer that represents the official protestant theological position or cites a commentary or church father on the subject. (never mind if I agree with it or not). Always looking for data. The processing, I do myself. Aug 17 '12 at 18:11

One possible interpretation is that the tree of life would have given them eternal physical life. After the Fall, this would have been in a state of separation from God. So, God prevented them from living forever in this state of separation.

God's purpose was that they live forever in communion with Him.

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    Doesn't make sense to me. "God prevented them from living forever in this state of separation" But now they live forever in separation in hell. Potaytoe Potahtoe Aug 7 '12 at 14:53
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    @MonikaMichael No, God actually provided a way for them (and everyone) to live eternally in communion with Him rather than eternally separated from Him--either on earth or hell.
    – Narnian
    Aug 7 '12 at 14:56

Generally speaking, the Hebrew Bible does not distinguish between "body" and "soul." The Hebrew word for life, nephesh refers to the "vital life forces," that is, breathing, pulse, etc. There certainly are intimations of afterlife in the HB, but most scholars agree that an eternal soul was not part of Israelite Religion—at least not in the Platonic sense. The influence of Greek philosophy can be seen clearly by the Septuagint translation of nephesh as psyche, which we usually translate as "soul." New Testament Christianity comes out of this religious milieu, but we can't retroject that back into the text of the HB. This has nothing to do with the "mortality" of the soul, only mortality of "life" which may include some spiritual or metaphysical element.

To answer the question: Most scholars who read this narrative from a historical–critical perspective (like me), read it side-by-side with the Mesopotamian myths of Enuma Elish and Atra Hasis as well as the Ugaritic Baʿal Cycle. I often recommend people to familiarize themselves with these myths because they help to contextualize the Hebrew Bible literarily, By similarity and distinction.

The creation stories of Genesis (1:1ff. and 2:4ff.; to which you refer)—when viewed on their own—paint a picture of Yahweh and his celestial company creating humans "in their own image." However, it is clear from the narrative that humans are not gods. The temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent, then, was to "be like God," hence the divine declaration (which you cut out of your question!):

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ – Gen 3:22

This is, in effect the same problem encountered a bit later in the Babel story (Gen 11)—what the Greeks would later call "Hubris."

Notice that Adam and Eve are never said to "live forever" from the outset. The so called "Tree of Life" is enigmatic at best, but the problem is clear: if Adam and Eve eat from that tree too, they will be too much "like God (or the gods)."

The long-and-short of it is this: the author of Genesis doesn't have in mind an eternal soul (as we understand it), so when he says "so that he does not live forever," that's precisely what he means.


I believe "live", in this context, refers to the body, not the soul.

This would be consistent with most usages of "death" referring to the body rather than being thrown in hell.

Lastly, I would not interpret "lest" as a form of fear.

Examples of "death" referring to body rather than soul:

Genesis 25:11 (in the Lazarus story, we know for a fact Abraham's soul is alive)

25:11 And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac; and Isaac dwelt by the well Lahairoi.

Genesis 26:18

26:18 And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham: and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.


I think we must take the trees as literal but also symbolic because of God's promises annexed to them. The tree of life represented the case of Adam obtaining eternal life by obedience to God and in resisting the tree of death. In other words Adam could never be allowed to eat from the tree of life so the concern is hypothetical only, God would never and could never, have allowed it. God is saying 'Now that Adam is a sinner he must not obtain eternal glory as a holy saint, reversing the effects of eating from the other tree.  No my judgment must stand, there are no second chances.  Adam must die as I warned him he would if he had sinned.  Adam can't work his way back into life but must be thrown out of the garden entirely.' If Adam could have eaten from the tree than according to the promise God annexed to it, Adam would have been born again against God's means of actually providing it, so it could never happen. If Adam had resisted sin and eaten from the tree of life than we would have all been born sinless and no Messiah would have been required.

The view that these trees are equal and opposites is common and the most congruent with scripture:

The situation with the tree of life I believe to have been wholly the same; not by its inherent character but through the efficacy of the Word was the tree life-giving. And so, because the Word was still attached to that tree, Adam would have been restored to his former life if he had eaten from it. (Luther's Works Vol 1, P227)

The Bible does not say one tree was 'big' causing death to soul and body and the other was 'tiny' only causing life to the body. They are equal symbols of the results of the covenant of works God made with Adam, obedience to eternal life, soul and body, or disobedience to eternal death, soul and body.

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    (-1) While I do (personally) respect your interpretation, I think answers need to have more references and less "I thinks" and assumptions.
    – Jas 3.1
    Aug 16 '12 at 18:57
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    If we took out 'I thinks' for the answer to this question, there would be no answers. But some might 'think' differently. What 'I think' here, is what Martin Luther thought and John Owen thought.
    – Mike
    Aug 17 '12 at 0:13
  • Any references to back that up?
    – Jas 3.1
    Aug 20 '12 at 20:55
  • @Jas3.1 - Added Luther as an example, besides it occured to me how mayb this is more obvious then I first thought The tree should be considered equal in effect, not minimized on one side to suit our random theories.
    – Mike
    Aug 21 '12 at 0:10

The key verse for understanding the punishments associated with eating from Tree of the Knowledge and Good and Evil is Genesis 2:17. In English:

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.”

Much ink has been spilt over the question of why that death was not immediate. For purposes of this argument, I will fall on an assumption that God's mercy was on display here, and he withheld that execution for hundreds (at least in Adam's case, 930) of years. That God continually doesn't kill people who deserve it in Genesis (Cain - not killed; Lamech - not killed; World before the Flood- not killed for 120 years; World at Babel - not killed) shows that God's mercy is evident even in the first 11 chapters of Geensis.

What is important in this context, however, is the nature of death and life, as used in Genesis 2:17 and 3:22. In Hebrew, the key phrase of death centers around the "m-t" מוֹת

מוֹת תָּמוּת = "in that day you shall surely die"

In every other instance throughout the Hebrew text, the "m-t" words speak of a physical death - the separation of the ru'ach - the breath - from the body. Other usages imply both natural deaths and execution. When people were put to death, indeed, their lives were m-t. (Sorry, couldn't resist!)

This could then seem to indicate at a very simple level that there was no death. In Revelation 21:4, it says:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

If "the Fall" is indeed a dispensationary event in which "all former things pass away," then it is not unreasonable to say that prior to the Fall, there was no death. Evidence for this view could be drawn from Genesis 9, another dispensationary event in which "the old order passes away." After the Flood, Noah is told:

2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

Here, the evidence clearly seems to indicate that man was at least not allowed to kill animals, and that animals were not afraid of man. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest then that had "the Fall" not occurred, there would have been no physical death.

Indeed, when in Genesis 3:22, the Lord says:

He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.

there is nothing to preclude that from meaning a physical immortal life.

Indeed, the wa-hey (to live) and olayim (forever), would connote "go one breathing indefinitely."

inf. absol, חָיֹה Eze. 18:9, and חָיוֹ 3:21; 18:28; constr. with suff. חֲיוֹתָם Josh. 5:8; with prefix לִחְיוֹת Eze. 33:12; imp. with prefix וֶחְיֵה Gen. 20:7; pl. וִחְיוּ 42:18; fut. יִחְיֶה apoc. יְהִי, וַיְחִי. (1) TO LIVE, a word of very frequent use. Arabic حَىَّ, which form is also found in Hebrew, see חָיַי. Æth. ሐይወ፡ Syr. ܚܝܐܳ id. The original idea of this word is that of breathing; inasmuch as the life of animate beings is discerned by their breathing (compare נֶפֶשׁ); and the more ancient form of this root is הָוָה, which see. The same original idea is found in the Greek ζάω, ζώω, cognate to which is ἄω, ἄημι, to breathe; which, in Æschylus, is applied to the winds as breathing or blowing. Those who are curious in languages may inquire whether the Sanscrit dschîv, to live; Greek βίοω; and Latin vivo; belong to the same stock.

Gesenius, W., & Tregelles, S. P. (2003). Gesenius' Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (273–274). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

A very simple explanation could then be derived as follows:

  1. When Adam and Eve were created, there was no concept of death. Being made "very good," could imply that there would be no inherent reason for the body to die of old age, rather it would keep going on forever.

  2. The choice of two trees - a Tree of Life and a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil - would have been placed in the Garden, and the named gifts associated thereto be actual powers adhering to the creatures. Indeed, the text clearly states that when the woman and the man had eaten of the tree, "their eyes were opened." This seems to indicate that a physical effect of some kind had taken place.

  3. When the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was eaten, the race had been decided - man had chosen "to be like God" over physical immortality. At that point, the nature of man was cemented.

  4. The Tree of Life, which would have cemented the ongoing "Zoe" (life) would itself not have been affected - it still would have "sealed the deal" in the other direction, cementing ongoing breath and spirit within the body. Had it too been eaten, both powers would have adhered to the creatures, making them both "wise" and "immortal."

  5. Had God then seen this as a race to which Tree would be eaten of first, having both powers was not part of the deal. He thus was compelled to keep the man (but interestingly not the other created beings such as the animals or even the angels) from the Tree, at least until the Flood, lest that power be transmitted as well.

Finally, when it comes to this notion of life, Psalm 90 should be considered:

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 3 You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” 4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. 5 Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: 6 In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered. 7 We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. 9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. 10 Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. 11 If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due. 12 Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

(I will admit, I love the "threescore and ten" but 70 - 80 years is a better translation). While death is obviously the key facet of the human condition, it should be noted that in God's eyes, it too serves a purpose. It both reflects God's wrath and punishment (as described in verses 7 - 9) and leads us to wisdom, as it forces us to use what we have wisely.

Had Adam and Eve not eaten of either tree, I do not know if their bodies would have worn out. Had they eaten of the Tree of Life, the implication seems to be that it would not have. But, as it is, we ate of knowledge, and we know good and evil. The serpent did not lie - our eyes were opened, and we became like God, in that we understood what was good and what was not. With that knowledge, we understand that death is bad. We are thus constantly reminded that with the power of this knowledge, we must choose to make the most of our earthly time and honor God therein.

In the Resurrection, if Paul is to be believed, we will see the fruits thereof. 1 Corinthians 15 states:

23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

If with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God created death, then in the final Resurrection, death is destroyed. At that point, we would be in the same place we were in the Graden - nothing inherently capable of stopping our breath from our physical forms. We know we will be raised and given new incorruptable bodies - and clearly something would be needed to restore our essence to them.

Is that essence (let's call it a soul) then immortal? Until eternity begins, its really a moot question. Are those who are not resurrected annihilated? Again - separate question. The point is back to the proof text given by your JW friend. The soul is not the point of Genesis 3:22 - it is the breath, the spirit. In short, your friend's argument, while interesting, is a non-sequitir.

We will die or else we will be caught up in the air with him. We will be resurrected and we will know, even as we are known.


In any event, God did not mis-speak. The bodies he created for the present must not live forever. Whether or not their souls do rests on a completely different foundation.

  • +1: I was going to post an answer quoting Genesis 2:17 -- but then I found that not only had you already done that; but you had also quoted the original hebrew for the word "physical death." Well done.
    – user1694
    Aug 20 '12 at 8:34
  • Seeing such an excellent post languish unappreciated by voters (the bounty was well deserved) makes me wonder whether some tinkering needs to be done to improve the SE model - there is such a short window for posts to get noticed, that even if they are significantly superior to their competitors, late posts suffer unjust levels of neglect. I guess as it currently stands, the onus is on the author of the question to remedy this by accepting (switching to) the best answer even if they're late - but if they're no longer active, what then? Jul 16 '14 at 11:44

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