What is Spiritual Death?

By Samuel M. Frost, Th.M.

Since 2017, and even before, I have come to question the idea of “spiritual death” as a concept, or idea. Of course, I was raised with hearing this taught in the Foursquare tradition, and it is certainly taught in the Reformed one. One can find it in almost any circle of Christendom. Although it is not found in the earliest part of Church History, it does show up in Augustine. It is quite likely that Augustine read Philo, where it definitely shows up. In fact, David T. Runia demonstrates that Augustine was familiar with Philo – though to what extent is debatable[1]. Philo of Alexandria, as is well known, is described as developing an allegorical method, ‘who sought to reconcile Greek philosophy and the Old Testament by it, [and it] was later developed into an organized method of interpretation by Origen. It has done much harm to sound interpretation of the Bible’ [2]. Indeed.

Philo notes that the text of Gn 2.17 states, ‘in the day in which you eat from it, you will surely die.’ He is using, however, the LXX which pluralizes the verbs ‘eat’ and ‘die.’ The Hebrew does not do this. God is speaking to Adam alone, before Eve is ever made. Nonetheless, Philo comments, ‘not only do they not die, but they also have children.’ In light of this, ‘What, then, are we to say? That there are two (ditto) deaths; one is the death of the man, the other is the death of the soul (psuche). The death of a man is the soul without the body; but the soul-death is removal of moral excellence, it is corruption, a taking up of evil’ [3]. Thus, Philo is able to account for ‘dying the death’ in allegorical terms, or what we would call today, spiritual terms.

Jumping from Philo’s text to Augustine’s City of God (413-426 CE) there is a remarkable parallel in reasoning found in Books 13-15. Both take the prepositional phrase, beyom (‘when’, or ‘in the day’ – though the article is not retained) seriously. If it says, ‘when you eat, you will die’, then Adam must die in some sense. And, since it is quite obvious that he does not organically die, then it is inferred that he spiritually died, else God’s threat is rendered as a lie. However, drawing the conclusion that a commandment, and in this case a prohibition, with its threat must be carried out as stated is an assumption. God is perfectly free to issue a commandment and its punishment (a law), and yet retain the right as to how He will actually carry that out. It may be that He could carry out the law as stated, or He could exercise discretionary powers based on other considerations. We find examples of this in numerous places of His dealings with Israel. These can be summed up in David’s cry, ‘He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel: The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities’ (Psalm 103.7-10). His ways made known in Genesis 2-3 is that he did not treat Adam as his sin deserved. He showed compassion.
R.C. Sproul also states, ‘Numerous commentators have tried to soften the divine warning by interpreting the “death” of Genesis 2 as a kind of spiritual death. That is not what the text says’ (Holiness of God, Tyndale, 1998, page 162). In an about face, however, Sproul does ‘soften the divine warning’ by saying immediately after, ‘The death penalty of which God warned was real death, death in the full sense of the word. To be sure, Adam and Eve did suffer spiritual death that very day, but God granted mercy in terms of the full measure of the penalty’ (162). That, folks, is a contradiction. If Sproul is arguing that the text does not say that death is softened to mean a ‘kind of spiritual death’, then turns around and says that they did, to be sure, die a spiritual death, but not the full measure of death, then the penalty has been ‘softened’! No matter how one slices this, logically speaking, Sproul has contradicted himself. Be that as it may, and aside from the contradiction, we may be sure in what Sproul means: death means, ‘instant death. Death that very day’ (162). He further states that the ‘full measure’ was ‘delayed’ – which means the lesser measure was carried out – softening the warning. It is this type of reasoning that creates confusion. Either the full measure is carried out, or it is not. They either died, or they did not.
We find contradictions like this throughout Evangelical commentaries and works. In another place, Geerhardus Vos sought to minimize the prepositonal phrase, ‘in the day.’ He wrote, ‘Finally, the stressing of the phrase “in the day” in 2:17, is not only uncalled for, but, in view of the sequel of the narrative, impossible. As a threat of immediate, premature death the words have not been fulfilled, and that God subsequently mitigated or modified the curse, there is nothing whatever to suggest’ [4]. Vos ignores the many references of the phrase as used in the OT, and it means what it says: when, in the day. He does this not for lexical reasons, but because Adam does not organically, immediately die. Noting then that some ‘form’ of death is meant, what kind is meant ‘the answer is not easy to give’ (ibid., 50). Although favoring the meaning of ‘bodily death’, he veers to consider that ‘a deeper conception of death seems to be hinted at’ (50, ital. mine). ‘Death may have been interpretable as separation from God…in a more internal sense’ (50). In other words, Vos strained at getting to admit a spiritual (internal) death. At least we see that Vos is all to aware that the answer is not easy to give. Today’s Evangelicals give the answer with ready quickness: Adam died a spiritual death the day he ate, and ‘in the day’ is not at all lessened as it is in Vos. It is taken, rightly so, at face value. But, this begs the question: if ‘in the day’ is not to be ‘stressed’, then why does spiritual death have to be invoked as an ‘immediate’ (i. e., ‘in the day’) punishment?
It is also striking that Vos simply dismisses the idea that ‘mitigating’ circumstances would not influence a righteous Judge. After all, the serpent coerces the situation, and is certainly judged: ‘because you did this!’ (Gn 3.14). He is the only character in the story that is cursed. Renowned lawyer Adam Dershowitz rightly noted that ‘mitigating circumstances’ come into play here (The Genesis of Justice, Warner Books, 2000, page 43). Dershowitz also recognizes that ‘God does not carry out his explicitly threatened punishment’ (30). Another highly influential intellectual, Aaron Wildavsky, wrote in his landmark work, Moses as Political Leader (Shalem Press, 2005), ‘Adam and Eve did not die…they have to face up to their own mortality…’ (page 32). This is the harrowing dilemma we find in the Romantic literature, and in the existential Philosophers up to our own day: how can we escape death? Every religion, and every philosophy, and even the empirical sciences are fill reams of volumes on the subject [5].
It remains to be seriously challenged as an impossible exegesis within the Evangelical perspective that the idea of ‘spiritual death’ (as defined as ‘alienation from God’) need not be appealed to as an “answer” to Gn 2-3. That it is an interpretational answer goes without question, but the question is, is it a textual-exegetical answer that can be deduced from the narrative itself? At best, Vos notes that it ‘may be hinted’ at, but so might also God’s discretionary powers to bring, or not bring the force of the penalty in that day. That there were, in fact, ‘mitigating circumstances’. Given Adam and Eve appropriately respond to their acknowledgement of sin (‘I ate’), and that their minds did not immediately become corrupt as described later in Genesis 6.3-ff. notes the gradual working of the ‘powers’ of Sin and Death, afforded by ‘the commandment’ (the Law). Man’s inability to know God intimately is due to his evil reasonability crafted in various self-referenced, autonomous thoughts. Van Til rightly states, ‘The result for man was that he made for himself a false ideal of knowledge‘ (ital. his) [6]. This is not spiritual death, but man very much alive and in rebellion before he faces death – which he does, and will.
‘Men and women,’ writes Longman III and Dillard, ‘deserved death; however from the time of their first sin (Gen. 2:17), God always reached out to them in a gracious way in order to mitigate punishment’ [7]. Even the popular writer Andy Stanley comments, ‘They were warned that on the day that they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would die. But they didn’t. Growing up, I was told that they died spiritually. But that’s not part of the story. I was told that they were separated from God. But that is not in the story either. In fact, right after they sinned, Adam and Eve had a long conversation with God’ [8]. What effect this has on our understanding of the good news of a patient God, who also has set a day wherein he will judge the world through a man (Acts 17.31), time will tell. However, ridding error in order to better understand His Truth is the goal of the scholar, the exegete, the seminarian, the servant, and the bond-slave of Jesus Christ.


[1] David T. Runia, “Philo of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Thought, Alexandrian and Jew,” Studia Philonica Annual 7 (1995): 143-160. ‘It is apparent, therefore, that Philo was well-known in Christian circles not just because of the legend of Philo Christianus. In fact a close reading of the sources shows that most Christian intellectuals were quite well aware that Philo was a Jew who had lived at about the time of Jesus. Philo was also well-known on account of his writings and their contents.’ ‘Philo Christianus’ emerged as a legend from Eusebius (4th century) from his Church History, Book 2.16-17, Eusebius remarks that Philo conversed with Peter in Rome. Runia’s work demonstrates that, ‘Plato is often admired as the pagan thinker closest to the truth of biblical revelation. And time and time again there is demonstrable dependence on Platonic and Platonist ideas in the way that scripture is understood.’ As well, he notes, Philo’s allegorical method ‘allows the interpreter to connect up with and exploit significant philosophical and what we now would call spiritual ideas.’ See further, Bruns, J. (1973). ‘Philo Christianus: The Debris of a Legend’. Harvard Theological Review, 66(1), 141-145.

[2] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, Zondervan Academie Books: Grand Rapids MI, 1981. 75.

[3]. Philo, Patrum Ecclesiae Graecorum, Pars II: Philonis Judaei Operum Onium. Legis Allegor I.33, Lipsiae, 1828. 88 – Translation is mine. Further, Philo promotes the death of the body as a lesser death, noting that a soul-death constitutes man as dead, until freed from his body so that he may live. Reading him is remarkably similar to OT Evangelical exegesis.

[4] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids MI, 1959. 48-49. See also, Anthony Hoeksema, Created in God’s Image, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids MI, 1994. pp. 138-ff., wherein he takes note of the differences between himself, Vos, H. Bavinck, A. Kuyper, L. Berkhof, and G. Ch. Aalders.

[5] Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, Trans. by Bettina Bergo, Stanford University Press, 1993; on Romantic preoccupation with death see H. G. Schenk, The Mind of the European Romantics, Doubleday-Anchor Books, Garden City NY, 1969. pp. 64-ff.

[6] C. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2008, 36.

[7] Raymond B. Dillard, Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids MI, 1994. 28.

[8] Andy Stanley, The Grace of God, Thomas Nelson, 2010. 14.

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