“You Shall Surely Die”
Why did God say that to Adam in Genesis 2:17
Once upon a time you were spiritually dead. Then you met Jesus and now you are spiritually alive.
Or so the story goes.
Like many religious phrases the idea that we were spiritually dead makes sense until you start asking questions like “what is spiritual death?” and “why isn’t spiritual death mentioned in the Bible?”
What does it mean to be dead spiritually? And where does this idea come from?
It comes from something God said to Adam in the Garden:
From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die. (Genesis 2:17)
God told Adam that if he ate from the forbidden tree, he would die the same day. But Adam didn’t die, at least not straight away. He lived for hundreds of years and had lots of children (Gen. 5:4–5).
So how do we explain God’s warning?
“Since Adam didn’t die physically, he must have died spiritually.”
Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom. Makes perfect sense. Hand me a theological degree because I just solved the problem. But did I? What exactly is spiritual death?
Spiritual death defined
Spiritual death means to be cut off or separated from God. “Those who are spiritually dead are dead to the things of God,” said the 19th-century Methodist minister Joseph Benson and many others. Apparently sinners cannot communicate with God.
Except Adam did. In fact, there is more evidence of God talking with Adam after he sinned than before.
God also spoke with Adam’s murderous son Cain and many of his other descendants (e.g., Job, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc.). The Old Testament is a record of God talking and dealing with people who were supposed to be spiritually dead.
Because I’m a curious sort of person, I did a bit of digging into the meaning of spiritual death. I went looking for a definition that fitted with scripture. Guess what. I couldn’t find one. Instead, I found a lot of sloppy exegesis, like this:
“God walked with Adam in the cool of the evening but after Adam sinned that didn’t happen anymore.”
Actually, the only mention of God walking in the garden came after Adam sinned (Gen. 3:8).
“Adam was filled with the Holy Spirit but the Holy Spirit left him after he sinned leaving Adam spiritually disconnected and spiritually dead.”
There is not one bit of evidence that the Holy Spirit indwelled anyone before the Day of Pentecost and plenty to suggest that he didn’t (Luke 24:49, John 7:39, 16:7). If the Holy Spirit left us when we sinned, Christians would be in trouble. Happily, the Holy Spirit never abandons us (John 14:16, Heb. 13:5).
“God drove Adam and Eve out from his presence.”
Again, that’s not true. God did drive the first couple out of the Garden of Eden, but he went with them and continued to talk with them and their children. God did not wash his hands of these sinners or drive them from his presence.
It’s true that killer Cain went out from the presence of the Lord (Gen. 4:16), but he left God; God didn’t leave him.
“Spiritual death means Adam acquired a sinful nature which he passed on to his offspring.”
This is Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, another religious idea that is not supported by scripture. Adam’s transgression condemned him and his offspring (see Rom. 5:12-19), but it did not give him horns, a tail, or a sin gene to pass onto his children. Your sinful nature – when you had one – was acquired, not inherited, the result of living in a world held captive by sin.
What really happened to Adam?
What did God mean when he told Adam “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”?
This is an easy question because God answered it. If we want to know what happened to Adam, we only need to hear the sentence of death that was pronounced on the day he sinned:
By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)
To return to the dust from whence you came describes physical death, not spiritual death. God said Adam’s body would end up in the ground and that’s what happened.
God warned Adam, “You shall surely die.” This phrase appears repeatedly in the Bible, and every time it refers to physical death (e.g., Gen. 20:7, Num. 26:65, 2 Kgs. 1:4). It has nothing to do with spiritual death, whatever that may be.
But what about when God says “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”? That sounds like Adam would die the same day. In a manner of speaking he did. From the moment Adam ate the fruit, he began to die.
“You will surely die” can be read as “dying you will die” and Adam began dying that very day. The moment he said yes to sin, he entered death row and life as he knew it was over.
But don’t take my word for it. Let scripture interpret scripture.
Learning from Shimei
There is a story in the Bible that illuminates the surely-die passage. It is the story of a rebel called Shimei, a relative of King Saul, who became embittered after David ascended to the throne.
Shimei created trouble for the House of David and Solomon knew that he had to keep the troublemaker on a short leash. King Solomon warned Shimei to confine himself to Jerusalem. The king said that if he ever left the city, his life would be forfeit.
For on the day you go out and cross over the brook Kidron, you will know for certain that you shall surely die; your blood shall be on your own head. (1 Kings 2:37)
Note Solomon’s choice of words: on the day… you shall surely die. It’s the same warning that God gave to Adam.
And like Adam, Shimei didn’t listen.
After a couple of his slaves ran away, Shimei left the city and pursued them halfway across the country. When Shimei eventually returned to Jerusalem, Solomon had him executed just as he promised.
Shimei did not literally die on the day he broke parole, just as Adam did not literally die on the day he ate from the forbidden tree. But like Adam, his life was forfeit on the day that he sinned.
What did Paul say?
No one wrote more about the consequences of Adam’s offence than the apostle Paul, and Paul never mentioned spiritual death. Not once. “The wages of sin is death,” he said, not spiritual death, but the real, final death that closes the curtain on life (Rom. 6:23).
When Paul said, “through one man sin entered into the world… and so death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), he meant Adam’s transgression brought death and condemnation to us all (Rom. 5:18).
Adam put humanity on death row.
When Paul said “you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1), he meant you were doomed to die on account of sin. And when he said “you were made alive with Christ” (Eph. 2:5), he meant you now have everlasting life through Christ Jesus (John 3:15–16, 5:24).
“In Adam, all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). That’s the bad news. The good news is that in Christ all will be made alive.
Spiritual death sounds Biblical but isn’t. (Click on the Table below for a larger version.) It conveys the impression that unbelievers are spiritually numb and incapable of communicating with God. But if that were true, how could anyone repent? How could anyone pray the Sinner’s Prayer?
The Bible never says that natural man is spiritually dead. Instead it says he lacks fellowship with the Lord (1 John 1:3), is alienated in his mind (Col. 1:3), and excluded from the life of God (Eph. 4:18).
His spirit is very much alive, it’s just not connected to the Spirit of God (John 3:5, Rom. 8:9).
Dumb things we say in church
Spiritual death, like original sin, is one of those religious phrases we should stop using. To say unbelievers suffer from spiritual death is to minimize all that Jesus did for us.
Jesus does not deliver us from some half-baked version of death that no one understands; he delivered us from real, final, pushing-up-daisies death. He did this by giving us a brand new life, one that does not end in death.
If you have been joined to the Lord you have everlasting life and a hundred blessings besides. In fellowship with the Lord, you have been made a partaker of his divine life.
With the indwelling Holy Spirit to guide and keep you, you have it far better than Adam ever did.
Extracted and adapted from Paul’s new book, Original Sin: What Does the Bible Really Say? available now on Patreon.
Why is it death to partake of knowledge of good and evil? Because that’s the do it yourself path. It’s a lie that says if I know good and do good, I will have life. Eternal life can only be provided to you as a gift.
Paul, I’ve been enjoying your closer examination into the ‘dumb things we say’ in church (and elsewhere). If I understand correctly you make the following statements:1) Before Adam’s sin, he wasn’t/would not physically die. 2) His sin, then subjected him to death and the lifelong dying process towards actual physical death. 3) Upon our joining with the Lord, we receive eternal life
Yet we still are dying and will die physically, even with eternal life? Our spirits seem to be an eternal awareness whether in punishment (Hell) or with Christ in ‘heaven’. But it appears God’s definition of death is not our bodies either way, rather separation from Him. How does this fit? What am I missing?
Excellent question, Chris. The Bible actually describes two deaths; physical death and the second or ultimate death (Rev. 2:11). Jesus said the one who believes in him has crossed over to death to new and eternal life (John 5:24), meaning they don’t need to fear either death.
I also touch on this issue in my article, “Why do people still die?“
Well, we read that John the Baptizer was prophesized to be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. And that was before the day of Pentecost. Was that not true? Ephesians 2 says we were DEAD on our trespasses and sins in which we formerly walked. We were by nature children of wrath even as the rest. But NOW you who were formerly far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
I love that prophecy about John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Spirit while in the womb, for it demolishes Augustine’s notion that we were stained with original sin. Jesus told the disciples the Holy Spirit had not yet been given (John 7:38-39), but John the Baptist, and possibly his mother (Luke 1:41), seemed to have had an early taste of the coming Gift.
If Jesus paid the penalty for our sins… Then why do we still die?
I answer that question in this article.
Thx but I cant see your answer to my question. It is a link to your commentary on Rev, which I read but don’t see it. Can you be specific? Thx
Sorry, I’ve got too many irons in the fire this morning. I corrected the link in the comment above.
Hi Paul, I support your writing and it has been a big blessing to me.
I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but your comparison to Shimei get me curious. My interlinear Bible shows that there is an important difference.
Adam: in the day you eat you will surely die (the word emphasized is die, it’s gonna happen for sure)
Shimei: in the day you leave for will surely know. (The word emphasizes is know, you are as good as dead because I will be coming for you)
These are different. Both say “in the day” but the wording is different.
Also, your post about death is assuming they are separate things, physical and spiritual death. I’m just putting that out there, what if they aren’t as separate as we think. Also, I’m still not convinced. There are other verses about unregenerate peoples standing with God. I think the Cain argument conflates the issue because it is an assumption (granted falsely taught) that unregenerate people cannot hear God or be heard by him.
Hi Sara, thanks for your comments. The Shimei example is just one of several examples of this phrase being used in the Old Testament, and in each case the meaning is pretty clear. “On the day you sin, your life is forfeit.” That’s the message Adam and Shimei heard. Surely die means surely die and they both died.
I agree that physical and spiritual death are separate things. When our bodies die, that’s physical death. When our spirits die, that’s what the Bible calls the Second Death. Adam did not experience this on the day he ate the forbidden fruit.
Yes, the assumption that unregenerate people cannot converse with God makes nonsense of the traditional idea that unbelievers have dead spirits or are spiritually insensate. Anyone can cry out to God knowing they will be heard.
Found your thoughts Paul, on ‘spiritual death’ interesting – Does this conclude in your mind that no ‘human being’ in spite of his choices on earth will find himself doomed to an eternity in hell?…..but only that he will have lost benefits he could have enjoyed in the ‘hear and now’ while alive on earth?…..Would very much appreciate your thoughts on this? Thank you. TL.
Hi Trevor, you can find my thoughts on hell here.
What about in the Old Testament when it said the Spirit came on them e.g. Judges 14:19? Is that different from indwelling? Thanks Paul
Yes, there seems to be a difference between those rare Old Testament moments when the Holy Spirit “came upon” select individuals for a time, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole church in the New Testament. “But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39).
Hey Paul! Much grace to you.
What kind of nature does a person have that has not yet “acquired” a sin nature? What does a person have to do to “acquire” a sin nature? Does it just take one sin or multiple sins? Can a person know when the sin nature is acquired? Is it gradual or instantaneous? Should we ask the person first if they have a sin nature or not before we witness to them? Do all the people of the world that have not yet “acquired” a sin nature need to receive Jesus as Savior and be born again and become a New Creations in Christ or are they righteous before God, good to go and don’t really need Jesus? Also, unborn again people can still hear from God as none of the OT writers were born again yet were moved by the Holy Spirit to write the OT scriptures.
These are the sorts of questions philosophers (or theologians) might ask (and have asked), but they distract us from larger issues. It makes no difference how many sins you commit, humanity is lost and on death row. Happily, a Savior has come and offers us his blessed and eternal life.
Yes, people in the Old Testament heard from God, including many sinners!
I’m not a philosopher and for sure not a theologian. Not a Dr or have any titles in front of my name. Just grateful for my Savior and a lover of Truth. Does a person who has not yet “acquired” a sin nature need to accept Jesus as Savior and be born again? This is a pretty large issue.
There is a special name for those people who have not yet acquired a sin nature – babies and infants.
What about the new to be born again of the holy spirit … Jesus seems to think this is something Nicodemus should already know about … does this suggest that the holy spirit was always accessible but rarely accessed?
Jesus marveled that Nicodemus did not grasp the need to be born again or born of the spirit. Nicodemus seems to have forgotten those Old Testament prophecies that signaled the new birth (e.g., Eze. 11:19, 36:26).
We can’t deny that there was some form of separation between God and man, in that the Old Testament saints needed to perform animal sacrifices to atone for the sins they committed. That in order for God to be with His people He required that they made animal sacrifices to atone for their sins. Which was only a shadow of Jesus’s perfect sacrifice on our behalf for those who believe. And that it’s through His sacrifice we can now have eternal life and be with Him in His presence. So I guess my question would be. Was there really no affect on humanity spiritually from being separated from God due to sin? That it was only the physical (physical death)?
I don’t think anyone is denying there was a separation between God and man after the Fall, and that separation had catastrophic consequences on every sphere of our lives.
So if that separation due to sin has affected all aspects of our lives and being. Then it must’ve in some way affected the very nature of our spiritual hearts. Because it takes more than the external influence of The Law to cause us from the heart to act holy, like how God created us to be (in His Image). That we need to be born again from the heart in order to be a child of God (unbeliever to believer) and be in right standing before Him through faith. So how can we deny that humanity has a deprived nature (heart) under Adam (due His sin) if it takes more than an external influence but a spiritual act (born again) of God (by Grace) to make us new (under Christ)? It seems we need to change (from than the heart) more so than the sinful environment we’re in.
Yes, we all need to be born again, but not because of a depraved nature or our sinning behavior. Those are merely symptoms of our utter lostness. We need more than a new nature; we need a new life.
Right, so due to sin we are lost (separation) in Adam and we receive a sinning behavior (depraved nature) and death. But by Grace we are United with Christ and we receive a new nature (new creation) and life.
I wouldn’t say a sinful nature is received as much as learned. The scriptures speak of people going astray and turning aside. It also speaks of children being too young to know the difference between right and wrong. Born into slavery, we soon learn how to act like slaves. We learn to walk after the flesh because we don’t know any other way.
I love that your articles challenge our thinking. Growing in Christ depends on the very process of letting go of previously held views and conclusions. If maturing in Christ is not about legal discipline and behavioral conformity, then what does maturing in Christ consist of if not an expanding awareness of reality from God’s point of view (the mission of the Holy Spirit) resulting in mental alignment with truth. Much of what we tend to count as loss in life is merely the alignment process. Growing in and with the Lord requires the simultaneous demolishing of boundaries in our minds. Like a swinging trapeze artist, we have to let loose of one grip to move forward on the next.
I acknowledge this
I think it’s our condition (separation from God) in Adam that makes us by nature self centered and sinful. That apart from God we are slaves to self and sin. Scripture does speak of people (like the Israelites) going astray time and time again. And I know there is the outside influence of the World and Satan, but I think ultimately it was the natural the choice of their own hearts when they went astray. Children do need to learn right from wrong as they physically grow and mature, but the same is true when we are born again spiritually, we need to grow in spiritual maturity.
Dr. Ellis, in Luke 15:24 Jesus is telling the story of the prodigal son, saying this my son was dead and is alive again. What would be your understanding of this expression; if it’s not separation, what would it be?
It’s a figure of speech. The son was not actually dead, but he was as good as dead to the father. Losing a son is losing a son. In the same way, sinful humanity is lost and as good as dead because we are disconnected from the Author of Life.
Dr Ellis,I suppose (Matthew 8:22) where Jesus says let the dead bury the dead, Should be interpreted as,Let those dying bury the dead Right? Because I was for sure taught that I was sprirtualy dead and that verse was certainly used to reinforce that point of veiw. Also i seem to remember a story about a certain man walking to Damascus and having an encounter on the way. Being spititually dead would of made it quite awkward no?
Not sure why you would think so Dennis. It’d be kind of weird for the spiritually dead to bury the spiritually dead – whatever that means.
The scriptures say we are all dead in sin without Christ.
“Your sinful nature – when you had one – was acquired, not inherited, the result of living in a world held captive by sin” Still struggling to grasp this.Is there any need for one to be “born again” through the word & spirit as Jesus seems to have suggested?In my understanding one thing that distinguished Christianity from other religions is this poistion on the need for Man to have this new nature that can only be acquired through faith & believing in Jesus Christ as the saviour.Virtually all other religions seem to take the position that man in inherently good & it’s the environment that corrpts him.Change the environment,so the logic goes,& all will be okay.Even aethist like Marxists also operate from this paradigm.Are they correct after all then I wonder?
Yes, you need to be born again, just as Jesus said. Humanity is lost and dead in sin. We need a new life, not just a new nature.
What is about..the Lord Jesus said “he that is born of flesh is flesh. And he that is born of spirit is spirit..”
“Walk in the spirit and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh..?
You can find my thoughts on these passages in the Grace Commentary.
So from my understanding Death and Separation from God is the penalty and effect of Sin, specifically Adam’s sin being the cause. God being the Author of life, gives life to all aspects of our being, body and spirit. In that He created us to sustain physical life (body) through His created physical means (tree of life), and to reflect His image in Love from our spirit (heart) through spiritual union with Him. So when we were separated from Him we were also separated from the means of life causing our bodies to return to dust and our hearts to become hardened. And our spirits do not die like our physical bodies because they were made to be eternal without dependence for life. Also, in the second death, both body and spirit will be permanently separated from God and His gift of life in the Lake of Fire.
Hello Paul, Comparing the experience of Adam and Shimei with death can be summerized in this phrase: DEAD MEN WALKING! Both ignored death warnings; so, death laid in their paths.
That’s it. They truly walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
When a baby in is in its mother’s womb and has been cut from the amblical cord which supplies its food SURELY that baby WILL DIE…
He felt naked; Isa 59:2 But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.